Drug Testing at Horse Shows

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Drug Testing at Horse Shows

Morgan Murphy

Drug Testing at Horse Shows

Over the past few years, every sport has been subjected to intense media scrutiny over the suspected use of banned, performance enhancing drugs. Given that many equestrian sports allow certain thresholds of use for approved drugs, it is not surprising that many equine athletes are often subjected to rigorous medical testing prior to and immediately after racing and showing. It is critical to these sports that owners play by the rules, rather than trying to cheat the system by using banned substances or unsuitable levels of approved drugs.

Documenting medication usage is important for competing horses*

Medication used on horses extends to a number of drug classes. Different medications are used for different effect. Some drugs are used to make the horse more athletic, some to disguise lameness issues and some are used to make overly excitable horses appear calm. Naturally, there are occasions when medication is needed by performance horses but, these drugs must be utilized and documented within strict protocols. Virtually every racing and showing association mandates the use of medications in competition horses: when they are permitted, the levels permitted and testing procedures. If you are competing, make sure you ride with an ethical trainer who adheres to these rules without fail. Otherwise, both you, your horse, the trainer and all others associated with that barn may be stripped of their association membership and prevented from participating in future competitive events. In some cases, fines may be levied.

The first concern with drug use in performance horses is the treatment and management of lameness. Performance horses can easily become injured through inadequate preparation or trauma during an event. Masking the horse's symptoms of pain with strong anti-inflammatory drugs could cause the injury to become significantly worse. The horse will continue to work, not feel the pain as the anti-inflammatory drugs do their job. Continued trauma to the injured area and potential additional trauma can lead to long term and potentially, irreversible damage

Medications such as phenylbutazone (Bute) are extremely useful when used correctly. However, if used to mask lameness resulting from ligament damage, the long-term outcome could be significantly worse.

The second concern is that although medication may be used for therapeutic purposes, in some cases, drugs are used to enhance or alter performance. Around 850 substances are classified as “performance enhancing” by the Association of Racing Commissioners International, which include stimulants, tranquilizers in levels which relax a horse to perform more effectively, bronchodilators and those that modify behavior. Currently, there is a Zero Tolerance policy: even trace amounts of these substances are not tolerated. It is important to consider that even sedation for clipping or travelling is not considered therapeutic and therefore is not permitted under current regulations.


Racehorses, Endurance horses and those involved in international competition such as the Olympics and any United States Equestrian Federation events are commonly tested for drug use. Drug tests can be performed using either blood, saliva or urine samples, depending on the drug being tested for and the rules of that event and it's governing association. Traces of medications and banned substances can occasionally be found in horse feed or the surrounding environment. As such, some governing bodies allow positive results within certain thresholds while others are resolute in their adherence to zero tolerance.

Under the guidelines imposed by most governing bodies, any medication can be used under veterinary supervision for a legitimate therapeutic reason, however, drugs designed to influence performance or are banned. Certain non-steroidals are allowed within limited thresholds provided they are authorized by a veterinarian, however, a positive test from any more than two will result in penalties or suspension. Drugs on this list include:

Naproxen
Phenylbutazone (Bute)
Flunixin Meglumine (Banamine)
Ketoprofen
Meclofenamic acid
All other non-steroidals are prohibited.

All other medications such as hormone treatments, steroids and corticosteroids cannot be given within certain timeframes prior to competing.

Another area of concern is the use of homeopathic/ herbal remedies. There are numerous plant based supplements which may lead to a positive drug test. For example Valerian, Vervain, devils claw Root, chamomile, hips and skullcap. If you're using supplements, make sure you check that it is approved by the FEI prior to usage.

It's important to note that not only must your horse test negative for banned substances, but, it is against the rules for drugs, needles and syringes to be possessed by anyone associated with your horse unless they are a veterinarian.

If your horse requires medication, it's very important to discuss with your veterinarian the withdrawal times and half life of all prescribed drugs. This is the only way to insure that your horse will not test positive at the event. The best way to ensure your horse tests negative is to be aware of the regulations for each association, to use medication only under the supervision of your veterinarian and to be sure that sufficient time has passed to clear medication from your horse's system.

*Image courtesy of Dollar Photo Club

Comments
  • Wow, I had no idea about a lot of this - It is so informative, I will be sharing with my friends and fellow members of the barn. Keep up the amazing posts Morgan