For former U.S. Equestrian Federation President and current U.S. Eventing Team Coach David O’Connor, defining what’s appropriate behavior when it comes to horse welfare isn’t hard to do.
“Could I go to the middle of Central Park with an NBC camera following me around as I get my horse ready to go into competition?” he asked in the June 3 USEF Town Hall Meeting. “Will you show anybody anything you’re doing? If you can’t, there’s a problem.”
The USEF’s recent public efforts to reform horse welfare were jump started by a New York Times article that pushed the issue of drugging in the show hunter world into the spotlight. In late March the FTI Winter Equestrian Festival (Fla.) hosted what was supposed to be the first of seven town hall meetings at major hunter/jumper shows across the country. But the June 3 USEF Town Hall Meeting, “Horse Welfare and the 21st Century: Meeting the Needs of the Performance Horse in Our Changing Environment,” held in Lexington, Ky., and broadcast live on USEFnetwork.com, replaced the next six, and it demonstrated that this effort extends to all horse sports.
USEF president Chrystine Tauber submitted letters to the technical committees of each affiliate, asking for a full assessment of their training and preparation practices. She’s asked for a written report by Aug. 1.
“From shoeing practices, tail carriages and alteration, to training practices including excessive lunging and over-flexion, I believe it is critical to put these and other practices on the table to begin the discussion,” the letter reads. “We also need to initiate conversation about ‘competition culture.’ Has judging evolved to rewarding robotic behavior in the show ring? Are horses showing too much and too often in the quest for year-end points? It is imperative we begin this dialogue for ourselves before others begin it for us.”
USEF CEO John Long emphasized that the USEF decided to tackle improving horse welfare of its own accord, saying, “It’s what a responsible organization should do.”
But it’s hard to ignore the threat of mainstream media and public scrutiny of horse sports. Doping scandals have rocked professional sports like cycling and baseball, and the Thoroughbred racing and Tennessee Walking Horse worlds have come under fire after they failed to address their own welfare issues.
O’Connor pointed out that the USEF should learn from how the practice of rollkur came to be banned. The Fédération Equestre Internationale outlawed severe hyperflexion in early 2010 after intense spectator and media outcry.
“That reform came from the public,” said O’Connor. “It came from people watching videos and from the Internet. It forced the change of an inappropriate practice. It didn’t come from within, from trainers, or competitors. It came from spectators. We have to make sure we realize as soon as we sell the ticket to someone, they’re going to have their opinion.”
The affiliate-specific reports will help the USEF form guidelines for changing the culture of each sport to support horse welfare.
“My sport comes out of the military,” O’Connor pointed out. “We had to change the culture of the last man standing. For 40 years, whoever finished, won. The aspect of what the horses and riders had to do changed, and for me, it’s for the better. It’s starting to produce better riding.”
U.S. Hunter Jumper Association president Bill Moroney acknowledged that pressure to run businesses, keep clients, qualify for competitions, and meet goals can distract from doing what’s best for the horse.
“We also have to reach out to our owners, vets and other professionals and create a culture that does the right thing for the horse first, then to our sport,” he said. “We need to stay with a philosophy that’s correct for our horses first and keeps us on track for our sport.”
The meeting focused on two extraordinary rule changes in the works, as well as cultural and regulatory changes necessary to improve welfare on a macro and micro level.
“Think of catastrophic incident protocol and prohibited practices as an iceberg, and all we’re doing tonight is talking about the tip of both of those,” said Long.
The first extraordinary rule change, GR843, requires that the rider, owner or trainer of a horse or pony that collapses while at a USEF show report the collapse as soon as possible. A collapse is defined as a fall to the ground with no apparent cause. It excludes trips, slips and any incident where the cause of a fall can be determined.
“It’s a sudden fall to the ground, and the bubble over the head is you don’t know what happened,” explained USEF General Counsel Sonja Keating.
The current draft of GR843, Draft 2, requires reporting within one hour, but Keating emphasized that the exact timeframe is still being discussed. There’s a lot of support for a three-hour rule, or even longer. Proponents of this policy point out that one’s first priority in the case of a collapse would be caring for the horse, not contacting the USEF.
These reports would give the USEF an opportunity to collect data on collapses, which currently isn’t available. “Why are horses collapsing? How many collapses do we have? The bottom line is that we don’t know,” said Stephen Schumacher, DVM, who heads the USEF’s Drugs and Medications program.
Members will also be required to cooperate with any investigation if necessary, and the USEF may send a veterinarian to examine the animal and take samples.
“It could be a heart issue or medication issue or a combination of feeds and supplements,” said Moroney. “I don’t think it should be thought that because you’re reporting your horse collapsing, you’re going to get a charge and a penalty. I don’t think this is the intent at all.”
A Bigger Conversation
The USEF has been taking cues from other organizations with investigative units including the Fédération Equestre Internationale, Thoroughbred Racing Protective Bureau, National Football League and American Kennel Club. One suggestion has been a tipline to make reporting collapses and other welfare issues very easy.
One caller asked what the motivation is for a trainer or rider to report their own horse collapsing if it doesn’t take place in public. “It’s not just you who knows it,” said Moroney. “We live in a world of social media. When there’s the collapse of a horse, more people than just you know it.”
The rule itself doesn’t prohibit horses from returning to competition after a collapse, but other rules would give that veterinarian the power to prohibit the horse from competing.
The proposed collapse rule is the current focus of a larger discussion of catastrophic incident protocol and increasing the investigative powers of the USEF. Collapses were distinguished from deaths, which must be reported to the steward or technical delegate at a competition. The USEF website reports that 16 horses died last year at USEF competition, but Keating put the number at 17. She said mandatory necropsies at all USEF competitions are a hot topic of internal conversation but will probably not appear on the docket outside of the normal rule change process.
Necropsies are already mandatory for any horse that dies at an eventing competition.
“We’ve actually learned a lot through the years of why these incidents are happening,” O’Connor noted. “You have conjecture where you think it’s this or that, but in many cases it’s something else. Now we have a heart and pulmonary study, and we’re finding out early on that a horse can be susceptible [to heart or lung trouble.] That has led to two or three other steps, which started because of the mandatory necropsies.”
Curbing Prohibited Practices
Next on the docket? Defining various prohibited practices. The USEF addressed the need for defining these practices in its extensive Frequently Asked Questions document (available for download on the USEF Network).
“Today’s advances in medicine, cutting-edge therapies and nutritional science afford practitioners and equestrians alike with numerous opportunities to aid and assist the equine athlete in the competition environment,” it reads. “In some cases, however, therapeutic treatment is taken to an extreme that counters its benefit to the health and wellbeing of these horses…There is an apparent need to evolve ‘acceptable parameters’ for owners, trainers, and treating veterinarians regarding the use of new techniques in sports medicine such as shock wave therapy and the judicious and beneficial use of intra-articular medications in sport horses. Additionally, training and preparation techniques that have been deemed as inappropriate and potentially harmful to performance horses are currently under investigation at the committee level.”
More rule changes are in the pipeline to address training practices and therapies like shockwave, but first the focus is on a second extraordinary rule change, GR414, which prohibits injections later than 12 hours before competition. After much discussion, the USEF Veterinary Committee created three exceptions: intravenous fluids, intravenous antibiotics and a limited of dexamethasone for the treatment of hives. All must be administered no later than six hours before competition, require a medication report form, and must be administered by a veterinarian.
That 12-hour recommendation is based off a 2011 white paper published by the American Academy of Equine Practitioners.
Schumacher denied that this is the first in a series of steps to bring the USEF in line with much more restrictive FEI rules. He defended the USEF’s stance of limited use of therapeutic drugs in competition, specifically non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs, which are prohibited by the FEI.
He also conferred with the manufacturers of Adequan to address concerns some had voiced about not being able to administer that treatment close to competition.
“There’s nothing out there to suggest a dose at 12 hours is less effective than a dose at four,” he said. “There’s nothing that suggests a dose at four hours is appropriate, necessary, or has the intended effect.”
USEF Veterinary Committee Chairman Kent Allen, DVM, noted the genesis for this rule change was the sheer number of drugs “that can and are being given inside 12 hours,” many of which “are dangerous and not [specifically] prohibited because they’re not easily testable.”
“The only way we know to come around this, suggested by another panel forwarded to us independently, was not to medicate the horse with anything injectable 12 hours prior,” he said. “This solves a variety of ills that currently plague our performance horses in this country. It doesn’t detract in any reasonable way that we could figure. Two different panels of vets came up with this.”
Allen pointed out that many substances that aren’t testable often become testable, citing gamma-aminobutyric acid and valerian root. And Schumacher emphasized that just because something’s not testable doesn’t mean it’s legal.
Schumacher related that he’s been horrified to hear stories of oxytocin administered to sport horses before competition. That drug is normally administered to mares while foaling, inducing uterine contractions. Administered to a horse who doesn’t need it, it induces severe cramping and a very painful episode. After this period, which Schumacher described as “traumatic,” the horse is then relaxed. Schumacher described the state as similar to the exhaustion one experiences after a seizure.
The panel also addressed questions of whether the USEF would freeze samples to test at a later date, when perhaps more extensive tests are available. While this isn’t the policy now, Long said the executive committee has asked him to look into the logistics of that process.
The USEF is also considering requiring veterinarians to join the USEF in order to distribute educational or program information. They also want to hold veterinarians responsible if they’re part of the problem.
“If there are vets out there—and we suspect there are a few—trafficking in substances, we want them caught,” said Allen.
Tauber said the next major step in the conversation will come from the affiliates, and she encouraged members to get involved in giving input to all governing bodies for what they’d like to see from their sports.
While many members have expressed frustration at the slow pace of progress on the welfare issue, several in the audience at the Lexington meeting asked for things to slow down a bit to help build consensus among the active and less-active members across the many breeds and disciplines.
“I’m on board; I just think we need to get everyone on board with us,” said Nelson Green, who sits on the USEF Saddlebred Committee and suggested taking these two rules through the traditional rule-change process rather than the expedited “extraordinary” one. “Let’s continue the dialogue and review the process.”
For More Information:
Visit the USEF Network to watch the June 3 meeting on demand or download documents like the two proposed rule changes and an informative 19-page Frequently Asked Questions document. You can email your comments to firstname.lastname@example.org.