I have growing concerns with the younger generations’ quest for instant gratification, especially when it comes to the horses of our sport. Years ago, indeed for centuries, horses performed amazing endurance feats running on nothing but native grasses and grains, as did the majority of endurance riders in the beginning of our sport. Electrolyte supplementation was limited to salt blocks or granulated salt in the feed tub. Nutraceuticals were unknown and the antidotal herbal remedies were limited. In those early days of the sport the majority of riders depended on wet saddle blankets and good nutrition based on a diet of hay and oats. To be certain, there have always been those who sought to increase performance through chemistry but there was little in the way of performance enhancing drugs available that would work for the long distances required in our sport. The primary potential for drug abuse in endurance horses is and was the mediation of pain. Products that reduced pain and inflammation had the potential to allow continued use of a damaged structure to the point of irreparable harm. For that reason we have attempted to forbid their use during competition. Our hearts and voices may be in the right place but in practice I believe we have slipped into a far too permissive interpretation of the very clear intent of the AERC drug policy which begins with the following statement: 13.1.1 The purpose of this rule against the use of Prohibited Substances or Prohibited Treatments in equines during endurance rides is both to protect the equines from harm and to ensure fair competition. Endurance equines should compete under their natural abilities without the influence of any drug, medication or veterinary treatment.
I will leave it up to the reader to go to the Internet and research the many and varied definitions for “drug and medication,” but perhaps the best and most clear definition came to me from Dr. Richard Barseleau, of Tevis fame. I remember him questioning if a particular substance offered any benefit to the horse, thereby improving its performance. To paraphrase him, if the answer was yes, he deemed it a drug and declared it should be prohibited. Why would anyone want to use a substance if it did nothing to enhance performance? Of course, this is a simplistic overstatement of a very complicated subject, but it should serve to get us thinking about what we are doing.
I started endurance riding long before I considered a career in veterinary medicine, and when I graduated I was fortunate in being able to successfully handle the cases of exhaustion with relative simple and basic medications. I find that no longer to be the case, as in many instances the average endurance horse has been treated for exhaustion throughout the event. In some cases the treatment begins long before the animal ever leaves home. One cannot walk through a tack store, visit a trade show or look through an equine magazine without being touted on dozens of performance enhancing substances, most of which are “legal” according to our rules. In my opinion we have substituted the long hours of conditioning under saddle for quick fixes that have a very decided down side. Unfortunately there is no real substitute for hard work and time in almost every pursuit of life.
One of the most dangerous classes of all the performance enhancing drugs is electrolytes. Recommended by most if not all veterinarians, they are unquestionably of great value in allowing the recipient to perform at a level higher than its natural state. The important downside is that rehydration with electrolytes is the foundation treatment for exhaustion in the endurance horse. We have basically come to a point where the vast majority of horses are being treated not only during the event but also in some instances for days prior. Its not that this is necessarily a bad thing, but it does go against the foundation of the premise that “endurance equines should compete under their natural abilities without the influence of any drug, medication or veterinary treatment.”
Electrolytes are not the only sources of concern. The use of all types of homeopathic and “natural” substances and manipulations has increased dramatically over my lifetime. Far too many of them are being used to shortcut the natural healing process. It’s just not nice to fool Mother Nature. If we go back to Dr. Barseleau’s premise, we have to ask ourselves why we want to use something if it won’t enhance performance. If the answer is no, then don’t use it. If the answer is yes, you darn well better consider any contraindications or conflicts before continuing. A good example is the product Pentosan, which is becoming a frequent flier in the endurance tack room. It has been touted to me by non-professionals as a wonder drug,– able to keep horses going sound, presumably beyond what they could do without the influence of this product. Few of these riders have bothered to look at the warnings under the products website www.pentosan.com. Way down at the bottom of the page under general notes is the warning that it is contraindicated in horses with clotting defects, traumatic hemorrhage, infection, renal or hepatic failure, or within 48 hours of surgery. Hmm, lets see, we know there are electrolyte imbalances secondary to severe exercise and these imbalances along with dehydration have the potential to cause renal damage. Think this might be a problem? I don’t mean to single out this one product; I only use it as an example.
So the bottom line here is there are no easy answers to living and competing in the modern endurance world unless you want to just feed old Dobbin some good hay and oats, give him a salt block and ride at a pace that keeps within his natural ability. If you decide to go above and beyond that, you need to give some serious thought to what you are doing and the responsibility you should be shouldering. If you choose to treat your horse for inflammation and exhaustion you need to take on a heightened awareness of what is going on between your legs. If the joint and muscle health products are working as they claim and the electrolytes are doing their job, you have successfully become a lay practitioner of veterinary medicine and have now successfully enhanced the performance of your horse. When all that goes bad, don’t expect the educated Doctor of Veterinary Medicine to come up with some magic treatment that will turn your misjudgment around in short order. You have basically been competing on a drugged horse and dang well better not lie to yourself about it.