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An Era of Performance Enhancing Drugs
A horse and rider partnership is unlike anything, a rider must learn to communicate without
words to their horse in order to be successful, but even an Olympic rider can't always know what is
going on in the mind of their partner. Show jumping horses begin training at three years old; they are
taught how to be ridden and how to behave, but there are always days when horses just want to be
horses instead of athletes. To fix this problem, just like doctors fix problems of ADD or ADHD, horse
trainers and riders administer drugs at the time of a horse show. The equestrian world is a billion-dollar
industry, so those involved will go to any lengths in order to win. The United States Equestrian
Federation set up laws against the practice of using performance enhancing drugs on horses, so most
substances are illegal now, although since 2010 random drug screenings have brought to light the reality
of drug use and the extent to which owners, riders and trainers will go to hide it.
In 2008, a random skin test brought back positive results for Capsaicin on a few Olympic horses.
Capsaicin is a cream that causes hypersensitivity in the legs to make horses jump higher due to
discomfort. In most cases, skin tests are not administered, only blood tests are taken. Since 2010, these
blood tests have been uncovering substances such as
cocaine, tranquilizers and pain medication, all of which are
violations. Despite the size of horses, they are extremely
fragile animals, when put into an extremely rigorous
program, injuries happen, some more severe than others.
Ludger Beerbaum competing in the final
round of the 2008 Olympics.
Veterinarians advise time for these horses to heal, but with so
much money on the line many are pushed too soon, which is
where the drugs come into play. Giving a horse pain medication during an injury is not uncommon, but
unfortunately it is also not uncommon for owners to deliver pain medication at a horse show to improve
performance. Laura Krout of the United States equestrian team told the New York Times “ninety-nine
percent of them are trying to give their horses the best possible care.” While this may be true, it does
not dismiss the other one percent’s behavior.
In the past, the laws stating what can and cannot be administered to horses have always
seemed flexible; trainers have called them “confusing” and “unclear.” The problem was that the rules
only stated “doping” of a horse, so there were ways around that. Ludger Beerbaum, a member of the
German equestrian team, told the German newspaper, Frankfurter Allgemeine, “Over the years, I have
become accustomed to exhausting all possibilities. In the past, my attitude has been, anything that is
not detected is allowed.” Beerbaum was and is not the only rider to hold this mindset. For years riders,
owners and trainers have been finding ways to bend the rules. Administering the drugs a few days
before competition is one way to ensure that they won’t show up on a random drug test. Skin creams is
another way and also using drugs that are unlisted, but have the same performance enhancing qualities,
but can sometimes be far more dangerous.
A more recent scandal appeared at a horse show in Devon, Pennsylvania in 2012. Humble, a
nationally ranked pony in the United States awaited his morning routine before showing with his leaser
later that afternoon. Instead of making it to the show ring, Humble collapsed in his barn’s aisle and died
that morning. Three days before his death, the
pony was scheduled for fifteen separate drug
treatments including anti-inflammatories,
corticosteroids and muscle relaxants, all of which
can be used as performance enhancing drugs.
Well known and respected owner and trainer,
Elizabeth Mandarino, made Humble’s last
Humble in the Pony Hunter division at the
Devon horse and pony show.
injection approximately two hours before he was to step into the ring according to show records.
Humble was a pony hunter; hunters are expected to be relaxed, smooth and obedient. Unlike a showjumper that you would see in the Olympics whom are trying to beat the clock, hunters do not have a
time limit, they are only judged on how beautiful they can look going around the ring. This discipline is
notorious for drug use because trainers need to ensure that their clients horses will not act up in the
ring and risk their chances of winning. Many judges and officials have been pushing for a change in the
hunter show ring so that there is no need for horses to be over drugged or drugged at all. Ms. Winkel, a
horse show judge and chairwoman of the officials committee for the United States Hunter Jumper
Association urged judges to "stop rewarding horses for robotic behavior" she also stated that "people
are realizing it's O.K. if horses are a little fresh and a little happy. Why don't we take a little more time
and train these horses properly and educate our clients and give them better horseman skills, other than
to bring out a needle and syringe every time we have a horse show." While many judges and officials are
pushing for this change, many people are stuck in their ways; it's hard to break such a long tradition.
Though, these judges and officials are hoping to have well-known and respected riders and trainers help
influence this change and end the era of performance enhancing drugs. Well respected professional
trainer, Robin Greenwood believes that "as long as hunters are expected to go around in a quiet and
relaxed manner, people will be finding ways around the rules to make that happen."
The United States Equestrian Federation over the years has made the drug rules and regulations
much more specific so that there are hardly any cracks for riders, trainers
and owners to slip through, or so the officials thought. Instead, it showed
to almost be the opposite. Many drugs stay in a horses system for a few
days so to avoid this, trainers have started to use Magnesium, a safe
mineral if administered properly in small doses, that also metabolizes
Magnesium is injected and used as a
calming drug for horses.
quickly so it is undetected in a drug test. The problem is trainers are not veterinarians so often
Magnesium is delivered in the wrong place and overdosed. Magnesium is used as a calming medication
because it slows down the heart rate, but this causes horses to become lethargic and can kill them.
Many professionals believe that the stricter drug regulations comes with harsher drugs and more
reasons for trainers to use these harsher drugs. Robin Greenwood says "it's safer in my mind to show a
horse on a tube of perfect prep or even a 1/4cc of acepromazine than on what people are pulling out of
the medicine cabinets." There is no way to fully resolve the drug problem in the entire industry, but
concerned riders, owners and trainers are encouraging the rules to change for the safety of the horse.
The safety of the horse is what the drug rules and regulations are trying to protect, but
unfortunately in this billion-dollar industry, people trying to be successful lose sight of the realities of
what they are drugging their horses with. High doses of magnesium, cocaine and pain killers is not only
illegal in the horse show industry, but also many professionals argue it is unethical and can kill the
animal. The biggest problem now is finding a way to stop riders, trainers and owners from going to
immeasurable lengths to put performance enhancing drugs in their horses system undetected. With
respected professionals and judges changing the traditional style of the hunter horses, and not
penalizing the horses for having some character and enjoying themselves a little, the industry is off to a
great start to end the era of performance enhancing drug abuse.
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