Friday, August 27, 2010

FEI NSAID Background: Alex Atock Explains When and Why Bute Was Banned

Many people I meet in the horse world are shocked and even a bit put off sometimes when they first learn that the FEI does not allow horses to compete on even the smallest amount of non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs, pronounced "en-saids"). If it's ok for horses in the United States to race and show on Bute and other NSAIDS, why are the other countries so backward?

Or is it the other way around?

Whether it is horse racing or horse sports like eventing, driving, showjumping and dressage, the world's perception of horses competing on even the lowest dose of therapeutic medication are polarized.

Last week's congress on NSAIDs, organized by the Federation Equestre Internationale (FEI) in Lausanne, Switzerland, was designed to fully educate all interested parties before the FEI's General Assembly vote in November which will ask the world's equestrian bodies if it would like to liberalize the FEI's NSAID policy by going with a "progressive list" of allowed medications for competition horses.

Much of the NSAID Congress was scientific presentations by leading experts like the USA's Dr. Wayne McIlwraith but there were some ethical considerations as well. So far, the FEI has posted 12 videos of lectures from the Congress on YouTube for us to watch. That's a lot of pharmacology research.

But perhaps most important of all the lectures was a bit of a history lesson from horse welfare specialist veterinarian Alex Atock of Ireland, who was in the middle of the FEI's upheaval over NSAID reform in the late 1980s and early 1990s, when he served as head of the FEI's veterinary department. Bute was banned under Alex Atock's watch; who better to take us back in time to find out when and why the ban was initiated?

Listening to this video, I felt like I was thumbing through old issues of Hoofcare & Lameness. As the FEI strugged with the issue of banning Bute, I was writing about it, and about all the horror stories that were happening in the horse industry at the same time. Were they related to Bute? No, but they were related to horse welfare and the perception that people in horse sports had little regard for the well-being and even the lives of their horses. Somehow, this all spilled over to the drug debate, though.

As Atock says, we had German pole rapping scandals, American insurance-collecting horse killers, and the 1990 Breeders Cup had been called the blackest day in horse racing history, as three horses were euthanized as a result of breakdowns in one day's races, including the magnificent three-year-old filly Go For Wand. It's amazing horse sports of any kind survived that era.

The FEI's decision to completely ban Bute from competition horses was painful. It has been painful all along the way since then, but never more painful than the past year, when the old dichotomy opened up again.

Which way will the FEI vote in November--with the liberalized science-is-God view or with the welfare-ethics old guard of Europe who staunchly maintain that Bute and NSAIDs were banned for a reason and horse sport needs to distance itself from the perception that equine athletes are drugged in order to perform?

Does a horse on Bute deserve a Gold Medal if the Silver goes to a horse that is "clean"? On the other hand, should a horse be forced to withdraw from a world-championship competition because of a minor episode of colic a week beforehand that has nothing to do with a performance-enhancing effect of a drug that could be given to treat the colic? Should a vet have to hesitate to medicate a horse because of the performance-drug testing repercussions of a therapeutic substance?

These questions go around and around and around.

By way of education, here's a clip from a lecture by USEF veterinarian Kent Allen, explaining to event riders how to fill out forms to report the NSAID(s) their horses are on, since the USEF rules were changed this year. This clip is one of a 24-part YouTube series with Dr. Allen presented by US Eventing and sponsored by SmartPak to help riders through the process of understanding what is permissable for their horses and how to manage their horses within USEF rules while competing at USEF (as opposed to FEI) events. That's right: 24 videos to explain how to manage your horse's medications within the rules, and to help riders understand the issues and regulations surrounding the approved and unapproved medications themselves.

Dr. Allen is chairman of the USEF Drug and Medication Committee and vice-chair of the FEI Medication Advisory Group.  He is also official Veterinary Coordinator of the 2010 Alltech FEI World Equestrian Games. It is of critical importance to him that riders and trainers understand the medication process and that the American horse public understands the reasoning behind the USEF policies, which are different from the major European nations, but in line with some other countries around the world.

The one-med-or-two forms explanation is vaguely reminiscent of some of my phone calls with Blue Cross Blue Shield about my HMO care.

I highly recommend that ANYONE who even thinks of commenting one way or the other on the medication debate in the FEI watch all the FEI NSAID Congress videos AND Dr. Allen's USEF rules videos.

Educate yourself before you speak. The FEI and US Eventing have laid out a great menu of education for you, for free. You don't have to buy airplane tickets, stay in hotels, or sit all day in uncomfortable chairs. Just watch and listen and learn about medication rules, here, there and everywhere.

What do you want the future of the horse world to be like? How do you think international horse sports will be perceived if medications are allowed?

Most importantly, now that Alex Atock has reminded us where we have been, and opened up the closet where the skeletons have been hiding, where on earth is all this going?

© Fran Jurga and Hoofcare Publishing Fran Jurga's Hoof Blog is a between-issues news service for subscribers to Hoofcare and Lameness Journal. Please, no use without permission. You only need to ask. This blog may be read online at the blog page, checked via RSS feed, or received via a digest-type email (requires signup in box at top right of blog page). To subscribe to Hoofcare and Lameness (the journal), please visit the main site,, where many educational products and media related to equine lameness and hoof science can be found. Questions or problems with this blog? Send email to
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