A prominent court decision has highlighted some fundamental problems with the use of calmers in show horses and the U.S. Equestrian Federation (USEF)’s drug policies and methods of handling the issue. First, let me share some background on the case.

After Betsee Parker’s Inclusive tested positive for GABA at the 2014 USHJA International Hunter Derby Championship, the USEF charged Brigid Colvin and Steven Rivetts as the trainers responsible for the doping violation. At the USEF hearing this May, Colvin and Rivetts provided contradictory and confusing testimony as to who had control over the horse and was responsible for the doping violation.

On Aug. 3, the Hearing Committee rendered their decision that Colvin was responsible as a trainer, despite her testimony that she wasn’t allowed in the barn and had no say over the management of the horse. She (and Rivetts) were suspended for seven months and fined $7,000. Colvin retained an attorney and filed suit for injunctive relief in New York State Court, alleging that the Hearing Committee decision was arbitrary and capricious because the testimony did not support a finding that she was a trainer or had control over the horse.

That temporary stay was overruled and the USEF suspension upheld, but she was later granted another temporary stay pending judgment of the second appeal.

The New York State Court was convinced that the evidence and testimony at the USEF Hearing likely did not support the Hearing Committee’s finding that she was the trainer of the horse Inclusive or that she had sufficient control over the horse.

The court’s decision demonstrates fundamental problems with the USEF Drug & Medication Control program and brings to light a culture where the use of quieting medications, longeing and double riding are used to “prepare” hunters for competition. Unlike most Hearing Committee cases where only the decision is released to the public, the actual transcript of the hearing became part of the New York state action.

Although the chemical preparation of horses is known throughout the industry, this case laid bare this reality that competition horses, and especially hunters, regularly compete on quieting medications. The description of how a top hunter barn prepared its horses for competition would be shocking, except such preparation is the norm, not the exception. The longeing, the double rides, the oral herbal pastes and allowable relaxant medications and analgesics are part of the normal pre-class preparation for hunters and in other disciplines. For some, additional forbidden substances are also used to formulate the perfect ride.

The USEF’s liberal medication policies and a trainer-based enforcement approach have allowed this culture of the medicated ride to persist. A judging preference for quiet rounds also incentivizes trainers and riders to use all available methods, including prohibited methods, to create the perfect ride.

Current Rules Are Too Permissive
Under existing USEF Drug and Medication Rules, medicating at shows is pervasive because it’s permitted. The red sharps boxes for needle disposal at all the shows are proof enough of the problem—and those are just injectable drugs.

The USEF allows horses to compete on several medications banned under Fédération Equestre Internationale rules, such as non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs, muscle relaxants and injectable medications. These medications are used specifically to make horses more comfortable, more relaxed and, ultimately, quieter and easier to ride. The purpose of using these drugs is performance enhancement. Whether they achieve these ends or there is a perception they do, once some competitors use them, all do. If some are using “allowable” medication and others aren’t, the non-users are at a disadvantage. Then of course, there are those who find that additional prohibited substances works even better to “dumb” the horse down.

The USEF rule prohibiting an intravenous or intramuscular injection within 12 hours of competition is simply unenforceable. Proving which horse got an injectable medication, when, or what was actually in the syringe, is too hard. Exhibitors shouldn’t be allowed to have needles and syringes in the stable area. Possession of a needle and syringe in the stable area should be a per se drug and medication violation subject to penalty. Injectable medications should only be given by a veterinarian while the horse is on the showgrounds, and the medication should be recorded.

The Trainer-Based Enforcement Approach Is Flawed
The trainer-based approach for D&M violations is also flawed. When there is a D&M violation, the trainer who signed the entry blank is initially held responsible for the doping violation. Although the Hearing Committee is not limited in its investigation to the individual who signed the entry blank, that is where the inquiry starts. But the individual signing as trainer often is not the trainer.

As seen in Colvin’s case, it isn’t always easy to determine who the actual trainer is and who has sufficient control and custody over the horse to dope it. Often several individuals participate in the management and control of the horse.

By way of contrast, the FEI holds the athlete who competes with the horse responsible for doping violations. There is no ambiguity surrounding who competed with the horse. The FEI uses a strict liability system for doping violations: The athlete is suspended immediately upon a positive test for a prohibited substance. The FEI penalties, like the World Anti-Doping Agency, have set suspension periods for violations that automatically start upon notification of the positive test.

Making the athlete the Person Responsible and initiating a strict liability standard for doping violations is a better policy because it provides a clear starting point for the investigation, puts the burden of proof on the athlete, and avoids delays and uncertainty over the penalties. The federation’s burden is satisfied once a positive test result is found. If the athlete can show how the prohibited substance got into the horse and that the PR was not at fault, then the standard suspension can be reduced and/or eliminated. If the athlete has a defense and intends to seek a hearing to reduce or eliminate the hearing, she can immediately ask for a preliminary hearing to lift the provisional suspension pending a full hearing. The athlete can present evidence that shows she had no ability to prevent or fault in connection to the violation. If such proof is shown, the suspension can be eliminated, but otherwise the suspension stands.

A strict liability approach to doping violations allows for certainty and puts the burden on the one person in the best position to know or to find out how the prohibited substance got into the horse: the athlete. If the athlete had no involvement or fault in connection with the doping violation and can prove that, then the individual(s) who were responsible will be made known. However, absent the athlete offering exculpatory evidence showing how the substance got into the horse, the suspension and fine of the athlete remain in place. The USEF should not have an affirmative burden to prove a violation once a positive test is found.

“Medicated Quiet” As The Norm
When winning trainers use medications and other methods of quieting, then other trainers feel the pressure to also use them. Judges must compare medicated rides against natural rides, and the medicated ride will win almost every time. If the horse demonstrates any freshness, it is penalized. Judges compare apples and oranges when they score a medicated ride against a natural ride. By preventing medication abuses, all horses will compete on equal footing. Judges will adjust accordingly.

Similarly, some trainers face pressure from clients to advance in their riding before they have acquired the necessary fundamentals. If a horse’s shaking of the head or a small buck while doing a flying change creates anxiety in a rider, the answer is to teach the rider how to ride better or get another horse rather than medicate it out of the horse.

Maintaining the integrity of the sport requires effective and efficient anti-doping enforcement policies to prevent unfair competition and abuse of the horse. The USEF needs to change its D&M enforcement policy to fall in line with WADA and the FEI anti-doping rules: strict liability and athlete responsibility.

The USEF allows too many medications to be used by trainers in national competition. Eliminating medication use in national competition will require trainers, show organizers and riders to be more cognizant of horse welfare and to manage their horses accordingly. This means showing fewer classes at the show and/or competing at fewer shows a year with each horse. This means that show organizers and exhibitors must pay more attention to the footing in both the competition and schooling ring. This means jumping fewer jumps in training and less pre-competition longeing. There is nothing wrong with this. It is called horsemanship. It’s what the sport is all about.

– By Armand Leone, Jr., MD, JD, MBA