Tipping the Scales: Drugs and Our Show Horses


We would all like to believe that competing in any sport is an even playing field and that those who succeed are truly talented and athletic individuals. In the horse show world, these talented and athletic individuals are both the riders and the four-legged mounts that carry them to victory. Just like in any sport, there are rules and a governing body that help maintain this playing field.

Performance enhancing substances undermine this field, and the governing body–in this case, the U.S.
Equestrian Federation (USEF)–has created a list of prohibited and managed substances. Even substances that are used to make a horse more comfortable are considered performance enhancing if they are used in excess to mask a serious injury or lameness.

The list of violations, fines and suspensions in the USEF has dramatically increased over the past 10
years. Is this increase a reflection of a society that has become more sophisticated in its technology and
medication? As more drugs are invented, more rules are created to regulate those drugs. Does the evergrowing list of violators reflect merely the increased sophistication of testing methods, rather than an increase in drug use?

Or does the expanding list reflect society’s increasing propensity to medicate, to obliterate the level playing field and tip the scales all in an effort to win?

Here is what our readers had to say about performance enhancing drugs and the USEF rules.

USEF Stats
• In February 2004, 36% of the violations listed in the USEF’s Equestrian magazine were related to illegal substances being use in show horses.
• In February 2008, this number increased to 64%.

Readers Respond
No question more drugs are in use. Same as in human medicine, there have been many advances made in veterinary pharmaceuticals, giving competitors more and more options for medicating horses legally in a way which helps them be more comfortable while performing their jobs. If you read the USEF magazine each month you will note that a fair amount of the people “getting caught” are caught with legal substances, only given in excessive dosages. The issue may be more of a lack of education on part of
owners/trainers/riders in knowing how much of what drug to give–and when and how to give it–than one of increased intentional abuse. –Jennifer Sponseller Webster (New Market)

My point of view, speaking as a professional trainer and horse owner who competes often on the USEF level, is that drug testing is a necessary evil. It quite frankly should be done “much” more often. Just seeing the testers out heavily in the spring at shows is not enough to keep competitors on their toes. I, too, had a horse tested this spring and was glad to see it happen. When you think about how much money gets collected at each USEF event, times the number of entries, it’s a lot! It’s nice to see where my money is going. All too often, animals get competed that are sore and in need of time off. The horses’ only way of defending themselves is to outwardly show us they need help, by being off or lame. Trainers and coaches pay huge vet bills to keep their animals in top condition. Those of us that do so, NEED to keep the playing field even by random testing. There are always those circumstances where a horse may have gotten hurt with a surface injury, shipping, in the stall, a bug bite or minor stitching, etc., that requires some medications. These times do not really reflect on the horses’ soundness overall, but require medication. The USEF has a form that can be filled out at every show indicating the medication they are on, if … need be. If the level of medication needed is over USEF acceptable standards at that point, the animal should stay home and mend. Point chasing sometimes can cloud the judgment of everyone involved. That is why I feel testing should be the necessary evil and should be done more often, and testers seen more through out the year. – Alison Fisher (Bay View Farm, Gambrills)

I firmly believe that more horses are being drugged at shows today than ever, especially at the schooling show level, which is totally ridiculous! We consistently see riders and horses out of control one day, and the very next day, the horse is going so quiet that the rider is now wearing spurs. I see many horses go by at schooling shows dragging their toes with heads hung low, eyes droopy; and if geldings, they are dropped, all true signs of drugging. We have even seen people feeding their horse a small grain mixture
near the ring just before it enters the ring. The comical (or not so comical) thing about it all is that many people who attend the show series know the barns that do it and just shake their heads as the horse and rider go by. The other sad side affect is that these horses usually do win the classes because they are so calm and their pace consistent, whereas the drug-free horse is not as consistent. No one tests at the schooling level because it is so costly (vet call, lab fees, etc.) to the person who files the protest. It is really sad that winning should mean so much that we are willing to put our children (no less) on horses and ponies that are drugged and then send them in to jump. What can be done about it? I am not sure there is an answer, because you can be sure that no protesting will continue as long as the protester is responsible for all the fees associated with testing. – Anonymous

I definitely think more people are using drugs for shows. The theory seems to be that today’s show horse is treated “better than ever” with the latest technologies to support our “athletes”. While I believe there is some truth in that, the difference lies in that horses can’t talk. They are not given choices to take more anti-inflammatories, be bandaged with braces every 12 hours or given cocktails that have magic. I have
watched so many other horses come home from shows lame or need months off after the show season to repair what was taped together for that big show or finals. I believe that these trainers really do think they are doing good by their horse by keeping them medicated, massaged, injected and [on] scheduled acupuncture and/or chiropractic care. Can you imagine these horses without this help? But when is it far enough? An allowance by the USEF that would let an older horse who needs to live on Bute go to the show ring gets taken to an extreme. For an arthritic horse who needs relief is instead pushed to its limits. A strained ligament, a stress fracture, a bruise, a splint … how many of us have pushed them, where if they had a voice they would have said “No”? I don’t think the USEF can catch abusers without things like 0 tolerance drugs without vet certificate, extensive testing at each show, jogs in the morning, recommended
trot into the ring for the jumps, more eyes back in the barns and a whole lot of money for the staff to do so. It’s sad to watch and hard to be around when you believe differently than the mainstream. – Anonymous

As far as show hunters [are concerned], drugs have always been used, both to mask soundness problems and to make the horses quiet. Different drugs become used when it is discovered they will work; for example, dexamethasone, a steroid, which will make a horse quiet for showing the next day. Eventually these drugs get on the list to be tested for, and a new drug is discovered. In the “old days,” that horse would have been given [Acepromazine], arguably a more humane choice … What might need to be changed is the point system, which encourages showing the animal every weekend, thus stressing their legs, etc., and the emphasis on the totally quiet hunter round, where some judges penalize a buck in the corner more than a rub or poor jumping form. –Kate Belber (Washington, DC)

Drugs really have no place in the industry; if your horse needs to be drugged to be sound or sane, you don’t need to show them. –Kim R. Ferrell (Camden, DE)

The amount of people using drugs for their show horses has basically remained the same at the rated shows. Drug testing technology has improved so much that more and more people are getting caught using permitted substances, but in excess of the amounts allowed by the USEF. – Kathleen Straton (Hampstead)

I know this is going on, and yes, I do think it is much more prevalent now than it was in years past. There are well known trainers in our area who routinely inject sedatives into horses before training and showing. I think the best thing the horse industry can do is start blood testing for any upper level shows. This would also pick up blistering, gingering and other substances being used on horses in defiance of US rules. –Susan Montgomery (Columbia)

Definitely more horses are being shown on drugs; people too, unfortunately. The reason is that it is more common knowledge. – Kathleen Harjess (Equilibrium Horse Center, Gambrills)

More people are for sure getting caught. Being involved with USHJA and USEF, I can testify to the fact that more people are getting tested. All AA shows have testers now, and almost all major A shows–where 10 years ago, only major shows were funded for drug testing. Hopefully, in the future, some B and C-rated shows will also have testing. I think drugs are still being abused somewhat at that level. Drug testing now is so refined that the smallest amounts (nano-grams) of forbidden substances can be detected as well as natural substances that are also illegal. Trainers as a whole are forced to be way more careful about what they use and how they use it. In addition they must educate themselves and stay current on the ever-changing listof forbidden and controlled substances and how to use them. There are some who are trying to beat the system, but for the most part, I really think the testing process and sophistication of testing procedures has decreased the numbers of drug abusers. – Jo-Ann Schaudies (Poolesville)

I think the types and ways of drugging horses has gotten very sophisticated and there is definitely more of it going on; the USEF rules need to address this new level of sophistication. – Lori Garnant (Dundulk Sport Horses, Middletown)

It’s both: More use and more detection (which is increasing due to better processes and to a larger number of horses being drugged). –Mike Rubin (Boyds and Aiken, SC)

I think that there [are] a lot of drugs being used on show horses. I have shown our horses for over 15 years and I have never, ever given them legal or illegal drugs to show them. I wish they would really impose on this harsher for the one[s] who do this time and time again. –Debbie Morris (Lauren’s Way Farm, Willards)

My trainer and I have both had our horses drug tested more often recently then in the past. The testers are more visible and I see them at most shows now. This would account for more people getting caught using illegal drugs either on purpose or by mistake (not knowing the rules or dosage). I don’t have any problem with the current drug rules. They allow for some therapeutic and maintenance drugs. –Dorie Forte (Woodbine)

Winning has become too important to people. I believe more and more people are drugging their horses to improve performance. – Ivy Hill (Parkton)

I am not familiar with the current drug laws, but I do have an opinion. I guess there is a fine line. If a horse is unsafe or a person is not sure how a horse will do going to an away show, and it is a child that is riding, I’d have to say a mild, over-the-counter [product] like Quietex would be O.K. If it goes beyond that, I think the horse is unsuitable and maybe needs someone with more experience to train them to get to a point that they need to be in the show world. I am not an expert, but I think if a horse needs to be heavily drugged to show, then it should be outlawed and the horse should be disqualified. It can’t be healthy for the horse. I have bought a horse in the past for my daughter that was drugged. When it came off the drugs, it was not the safest or most pleasant animal. We got rid of it quickly and soon found another horse. Drug testing is something I do now before bringing any horse home for my kids. – Lisa Peddicord (Columbia)

Yes, I do believe that more horses are being drugged these days as more elements are being discovered that either mask unsoundness issues or produce a calming effect. I am against longeing a horse for two hours every day [that] it competes to make it quiet–more than I am against giving horses a little help to make them feel good either mentally or physically. A trainer’s livelihood is based around taking horses and clients to shows. If they can’t take “rickety” or “fresh” horses to shows, how will they make money? The number of horses who go to A-rated shows that do not require ANY kind of medicinal help (this includes Bute) is very, very low. However, I am very much against giving horses drugs that drastically affect their organs … such as slowing their heart rate. But using medications like Banamine and Robaxin (in moderation) that assist the horse’s skeletal and muscular systems can really make a horse feel better. – Anonymous