Caterina Termine BSc(Hons) BVSc CertAVP MRCVS
Doping issues in competition horses have hit the headlines on many occasions over the last few months where positive tests have been seen in racehorses, endurance horses and most recently in the world of eventing.
The doping of horses has been carried out for centuries. There is suggestion that it occurred in chariot racing during the Ancient Roman times and was well-documented in the sixteenth century. Although, over the years doping was considered to be very infrequent, there have been huge improvements made in intelligence gathering and the ability of labs to detect drugs. This has resulted in the detection of various concoctions of human and veterinary drugs in samples from horses. Over the past ten years there has been a huge increase in the testing of horses for banned substances which was driven by the record number of positive tests in horses at the 2004 Olympic Games. Samples taken from human athletes also resulted in a record-breaking number of positive tests and the 2004 Games has been subsequently referred to as ‘the dirtiest Games ever’.
It is very sad that small numbers of competitors will go to extraordinary lengths to compete unfit horses. The pressures of competition, the increasing number of events held and record levels of prize-money may result in unfit horses participating or even winning in competition with serious detriment to their health. Medication testing, colloquially known as ‘dope testing’ is not only carried out to ensure fairness amongst competitors, re-assure spectators and the general public that high equine welfare standards are maintained but also to ensure horse and rider safety. If we cast our minds back to 1999 when a number of competitors were tragically killed, a report that was issued the following year highlighted the extensive use of herbal calmers in competition horses. The inappropriate medication of horses also raises serious equine welfare and ethical issues. For example the inappropriate use of pain-killers could mask the onset of sudden lameness that may occur during competition or long-standing lameness which may be made worse on exercise and even lead to catastrophic injuries.
So how does this impact the everyday competitor? Although many of the cases we hear about involve international competition horses, an increase in medication testing has taken place at affiliated competitions over the past two years. Currently dope testing is carried out in any equestrian discipline that is affiliated to the British Equestrian Federation (BEF) and testing is carried out at every level. Some associations that are not affiliated to the BEF also carry out medication testing. The testing at affiliated competitions is organised by the BEF. A vet and a steward are present at events where competitors may be asked to present their horse for testing. Horses are usually selected entirely at random, unless there are suspicious circumstances or the competition is a major championship where the winner or a selection of placed horses is selected.
The procedure for medication testing at national events is very similar to that at international events. Testing takes place in a clean stable known as the ‘testing box’. The competitor must produce the horse’s passport in order for the vet to check the horse’s identity. The horse is then placed into the testing box where a urine sample is taken. Some horses will not urinate therefore they are only held for a short period of time. A blood sample is also taken from the horse regardless of whether the horse urinates. The samples are split into ‘A’ and ‘B’ samples, packed into tamper-proof containers and sent to the lab in a sealed box. The ‘A’ sample is always tested first. If it produces a positive result the rider is then informed before the ‘B’ sample is tested which often takes place at different lab.
If both A and B samples test positive, heavy penalties can be imposed onto the person responsible (PR) for the horse. The PR may differ with respect to the competition’s regulatory body so it is always important to check the rules. Penalties may include a temporary suspension whilst an investigation is carried out, disqualification from the event, a ban or a fine of up to several thousands of pounds.
Testing is an important part of competition regulation and failure to present the horse for testing once selected, also results in similar penalties to the above.
Many competitors feel that it can be something of a minefield in knowing what supplements, feeds, ointments and medicines are permitted for use in competition. It is always prudent to check the rules in advance however many organisations, follow the Fédération International Equestre’s (FEI) lead. The FEI is the international governing body for all Olympic equestrian disciplines and they produce a list of prohibited substances which can be found of the FEI’s ‘Clean Sport’ website. The FEI have also developed a free ‘FEI Clean Sport’ app. This is a very useful, user-friendly tool where compounds can be typed into the app and checked against the prohibited substances list. It is important to ensure that your horse does not have any prohibited substances well in advance of competition as some medicines can be detected for several months after medication. If your horse requires any veterinary medicines close to competition you must discuss this with your vet to ensure that your horse is fit to compete and comply with medication rules. It is also worth taking advantage of technical support help lines to ensure that feeds and supplements used also comply with competition rules. If in doubt, always ask for advice and enjoy the forthcoming competition season.