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“A” for Effort? First USEF Town Hall Meeting on Horse Welfare is Heavy on Promises, Plans

RELEASE: April 2, 2013
AUTHOR/ADMINISTRATOR: Erin Gilmore

This article has been reprinted with permission of Erin Gilmore. The original article can be found at http://www.proequest.com/news/2013/03/28/a-for-effort-first-usef-town-hall-meeting-on-horse-welfare-is-heavy-on-promises-plan

[Wellington, FL] “We have to admit that we know we have a problem.”

No, this wasn’t a church basement gathering of recovering addicts, although an atmosphere of “enough is enough” hung heavy in the air.
A crowd of 75 trainers, riders and officials were gathered in the glass-walled Wellington Club on the Palm Beach International Equestrian Center showgrounds on Wednesday afternoon. Bright sun streaming through the windows and horses competing in the arena outside set the stage for a candid, and at times tense discussion hosted by the United States Equestrian Federation to address contentious issues facing the horse show industry.

The speaker was USEF CEO John Long, who publicly took the first step towards a long road to recovery for an industry that has faced an outcry in recent months over the overmedicating and drugging of show horses.

Along with Long, USEF board members Stephen Shoemaker, Bill Moroney, Geoff Teall, Sonja Keating and USEF President Chrystine Tauber outlined issues that have been front and center in the media and among industry participants since the publication of the New York Times article Sudden Death of Show Pony Clouds Elite Pursuit, on December 27th, 2012.

Make It Hurt

“We know that we have a problem and we know who those individuals are,” Long continued. “The fines and the suspensions need to change. For people who do bad things to horses, we need to throw the book at them. We need to make it hurt.”

Harsher penalties for rule breakers was just one of the topics that were addressed during this, the first of seven planned USEF Town Hall meetings that will focus on the welfare of the horse in the 21st century.

Long readily echoed what is already general knowledge: that the overmedicating and drugging of show horses is a clear and present threat to the overall health of the horse show industry.

USEF board members emphasized the immediate need to clean up overmedicating in horse showing before the problem spirals beyond its control. He pointed to the soring issue in the Tennessee Walking Horse industry, which is facing a bill from Congress to regulate its treatment of horses. USEF Board Member Bill Moroney cautioned that outside parties stepping in to police the sport would result of negative effects for all.

USEF's policies were compared to those of the FEI, whose zero tolerance rules are looked at as the global standard. However, trainers in the room were quick to point out the need for a gram of bute to care for an aging horse, underscoring the general belief that safe medication levels should be allowed, without nurturing a culture of doped show horses.

“A minority of people are ruining your sport for you,” said Moroney. “And they’re creating a situation that’s going to lead us down a road where outside influences, such as the humane society, PETA, Congress, are going to come in and say ‘you are not regulating your industry properly’.

“This is not to scare you, this is to wake you up.”

Yes, the federation does plan to enact harsher penalties for that so-called minority who are breaking the rules. Exactly what form those harsher penalties will take, or even when they will be enacted, was left undefined.

As was the penalty and hearing procedures for the banned calming ingredient Carolina Gold.

“We hear people have been caught with the Carolina Gold. And? And? Where’s it headed?” asked an audience member.
USEF General Counsel Sonja Keating took the question, but her reply was heavy on explanation, and light on a concrete answer.

“We’ve had some Carolina Gold cases that have gone through the process, we have some that are pending now and some that continue to come in,” she said. “Some can take several months before they reach the hearing committee and some that continue to come in.”

Let’s face it; those positive tests will continue to come in until a penalty for a positive test is publicly enacted, enforced, and is harsh enough to affect the offender and their business.

It Takes Time

However, it was made clear that USEF itself is determined to reach that point.

“We need to tighten up our rules and insist people cooperate. We can’t fix the problem if we don’t have the enforcement mechanisms to do that,” said Long. “What you’re going to see in the next year is the federation taking on a stronger, more aggressive approach.”

Intravenous medications will be banned 12 hours out from a competition, with a few exceptions for veterinary reasons. There was talk of a new rule requiring associated parties to report a collapsed horse on showgrounds, and requiring said parties to cooperate with USEF in the event of a death or collapse.

Long detailed that the new, improved aggressive approach will include assembling an internal investigative unit. It will include making an effort to improve information gathering. It will include supporting young professionals who feel pressured to medicate their own horses to be competitive. It will include testing first through third places at top competitions. It will include encouraging members to reach out to USEF via phone or email with questions and concerns. It will. It will. It will.

This marks an important juncture for USEF. Is this the turning point that we will be able to look back on and point to as the moment when the epidemic of overmedicating, of rewarding robotic movement, of letting the offenders get away with it, was put to a stop?

The group assembled at the meeting included a few show jumpers, and many big name hunter professionals who listened with rapt attention as one of their own laid it all on the table.
“The scene is changing,” said Geoff Teall, a longtime hunter trainer and judge. “Nothing is going to be the same. We as leaders of this sport have to admit that and start to change how we do things and the way we do things, whether it’s getting different horses, changing the judging system, whatever.”

Ah yes, changing the judging system. That topic was never raised, even though many believe that rewarding the behavior that in turn encourages trainers to medicate is at the heart of the problem.

But this conversation is far from over. USEF will be holding six more meetings in the coming months, and they welcome feedback, questions and concern from their members. Long encouraged use of the Federation’s drugs and medications hotline, as well as its email address horsewelfare@usef.org. The entire meeting was videoed and will be available for viewing on USEFNetwork in the coming days.

“The New York Times article did not do anybody any favors except that it’s making this discussion happen on a national level that needed to occur for a long time,” said Long.
And indeed, the time is now.

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