Understanding and Appreciating Horses.
Equine Behavior, Equitation Science, Horse Culture.
Dr Sid teaches equine behavior at Equine Guelph. He gives presentations with horses regarding their nature and behaviour. Primarily, Dr Gustafson represents the health and welfare of racehorses across America.
The white horse emerged late last year representing promise to restore a limping game; a new age of clean racing, race-day-medication-free racing; but the white horse hung coming down the lane. Too much Lasix, it seems; resulting in an inability to hold sway.
American trainers and their attending veterinarians remain unwilling to sacrifice their race-day needles just yet. They are reluctant to give up medicating racehorses before the runners head over to the paddock. Rather than educating trainers how to appropriately care for racehorse lungs and limbs as attending veterinarians should, the race-day vets continue to inject drugs, and more drugs. The more drugs attending veterinarians administer, the more they are paid. The only fees attending veterinarians generate are fees for administering medication. Attending veterinarians are paid in direct proportion to the drugs they administer.
One can easily see how that may sway their opinion regarding drugs, and their decisions to administer drugs to racehorses. There are no veterinary fees for consults or advice on the backside. Herein lies a significant part of the medication problem. Attending veterinarians have failed to learn how to charge for medical consults. To give the advice to let a horse run clean is to not be paid for anything, although it is often the best advice a veterinarian could give to a trainer regarding a champion runner. To be able to deliver sound horsemanship advice and be eligible to be willingly paid for his knowledge and professional acumen, an attending vet needs to appreciate the true nature of horses and learn how to manage bleeding and unsoundness in more appropriate, less pharmaceutical, fashions. When attending veterinarians come to understand as much about equine behavior and welfare as they know about manipulating horses with drugs, life will begin to improve for horses.
It is simply not good form to go after horses with needles and drugs before they race. It is not fair. It is not right. It is not medically or morally appropriate. It has been demonstrated to be a practice that is harmful to horses, a practice that when allowed is applied to virtually all horses rather than horses in need, regardless of their limb and lung health. To medicate nearly every horse who races in America with bute and Lasix is not the practice of veterinary medicine, but rather some sort of medication sham. Veterinarians should know better. As has long been suspected in ethical racing jurisdictions around the world, medicating racehorses on race day has proved to be an inappropriate and unethical practice, not to be allowed, much less tolerated. The regulators of racing in the 1960s had it right. No drugs allowed, no doping whatsoever permitted, regardless of the dope or the doper. The results of race-day medication will always be the same: rogue winners, rogue losers, more medical issues incited than resolved, more deterioration of the horses and the sport, shorter careers, more fragility, and more breakdowns. More public concern and scrutiny.
It has long been public knowledge that horse racing requires strident antidoping regulations and enforcement. It is becoming increasingly evident that the attending veterinarians are the people who require intense monitoring. Once entrusted with the health and welfare of racehorses afforded by their professional standing and education, they can no longer be counted upon to practice right by the horse. Racehorses and drugs have had a long, albeit dangerous, marriage, and the attending veterinarians have been the ministers of the nefarious relationship.
To relentlessly medicate racehorses, rather than to nurture and care for them properly in accord with their long-evolved nature, has resulted in tragedy reaching to the very top of the American horseracing game. The more medication horses are given, the less carefully their natural needs and tendencies are tended to, and the more fragile they become.
Rather than drugs, appropriate care and horsemanship are the keys to appropriately manage bleeding and unsoundness in horses. Racing was originally designed to be drug free, and that clean-running notion of ethical regulation holds to this day. It is generally accepted by most welfare-progressive societies around the world that trainers and their attending veterinarians cannot be relied upon to represent the health and welfare of their horses when money and fame are to be gained by pharmaceutical manipulation of their charges. Permissible race-day drug injections have deteriorated the game considerably.
All of this year’s Derby runners are scheduled to race on Lasix, and most all of them will also get injected with the adjunct bleeder medication which the Kentucky Horse Racing Commission allows to be injected into horses before the race, the drug known as Kentucky Red, or carbazochrome. Good stuff, that Kentucky Red. If one drug is good, two must be better, or so goes the veterinary reasoning and fee structure of attending veterinarians.
In addition to pushing drugs into the Derby runners’ veins shortly before they race, the veterinarians will also be very busy injecting the horses the day before they race. Never enough vetting has become the backside mantra. In addition to the race-day cocktail the Derby runners and all the other runners on the card will be receiving before they run, most of the runners will be medicated with phenylbutazone 24 hours before the Derby, along with various other additionally permitted nonsteroidal, anti-inflammatory drugs, as well as a surfeit of other permissible medications. Most Derby horses will have a cornucopia of drugs circulating through their systems by the time they reach the starting gate, enough drugs to float a battleship, as the saying goes, drugs that allow trainers to exceed the adaptability of their racehorses.
The reality, now demonstrated worldwide, is that horses and their riders are best served to race clean. The fewer drugs the better as far as the horses’ health and welfare are concerned. The public prefers an even field, and a fair horse race. Clean racing evens the field and protects horses, riders, and horseplayers. Clean racing selects for the best horse; the most durable, soundest, best developed, best bred, and fastest horse. Clean racing allows horses to persevere and prevail over a long career of running. Clean racing allows the best horses to prevail time and again, to win the Triple Crown.
Across the oceans, clean runners are currently competing more safely than the drug-addled American horses. Foreign runners break down less, and bleed little, if any, more than the heavily medicated American horses. Everywhere but in America, bleeding and soundness are managed with horsemanship and appropriate husbandry as bleeding and unsoundness should be managed. The correlation between race-day drug use and breakdowns has become painfully evident. The more drugs a jurisdiction permits to be administered to horses, the more breakdowns the horses racing in the jurisdiction experience. The time to ban race-day drugs is now. Horses cannot speak, file lawsuits, or tweet, therefore much of the medication abuse of racehorses in veterinary hands goes unnoticed as unreported, excepting, of course those abuses so prevalent and overwhelming that they require reporting by those news outlets genuinely concerned about the health and welfare of racehorses.
Next time, I’ll deliver another rousing sermon from my rabbit hole in the infield: how to race and win without Lasix, and to race and win again, and then win one more time. It is no coincidence that there has not been a Triple Crown winner since Lasix started sapping the vigor and durability out of champion runners in America. The times they are a changin’ for the better for horses, thanks to those who have the creative cause to step forth and take a stand for the health and welfare of Equus caballus.
Sid Gustafson, D.V.M., is a novelist and equine veterinarian specializing in thoroughbred sports medicine and equine behavior. He currently practices regulatory veterinary medicine, representing the safety and welfare of thoroughbred racehorses.