Belgian vet praises new FEI doping policy

December 2, 2009

Dr Leo De Backer.
© Becker/Oldenburger Horse Breeders Society

Belgian veterinarian Dr Leo De Backer has written to the FEI expressing support for the new progressive list, and praising the actions of president Princess Haya in submitting the two lists.

Dr Leo De Backer is the veterinarian in charge at Studbook Zangersheide.

He writes:

"Last week was a really important one for horse sport when the zero tolerance option came up for voting at the FEI General Assembly in Copenhagen. In the past zero tolerance has caused confusion and frustration and many high-profile athletes were vilified unfairly. It almost looked as if the FEI or some departments and Federations were doing everything in their power to put horse sport in a bad light.

"The German Federation in particular has done our sport a disservice over the past number of years by behaving in an ill-considered and unbalanced manner towards any rider suspected of doping. Instead of standing up for its riders and taking mitigating circumstances into account, instead of explaining to the public that there is a difference between doping and a positive medication finding, they would without fail start hacking around with their battle-axe, causing several people to be undeservedly condemned and hung and quartered by the press. The only reason for them to act in this way seemed to be that they were afraid of losing sponsors and television rights after the vehement reactions in Germany during the doping problems of the Tour de France and obviously not wanting to be the next victim of a similar hate campaign. But Federations (including the German Federation) only exist by the grace of the sport and some of the officials seem to forget that sometimes.

"A proposal for a new list of banned substances resulted in a comprehensive Equine Prohibited Substances List being drawn up and this new list, together with the Equine Anti-Doping and Controlled Medication Regulations (EADCMR), was sent out to the National Federations on 20 October. This meant that all substances named on this list were prohibited, making it simply impossible to give horses the care they are entitled to in a responsible manner. There was so much concern about guaranteeing the welfare of the horse that the new list ended up banning virtually everything, including legitimate medication substances that really do support the welfare of the horse.

"Thanks to many protests from the professional world, FEI President HRH Princess Haya finally did what a good President ought to do. She was led by the power of reason. A number of reputable professionals then drew up what came to be called the "progressive list" which was sent to the National Federations on 13 November. The National Federation delegates now had to make a choice between two lists at the General Assembly, either persist with the absolute zero tolerance or vote for the progressive list which allowed for the restricted use of a small number of care products. This progressive list was accepted by an ample majority vote. This decision was arrived at in a democratic manner, but for some people democracy only counts when that means that they get their own way.

"The following products are permitted on the progressive list:

"Besides these products, that have absolutely nothing to do with doping but exclusively with health care, there are three products for which strict limits were determined, because - after treatment - they leave traces in the body for a very long time (and therefore caused positive test results) without being active at all anymore (residual values). These three products are also medication not doping substances.

"In particular, butazolidin has caused a lot of resistance among many "experts", but for horses butazolidin is the same as an aspirin for people. I would have liked to know how many "drugged" people were at the General Assembly having taken an aspirin the morning of the meeting. Because that is all it is. When traces of an aspirin are found in a horse, it will be reported in the headlines of all the newspapers and magazines as doping. In the progressive list these two products (aspirin and butazolidin) are given strict limits that will prevent false positives caused by residual values. This is absolutely in the best interest of the horse but also of the rider, who until now got the shakes when the horse was tested because these products can leave traces in concentrations up to 10 decimal places. Everyone knows that they are no longer active then, but a positive result can cause an unjust witch-hunt of the sportsman/woman.

"In addition, an important aspect has been overlooked, namely that butazolidin is allowed in the USA in national competitions. The application of threshold values protects the American rider against arbitrariness. I should think that it is important that there should be one Federation with one set of doping rules that should apply to all continents and it is the role of the world Federation to take this into account. Some European Federations apparently do not know that there are also people who are living and active in the horse sport outside Europe. The third and last product for which a limit has been determined is flunixin. This product is considered by most vets as one of the better remedies against colic. If your horse was colicky shortly before the competition and was treated with this product, the excretion process would be irregular and unpredictable. That is why it was not used for sport horse and was replaced by medicines that were not as effective but that would only leave traces for a short period of time. So the competition horse often did not get the treatment it was entitled to because it could then not go to a show for weeks or even months. And remember that colic is in many cases fully comparable to belly ache in children.

"The fact that this medication can now be used within these strictly prescribed limits is a big step forwards for the horse and for giving it the health care to which it is entitled. And is that not what this is all about? In the past the moralists could not care less about how important it was for the horse. The only thing that was important was the zero option, even when this was detrimental to the horse and its right to good health care. And in many cases they did or do not even know what they are talking about. I cannot believe that the people who had to make these decisions had all received the correct training and information that is required to make a well-balanced decision. But their ignorance did not disturb them, as we often saw during the persecution of cases with positive results for Theobromine, a feed supplement that had nothing to do with doping. Nevertheless many riders were condemned, even medals were taken away, when the labs and the professionals had known for a long time that the positive tests were caused by feeding habits and had nothing to do with deliberate doping.

"The fact that Princess Haya has had the courage to submit two lists for voting proves that she is not led by rabble-rousing and false sentiments, but that she, as FEI President, knows what is going on in her sport. She has shown that she is worthy of the title of President, which has not always been the case for some Federations or their representatives. This vote was of crucial importance to the sport. It is a first step in the struggle to solve the doping problem.

"I honestly believe that everyone who has anything to do with our sport is a genuine devotee who will do anything in the interest of the horse. The witch hunts of the past few years did not have anything to do with the fight against doping and have been disastrous for the horse. Princess Haya, as an active rider, absolutely understood what was going on and has now provided the tools for setting out the difference between doping and medical treatment in black and white. It proves all the more how important it is that the President of an international sports governing body should be thoroughly knowledgeable about the sport concerned. The dull bigwigs of the past have too often shown that they wanted to have the last say, but often did not know the first thing about the issues involved.

"On behalf of the horse, thank you Princess Haya!"