The Monday morning hangover.
Why do Americans seem so attached to pharmaceuticals? A few decades ago I pondered this question as I learned more and more about how the rest of the world ‘deals’ with their daily lives, the good, bad, and ugly.
Our culture is vastly different, and alarmingly attached to items which make life easier for us, or remove anxiety, or inhibit feelings all together. When I watch Netflix dramas about how crazy fast drug cartels were getting their product into ports and over the borders in the 60’s and infiltrating schools and streets across the country within just a few short years, I was fascinated by ease in which those cartels worked, but I also realized how long we have been accustomed to drug use because of those cartels, and how TOLERANT we have unwittingly become of the current drug culture. So many of us are constantly exposed on a continual basis and we don’t even realize it. The drugs are just there. All of the time. We read about it everywhere, we hear about it every day on the news, in our social media feeds, it never ends. Every facet of society is exposed to it in one form or another. I personally find it is really difficult to find one person in society who has never taken any form of drug or narcotic. Can you say you know someone who has never put a drug or narcotic in his/her system?
Maybe one of the biggest impacts for a lot of society was watching Lance Armstrong get caught using drugs, flat out lie about his usage, only to later admit he actually was one of the biggest abusers in sport. It was impressive. But not all that surprising. Possibly the only other country which comes close to similar habits is Russia. The weird thing about Russia, is that drug use (in the form of steroids) seems to be clearly pushed from the government on its own athletes rather than cartels from Colombia infiltrating children, which is a whole other can of worms. After watching yet another Netflix drama Icarus, I was shaken by the extent of government involvement. Maybe I should stop watching Netflix, I don’t know.
In this country, compared to others, doctors are brazen about prescribing medications for alleviating pain, or attention deficit/eating disorders and whatever other ailments out there. Prozac is a household name. In fact, there are four horses with the name of Prozac listed with the Federation. We know, or think we know, a LOT about pharmaceuticals in this country. Commercials for pharmaceuticals outnumber the amount of Starbucks stores found in this country.
Each person has his/her own interactions with drugs, and our tolerance for them has led us to become woefully abstract on what is an appropriate point of view toward them. For example, medicating dogs before travel is not an atrocity. Other countries might feel different about our acceptance of drugs, however. And while some Americans are gleefully popping Prozac or Valium, other Americans are trying to wrap their heads around losing family members to heroin and Fentanyl, and if you asked a family in Germany to discuss pot or Adderall, you would get a lot of confused and surprising looks.
Adderall was nearly impossible to obtain in Germany for many years, and Ritalin not much easier. Pot usage is not as common with high school students as it is here, and generally experimented more in college and adulthood, rather than the age of 12 or 13… Remember, many kids in Europe come HOME for lunch during school, a luxury Americans cannot seem to comprehend, like riding a bike to work. (Alcohol, on the other hand, might be a different story.) So meanwhile, back on home ground, we have to read articles like this one. https://nowtoronto.com/news/why-is-fentanyl-showing-up-in-street-drugs-/
So what does this have to do with the horses?
Well, I think it correlates immensely with culture. If you were to ask me why so many people use pharmaceuticals on horses, I would probably respond “Because they can.”
I am not entirely sure why people are so shocked, either. Drug use among horses is nothing new. We just hear about it more now because of Facebook. But the USEF did not decide last week, or even last year to start drug testing horses. Drug testing came into fruition because of a MASSIVE abuse of product in the early 70’s. Reserpine (officially developed in the 50’s) was wildly rampant in the horse show world, because we were desperately trying to SLOW EVERYTHING DOWN. We were creating divisions which exemplified poise, brilliance, and tactical coordination, on horses coming directly from a racing career. Well, how the heck do you think that worked? Think about it for a second…… It only took one person to be brilliant at Madison Square Garden on a horse six months off the track before jealous tongues started to wag. And without any strict State or Federal regulations regarding veterinary medications, Reserpine (and eventually Acepromazine) bottles started popping up in tack trunks all over the country. The prestige of winning at Madison Square garden far outweighed the risk of being caught. Long before The New York Times was publishing articles about collapsing ponies at Devon, they were publishing articles about winning at horse shows, I mean really!
If you go back and take a look at who the presenter was that year for the AHSA Medal Final, you may or may not recognize the name as being connected with something else. Yes, Dick McDevitt was closely related to the Devon Horse Show but also the person responsible for implementing the Drugs and Medication protocol within our current Federation.
Richard E. McDevitt took the helm in 1976 and began developing the regulatory structure for the Drugs and Medications program. After just two years as head of the AHSA, McDevitt met one of his greatest challenges when he approved a rule requiring that show horses be tested for reserpine, a powerful tranquilizer. His leadership paved the way for equine welfare discussion and protection for years to come. One of his greatest contributions was in his steadfast commitment to keeping a fair and just process for all cases brought before the Hearing Committee. McDevitt also established the model for individual memberships to the AHSA.
Above was taken from the history page of the US Equestrian website
Once pharmaceuticals took a stronghold on the American hunter system, the need for horsemanship skills started to slip through the cracks. Now a whole new world was opening up into which socialites could earn titles without having to do all the hard work. Many big show barns depended on these socialites to bring in business. These show barns were not interested in going to the Olympic Games. They were interested in going to the Hampton Classic. Think about how WEF gained so much popularity. A winter retreat, not exactly a gateway to the Pan-Am Games. The USET Headquarters was located in Gladstone, New Jersey, not Wellington. Winter retreats require perfectly set up horses for the weekend traveler to hop on a plane on Friday, show in the sun for a couple days, then return North. No one was really thinking about horsemanship skills, trainers were trying to appeal to their clients, and eventually horsemanship simply waned. Well, then the next generation learned from those same trainers, learned those same habits, became comfortable using needles, because that is what so many people were actually doing. Using drugs. Now this generation is seeing a return to basics over the pharmaceutical option, and is struggling with where to learn those essential tools. Pony Club was never popularized by the most influential figures on the covers of horsey magazines, and soon even the extremely knowledgable and dedicated Pony Club Organization was forced to take a seat on the struggle bus, with membership numbers falling with atrocious ferocity.
During the 80’s when Americans started discovering the discarded warmbloods in Europe and found an insanely simple use for them in the multiple Hunter rings, we went WILD for them, importing them like mad because our jobs were suddenly made even EASIER! The slow was being bred into these fabulous creatures from the getgo and we could achieve stunning results with no reserpine! Slower, steadier, creepy, crawlier canters prevailed! They could jump five times the amount of jumps without breaking like those spindly Thoroughbreds! Prices soared through the next couple of decades, further separating the gap between the wealthy and not wealthy, and we formed a society of superb competitors, but again, with fewer horsemen. The hungry, less well off candidates, often applying for working student positions just to be around the horses quickly soured to what they were witnessing happening in the show world, frowned on the constant collapsed veins, nerved feet, injected tails, dehydrated and otherwise maligned creatures taking top prizes in this country. Instead of reserpine, we were oozing painkillers into the horses because somewhere along the line, we missed how many jumps is too many jumps for a horse and never educated ourselves on longevity. Horses inherently became incredibly disposable. Those valuable working students, with loads of compassion, vanished, and were replaced with the grooms of today.
So fast forward to current day status and we see the USHJA tries to come to the rescue with the EAP program. Maybe that will hold for a few individuals, but not all. Then we also have TCP, or Trainer Certification Program…. meh. We have a Federation seemingly hell bent on instilling the fear of God into drug users at horse shows. That’s great. Members pay for that by the way. And we have hundreds of young aspiring individuals in this country with precious few role models to look up to as exemplary drug free equestrians. The winningest ever derby rider our country has ever seen is currently being ostracized in the media, and even three top Eventers are being penalized for “amphetamines” by the FEI. Some of these positive findings quite possibly could have been doctor prescribed. That thought is terrifying to me, and it has angered hundreds of people in our society. A doctor in this country who was PRESCRIBING a drug to HELP a patient has caused the World Doping Agency to freak the fuck out. Who wins here?
So yes, I think our American society is extremely conflicted in the world of pharmaceuticals. I think some people feel strongly they are HELPING the horses feel better doing these jobs we have created for them, and no science has proved otherwise. Some drugs are tolerated while others aren’t. The idea of a completely drug-free environment in the hunter world is hard for me to envision, but if that’s the goal, then yay for us, I guess.
I think this conflict started several decades ago, and will take decades more of education to resolve, and in the meantime? Our Federations will be forced to tighten the screws on horses and people alike, whether we like it or not.
If you have actually ever experienced a high from a drug, or alcohol/narcotic experience, you know firsthand that those highs can be so super fun. However, the hangover is not the same fun. It is dreadful. It hurts. It is scary. It is borderline deadly. And guess what? The drug/alcohol/narcotic is still in your system. But you feel like death warmed over. You may have peed or puked most of it out by the morning, but it is still there in your bloodstream.
When a positive hypersensitive drug appears in a horse’s system, it is likely that the administer was looking for that ‘hangover window’, not the actual high. Cocaine likely leaves a horse much like it leaves a human, painfully, and with a massive headache.
Steroids have a similar effect. Pump a horse full of steroids over the period of a month or whatever, then suddenly pull him off, and voila, you have a seriously incapacitated but beautiful looking creature to work with for a few days. Like at Derby Finals.
What happens to compassion? I am not sure what happens to love and compassion. Horse dealers are a tricky bunch. You have a few who really seem to value every moment of their horses lives, and treat them as their own children, then you have those who don’t see why horses can’t be a commodity. Our society has created these two different species, and now it will be up to you and the next generation to decide which one you would like to be, and hopefully influence those around you to choose the better path with you. Good luck to you, it is a harder and longer road toward clean living and better horsemanship. It is steeped with disappointment and fewer magazine covers, but I think, at least in my own mind, worth it to you and your animals to be that better person.