Wellington, Fla.—March 27
At today’s U.S. Equestrian Federation Town Hall Meeting, U.S. Hunter Jumper Association President Bill Moroney didn’t mince words when discussing the importance of changing the hunter/jumper culture when it comes to overuse and misuse of drugs and medications.
“We have to admit we have an issue,” said Moroney, who’s spearheading a task force on the topic. “In my mind, it’s not that there’s a majority of people going off the reservation. But a minority of people are ruining your sport for you. We need to fix this sport. Otherwise, outside influences such as the Humane Society, [People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals] and Congress are going to come in and [do it for us].”
USEF CEO John Long and USEF President Chrystine Tauber led the meeting, titled “Horse Welfare in the 21st Century: Meeting The Needs of the Performance Horse in a Changing Environment.” It’s the first in a series of seven nationwide town hall meetings called in the wake of several accidents and a New York Times article that pushed the issue of drugging show horses into the sunlight.
Around 75 horsemen, including plenty of heavy-hitting hunter professionals, took a break from the FTI Winter Equestrian Festival to attend today’s meeting. Some asked questions or took notes, but most listened. A few present expressed frustration with what seems to be a broken system. A few longtime trainers seemed a bit wary. The mood of the conversation alternated between cautionary, educational, hopeful, sobering and admonishing, but the message was consistent: Change is coming.
A Worthy Read
Stephen Schumacher, DVM, who heads the USEF’s drugs and medications program, was the educational sort. He was on hand to explain the science behind the current drug rules and proposed changes. He defended the USEF’s stance of allowing limited amounts of drugs in competition, especially the use of non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs, which is contrary to the position of the Fédération Equestre Internationale.
“It’s been documented that while we may be more lenient in some respects, we have a better safety record,” he pointed out. “We compete horses longer, we compete them older, and we compete them more frequently, and they do just fine. We have fewer issues than racing does. This has been a tremendous industry outcry in the last year with the occurrence of collapses and fatalities, and frankly, it should be. However, what we’ve experienced in the last year and a half is minimal compared to what racing experiences on a regular basis.”
Schumacher also explained key points of a 2011 white paper by the American Academy of Equine Practitioners titled “Veterinarians Treating The Clinical Guidelines For Non-Racing Performance Horse.” That document will serve as a template, with several tweaks by the USEF, for several new rules coming forward to the USEF Executive Committee in April, with implementation as soon as 60 days later.
The biggest change? No injectable medications later than 12 hours before competition. There would be three exceptions: intravenous fluids (without extra electrolytes), intravenous antibiotics and a limited amount of dexamethasone. All of these would require a medication report form and would need to be administered by a veterinarian.
When Tragedy Strikes
Schumacher also suggested that any competitor, owner or trainer whose horse collapses on the showgrounds be required to report the incident to a steward within one hour of the incident. Currently there is no such requirement. The intent isn’t for a trip or stumble, but for a situation that, in his words, “might be suspect.” That rule also has a cooperation requirement built in that requires those involved with a death or collapse to assist the USEF with an investigation.
“When we’re hearing about these much later than they occur, it’s very difficult for the Federation to answer the question,” said Sonja Keating, general counsel for the USEF.
Keating is also drafting better procedures to handle horse deaths at competitions for presentation to the USEF Executive board at their midyear meeting this summer. These changes were inspired by the USEF’s difficulties handling what Long described as the “big noisy incident,” i.e. the death of a pony at Devon last year after an injection.
The USEF plans to require necropsies for animals that die at competitions. This requires jumping through a few legal hurdles—and figuring out how to reconcile this with the needs of insurance companies.
Long sounded confident that the USEF was ready and willing to take a much more aggressive stance on doping. He and Keating are meeting with other organizations—including the FEI—to design an investigative unit that will be able to quickly find out the information that the USEF needs.
“The fines and suspensions need to change for the people who do bad things to horses and go through the hearing process,” said Long. “I think we need to throw the book at them. We need to make it hurt.”
He didn’t offer specific suggestions for increasing the penalties for medication violations, but Keating pointed out that the FEI imposes much harsher penalties than the USEF. That organization imposes a minimum two-year suspension for a positive test of a banned substance and up to two years for a positive test of a controlled substance. Keating offered that the USEF looks soft on drugs with our relatively light sentencing. The World Anti-Doping Agency is also considering increasing their penalties for human doping from two to four years, which Keating said could encourage the FEI to toughen their penalties.
Chris Kappler, who heads the North American Riders Group, agreed that the USEF’s permissive drug policies could make it look soft on welfare. He gestured toward the 1.45-meter Classic, an FEI class, taking place in the adjacent Internationale Ring, when he said that zero tolerance policy already works in some respects in this country.
“Right now the FEI is the world standard,” said Kappler. “I don’t know if there are any other countries with a national industry like ours. It seems like the whole world is conforming to that standard—I’m not saying it’s right or it’s wrong. But doing anything less looks to me like we’re just OKing a dirty business and a dirty sport.”
Geoff Teall, who’s been serving on the task force with Moroney, pointed out that working with the veterinarians and USEF leaders gave him additional perspective on the ethics, or lack thereof, of drugging horses. He spoke with unusual passion on the topic.
“We are actually hurting our horses. We are actually killing our horses,” he said, “It’s happening out there.”
He pointed out that top young professionals he spoke with begged him to address the issue because they felt compelled to behave unethically though they didn’t want to in order to compete in the current scene.
“The most important thing to understand is that the scene is changing,” said Teall. “Nothing is going to be the same. We have a very different future ahead of us. We as leaders of this sport have to admit that and start to change how we do things and the way we do things, whether it’s getting different horses, changing the judging system, whatever.”
Teall alluded to a huge tangent that wasn’t explored much in the meeting, namely, trying to find a practical way to actually lessen the perceived need to drug horses, rather than simply offering disincentives. After the meeting, Moroney offered that some fundamental changes to the sport could help drive things in the right direction.
For example, now that freshness is gone from the list of faults for hunters, and judges aren’t to penalize expression, the judges could continue down the line and punish lethargy. And he re-emphasized the importance of raising the bar and making courses progressively more difficult, especially in the high performance division. He suggested perhaps by going from four to three classes in the division, but increasing the length and difficulty of each course. This would give the best horsemen the chance to show off their mounts and could discourage dead-to-the-world animals from excelling. He also suggested that the hunter community re-examine how horses qualify for championship shows like Devon and the fall indoor circuit. Right now a horse's best 15 shows count toward that cutoff, but some still chose to show well past the 15-show mark until they acheive 15 "perfect" shows.
Did You Know?
- According to Keating, while horses are typically pulled for testing as they come out of the arena, any horse entered in the horse show may be tested anywhere during the competition, including off the property.
- Having a barn manager or groom sign an entry form does not absolve the actual party responsible in case of a positive test. Upon investigation the hearing committee may decide to hold additional parties responsible based on factual information, said Keating.
- USEF testing veterinarians are already encouraged to test horses exhibiting abnormal behavior, but Schumacher admitted that perhaps they could use a reminder of this provision.
- The USEF tests about 17,000 samples a year from 9,000 to 11,000 horses a year.
- According to Schumacher, threshold testing allows for a small amount of naturally occurring substances, so environmental contamination should not be a concern for competitors.
- The Town Hall meeting was videotaped and should be available on USEF Network soon.
- You can reach out to the USEF with your thoughts and comments on welfare at firstname.lastname@example.org
- There are six other town hall meetings coming up with the same topic. No word on whether these will be available live or taped on USEF Network:
- Virginia Horse Park (Lexington, Va.) May 1, VIP Area, 5 P.M.
- Old Salem Farm (North Salem, N.Y.) May 15, Special Events Tent next to Grand Prix Ring 5 P.M.
- Kentucky Horse Park (Lexington, K.Y.) May 16, Kentucky Horse Park, location TBD, 5 P.M.
- Blenheim Equisports (San Juan Capistrano, Calif.) June 7, VIP Tent 5 P.M.
- Colorado Horse Park (Parker, Colo.) June 14, location TBD, 5 P.M.
- High Desert Classic (Bend, Ore.) July 25, Patron's Tent, 5 P.M.
- Download the AAEP’s 2011 White Paper here. (It’s an easy-reading nine pages, and definitely worth the effort)
- For more on the USEF’s horse welfare and drugs conversation, check out Sara Lieser’s report from the USEF Annual Meeting.