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February 5, 2010 -- The most obvious takeaway from the U.S. Equestrian Federation's (USEF) annual meeting last month in Louisville, Ky., was approval of a controversial rule that will limit administration of non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAID) to one, rather than two, different medications in competition horses (read my postcard on that topic). But if you thought that was big news, you ain't seen nothing yet.
There are higher standards being forged for personal responsibility, from exhibitors and show managers to officials. The payoff will be elevating the level of shows in this country. So many changes are in the works, from groundbreaking rules that may be enacted later this year to important trends that could lead to recasting the way things are done in many areas.
During the USEF's veterinary committee meeting, where the final details of the NSAID rule were discussed, it was suggested that "the next big challenge is non-needed medication going into our athlete horses." Just think about the proliferation of joint injections. It was decided, however, that is "a bridge too far at the moment," but this is something to watch for on the horizon.
Armand Leone, chairman of the USEF's high performance working group, made a point that it would be beneficial for U.S. medication rules to move closer to those of the FEI (International Equestrian Federation), which is trying to rework its very strict regulations. Meanwhile, it's poles apart from the United States in what it allows. Expect a battle if aligning more closely with FEI rules is proposed, with the long wrangle over NSAID use as a case in point.
What's apparent, though, is that horse welfare is more than ever a guiding mantra, and there's always a lot that needs to be done in this regard.
One thing that pricked up my ears was the horror that members of the veterinary committee expressed upon seeing photos of a show horse tied to a wall with a giant roller (along the lines of a PVC pipe) in his mouth. The roller prevented the horse from closing his mouth. The idea, we were told, was that when the roller was removed, the horse would keep his mouth shut for the duration of his upcoming class. This apparently was not an isolated situation. "This rises to the level of an investigation to see what a steward can do," said USEF CEO John Long, who was in the meeting. "This is unacceptable, and we'll find a way to get to it."
"Someday, the FEI and USEF will have to struggle with a list of prohibited practices," Veterinary Committee Chairman Dr. Kent Allen predicted. He suggested documentation and security are tools to stop these situations. They will offer a legal edge "and let people know we're not going to let these things go."
Then we heard the story of Botox being used to keep a horse's ears and tail quiet. The problem is that Botox is short for botulinum toxin, which is produced by the bacteria that causes botulism. Horses, unlike some species, are very sensitive to botulism, which can lead to tragic unintended consequences.
And at the other end of the scale, the committee noted, some animals in Arabian classes and other divisions that prize a high-set tail are undergoing rectal administration of irritants, such as capsicum and ginger, to get the desired effect.
I don't think it will be long before such heinous practices are addressed even more aggressively. As I said, horse welfare seems to be a bottomless pit of issues that need to be handled. One thing that will help is better stewarding, and the federation is making a big effort in that regard. Expect that good ol' boys and gals who let shows and exhibitors get away with things will be sent out to pasture. It was recommended that the fed rep program that was supposed to provide an oversight of what went on at shows be folded into the energized steward-technical delegate committee.
Rules that get scuttled also often are worthy of note. My favorite discard was the attempt to drop the term "owner" from the Amateur-Owner Jumper division. Some pointed out that amateurs who own their own horses deserve to face-off against others of the same ilk when they get in the ring. Others thought it gives unfair advantage to those who can afford to own two or more horses, as opposed to having just one. A compromise though, effective next show season, will let people compete a horse they lease or don't own in a show where they are riding in the Amateur-Owner Jumper section.
A whole package of hunter rules was put off until the mid-year meeting because they need tweaking or in some cases more work than that, but expect big changes in the way the mileage rule is handled.
For instance, a problem has arisen with shows in the same venue that continue for months at a time. A new rule would limit the number of weeks such a show could run under date protection and offer an opportunity for new shows to emerge, providing more opportunities for competitors. A case in point is the extension of the Winter Equestrian Festival (WEF) into April, which U.S. Hunter Jumper Association President Bill Moroney said has changed migration patterns.
"Shows that used to be after WEF are suffering," he said, explaining that because people are staying longer in Wellington they are skipping the shows they used to attend on the way home.
Debbie McDonald's New Role
The good news for the future of America's international dressage teams is the appointment of Debbie McDonald as developing dressage coach.
The Idaho Olympic and World Equestrian Games medalist, who retired from competition in 2008, had been the developing dressage coach in 2007. Lack of funding scuttled the position after that until now, when new U.S. Technical Advisor Anne Gribbons asked Debbie to step back in.
Everyone always talks about the importance of the athletes' pipeline feeding into the top ranks, and that's where the developing program comes in. As Anne noted, when we look toward the Alltech FEI World Equestrian Games (WEG) in Kentucky, World Cup winner Steffen Peters and Ravel are the United States' only really experienced world-class combination that is on the level of the Netherlands' Edward Gal/Totillas, Anky van Grunsven/Salinero and Adelinde Cornelissen/Parzival, not to mention Germany's Isabell Werth/Satchmo or Great Britain's Laura Bechtolsheimer/Mistral Hojris.
There are some good contenders for the other team slots, but most lack mileage in a year when so many other countries have strong teams. The Dutch, Germans and British could account for the medals, while the Canadians (coached by Robert Dover, who was passed over for the equivalent U.S. position) may be a threat for a top placing outside the medals. If the United States doesn't qualify for the 2012 Olympics at WEG, it will have to qualify at the 2011 Pan American Games, where competition is at Prix St. Georges/Intermediaire I, the level where Debbie will be helping competitors.
While she is hopeful about what she can do, Debbie noted that the extent of the program is up to USEF funding.
"So much depends on what they think they can put back into it," she said. "I love to teach and I'd like to be a part of helping the U.S. go somewhere while giving back to the sport."
Based in California for the winter, Debbie also is busy training Adrienne Lyle, who is shooting for a WEG slot with Wizard and Felix. Both horses at one time were ridden by Debbie, but they are Adrienne's projects now, though if she goes to Europe in May to gain experience, Debbie will travel with her to help.
Debbie still rides a little bit, but never on her signature mount, Brentina, who retired last year. Brentina, still pampered, just gets turned out and spends time on the longe just for exercise. Two of Brentina's babies, by Damsey and Kingston, are being carried by surrogates who are expected to foal this spring. When the babies get older, Debbie looks forward to riding them.
"It would be like a full circle," she points out.
An Icon in Trouble
Will the U.S.'s best-known show-jumping grand prix be held this April in Tampa's Raymond James Stadium? There's a real question as to whether the $200,000 American Invitational can survive to have its 38th renewal.
Backers are being sought to bring in the $350,000 in contributions necessary to present the competition, the only American grand prix held in a National Football League stadium. Budweiser, the longtime title sponsor, bowed out after the 2009 Invitational when its parent company, Anheuser Busch, was bought by a European corporation.
The situation is complicated by the fact that Gene Mische, the energetic founder and organizer of the Invitational, has been suffering from a long illness and isn't available to rally the troops.
He is in serious but stable condition under treatment in his hometown of Cleveland, Ohio. It would be a boost to his spirits if the Invitational can be presented yet again for the Gene Mische Perpetual Trophy.
A letter soliciting donations has gone out, detailing Gene's situation. It pleads, "Let's give Gene Mische the one lifetime achievement award powerful enough to send his spirit soaring and let him really know, once and for all, how much he matters to us, his friends."
Checks are being accepted by Stadium Jumping Inc., 1301 6th Avenue West, Suite 406, Bradenton, FL 34205.
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