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.
There were actually only a handful of people who really felt the need to do this. If I remember correctly, of the group of trainers filing multiple NDFs, there were some who filed them for virtually every horse they competed. It’s very dramatic and telling. There’s a culture of people who think drugs are necessary, and that also carries over to tranquilization. And they may be the most successful; I don’t know.
But the culture of rule breaking is everywhere, not just in the horse world. Just look at steroids in boxing, baseball and football, and blood doping in bicycling. People are using drugs to cheat. It’s something that’s part of the athletic culture of the world.
In the horse shows, a lot of it is about money; if you can sell a fancy hunter for half a million dollars, of course there’s incentive to cheat.
It’s also a factor that the overall average level of horsemanship has diminished. I’m not speaking as it relates to the average horseman in the United States, but in the world I’m dealing with, where the really rich people own lots of horses and keep them with really successful trainers who have to make those rich owners happy. The trainers have to get the horses to perform for that adult or child, even if that rider only knows how to get on and sit on the horse and try to go in and jump eight perfect fences.
When all the kid knows how to do is sit in the saddle and hold the reins, that’s not good horsemanship. And they have no idea what drugs are in that horse’s system or what’s been done to prepare that horse for the ring. They don’t even know what bit their horse wears!
There are still some really quality trainers who are great horsemen and get to the ring without cheating and win repeatedly. But their numbers are shrinking. There also are some people who kind of have a playbook, and that’s how they train their horses, according to a formula that’s not very customized. Or, they use drugs to replace training.
I think there’s a percentage of society, and a lot of statistics say about 10 percent, that is just set on doing things wrong. No matter how we legislate it, whatever the discipline or problem, whether it’s horse doping, drugs or guns, there’s just an inherent number of people who will bend rules.
Steve Soule, VMD, of the Palm Beach Equine Medical Centers in Wellington, Fla., has practiced on the A circuit of hunter/jumper shows for decades. He graduated from the University of Pennsylvania School of Veterinary Medicine in 1973 and has served as a Fédération Equestre Internationale and U.S. Equestrian Federation veterinarian. He also serves on the USEF Veterinary Committee and the U.S. Hunter Jumper Association’s Horse & Rider Advocates Committee. He won the 2009 USEF Marty Simensen Award, presented to an individual who has demonstrated an unwavering commitment to the protection and welfare of horses.