Sometimes it seems like competitive equestrian sports are right up there with professional cycling when it comes to doping. Of course cyclists want to go faster and farther; equestrians want their horses to seem calmer and more consistent. What they share is the goal of staying one step ahead of the testers. Every time a drug is banned there seems like there is another waiting in the wings. In truth, according to the USEF any medication used to quiet a horse violates the spirit and the intent of USEF rules, whether it’s a legal substance or not.
Last week the USEF banned a calming “supplement” called Carolina Gold. The product contains gama aminobutyric acid (GABA), an inhibitory neurotransmitter. From what I’ve read it’s a product that was being given to horses shortly before entering the ring to compete and it produces a noticeable calming effect.
According to the press release:
While initially not considered a forbidden substance, the use of GABA as a “calming supplement” violates the spirit and intent of the Equine Drugs and Medications Rule. During recent research and administration trials involving “Carolina Gold,” many adverse reactions were documented. The nature of these reactions has prompted immediate action from the USEF Equine Drugs and Medications Program.
Effective immediately, “Carolina Gold” or any other product containing GABA is considered a forbidden substance under USEF rules. Since there are no recognized medical uses for this substance, the use of a Medication Report Form to report its administration is not applicable.
There’s nothing new about taking the edge off a horse before competing. “Back in the day” it wasn’t uncommon to see horses being lunged . . . for a long time. It’s been reported that some trainers (particularly in Western disciplines) have withheld water. And before drug testing became more prevalent Ace and Reserpine were, if not common, commonly discussed.
The difference now is that the drugs being talked about today are more insidious and, often potentially more dangerous.
Dr. Alex Emerson, who provides sports medicine services for Rood and Riddle Equine Hospital, wrote in his blog about the USEF’s announcement:
Until today’s announcement, I was preparing to write an opinion on what I thought would happen with this product. And I was predicting that either a dead horses or a dead person would turn horsemen off from using it. Between the “shakes” they get when administering it, and the profound sedation it causes (how can half- asleep horses jumping 3′ wooden fences with a live human on their back be considered safe?), there was no way this would be around for the long haul.
Another controversial calming technique is to inject magnesium sulfate solution. An article in the Chronicle of the Horse, “Intravenous Injection of Magnesium Sulfate isn’t just illegal — it’s dangerous,” Dr. Juan Gamboa is quoted as saying:
Magnesium sulfate has been used for many years to help calming a horse. I want you to understand the risk of this drug when given intravenously. Magnesium sulfate directly affects the heart, forcing it into a state of arrhythmia. When used in larger doses, it can shut down cardiac function, result in subsequent collapse of the horse, and in some cases, death may occur. If accidentally given intra-carotidal, the results are immediate and very dramatic, causing the horse to convulse, sometimes flip backwards and then collapse. This may be fatal, not only to the horse but to anyone in the surrounding area. If given peri-jugular, it may cause severe jugular inflammation, and sometimes complete destruction of the vein.
Why take the risk?
So why do people subject their horses to this? To make them act calm enough to perform competitively in the show ring. At the upper levels just the tiniest bit of attitude — the wringing of a tail, the flip of a head — can knock a horse out of the ribbons. Sure, you can tell people to get a horse that is “suitable” for the job, but as the job gets more demanding there are very few horses who have the step, the jump, the gaits and the temperament to be a hunter, for example.
Let me say here that I no longer compete. It’s probably been at least 10 years since I’ve been at either an event or a dressage show, but when I did ride competitively, I never drugged my horse, never withheld water and never lunged one until they were tired. It never crossed my mind and I never knew of anyone who drugged their horse. Now, I haven’t ridden a show hunter since I was in my teens. I started eventing in my early 20s and never looked back — since style and striding isn’t an issue with eventing, there is less pressure to be perfect than in the show ring.
It makes me sad to think that it has become such a common practice among the show world that vets even publish a “pre-event” treatment schedule of medications!
What do you think about this latest drugging controversy? And the issue of drugging in general?