Drug Testing

As we began planning the Quarter Horse News Health & Nutrition issue, one topic kept coming to the forefront of conversations – drug testing. It’s a subject that can be controversial, with proponents lobbying for tougher medication rules and stiffer penalites, while those who oppose it argue against restrictions on therapeutic medications and industry-accepted practices.

Drug testing is not a new concept in equine sports. It has been around for decades in the horse racing industry, and is well executed in other countries by the Fédération Equestre Internationale (FEI). The FEI Clean Sport website, www.fei.org/fei/cleansport, offers a comprehensive drug education, including a downloadable mobile app and the complete “Equine Anti-Doping and Controlled Medication Regulations.” The 68-page booklet includes a fundamental rationale that states: “Anti-Doping programs seek to preserve what is intrinsically valuable about the sport. This intrinsic value is often referred to as ‘the spirit of the sport;’ it is the essence of Olympism; it is how we play true. The spirit of sport is the celebration of the human spirit, body and mind, and is characterized by the following values:

• Ethics, fair play and honesty

• Health

• Excellence in performance

• Character and education

• Fun and joy

• Teamwork

• Dedication and commitment

• Respect for rules and laws

• Respect for self and other participants

• Courage

• Community and solidarity

“Doping is fundamantally contrary to the spirit of the sport.”

Drug testing is relatively new to the Western disciplines of cutting, reining and reined cow horse, although reiners competing in international competitions have been subject to FEI regulations since reining became an FEI discipline in 2002. The three major U.S. associations – the National Cutting Horse Association, National Reining Horse Association and National Reined Cow Horse Association – have all implemented medication policies in the past four years, though in many cases, they researched, studied, discussed and debated the issues for years prior. You can find a summary of each organization’s medication rules and policies on pages 80-81.

While doing some research for that article, I came across a blog post written by Sue Copeland for Horse & Rider in 2011. Sue’s friend happened to be a cutter, and they regularly had a difference of opinion about equine drug testing. Sue is a strong believer in drug testing, while her friend was vehemently against it. Cutting horses, she believed, needed certain drugs, including anti-inflammatories and sedatitives, in order to perform.

Sue wrote, “‘You don’t get it,’ she’d say. ‘Our sport makes horses sore. It’d be cruel if we couldn’t show them on anti-inflammatory meds. And the sedatives mean we can lope them down less, which means less stress on their joints.’ I’d respond, ‘If a horse can’t feel pain, he can’t protect himself. That’s why groups like the American Quarter Horse Association, American Paint Horse Association and United States Equestrian Federation (under which I show) have drug testing. With it, you can’t mask serious pain, and you darn sure can’t use sedatives. It protects the horse.’”

The end result of Sue’s story was a 5-year-old mare who irreparably damaged her stifles after being shown on what the owner had, in the past, considered an acceptable mixture of drugs. The arguments that Sue’s friend made are fairly common in the Western disciplines, especially the rationale that drugs are a better option than having to lope a horse down for several hours. In fact, you might be hard-pressed to find many people who disagree with that statement. One of the drugs that is considered a therapeutic medication by the NCHA is Acepromazine, a tranquilizer that is only available through a licensed veterinarian.

So, it was with great curiosity that I picked up the phone to call Dr. Justin High of Reata Equine Hospital in Weatherford, Texas. Dr. High emailed me as he sat down to write his monthly “Health Matters” column. He wanted to talk about drug testing.

Veterinarians frequently get blamed as the suppliers in a drug problem that is considered endemic among certain disciplines. As this issue went to print, reports of federal agents raiding the Weatherford Compounding Pharmacy hit the news. It is believed the search was related to a medication ruling in New Mexico that led to a 16-year suspension and $40,000 fine for one racing Quarter Horse trainer. While the responsible party had been disciplined, following the forbidden medication path was leading investigators straight back to the original supplier.

As I suspected, Dr. High’s take on drug testing, and especially therapeutic medication regulations, was interesting. He said, “As an equine veterinarian, I see therapeutic medication guidelines and drug testing as a good thing. In essence, they serve basically two purposes: No. 1, protect the health of the horse; No. 2, ensure a level playing field for competitors.” I know you’ll find his full commentary intriguing as well – you can find it on page 32.

Like it or not – and I am sure there are plenty of you reading this on both sides of the fence – drug testing is here to stay. Our goals now should be to make our medication regulations as fair as possible, while always, first and foremost, making sure they are in the best interest of the horse.