Horse vets raise doping concerns with FEI

November 26, 2009

Princess Haya
© Kit Houghton/FEI

A group of top-level horse vets has written to FEI head Princess Haya with concerns about the FEI's recent decision to allow painkillers and non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs in equestrian competition.

In the letter the veterinarians say they support the FEI's "clean sport" concept, but feel that the resolution passed at the general assembly last week allowing certain painkillers and anti-inflammatories has seriously over-shadowed the campaign recommended by the Stevens/Ljungqvist reports.

They feel the progressive list had not been debated sufficiently and that the decision made that was "premature, illconsidered and seriously retrograde."

The veterinarians say that permitting the use of NSAIDs "will lead to abuse and the participation of horses in competition that are unfit to compete. It also removes the 'level playing field' that has been a crucial and fundamental ethos of the FEI since its foundation."

The progressive list allows phenybutazone (bute), up to 8 micrograms per millilitre in plasma or serum. This is three times the level permitted in the 1980s before the powerful anti-inflammatory agent was banned.

It also allows salicyclic acid (similar to aspirin) up to 750mcg/ml in urine and up to 6.5 mcg/ml in plasma or serum. Flunixin, a common anti-inflammatory and painkiller in horses, will be allowed up to 500 mcg/ml in plasma or serum.

The new list also prescribes acceptable levels for acetycysteine, which is used for some respiratory conditions; dichloroacetate (lactanase), which helps prevent tying up by reducing the buildup of lactic acid in muscle cells; and isoxuprine, a blood vessel dilator often used in the treatment of hoof conditions.

Major horse nations are concerned how sponsors will view the FEI's stance on a set of drugs commonly used in horses. Some question how the industry can sell a "clean sport" image when it tolerates the presence of such key substances.

The progressive list received 53 votes in favour, against 48 for the existing list.

Copies of the letter to Princess Haya from the veterinarians were also sent to Sven Holmberg (FEI 1st Vice-President), Chris Hodson (FEI 2nd Vice-President), Alex McLin (FEI Secretary General), John McEwen (Chair, FEI Veterinary Committee), and Graeme Cooke (Director, FEI Veterinary Department).

The text of the letter is:

Re: FEI Clean Sport; The 'Progressive List'
To: FEI President

Your Royal Highness,

As a group of senior veterinarians with experience of equestrian competition at international level, we write to express our grave concern at the recent decision of the FEI General Assembly to adopt the so-called 'Progressive List' that allows the use of non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs) in competition horses. This resolution has seriously over-shadowed the commendable clean sport campaign recommended by the Stevens/Ljungqvist reports, which offered a major step forward in equestrian sport. We would like to emphasise that we are fully behind the concept of 'clean sport'.

The 'Progressive List', which we understand was seen for the first time by the delegates when they arrived for the assembly, has not been debated sufficiently and we believe a decision has been made that was premature, illconsidered and seriously retrograde. Permitting the use of NSAIDs will lead to abuse and the participation of horses in competition that are unfit to compete. It also removes the 'level playing field' that has been a crucial and fundamental ethos of the FEI since its foundation. We believe the decision must be reconsidered and would draw your attention to the following historical facts.

Firstly, following extensive consultation, the General Assembly meeting in Rio de Janeiro in 1993, finally removed the 'maximum permitted level' for phenylbutazone (PBZ). Over a number of years this had been reduced from 5 µg per millilitre of blood to 2 µg/ml. Under the 'Progressive List', PBZ will be permitted up to a level of 8 µg/ml, a four-fold increase on the level rejected by the Rio meeting. This decision will have a serious and negative effect on welfare and profound repercussions for equestrian sport. The 'Progressive List' also permits flunixin, another NSAID, to be used up to a level of 0.5 µg/ml in serum or plasma.

Secondly, the 'Progressive List' raises the salicylate threshold. We would point out that this threshold was lowered in 1999 on the advice of the Veterinary Committee and again following extensive consultation. Salicylic acid had been found in Coral Cove at the 1998 World Equestrian Games, and it was apparent at the time that intravenous 'topping up' to the threshold was not a rare occurrence.

After analysis of 650 equine urine samples collected worldwide and considerable discussion it was decided to reduce the FEI threshold to below that used by racing (where there was no evidence of similar abuse). The work was reported to the International Conference of Racing Analysts and Veterinarians in 2004 and was subsequently published. There was therefore a clear rationale for the threshold of 625 µg/ml in urine or 5.4 µg/ml in plasma.

Thirdly, national legislation in many European countries prohibits any medication in competition animals. This does not apply in parts of the US where 'permitted levels' are more common. A 'controlled restricted' list will surely be unenforceable where it is in conflict with the national laws of a country.

In conclusion, we would urge you to reopen this debate, encourage extensive international consultation and invite National Federations to reconsider their decision in Copenhagen in the interests of the health and welfare of the competition horse.

Sincerely yours,

Leo B. Jeffcott (former Chair, FEI Veterinary Committee) and
Andrew Higgins (FEI Honorary Scientific Adviser and former Chair Medication Advisory Group)
Roberto Busetto (FEI MCP Veterinarian)
Jean-François Bruyas (FEI MCP Veterinarian)
Michael Düe (former member FEI Veterinary Committee)
Paul Farrington (former Vice Chair, FEI Veterinary Committee)
Wilfried Hanbuecken (Chief Veterinary Officer CHIO Aachen)
Liisa Harmo (FEI MCP Veterinarian)
Miklos Jarmy (FEI MCP Veterinarian)
Peter Kallings (former President, IGSRV and MCP Veterinarian)
Gerit Mattheson (member FEI Veterinary Committee)
Nigel Nichols (former member FEI Veterinary Committee)
Jack Snyder (member FEI Veterinary Committee)
Warwick Vale (FEI Veterinary Delegate and Olympic Games, Sydney 2000
FEI Medication Control Program Supervisor)
Alex Atock (former Head, FEI Veterinary Department)