Playing by the Rules

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The United States Equestrian Federation’s (USEF) Annual Meeting is a time when committees come together, decide new directions and make new rules. This year’s meeting in January saw several important rule changes that will have a positive impact on the safety of both horses and riders in competition.

Drugs and Medications

Fair play and the welfare of horses govern the use of drugs and medications for show horses. And when it comes to making the rules, the task falls to USEF, which has overseen the process since 1970. The rules (Chapter 4 of the USEF Rule Book) affect horses in the stable, in transit and at a show.

“We continue to look for medications that affect the level playing field. We test all the time, and we can change our testing,” says Kent Allen DVM, and the chair of two USEF committees: Equine Drugs and Medications (D&M) and Veterinary.

Allen commended the USEF’s laboratory, located in upstate New York, as a model respected throughout the world. “We are the only national federation that owns its own lab. We have the largest testing lab in the world for performance horses.”

And what will the lab be testing for this year? The answer will come from overseas from now on. The biggest change in the drug rules and the No Foreign Substance list (USEF?Article 409) is that instead of reviewing different drugs every year, USEF will simply adopt and reflect the international rules of the FEI (Fédération Equestre Internationale) and its findings. John Lengel, DVM, who oversees the day-to-day operation of the D&M program said, “When the No Foreign Substance rule went in the rule book in the mid ’90s, the intent was that it would be identical to the FEI’s rule.”

However, unlike most countries, the U.S. does allow certain foreign substances that it deems are therapeutic drugs, namely six different non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs or NSAIDs (see sidebar). The intent is to help horses, not to encourage barns to adopt a “polypharmacy” approach of treating every horse with multiple drugs.

Allen explained, “We have the single most liberal drug rule in the world. It allows our older equine athletes to compete, so we put dosage limits on the non-steroidal drugs.”

The result is that USEF has two classifications of drugs, the therapeutic class, which is unique to the U.S., and the prohibited class. The FEI rules will govern the prohibited substances.

And what illegal drugs are still popping up in tests? The USEF lab tested 9,500 samples in 2004 and Lengel reported that of tests showing rule violations, “most are for multiple NSAIDs or significant overdoses of therapeutic medications.”

Allen cited the tranquilizer fluphenazine. “This is truly a drug with limited use in the horse market. It is not to be used for horse behavior issues. I’m amazed we’re still seeing fluphenazine positives.”

Lengel noted that the positives for reserpine are fewer. In 2003, 13 horses tested positive for it; only two showed up in 2004.

Another drug that shows up in testing is valerian, an ingredient in herbal supplements. “Be very careful about the herbal tranquilizers you use on your horses,” cautioned Allen. “If it contains valerian, we will catch that.”

And what about some of the new NSAIDS? On the market since last summer, the drug diclofenac (trade name Surpass) is a topical application. Allen called it “a very unique drug. It leaks out of the fat cells slowly once it is in them. I would allow at least 7 days for withdrawal.”

In order to comply with the drug regulations, this cream should be applied in an area that is no more than 1/2-inch wide and 5 inches long. “Do not exceed the amount or use it more than 10 days in a row,” cautioned Allen. “It is a good drug, and it avoids some systemic effects because it is used topically.”

Rounding out the rule changes are the following: If you show Arabians, be aware that “ginger testers” hit showgrounds in 2005. They’re looking for horses whose tail carriage is the result of applying ginger under the tail.

And, finally, this year the American Quarter Horse Association (AQHA) will launch its official D&M program, modeled on that of USEF’s. Horses will be subject to a drug fee, and the AQHA plans to send samples to the USEF lab for testing. Lengel said, “We can do it together better than separately.”

Enforcing the Rules

To enforce ethical medication, a new veterinary responsibility rule holds equine practitioners accountable for treating show horses. In recent years, prominent champions have been stripped of their championships due to post-show test results. Both the Veterinary and D&M Committees debated the wording of this rule through 2004, and in 2005 approved the concept: a vet who is the source of a forbidden substance has violated USEF rules.

The early drafts included a requirement for a show vet to be a USEF member. That’s been deleted, but the rule affects any vet who treats a horse at a show—member or not.

The USEF’s influence can affect every vet who’s involved with show horses. USEF can report those who violate drug rules to a state board or the American Association of Equine Practitioners. “My goal is to not allow unethical treatment of horses by veterinarians,” stated Allen.

Updated Safety Rules

You may already require every rider in your barn to wear a safety helmet. Now every show rider who jumps—not just those under 18—must wear an SEI-certified helmet at USEF shows, and that includes the schooling areas. As with juniors, the harness must also fit properly and be hooked up. The rule goes into effect December 1, 2005, giving ample time to those who need to go out and purchase new headgear.

Andrew Ellis, chair of the USEF Safety Committee, said, “We mimic the FEI rule, requiring the helmet for jumping only.”

Last fall, opponents to the rule change argued about dangers of the helmet’s chin strap. The Safety Committee investigated this concern and found that “There is no data to back up rumors about chin strap deaths,” said Rusty Lowe.

Other USEF rules effective in 2005 prohibit unlicensed minors from piloting golf carts or scooters on showgrounds, and also ban riders in the show ring from using their cell phones. Cell phones pose a safety issue because they distract riders, as well as being a discourtesy to other exhibitors, officials and spectators.

In all, the new USEF rules are getting more in line with established practices in the FEI, which will certainly make competing on an international level a little more level.