Just Say No?

The question of drug use in competition horses has been a source of considerable controversy. Here's a look at the current rules.

Tomorrow you’ll haul to a horse show—today you’re faced with a show horse with a minor injury. Before you or your veterinarian treats the horse, it’s important to find out whether or not association rules permit specific therapeutic medications.

Drugs and medications are a complex topic, as the amount of dose, time of administration and effect on the individual horse all contribute to what’s acceptable and legal. But, the bottom line is that these rules are in place to promote fair competition while safeguarding the horse’s welfare. And, as a stable manager, you need to know all current show rules along with the implications of medications.

Association Rules

Horsemen—exhibitors and veterinarians—write the rules that govern drug use. They recognize the science behind modern medications, while representing goals of the association (equitable competition) and the competitor (a horse ready to win). But, these rules are constantly evolving as new drugs hit the market or new research is performed. Because of the onslaught of “therapeutic” treatments, for example, the American Horse Shows Association (AHSA) revised its Drugs and Medications Rule in 1995. As a result, the many breeds and disciplines can choose to compete under two different rules. The first, Article 409, has a “No Foreign Substance” provision. The second, Articles 410-412, contain the “Therapeutic Substance” provisions, which are more tolerant of drug use. The only division that opted for the No Foreign Substance provision is the Endurance division. All other breeds and disciplines follow the Therapeutic Substance provisions. However, in allowing certain substances, AHSA has had their work cut out for them in defining the limits when using therapeutic drugs.

Therapeutic medications developed, tested and approved for equine athletes are intended to benefit the ill or injured horse, but they can be misused to seek an unfair advantage in competition. Exhibitors can cheat by tranquilizing a hunter or pleasure horse with medications like acepromazine or reserpine, or using ritalin or cocaine to stimulate a lethargic horse.

Misuse can also harm the horse. A hunter or reiner that temporarily feels no pain can sustain excessive stress on feet or joints. Doses of certain powerful psychotropic drugs can inadvertently kill a horse.

On top of the problem of unfair competition, the association has also taken into consideration the complications of drug types and drug metabolism while allowing for individual variations. For example, one horse may absorb and excrete a medication at a different rate than another horse. Medication regimens, established through research, usually result in acceptable amounts of what AHSA describes as “maximum permissible plasma concentration” (drug found in the bloodstream at the time of testing).

At the 2000 AHSA Annual Meeting, members of the Drugs and Medications Committee addressed issues about the program. AHSA runs its Drug Testing and Research Laboratory in Ithaca, New York. The director, George Maylin, DVM and pharmacologist, expressed how science is not absolute, saying, “It is very difficult to determine therapeutic effect. It is very difficult to state that a given drug actually has an effect on performance.”

AHSA defines three groups of substances: forbidden, restricted and permitted. The dosage of named forbidden substances is at zero tolerance. From the extensive list, familiar names include caffeine, cocaine, acepromazine and reserpine. Furosemide (Lasix) is a forbidden substance that can mask the presence of other drugs.

Under AHSA rules, you may treat a horse with a forbidden therapeutic substance by following the rule of withdrawing the horse from competition for 24 hours and completing a medical report form. John Lengel, DVM and AHSA’s administrator of the Drugs and Medications program, described a scenario of treating a horse for a cut eyelid at a show. “At 12:05 Friday, the show veterinarian administers Rompun, a sedative to keep the horse calm, and a local anesthetic such as lidocaine in the eyelid so he can suture the cut without pain. Those are two forbidden substances. The horse’s soundness is not affected by the injury. The trainer files the medication report form with the steward within the hour. That horse complies with the rule as early as 12:06 Saturday afternoon.”

Other, more commonly used medications such as nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs) are defined as restricted, and AHSA guidelines specify quantities. When treating a horse with the familiar phenylbutazone (“bute”), the recommendation is no more than two milligrams per pound, per 24 hours, which equates to a maximum daily dose of two grams for a 1,000-pound horse. When you don’t exceed that daily amount and adjust amount and timing of doses within 12 hours of competition, you are treating the horse within the rules.

Paul Hoffman, DVM, testing veterinarian at AHSA shows and a member of its Drugs and Medications Committee, explained, “We have given guidelines about how much and at which intervals you can give these medications and not be in violation of the rules. That is what the quantitative measure is in the rule.”

The American Quarter Horse Association (AQHA) has adopted rules similar to AHSA’s, allowing certain medications under permitted limits.

A 1999 Addendum to AQHA Rule 441 defines a host of stringent conditions. In summary, these specific NSAIDs may be given within 24 hours of showing: phenylbutazone, flunixin meglumine (Banamine), ketoprofen (Ketofen), meclofenamic acid (Arquel) and naproxen. AQHA specifies NSAID dose amounts according to AHSA’s guidelines.

For treating a horse for illness or injury at an AQHA event, you must have a written prescription from a licensed veterinarian who is a member of the American Association of Equine Practitioners (AAEP), or an AAEP-member veterinarian must administer the medication.

AQHA also requires completion of a medication report. AQHA differs from AHSA by permitting the use of lidocaine or mepivicaine on show day, without a waiting period, when administered under official observation for minor surgical repair. It also allows Lasix, acetazolamide and isoxsuprine, citing specific conditions for each.

Association drug rules can be complex and they can change. In 2000, AHSA modified its drug rules twice. For example, one change originated from a 2000 study on meclofenamic acid. The result of the study was that a trainer may treat a horse with specific recommended doses without a waiting period before competition.

Implications in the Barn

In your barn, you may manage horses that perform better while medicated. Making an “old packer” comfortable can keep him happy in his work. However, you commit to the horse’s condition. When you sign an entry form, you declare that responsibility to the association. Even if you personally don’t show and your veterinarian administers medications, you are responsible to the horse’s exhibitor. AHSA requires at least one adult trainer to assume the responsibility to show a horse that meets competition rules. The person who signs show entry forms can be an actual horse trainer or the horse owner if she doesn’t ride under the supervision of a trainer. You, as stable manager, contribute to the horse’s fitness for showing.

A five-step program helps you follow the rules in caring for show horses:

  1. Before you medicate, learn about withdrawal times (when to stop medications before showing) and detection times (amount of time a drug remains in the horse’s body, which can be weeks after treatment). Be sure your veterinarian calculates recommended doses, adjusted for each horse’s body weight.
  2. Medicate a show horse only for therapeutic reasons. Tranquilizing the horse with acepromazine to subdue him for loading or clipping is not therapeutic. Treating a sore 1,000-pound horse with bute at a dose of 2,000 mg does qualify as therapeutic medication. Giving a horse even a tiny amount of cocaine is never permitted by AHSA or AQHA.
  3. Keep accurate records of what you feed and what you treat, by date, time and amount. Realize that although drug testing is conducted at the show, what you do at home can show up in a drug sample. Caffeine might be an ingredient in a candy bar or chocolate cookie fed to your horse. It’s also a forbidden substance and a stimulant according to AHSA. Herbal products that calm or stimulate the horse violate AHSA rules, both by the intention to cheat and the possibility that they contain forbidden substances. A “natural” product’s plant ingredients may not have been researched completely, despite the manufacturer’s claims.
  4. Consider medication as a team effort. Talk to your veterinarian to learn as much as you can about medications, effects and that equine professional’s approach to medications. Realize that not every equine practitioner keeps up with the show horse industry and the current drug rules.
  5. Supervise and educate your barn staff and the owners of horses. As the barn manager, you clarify who’s accountable for the horse’s feeding and medication. You want everyone to understand the intent of treatment and to avoid mistakes about what substances a horse absorbs.


No one is exempt from drug rules. Random drug tests can affect any exhibitor and prominent names have popped up in instances of positive drug tests, such as McLain Ward, Terry Wegener, Butch and Lu Thomas, Nicole Shahanian Simpson and David Boggs.

AHSA shows charge a drug-testing fee per horse, which goes to supporting the testing program. At competitions, testing veterinarians randomly pick horses and take them to a special stall to extract a blood sample and collect a urine sample.

From there, the samples are shipped to AHSA’s laboratory, which tests thousands of AHSA and AQHA samples annually. The laboratory continues to refine its testing methods, making them more sophisticated and precise. NSAIDs, the most commonly used medications, account for the greatest number of penalties. In a recent 12-month period, Horse Show noted seven penalties for phenylbutazone over the limit, six for Banamine, and two of a combination of both these NSAIDs over the limit. Each penalized exhibitor probably assumed the withdrawal time would result in the medication amount being lower than the maximum permissible level.

A positive result can also require more evidence, which is why it is important to keep good records and medication reports (when required by rules) that document the horse’s treatment. They can form a scenario that can explain the results of testing.

AHSA officials consult the scenario to determine if laboratory findings match the medication report and if the treatment complies with the rules. Dr. Lengel explained, “[If] it was for a therapeutic purpose, more than 24 hours before showing, accompanied by a properly filed medication report form, no action would be taken. It is not a violation of the rules.” He noted that this situation complies fully with AHSA’s Article 411.

Misuse of medications is a serious issue that can affect you, the horses in your barn, your clients and your staff. Even an honest mistake can harm the horse or damage the reputation of a professional horseman. By assuring that everyone in your barn commits to the rules, you demonstrate you are fair to the sport and the horse.

Read more about AHSA drug topics on their Website at us/meds/ or call the hotline 800-MEDAHSA. You can ask questions about Drugs and Medications at in a new interactive “Issues and Answers,” by clicking on Bulletin Board.






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