The U.S. Equestrian Federation rules are very clear about banning any medication given to enhance performance. Use of Carolina Gold [which contains the inhibitory neurotransmitter gamma aminobutyric acid, or GABA] is in clear violation of the rules. The bottom line is that it’s cheating.
Carolina Gold isn’t killing horses like injectable magnesium sulfate, which has been blamed in the deaths of some horses, but it’s not ethically correct.
But cheating with drugs is nothing new. Twenty-five or 30 years ago, we were in the same dilemma with reserpine. We knew it was being used, we knew it had negative side effects, we knew it tranquilized horses and affected performance, and we knew it killed horses. And it took a long time to get confirmed drug testing for it. When they did, they busted a lot of people, as was appropriate, because they were, in a word, cheating.
I’ve been in practice for 40 years, and I was showing horses for the 20 years before that. [The lack of ethics] has been a situation that’s been present my entire lifetime. There are all kinds of people who are basically law-abiding people who try to do things right, and then there are cheaters. Whether they’re drunk drivers or speeders or whatever, there’s a percentage of the world population that isn’t going to be law-abiding.
What Is “Impaired”?
Decades ago, acepromazine was the gold standard. Then it went to reserpine and then to fluphenizine. Then it went to Dormosedan in minute quantities and then magnesium sulfate, and now GABA in Carolina Gold. There are others that have come and gone, but those are the biggest ones I remember in my time.
I don’t think much has changed other than the actual drugs. I just think that there are people who are going to play by the rules, and there are people who are going to try and stay a step ahead of the system.
I don’t think drugging has escalated; we’re just hearing about it more. I’ve had a lot of clients ask me about Carolina Gold, and I say, “Well, you’re not playing by the rules, and you’re risking x and y.” And they don’t use it. But then there are barns that have multiple huge bottles of it.
Everyone says, “Oh, if we could use just 1 cc of ace, we wouldn’t have to longe the horse.” OK, well get a horse that doesn’t have to be longed. I don’t believe that the world was better when the horses were just given a bit of ace.
I think that asking a horse to perform some kind of athletic function while being “impaired" has some definite risks. What’s the degree of impairment? What’s the difference between 1 cc and 3 ccs of ace? When is the horse impaired? It’s really hard to know.
When do you have three sips of wine and just relax versus having three glasses of wine and you’re hammered and shouldn’t be driving a car? It’s hard to tell where to draw that line. I think that’s why there’s eternally this drive for zero tolerance, so that everybody’s playing on a level playing field.
An Imaginary Ideal
I’ve had people tell me, “Oh, well now I’m just going to have to longe the horse and make him lame,” and if that’s your argument for medicating a horse, that’s just not right. You need to judge if a horse is suitable for the job. I think longeing can be abusive, and it is stressful. But if you combine having a horse with a proper temperament and ability with proper training, and then have more realistic judging standards, you won’t need medications or excessive longeing.
My personal take is that the standard of judging should be changed. In the hunter ring, they’re looking for this imaginary, picture-perfect performance of a horse who jumps with his ears pricked, alert, with his tail calm and quiet, his knees folded up under his chin, and so on. It’s somehow supposed to be an explosive jump with a dead personality. I don’t think it’s right that a horse with a beautiful jump should be taken out of the ribbons for a little headshake at the end of the ring.
The spirit of hunters has evolved, or devolved, as the case may be, from what was supposed to be a good foxhunter that would take you safely around the hunt fields and jump big and be controllable but not expressionless. That’s what a hunter was supposed to be, and now they’ve developed it into a very artificial thing. It’s a bit like reality TV—you have to turn in this picture-perfect performance, but it doesn’t relate to real function. I think therein lies the biggest problem.
Unfortunately, I don’t see the judging standards changing any time soon. I’d like to see it happen. But I don’t see that happening. I think we’re in a phase of stagnation. They’re still looking for a picture-perfect jump with minimal expression. And people keep going from drug to drug to drug to try and make this image occur.
We keep having what I believe is a small portion of our culture doing this.
A Few Bad Apples
It’s very interesting to look at the results of the 12-month period from April 2010 to March 2011 in which the USEF required any trainer who used two non-steroidal anti-inflammatories to file an NSAID Disclosure Form.
There were 29,948 trainers who competed 121,990 horses at the 2,593 USEF-licensed competitions in that time. Out of those 29,948 trainers, only 1,022 (or 3.4%) filed NSAID Disclosure Forms. Of those, only 246 filed more than three NDFs. That means that less than 1 percent of trainers filed multiple forms for two NSAIDs.
And of the 121,990 horses that competed, 23 had more than 10 NDFs filed, 107 horses had six to 10 NDFs, and 817 had two to five NDFs filed.