AAEP 2006: Western Performance Horse Forum

The Western performance horse industry is growing at an astonishing rate, and along with that growth, there are unique health issues that need to be addressed. For that reason, the American Association of Equine Practitioners (AAEP) held a forum for discussion on Dec. 1, 2006, just before its convention in San Antonio, Texas. The Western Performance Horse Forum--moderated by Jerry Black, DVM, of Pioneer Equine Hospital in Oakdale, Calif., and Joe Carter, DVM, of Oklahoma Equine Hospital in Washington, Okla., who both actively participate in the Western performance horse industry--addressed relevant issues and opened a discussion on what role the AAEP should play in this industry.

The Industry Evolves

"Western horses have transitioned from a working class to a performance class in the industry," said Black. "This is a very exciting time for the Western horse industry to be included in the World Equestrian Games, and to be included in the Olympic Games would be a feather in the cap of the reining horse industry."

Carter added, "I would certainly like to see the AAEP get behind promoting reining as an Olympic discipline."

Other audience members said that because of the push for Olympic contention, they had noticed an increase in amateurs competing in Western Performance classes, and organizations were responding by adding more amateur-level divisions.

Another veterinarian commented, "I also see older horses competing longer. There are more geriatric horses involved in showing for longer periods of time, because there are more amateurs who need a seasoned horse."

The forum participants briefly discussed challenges of caring for the older competitive horse, such as the use of anti-inflammatory drugs, and this led to the discussion of drug policies in the sport.

International Drug Rules

"At the Aachen World Equestrian Games, we had 17 countries competing (in the reining competition)," Carter said. "Drug testing is one of the big impediments for the industry right now. However, we've had reining in six large international competitions and had zero (drug) positives. It's the only horse discipline to have zero positives--not just the U.S., but all countries."

Black added, "The American Quarter Horse Association (AQHA) is one of the few (Western) performance horse organizations that have medication and drug rules. But unless the shows are very large events, the role of the veterinarians at the events is strictly an on-call basis."

Several members addressed the fact that many Western performance events, such as the National Reining Horse Association (NRHA) and National Cutting Horse Association (NCHA) futurities, have huge purses that tempt owners and trainers to push their horses to the edge, which sometimes involves using drugs that are prohibited by organizations such as AQHA and FEI (Fédération Equestre Internationale, the ruling body of international equine sports). However, NRHA and NCHA don't have drug policies.

"If you have a $10,000 horse and he has some problems, it's easy to retire him," one veterinarian said. "But, if you have a $2 million horse, it's not so easy."

Black replied, "I can easily argue that the owners of these horses are very conscious about the welfare of the horses. We do use medications, but I wouldn't say the majority of the people are using medications as performance enhancers."

He said he realized there is a minority of people who will always try to abuse the system.

Carter explained that if organizations do implement drug policies, they should concentrate on drugs that are definite performance enhancers. "We need to look at a very narrow scope of drugs that don't have a place in competition," he said. "Anti-inflammatory drugs are not performance-enhancing drugs."

Another audience member commented, "We are seeing more and more Surpass (a topical anti-inflammatory drug) being used at the shows. I think it's being used more than what it can sometimes do, but it gives the owners or trainer the feeling they are directly impacting their horses' health."

Another audience member added, "If you have a very athletic, long-term discipline like show jumping, it's unrealistic to expect that most of these horses are going to be sound on their own. If you don't fix basketball players' knees, how many people do you think you are going to get out on the court?"

EVA Outbreaks

Forum members briefly discussed the recent equine viral arteritis (EVA) outbreak that affected several western states and quarantined many barns housing Western performance horses.

"Shows were canceled and (the facilities of) several large trainers were quarantined," a veterinarian in attendance commented.

Another forum participant said, "An outbreak can have a tremendous impact on the industry, especially during this time of the year (late in the season, when most championship shows are held)." It can have such an impact that some trainers even broke their quarantines and traveled to shows anyway. "I had a couple of clients wanting to bust their quarantine," one attendee said. "The state vets were overwhelmed, and I was faced with the decision of calling the state vet and ratting out a good client."

Black said, "Obviously it's a hot topic. It's even a hot topic at the level of the USDA. Sometime in the near future we are looking at stallions that are going to have to have some testing done before they are allowed to travel between states. They want to devise a way to be able to track these particular stallions."

Black said it would be a good practice to test and vaccinate mares and stallions for EVA on all farms..

"Every major racing Quarter Horse broodmare farm in our area is requiring negative test and vaccination for EVA this season," said a veterinarian.

Sales and Ethics

Black touched on professional ethics within the industry, especially focusing on changing the way larger sales are run. "When you have yearlings selling for $250,000, the rules have to change a bit," he explained. "It can't always be a 'buyer beware' market."

Black explained that Western Bloodstock, the contracted sales company for the NCHA sales, put a group of veterinarians together to develop a radiographic repository that mimics what is used in the Thoroughbred industry.

"They made it mandatory for the 2-year-old in training select horse sale last year," Black said. "All the radiographs have to conform to a specific set; there's 22 X rays involved. All of them have to be taken by digital imaging. The owners are asked to sign a consent form and those radiographs will be used in a long-term radiographic study.

"The biggest problem we have in performance Quarter Horses is developmental orthopedic diseases," Black continued. The five-year study will look at lesions and future performance of the sales horses in a similar fashion to what has been done in the Thoroughbred industry.

Black said full disclosure can only help improve the industry's image and the quality of its sales.

Their Take

Overall, the forum attendees seemed pleased with the direction the Western performance horse industry was headed. The prospect of reining being the next Olympic sport perked the ears of many who would like to see the AAEP play a more active role in promoting and standing behind the Western Performance Horse industry.

Get research and health news from the American Association of Equine Practitioners 2006 Convention in The Horse's AAEP 2006 Wrap-Up sponsored by OCD Equine. Files are available as free PDF downloads.

About the Author

Chad Mendell

Chad Mendell is the former Managing Editor for TheHorse.com .

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