International drug testing - Veterinary Practice
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International drug testing

The ins and outs of competition drug testing at international equine events

The use of drugs is tightly regulated in equestrian sport; this article will consider the testing of horses for prohibited substances at international level in those disciplines regulated by the Fédération Equestre Internationale (FEI). The FEI is the international governing body for a number of equestrian sports: show jumping, dressage, eventing, carriage driving, vaulting, reining, paraequestrianism and endurance riding.

International equestrian sport has been growing at a tremendous rate. During 2016, 4,206 international competitions were held worldwide, involving a total of 79,200 horses, representing an increase of just over 100 percent over the course of just 10 years. Equestrian sports made their Olympic debut in the 1900 Games in Paris, but the first time that drugs were prohibited for horses in the Olympics was in Munich in 1972, and it was not until 1976, in Montreal, that horses in Olympic events were tested.

Control of the use of drugs in equestrian sport is necessary for a number of reasons. It is obviously important that horses and riders should compete on their own merits, without gaining an unfair advantage through the use of pharmaceuticals. More importantly for equestrian sport, horses must be protected from being made to compete when ill or unfit to do so. Finally, the integrity of horse sports must be maintained if they are to remain viable in the modern age.

The Prohibited List

The FEI’s approach to drug control has been to maintain a “Prohibited List” of substances which must not be present in samples obtained from horses during competition. The list, which comprises around 1,200 substances, is divided into two categories.

The majority of drugs in the list are classified as “banned substances”, which the FEI considers to have no place in the normal treatment of competition horses.

The presence of a banned substance in a sample is viewed seriously. Although the sentence can be modified depending on the circumstances of the offence, the default sanction is a twoyear ban for the person responsible (PR) for the horse (the PR is normally the rider, driver or vaulter, although other people associated with the horse, including veterinarians, can be considered PRs depending on the circumstances of the case), as well as a fine and disqualification from the competition at which the horse was sampled. Anabolic steroids and anti-psychotic drugs used in humans are examples of banned substances that have been found in samples from competition horses. The remainder of the substances on the Prohibited List are known as “controlled medication substances”, which the FEI considers to be bona fide therapeutic agents, but ones that must be absent from the horse at the time of competition. Unlisted drugs that are very similar to those on the Prohibited List are also not allowed to be present during competition, but otherwise any substances not on the list are not prohibited. The list is updated yearly on the advice of the FEI’s “List Group”, which consists of veterinarians, pharmacologists and other interested parties.

In treating competition horses, it is worth noting that while commonly used antimicrobial agents are not on the Prohibited List, one preparation, procaine penicillin, does cause positive results due to its procaine content, for which horses may test positive for an extended period after administration. It is wise, therefore, not to use this preparation in competition horses.

It is now only at Olympic Games and World Equestrian Games that it is obligatory to test the winners of individual and team competitions

Testing at events

Horses may be selected for sampling at equestrian events in a number of ways. It is now only at Olympic Games and World Equestrian Games that it is obligatory to test the winners of individual and team competitions, although winners are often sampled at other bigger equestrian competitions. The vast majority of tests, however, are genuinely random; randomisation is performed in a variety of ways, including the use of smartphone random number generators and the selection of the horse in a given placing in a competition, before the result of the event is known.

Targeted testing may occur at the request of the Ground Jury (the event’s judges) or the Veterinary Delegate (the FEI’s veterinary representative at international equestrian events) if there are grounds to warrant it, but the actual proportion of targeted tests is tiny. While some riders lead themselves to believe that they are personally targeted, this does not occur. People, being people, tend to try to look for reasons for being tested and they often find totally spurious ones; for example, I was once told by a horse’s connections that they knew that they would be tested because one of their grooms was a vet student!

The testing procedure is very regimented. Once selected for testing, the horse is chaperoned to the sampling unit and must be observed by a member of the testing team until being released after sampling. Although it is possible to test horses in their own loose boxes, it is better practice to test in the sampling unit unless there is a very good reason to do otherwise. The horse’s PR, or their designated representative, usually a groom, must also be present throughout the procedure and must sign that they have witnessed it.

At the testing unit, the horse’s identity is confirmed from their passport (usually by reading the microchip) and attempts are made to obtain a urine sample. Under normal circumstances, the horse is only held for half an hour for this and, perhaps surprisingly, the majority of horses do urinate during this interval if they are sampled immediately after competing. Whether or not urine is obtained, a venous blood sample is also drawn for testing.

The urine and blood are each divided into an “A” and a “B” sample. The “A” sample is analysed and the “B” sample is stored at the laboratory and only examined if requested by the PR should the “A” sample prove to be positive.

Colin Roberts

Colin Roberts is an Affiliated Lecturer in Veterinary Anatomy at the University of Cambridge, a Fellow of Sidney Sussex College, Cambridge, and a freelance equine veterinary consultant. He works extensively at international horse shows. His professional interests include equine sports medicine and welfare.

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