What does international equestrian sport do to ensure healthy, fair, and clean competition? As a sport where the horse is used for its athletic abilities and man is at the helm, it is crucial that the horse be properly safeguarded.

Ethics and Horse Welfare--The Federation Equestre Internationale (FEI) considers the welfare of the horse its most important priority. An Ethics Committee established in 1990 produced the first FEI Code of Conduct for the welfare of the horse. In 2003, the code was rewritten and updated; the sentiments are the same, but the code is presented in a more readable and user-friendly way. The FEI's basic premise is to protect the welfare of horses at all times and never to be influenced by competitive or commercial pressures. (Find a copy at www.horsesport.org/fei/discover/discover_01/dis_01_04.html.)

Abuse of Horses--Sanctions for horse abuse are carefully regulated in the FEI General and Veterinary Regulations, as well as in the discipline rules. Any horse abuse reported to the FEI will be followed up (e.g., abuse with a whip, spur marks, rapping or hitting the legs with a pole, or hypersensitization of limbs). The Veterinary Committee has been particularly concerned with the abuse of hypersensitization in show jumping. This involves trying to make horses jump higher by inflicting pain to the legs by using irritants on the skin or on bandages, by injections into the skin, or by directly hitting the leg (rapping). These cases are detected with bandage checks and clinical examination by a veterinarian. Samples or bandages might be sent for analysis of prohibited substances to an FEI analytical laboratory.

We are conducting a research program using thermography to pinpoint areas of heat and inflammation. This method can be useful in confirming the veterinarian's suspicions. We are confident that by having this vigilant approach the prevalence of abuse is being reduced.

Medication Control--Another form of abuse is doping (using prohibited medications). The FEI's philosophy is to have a drug-free sport so that all horses compete on their inherent abilities. There is a published list of prohibited substances and an extensive program of medication screening. Horses are regularly tested during competition for any substances that might affect performance. Some 2,000 horses are tested annually, with blood and urine samples sent to analytical laboratories accredited by the FEI.

There is an important welfare issue associated with medication control in FEI sport--the necessity to treat some horses if it is in their best interests. For example, it might be necessary to treat a horse traveling to an event, and these drugs might be picked up in a later test. Other horses might need emergency treatment for minor problems that do not affect performance during competition. The FEI therefore has established an authorized medication program that at first sight appears to be in contradiction to the philosophy on drug-free status, but is there to protect the health and welfare of the horses. The program is strictly controlled by veterinarians at events and by the FEI Veterinary Department.

The final aspect of FEI's medication control program is to promote research and keep ahead of would-be dopers. There are very few positive samples each year from deliberate doping (less than 5%); the vast majority of positive test results are due to analgesics, sedatives, and anti-inflammatory drugs.

Permitted Medication--A good example of the FEI's interest in horse welfare is its recent approach to dealing with gastric ulcers. We know this condition occurs commonly in horses in competition or training. We also know that the root of the problem involves their management and competition schedule (i.e., training, feeding, transport). It is unlikely owners could introduce different methods of training and feeding horses to reduce the incidence. This means the only alternative approach is to permit medication of horses during competition. Three factors made us realize that this option might be feasible:

  • The problem can be accurately diagnosed by endoscopy;
  • Suitable, specific medication is available; and
  • The medication has no effect on athletic performance.

Therefore, on welfare grounds, the 2000 FEI General Assembly allowed gastric ulcer medication during competition.

The FEI is now considering similar steps for treatment of mares with excessive estrous behavior. A recommendation to permit estrous suppression medication to these mares will be made to the General Assembly in 2004. This is a conscious move to more permitted medication by the FEI provided it is in the best interests of the horses and can be shown to have no effect on performance.

Horse Inspections--The public perception of equestrian sport is important to the FEI, and this involves an assurance that horses are properly fit to compete. The procedure for horse inspections for all seven disciplines has been reviewed recently and a standardized protocol for all disciplines--except endurance riding--has been approved. This involves the use of a holding box for a veterinarian to make a closer examination of a horse the Inspection Panel decides might not be fit to compete.

In conclusion, we believe the FEI and its Veterinary Committee are carefully guarding horse welfare in international competition, and that we can expect further progress to be made on a number of important fronts.

Professor Leo Jeffcott, BVetMed, PhD, FRCVS, DVSc, MA, DSc, is chairman of the FEI Veterinary Committee. Frits Sluyter, DVM, is head of the FEI Veterinary Department. The FEI is the international governing body for equestrian sport.

About the Author

Leo Jeffcott, BVetMed, PhD, FRCVS, DVSc, MA, DSc

Professor Leo Jeffcott, BVetMed, PhD, FRCVS, DVSc, MA, VetMedDr (h.c.) has been an official FEI Event Veterinarian since 1977, and has officiated at many elite championships including 4 World Equestrian Games. He has been an official veterinarian at the last 6 Olympic Games (1988-2008). He was President of the Veterinary Commission at Sydney (2000) and Athens (2004), and has been Veterinary Technical Delegate at Athens (2004) and Beijing (2008). Professor Jeffcott was elected Chairman of the FEI Veterinary Committee and member of the Bureau in 1998, and served until 2006. He was then made an Honorary Member of the Bureau, and was the first veterinarian to receive that honour. He held the post of Dean at the Veterinary School in the University of Cambridge (1991-2004) and then at the University of Sydney (2004-2009).

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