A New Year's Resolution for Better Regulation
Each time I see an article in my daily top news email from The New York Times with “horse” or “equine” in the headline, my eyes and ears perk up with a horse person’s curiosity.
Praise the persistent non-horsey soul who got the equestrian world front-page coverage in a major national news outlet!
But several times over the last few years, I’ve been disappointed — as I was on Dec. 28, 2012, by the article “Sudden Death of Show Pony Clouds Image of Elite Pursuit.”
Reporter Walt Bogdanich details the sorry story of Humble, a fancy, award-winning hunter pony who cost thousands of dollars merely to lease for one competition.
Last May, Humble was minutes away from entering the ring at the renowned Devon Horse Show with a 12-year-old rider aboard.
After receiving an injection of a calming agent — astonishingly, his 15th drug treatment in three days — 9-year-old Humble dropped dead.
I wish I could kick off the new year with a more uplifting column. But scrolling past the headline of many of The Times’ equine stories reveals multiple episodes of rampant drug use in performance
The sheer number of drugs — some illegal, some not — used simultaneously in one equine is frightening. Steroids, muscle relaxants, cocaine, antipsychotics — the list goes on.
Doctors constantly voice concern about the side effects of humans taking two or three certain drugs in conjunction. And Humble was given more than a dozen in quick succession, without a second thought?
Equine doping cases haven’t exactly been flying under the radar.
Leading Thoroughbred racing trainers such as Todd Pletcher and Steve Asmussen, who have both saddled Triple Crown race winners and year-end champions in the past few years, have multiple drug-use convictions on their records. The charges have been splashed prominently across equestrian media — and yet, these trainers remain trusted and respected.
Racing has received the bulk of the attention on the drug use front. I will acknowledge that some leaders in the Thoroughbred world have begun to heed the call for better drug safety standards. A formal recommendation was made last year that no race horse receive any drug within 12 hours of a race, for example.
But The Times’ recent story has dropped another bomb of negative press on the equestrian world — a grim reminder to us that show horses, too, are frequent recipients of this abuse. In a realm where so much money and prestige is at stake, the temptation to cheat never goes away.
Remember the equestrian events of the 2004 Athens Olympics?
Germany lost its team gold medal in show jumping because Ludger Beerbaum’s Goldfever tested positive for an illegal substance. Individual show-jumping gold medalist Cian O’Connor lost his champion’s crown after his horse Waterford Crystal was found to have two antipsychotics in his system.
In response to the article, USEF CEO John Long released a statement on Dec. 29, 2012, acknowledging that the drug issue needs significant review.
“Allegations that a ‘calming’ agent might have contributed to [Humble’s] death have triggered a broader and more urgent conversation among our members about whether our sport has developed a culture in which horses are doped to calm them for competitive advantage,” Long said.
The USEF announced that a taskforce meeting will convene in early February to address the use of calming agents in show horses. Continued, diligent effort taken by the USEF will hopefully follow.
The equestrian world doesn’t deserve the tarnished reputation it often has among the general public as a result of these drug cases. Long summed it up well in his statement.
“The overwhelming majority of the USEF’s 84,000 members compete honestly and fairly, and they take great care of their equine partners,” he said. “They are the true heart and soul of the United States Equestrian Federation and represent the best our sport has to offer.”
The human and equine drug tests administered during the 2010 Alltech World Equestrian Games and the 2012 London Olympic Games all came back clean — good news. Nevertheless, just because these high-profile competitions saw no violations doesn’t mean the job is finished.
With the New Year comes a new opportunity — or, to be more accurate, a renewed one — for the equestrian world to monitor and regulate drug use more closely.
There are dozens of nationally-recognized competitions every weekend across the United States. The governing bodies in our sport — the USEF, the USEA, the USHJA, etc. — need to make clear that illegal drugs and excessive drug use in horses will not be tolerated by anyone, anywhere, at any time.
Contact Sarah Brown at email@example.com.
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