On the Rail: Horse Welfare, Safety Rules Spotlighted at USEF Annual Meeting

January 29, 2009 -- Hot topics at the Cincinnati convention centered on new rules to protect horses and riders.

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January 29, 2009–The energy at the U.S. Equestrian Federation’s annual meeting this month focused on refining and approving scores of new rules for this season or next year. But what’s ahead after that when it comes to the regulations governing us and our horses? The session in Cincinnati offered a perfect opportunity for trend-spotting, via one-on-one conversations and wide-ranging discussions in the honeycomb of meeting rooms where committees gathered.

USEF President David O

Horse welfare was among the hottest topics, and that is as it should be. Though it’s a vital part of the USEF’s mission statement, there’s an even more heightened consciousness these days. “Horse welfare needs to be the number one issue,” USEF President David O’Connor told the board of directors.

Dr. Kent Allen, head of both the Veterinary and Drugs & Medications committees, wants to take that as an opening for ending the practice of administering

two non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (such as phenylbutazone and ketoprofen) in conjunction with each other to competition horses.

A similar initiative practically fomented a trainers’ rebellion at the USEF’s 1998 convention in Hilton Head, South Carolina, where Allen declared, “This is the right thing to do for the welfare of the horse.”

That argument fell on deaf ears.

“Stacking,” or use of multiple NSAIDs, was widespread. Horsemen contended they required access to more than one drug to keep older horses going. But everyone knew multiple drugs were used often in cases where trainers didn’t want to take chances or thought they were needed.

Eventually, rules limited competition horses to two NSAIDs, but Allen and other committee members feel that is still one too many.

“Even at fairly innocuous dosages, horses can have fairly significant issues,” said Allen, with colon and kidney issues among the toxicity problems cited with a link to over-use of NSAIDS. “What has changed in the last 10 years is the weight of the veterinary literature stating it’s (multiple NSAIDS) a risky business,” Allen explained.

“For me, a question of whether the horse was so lame it needed two NSAIDS is a welfare issue,” said Dr. Rick Mitchell, a committee member who headed the D&M panel when stacking became a hot topic a decade ago. “If the horse is so bad, why is it competing?”

In their arguments to allow two NSAIDs, horsemen contended they were needed to enable older horses to compete. Mitchell said trainers had told him that when it came to equitation horses in the 15- to 20-year-old range, you “can’t get them to the ring on two grams of bute.”

Mitchell also noted that some horses are getting the medication without a diagnosis. If treatment were more accurate, “you might not need as many drugs,” he pointed out.

Observed Dr. Steve Soule, another committee member, “There’s been a huge political climate change in the past 10 or 12 years.”

Racing is partially responsible for that. When I chatted with David O’Connor, he noted that what happens in racing and other non-showing horse sports also reflects on the horse show scene. Soule agreed: “With Barbaro and Big Brown, the welfare perception of the general public exploded. We have received our mandate to do something like this now.”

Although a new rule seems likely to pass when it is proposed, it nonetheless may not be popular among professional trainers.

“I think the current medication program works very well in the welfare of horses,” said California trainer Archie Cox.

“I haven’t seen enough reasons to change it; people know the system now and understand the time frame in which they work. I would leave well enough alone. I don’t think two NSAIDS are detrimental to horses.”

Tennessee trainer David Q. Wright said he never used more than two NSAIDS when one of his horses competed, even when it was legal to give more. But he maintained that while it might seem a single NSAID could “take care of a horse’s needs, in reality certain ones (drugs) have benefits for certain issues, so in conjunction, they can address multiple issues.”

Kent did not hesitate to sketch out a time frame for the new rule. It offers plenty of opportunity for education and comment, so it won’t appear as if the concept is being rammed through, but his goal is to have the regulation in place for the start of the 2011 season on Dec. 1, 2010.

When it comes to human welfare, the “Return to Play” rule proposal was the major issue.

The new

We’ve all heard stories about people who fell off, then remounted or rode later in the day but sounded like blithering idiots when someone attempted to speak with them. Though they obviously had suffered a serious head injury, until now, there was nothing but physical force, common sense or disability to stop them from competing.

Return to Play codifies what must be done to let such a rider compete again. This is something O’Connor pushed hard, and he got what he wanted after six re-writes of the rule. Riders who suffer a concussion or are rendered unconscious by an accident on the field of play or in a warm-up area will be added to the USEF medical suspension list and cannot take part in a show again, on that day or in the future, until they get a note from a medical professional clearing them.

Some disciplines and breeds felt this should be limited to eventing, but it was passed as an across-the-board rule. There also was talk about having it apply to other medical conditions. While that didn’t get far this time, you can expect it to come up again.

Maintaining and upgrading show standards has been a continuing challenge. A pilot program started on the recommendation of the U.S. Hunter Jumper Association could lead the way on helping to remedy this situation, however. Technical Delegates now are being assigned to visit all World Cup qualifier venues to make sure they are up to snuff, after complaints from some riders that they weren’t of the caliber necessary for such important classes. The TDs will be paid by the USEF, rather than the shows, insuring there is no temptation to soft-pedal criticism with the hope of being rehired by a show.

Expect this procedure to be expanded eventually to stewards, if a way is found to handle the logistics and finances. Certainly, the TD program will be growing, improving standards by paying attention to everything from footing to looking over the course designers’ shoulders.

“We need more checks and balances in place to protect the horses and the exhibitors,” said Andrew Ellis, head of the Safety Committee.

Remember the days when there were protests against having to wear safety-certified headgear? Now all hunter and jumper riders have accepted helmets that pass ASTM (American Society of Testing and Materials) and SEI (Safety Equipment Institute) standards, and many have become status symbols. Ellis is even talking about the possibility of accepting other standards for headgear, such as those used abroad, to widen the choices for exhibitors. There are no plans to mandate approved headgear in other divisions, such as dressage, but Ellis feels as young riders grow up seeing the headgear–and as the emphasis on safety continues–use of such helmets may well spread to other disciplines.

Also on the safety front, a new rule passed at the meeting calls for every show to have a safety coordinator. He or she can handle certain other jobs with a competition as well, but there needs to be a designated person whose overall duty is this very important responsibility. Duties include holding a meeting with competition management and medical personnel to make sure everyone is familiar with the accident preparedness plan and knows what to do in an emergency.

It makes sense to ratchet up horse welfare and safety provisions. These affect everyone, so if you’re looking toward trends, expect even more emphasis on these points at future rule-making sessions.

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