The Trouble with Raceday Medications
By Sid Gustafson, DVM
April 12, 2012
Thanks in part to the racehorse advocacy efforts by The Humane Society of the United States and the Humane Society Veterinary Medical Association, a variety of racing jurisdictions are reviewing raceday medication practices and are making advancements to support the drug-free welfare and humane care of racehorses. Raceday medications are in the process of being gradually prohibited, as are the indiscriminate and abusive use of drugs in racehorses in general. It has become clear to many that current racehorse medication practices in the United States and Canada exceed the adaptability of the racehorse, resulting in unnecessary breakdowns, injuries and even death to both horses and jockeys. Rather than drugs, it is the humane care of racehorses that supports soundness of wind and limb.
The practice of administering raceday medications is being called into question.Gina Hanf
A variety of groups have responded to the call to provide better care for racehorses. The Kentucky Horse Racing Commission invited The HSUS to testify at its raceday medication hearing in November 2011, and I provided a version of the racehorse advocacy that follows. The Interstate Horse Racing Improvement Act (H.R. 1733/S. 886) is making its way through the U.S. Congress, and is supported by several congressional representatives. Make sure your representative supports this important Act. New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo has called for an investigation of the New York Racing Association breakdowns. The New York Times is running a series of articles exposing the medication charade that has endangered horses and riders for decades in America. The Breeder’s Cup committee has banned raceday Lasix for two-year-olds competing in this year’s race1.
Drug-free racing will improve stabling, conditioning and husbandry practices for racehorses. Medication has long been a crutch that facilitates the improper care of stabled horses. Rather than alleviate medical conditions, recent data clearly demonstrates that racing medications allow people to exceed racehorse adaptability. Drug use perpetuates fragility in racehorses2. Fragility is dangerous for both horses and riders.
To appreciate the principles of equine behavior is to understand what is required to maintain pulmonary health in horses being conditioned to race who are confined to stalls, and it is not drugs. The solution to managing exercise-induced pulmonary hemorrhage (EIPH) and preventing breakdowns is appropriate breeding, development, horsemanship, training and husbandry—not drugs. The care that establishes and enhances pulmonary health and endurance in horses is the same care that enriches stabled horses’ lives. It is the same care that keeps racehorses’ musculoskeletal systems sound. It is humane care that keeps horses on their feet during races. Limb soundness and pulmonary soundness are physiologically entwined.
Horses who are bred, socialized, and developed properly from birth, and who train while living enriched stable lives, are seldom likely to experience performance-impairing EIPH while racing. They are more apt to stay sound of limb. Bleeding in a race is reflective of inadequate care and preparation, of miscalculations and untoward medication practices. Drugs and raceday medications perpetuate substandard horsemanship, artificially suppressing the untoward result (bleeding and breakdowns) of inadequate preparation of the thoroughbred. The solution to manage bleeding and prevent breakdowns in racehorses is to breed, develop, teach, train and care for horses in a horse-sensitive fashion.
Horses evolved as social grazers of the plains; group survivalists moving and grazing together much of the time. Horses require near-constant forage, friends and locomotion to maintain health of wind and limb, even if they are stabled. Racehorses are no exception. The last place a horse evolved to live is in a stall, alone, with a limited view and uncirculated air. The solution to managing racehorse health is proper horsemanship and husbandry, which is sadly lacking at today’s racetracks. Horses prefer to graze together and move nearly constantly in natural settings; to race without drugs, natural conditions have to be re-created in the stable. The equine requirement for near-constant grazing and moving is essential for joint and bone, hoof, metabolic, and pulmonary health. In order for lungs to stay healthy, horses need more movement than they are currently provided. Abundant on- and off-track locomotion is necessary to condition a horse’s lungs. To enhance pulmonary health is to enhance the horse’s entire life and outlook. Not only do properly stabled and trained horses’ lungs hold bleeding in abeyance, they hold sway and win. Pulmonary health and bleeding prevention are dependent on smooth running and biomechanically-sound locomotion.
Horses evolved in the open spaces of the Northern Hemisphere and require the cleanest, purest air to thrive and develop healthy lungs and hearts. Stable air needs to be constantly refreshed to maintain pulmonary health. Ventilation is essential, and enclosed structures are often inadequate in providing the healthy air horses require. Appropriate barn design and stabling practices maintain pulmonary health. Bedding is critical. Clean straw provides stall movement by simulating grazing. Horses stalled on straw are noted to move about with their heads down nibbling and exploring for hours, recreating nature to some degree, keeping their lungs healthy with movement, their respiratory tracts drained by all the head-down nibbling and grazing. This is not enough. For healthy lungs, horses need to get out of their stalls for hours each afternoon. Not only does near-constant movement maintain and enhance pulmonary health, abundant locomotion maintains metabolic health, joint and bone health, hoof health, and digestive health. To enhance, support and maintain lung and limb health without drugs is to enhance the overall health and soundness of the horse.
Sid Gustafson, DVM
Sid Gustafson, D.V.M., is an animal welfare advocate, educator, writer, and equine veterinarian. He teaches Equine Behavior at the University of Guelph in Ontario, Canada. He practices regulatory veterinary medicine, representing the health, safety and welfare of thoroughbred racehorses.