Testosterone Use And Abuse

In November 2003, the FEI took the 2003 Dressage World Cup title from Ulla Salzgeber and Rusty 47, giving it to second-place Debbie McDonald and Brentina. Rusty 47 was taken down because abnormally high levels of testosterone were found in the gelding during the March 2003 World Cup. It was a surprising find — even for Salzgeber — but testosterone will make a difference.

Testosterone is the predominant male sex hormone. It results in all the secondary sex characteristics associated with a stallion, including power, muscular development and “fire.” Testosterone supplemented to castrated laboratory animals has been found to affect characteristics of the nerves and end plates that may influence things like coordination, rapidity of reflexes and balance. Testosterone may also increase the pain threshold, reduce anxiety and improve performance of complex tasks in laboratory animals. It’s easy to understand why the FEI classifies testosterone as a forbidden substance, as the potential for its effects can obviously influence a horse’s performance.

While stallions can compete and naturally have high levels of testosterone — which is why many people prefer to show a stallion, with his natural brilliance — there’s a difference between the influence this hormone has when present at natural, steady physiological concentrations and the effects of an injected, higher amount of it.

For example, a study looking at the pain-blocking, anxiety-busting and performance-improving effects of testosterone showed that animals that had been castrated then implanted with testosterone consistently showed better performance with these variables than did uncastrated animals. The downside to the use of testosterone for performance enhancement is the side effects of stallion sexual behavior and aggression.

Since no widely accepted medical uses for testosterone exist beyond helping stallions with fertility problems or in the hormonal support of animals battling long, debilitating illnesses or old age, the FEI finds no reason for a horse to compete in a sanctioned event with abnormally high levels of this hormone.

Rusty 47 was apparently given the testosterone as treatment for a skin condition. The veterinarian administering it is said to have believed it would have been gone from the gelding’s blood before the World Cup competition.

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