Drugs and the Equine Industry: The Calming Debate

If you are a horse person, you know that drugs are as big in show horses and race horses as they are in human athletes. The horse industry can be big business, and when money is on the line, people will always be looking for a way to gain an edge in competition. There are plenty of drugs that will do just about everything: hop your horse up, slow your horse down, cover up injuries etc. The United States Equestrian Federation is the regulating body over equine sports and they set the rules on drugs and enforce them.

The reason I am sounding off about this topic is because a headline caught my eye last week and ever since I have been fascinated with the subject. The story was this: Brigid Colvin, the mother of teenage riding prodigy Tori Colvin was suspended and fined after Tori’s mount Inclusive tested positive for GABA after the Hunter Derby Finals. GABA stands for Gamma Aminobuytric Acid, a non-protein amino acid that controls the way neurons fire in the brain. The purpose of GABA is as a calming supplement.

I ended up reading the full transcript of Brigid Colvin’s hearing with USEF and it was shocking. Colvin was suspended and fined because she was listed as Inclusive’s trainer. The trainer and the owners usually get fined or suspended but not the rider, I’ll get to that later. Colvin argued that she shouldn’t be punished because even though she was listed as the trainer, she was unclear on who to list as the trainer so she just listed herself. There was never any denial that the horse was given the drug, she just said she didn’t do it and shouldn’t be held responsible. GABA is a very fast acting substance, when used it is usually given as an injection right before the horse goes into the ring.

Why would owners and trainers use a calming agent? Well in the Hunter ring, horses are judged on how well they jump. They are expected to be slow, quiet, and well-mannered. The calming agent helps prevent the horse from getting too quick or spooking. Especially at the upper levels it can be difficult to keep a horse quiet while jumping 3′ and higher.

Why would USEF ban the use of the substance? USEF tested the substance on horses and observed that horses would shake after receiving the injection and that if it was given the incorrect way, the horse could die. It is also does provide an unfair advantage to the competition, and gets rid of an even playing field.

The argument from supporters of the drug say that it keeps inexperienced riders safe and helps green horses that aren’t used to competing. I have a friend that works at the United States Hunter Jumper Association (USHJA) and she said that calming agents were a given at Pony Finals. No one wants their kid getting hurt.

I personally feel that a problem with the industry is that we are so focused on competing and winning without putting the proper training methods and practice time in. There are too many riders on horses that they don’t have the ability to handle. I think that if you need a calming agent to compete a horse, then I think the horse isn’t ready or the rider isn’t ready. I think calming supplements are a quick fix, instead of putting time and effort in. As for green horses, I think that is what schooling shows are for. There isn’t enough emphasis on training for not only the classes at the show but also the experience of the show itself.

The other issue is the judging. The calm, slow, well-mannered horses win the classes. So that is what the competitors strive for. While yes, those traits are ideal, sticking solely to those traits perpetuate the problem. I think the judging needs to get more realistic, and be more forgiving for speed and energy and a head toss. The trends have become practically comatose horses plodding around the Hunter ring that pick up their feet at the jumps. If judges stop rewarding that behavior, then competitors will stop trying to achieve it. I would go as far as to say that if a horse looks clearly drugged, so slow and calm, they should penalized in the judging. They should have some life to them.

I also think that to stop competitors from violating the rules, the punishments have to be harsher. As it stands, trainers, owners, and horses are affected in suspensions. Owners and trainers also get fined. The rider usually gets no punishment on a drug charge. The idea behind this is that many riders ‘catch ride’ at shows. Catch Ride means that they will show up at an event and meet owners/trainers and jump on their horses to ride the classes without any prior relationship. So these riders often have no affiliation with the horse other than a warm-up and the class they ride in, they have no idea what the horse may or may not have been given. I understand that, and I  think it would be unfair to punish catch riders for drug violations. But, in cases like Tori Colvin, I think she should get punished.

Tori is only 17, but she is a rising star. She was won anything and everything in the Hunter/Jumper world. Even her mother said in her hearing transcript that Tori didn’t need a trainer, she trains herself. She has multi-million dollar mounts in the hunter, jumper, and equitation rings from various owners. I fully believe that Tori knew that Inclusive was given GABA. She rode the horse and competed with him often, I think her thoughts would’ve been taken into account before anyone decided to give the drug. If Tori were suspended for 6 months or more, I think it would send a message. She is such a high profile rider, her presence would be missed. She may get replaced as a rider for some of her high profile horses, and she would be taken out of her profession. Even though she is only 17, this is her profession. If riders could get suspended for drug use, I believe they would find their voice to be aware of what their horses are being given. They need to be responsible for the horse they are taking into the show ring, just as much as the owners and the trainers.

Don’t get me wrong, I like Tori Colvin. She is an amazing rider, I’ve rooted for her many times. And I think the ‘punishment’ I’m suggesting would be very harsh, and possibly undeserved. But I think the message to the industry is more important. I think making high profile riders take more responsibility for the horses they compete on will help curb this drugging epidemic.

If you want more info on this check out this article from The Chronicle of the Horse: http://www.chronofhorse.com/article/sunshine-false-fairytales-calming



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