This Drugs and Horses Thing (Part One)

black-eye-smiley-mdSo, drugs and horses are all over the news, thanks mostly to the New York Times.  The Times has, over the year 2012, sponsored a series of articles about drugs and horse racing (mostly Thoroughbred racing, but also a bit on Quarterhorse racing, showing how one can launder money through the horse world), and, most recently, an article about the use of drugs in show horses.

It’s not a simple matter of, “There are bad people who give horses drugs,” and it’s not even necessarily a matter of, “All drugs are bad.”  You see, this drugs and horses thing is a multi-headed beast, and, in my opinion, it’s going to be pretty hard to kill.  That’s not to say it’s not worth trying, just that it’s going to be hard, and it’s going to require a concerted effort.  Whether anyone has the will to do it, well, that’s really the problem.

The article that started the most recent furor about horse racing, “Big Purses, Sore Horses, and Death,” can be read if you CLICK HERE.  The article about drugs in the show horse industry can be seen if you CLICK HERE.  Both articles talk about the same sort of thing – lots of drugs, little oversight, pressure to perform.  Fewer deaths than in Thoroughbred racing, of course, but really, that sort of news should be listed under the heading of “damning with faint praise.”

horsedrugsThe articles describe a culture where horses are asked to perform with little regard to their health, and are given drugs to try to improve their performance.  Both legitimate and illegal medications, coupled with lax and uncoordinated oversight, are accused of having put the the safety and welfare of horses at risk. The drugs, it is alleged, are said to be responsible for horses dying – something along the lines of 24 horses a week on the Thoroughbred racetracks, and at least one pony at a horse show.

These articles are not exactly the sorts of things that the horse world is enthusiastic to have brought up.  It kind of gives everyone a black eye.  Still, given the much publicized concerns about the use of performance enhancing drugs (PEDs) in human athletic endeavors, and society’s concerns about them, investigations of the same subject in horses was going to happen eventually.

But proper use of the word “eventually” came and went a long time ago.  It’s not like investigating drugs in horses new for the Times.  Using search terms “doping horse racing,” in the NYT search engine, I found that the NYT has been pursuing the subject of doping in horse racing for a long time.

YOU:  “Oh, come on.  “How long can it be?”

ME:  “Since 1901.”

Horse Jumping, Tramore, Ireland, 1901

Horse Jumping, Tramore, Ireland, 1901

Yep, all the way back in 1901 the Times published an article talking about “doping” racing horses with a mystery stimulant (although alcohol and caffeine were generally apparently considered OK).  Articles appeared year after year – in 1966, Dr. Robert Aries, a noted chemist, accused horse racing authorities of a “conspiracy of silence” about horse drugging techniques.  The reports of drugs in racing continued all the way up to the Preakness of 2012, where it was reported that of 20 trainers, only 2 had never been cited for doping.  The inclusion of show horses just ups the ante on the drugs and horses issue – and trust me, there are other equestrian industries out there that have yet to be scrutinized.

Anyway, just by reading the New York Times, a person can quite reasonably conclude that trying to improve horses’ performances by giving them performance enhancing substances has been going on for over 100 years – at least in racing.  And, it’s also reasonable to conclude that, up to now, in the United States, no one has figured out an effective way to do anything about it, or, perhaps, no one has had the guts to do so, because the practice seems to continue pretty much unabated.  There are probably several reasons.

Basic math

Basic math

1.  Money – Money, money, money.  Top level horse competition is big business.  Win a big race = win a lot of money, and there are stud fees, to be collected, too!  Show jumpers regularly competes for prizes of hundreds of thousands of dollars around the world.  Cutting horses, reining horses, and barrel horses all compete at the top levels for big prizes.  Sometimes it seems like everyone is in on the money game.

But it’s NOT everyone.  As with any business there are the honest and caring horse people who do the best they can for the horses they have, who retire them if they can’t do the job, or downgrade their job if they are starting to have trouble.  But there are also the ones to whom winning/money is everything and the horse means nothing.  Good horsemen and woman can still win the honest way; it just takes more work and thought.

But in the current lax environment, many people are looking for an edge.  And, some folks are looking to supply that edge:  veterinarians, too.  The NY Times also has an article about that – CLICK HERE to read it.  It’s a sad fact that much of the illegal drug use in performance horses has been pushed by “horse show vets” and “sports medicine vets” that follow performance horses. Horse owners and trainers don’t come up with drug combinations, “naturally occurring substances” to affect behavior, and medications for which there are no current tests:  these have been largely supplied and recommended by veterinarians.  In my opinion, this is just terrible, and it is a blemish on the veterinary profession.  It also makes it harder for veterinarians that don’t want to provide drugs to horses to operate ethically.

2.  Prestige – If it’s not money, it’s prestige.  It’s cool to be at the top of your sport.  It carries a certain cachet.  Top riders, owners of top horses, top trainers, and the veterinarians that attend to those horses (and those people) achieve some level of personal satisfaction at having “made it.”  And some will stoop to just about any level to do so.  Prestige is worth a lot.  If a top rider says something is good, then pretty much everyone will try it.  Just look at the paid endorsements on just about any page of your horse magazines – it’s back to #1.

I won3.  Competitiveness – There’s a well-known survey in sports, known as the Goldman Dilemma. Researcher Bob Goldman asked elite athletes in the 1980s whether they would take a drug that guaranteed them a gold medal but would also kill them within five years. More than half of the athletes said yes. He did the same survey every two years for the next decade, and the results were always the same. About half of the athletes were quite ready die in five years if they could just win a gold medal.

Not performance enhancing

Not performance enhancing

It took a while before researchers got around to asking non-athletes the same question. But in a survey published online in February, 2009 in the British Journal of Sports Medicine, exactly 2 of the 250 people surveyed in Sydney, Australia, said that they would take a drug that would ensure both success and an early death. The head researcher concluded that “elite athletes are different from the general population, especially on desire to win.”

That’s probably why, for some folks, drugs in performance horse disciplines is really no big deal.  Those people are so competitive that they will do just about anything to win.  While it is inconceivable for a pony clubber – who may be just as competitive as anybody, but who operates by a strict code of rules – to think about drugging a horse to win a weekend blue ribbon, it may become quite another matter to someone who is competing for a million dollar prize against the best riders and the best horses in the world.  But in a hypercompetitive environment, with little concern for rules, f a top trainer said that he was feeding his winning horse a pint of kerosene every morning, you can bet that there would be a run on the camping stores the next day.

Laziness4.  Laziness – Drugs  can be a shortcut for proper training, and competent riding ability, too.  In the show horse ring, some amateurs seem to expect instant success with no work or effort from them – it’s a lot easier to drug a horse than it is to train it.  In addition, some riders seem to want to do well without working hard – you can’t learn to be a good horseperson if all you do is show up at the barn and find that your boots have been shined.  Some trainers may take these same people to shows and put them on nice horses that the clients might not be able to rider otherwise, thanks to drugs.  And they can make a good living doing it (back to #1).  Everybody’s happy (no one asks the horse)!

5.  Lack of oversight – If drugs are going to be taken out of the performance horse, resources are going to have to be committed to the effort.  And, the fact is that with a bunch of shows going on – some big, some small – it’s pretty much impossible to get to all of them.  Plus, it costs money to work do drug detection; that money is usually prioritized for other things.  Organizations like the FEI have a very aggressive “no tolerance” program for the top riders, but, in all honesty, this program applies to a very small percentage of horses.  Still, two things should be noted:  1)  The horses do just fine without drugs (very competitive and exciting, actually), and 2) Some of those people still look for other substances to give their horses.

Further complicating the oversight situation is that there’s no single jurisdiction setting the rules.  Each state has its own rules about horse racing – ditto with show horses.  Heck, show horses can come under several jurisdictions at the same time.  Then there are other disciplines – like cutting and reining horses – that have little or no oversight over the drugs that go into horses.

lack of direction6.  Lack of direction from the top –  Effective change has to come from the top down. Until judges and various equine industries stop rewarding half-dead looking hunters, sleep-walking Western Pleasure horse, and trainers stop mounting barely competent amateurs on horses they can’t ride, the use of drugs in various endeavors will almost undoubtedly continue.  It’s pretty sad state of affairs when the first concern is to follow the money, chase points, or win ribbons, and when those rewards don’t necessarily come from good horsemanship.

Until the penalties for the use of drugs become sufficiently stiff, until enough people start complaining, or unless the negative perception of PEDs in the horse world cause a drop off in participation, I really don’t think anyone in the equine industry is going to be bothered much by all of the negative publicity.  So, what to do?  That’s Part Two!

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