Capsaicin Causes Trouble for Olympic Horses

Norway’s bronze medal in the Olympics is in jeopardy after Camiro, ridden by Tony Andre Hansen, and three other horses tested positive for Capsaicin. The other three horses are Ireland’s Lantinus, ridden by Dennis Lynch; Brazil’s Chupa Chup, ridden by Bernardo Alves; and Germany’s Coster, ridden by Christian Ahlmann. All the horses were banned from the show jumping final.

So, what is Capsaicin and why would it be banned? Capsaicin is a derivative of chili peppers. How hot is it? according the the “Scoville scale” which measures the hotness of a chile pepper, it’s right at the top.

Pure capsaicin: 16,000,000 Scoville Units
Habanero peppers: 100,000 – 350,000 Scoville Units – about the hottest humans would eat
Jalapeño peppers: ~ 4000 Scoville Units
Anaheim peppers: ~ 500-2500 Scoville Units
Paprika: ~ 150 Scoville Units
Bell Pepper: 0 Scoville Units

Capsaicin is commonly found in products used to sooth sore muscles. It is topically applied. The reason the FEI classifies it as a doping prohibited substance is because it can also be used both as a “hypersensitizing agent” or as a class-A medication administered for pain relief. If a topical cream containing Capsaicin is applied to a horse’s legs, it could make them more sensitive to hitting a fence and might encourage them to jump higher or use themselves better. So, you can’t use it to make your horse feel better, and you can’t use it to make your horse’s legs hurt!

The use of hypersensitizing agents has longed plagued the horse world. In jumping, trainers sometimes “rap” or “pole” a horse at it jumps a fence. This entails hitting a horse with a bamboo pole (or other objects), or threading a wire (often electrified) above the top pole. The theory is that the horse will jump higher next time to avoid the pain. Other ways to hypersensitize a horse is to put sharp objects inside the horse’s tendon boots (which makes it hurt more if they hit a pole), or to soak the horse’s leg in irritants such as vinegar, diesel fuel or methelated spirits. These methods are all illegal, but some are still practiced behind the scenes.

Whether the Capsaicin administered during the Olympics had a hypersensitizing effect is hard to say. The FEI chose not to user thermography, which is the most definitive way to check and see if Capsaicin was used on the horses’ legs. The reports I read say that horses were visually checked after competition and that no hypersensitivity was found. But if the lab reports confirm the presence of Capsaicin in their blood, then they will be DQ’ed.

The ability to test for Capsaicin is fairly recent; just within the past two years. However, the test labs for the Olympics are extremely sensitive. It is a place where riders and grooms should be very, very careful about anything that touches their horses.

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