Good Drug, Bad Drug

There’s a distinct irony with the appearance of our field trial of poultices on page 3 and all the news stories about ”doping” since last summer’s Olympics.

Our top poultice, Sore No-More, contains lavender, which is a substance forbidden by the U.S. Equestrian Federation. And last month we had a story on how liniments help horses to feel better and recover more quickly after a hard workout. Some of those liniments, however, contain capsaicin, which was recently decreed as ”dope” by the International Equestrian Federation (FEI). Many of the liniments that we deemed safe and effective contain at least one ingredient on the USEF’s list of forbidden substances.

This illustrates how hard it is for the average horseman to wrap his mind around the drug policies of equestrian agencies that seek to protect the welfare of the horses and keep the playing field level: Why can something so good also be considered so bad’

Many banned substances have valid therapeutic uses. But they can also be used in ways that inure the horse to pain, can otherwise affect his performance, or can mask forbidden drugs. The FEI has one way of dealing with this dilemma and the USEF another.

The FEI simply has a zero-tolerance policy — pretty much nothing can go into the horse except water, hay and grain and nothing onto the horse except ice. The USEF has a clearly drawn list of acceptable levels of certain drugs and medications and procedures that must be followed if they are used. The list includes a lot of plant-based substances that many people don’t realize are banned and also many substances that currently don’t ”test.”

When you’re showing you need to know everything that’s gone into or onto your horse and whether its use is clearly allowed. However, it’s also possible for your horse to be exposed to a banned substance in a totally innocent way, such as through shared equipment in a boarding barn, and the unsuspecting competitor can face serious consequence.

The jumpers who were disqualified at the Olympics got into trouble, at least partially, because the testing lab in Hong Kong is one of the most sophisticated in the world. Capsaicin never before had been found in sport horses.

Capsaicin is generally OK in a liniment, but it’s also widely — and illegally — used to sensitize the front legs of jumpers so they won’t want to touch jump rails. No one could say whether the capsaicin found came from a benign source or was used at some point over jumps. It wasn’t observed on their legs during the competition.

The headlines that followed these cases made it seem like horrific things happened in Hong Kong, while in reality the levels of capsaicin were small but not ”zero.” The horses were allowed less relief in the way of anti-inflammatories and other meds than the human athletes because there was no way to tell for sure how and when they might be used.

However, the FEI is now reviewing its drug and medication policy. ”Zero-tolerance” is easier to sort out than allowing low levels of certain therapeutic substances, as the USEF does. Many of the banned substances in and of themselves are good for our horses, not bad. They’re banned because the way some people use them is bad.

-Margaret Freeman

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