Earlier this fall during a conversation with top German trainer and competitor Hubertus Schmidt, he talked about Germany’s new policy that allows for truly random testing of German competitors. “We've had lots of problems this past year in Germany, with doping issues as you know, so now we have a new system where you can get tested during training times and I think that's a very good idea. The German Federation is paying for this. All riders and horses on the team lists get checked through the year. They can come and take blood tests, not only at the show, but in between,” Schmidt said. He supports the policy, saying he has nothing to hide in his barn anyway.
The year 2009 was not necessarily the best for equestrian sports in terms of public relations. Even in the United States, where equestrian sports rarely nab news time, the Olympic doping fallout made it into mainstream media. We could blame the Germans for this negative PR, considering that it was the revelation of widespread drug use on German Olympic horses that drew this media attention. But the Germans are not alone in the misuse, both unknowingly and purposely, of drugs and medications. A good number of riders from several countries, including the U.S., were flag at the 2008 Olympics for positive drug tests.
However, it was the decision of the German Equestrian Federation last spring to disband Germany’s show jumping, eventing and dressage teams that made news around the world and brought the drug issue in equestrian sports to the fore. Caught in the doping net were such top German riders as four-time Olympic show jumping champion Ludger Beerbaum and five-time Olympic dressage champion Isabell Werth. Sönke Lauterbach, the German Federation's general secretary, explained it this way: “What else could we do?” And indeed, with major sponsors threatening to cancel their financial support of equestrian sports, what else could be done? As a result, Germany opted to start with a clean slate and made all who wished to be on the national team essentially reapply and appear before a special commission. “We've established this independent commission to give German equestrian sport a new beginning and to create a way to control the use of doping substances in the future,” Lauterbach had said.
For its part, the FEI made an effort in 2009 to address the drug issue, but seems to have taken the view that maybe a zero-tolerance ban is just a bit too strict. This past fall, its general assembly voted for a so-called "progressive list" that allows low levels of certain painkillers and anti-inflammatory drugs in a horse's system. That decision created a stir among competitors and equestrian federations around the world and the debate is still ongoing. On one side are those who feel that a complete drug ban is the only answer to protecting horses from an overuse of drugs and medications and to cleaning up the sport’s black eye. On the other side are those who argue that a total ban is not only unrealistic, but also prevents horses from getting some of the minor drugs and medications that can help them feel better, just as humans take minor painkillers and anti-inflammatory drugs to improve their quality of life.
What really is the answer to this drug debate? I don’t know, but it certainly has brought its share of unwanted media attention to equestrian sports. The Germans have come up with their own solution to the problem, but I wonder how well it would work in a country such as the U.S. Earlier this fall during a conversation with top German trainer and competitor Hubertus Schmidt, he talked about Germany’s new policy that allows for truly random testing of German competitors. It’s exactly what it sounds like – equestrian officials can show up at your farm and draw blood from your horses for a drug test.
“We've had lots of problems this past year in Germany, with doping issues as you know, so now we have a new system where you can get tested during training times and I think that's a very good idea. The German Federation is paying for this. All riders and horses on the team lists get checked through the year. They can come and take blood tests, not only at the show, but in between,” Schmidt said. He supports the policy, saying he has nothing to hide in his barn anyway. And if you ask him, he’ll tell you that it seems like a good policy to have worldwide. I should also add that Schmidt doesn’t think that dressage riders, in general, are big drug abusers and added that Werth’s situation last year was an odd case, even for her. “Isabell rode so many horses at shows and was tested so many times and nothing happened, so I don't know what happened this time. I don't think she did this to have a better test. That I believe. So, I don't think German dressage riders really do this for a better test. There was probably some other reason for the horse,” he said.
But to return to the question – is the German approach the answer worldwide? I would be curious to know how many American high performance riders would have no problem with USEF officials coming to their farms now and then for a drug test. Logistically, instituting such a policy in a country this size could be a nightmare, not to mention a tremendous cost. Such a policy approach, however, is not without models. In U.S. environmental policy, state and federal environmental officials can turn up at agricultural and industrial businesses and test for contaminates. The theory of such policies is that if people know officials can turn up any time for testing, they will be more likely to follow the environmental rules and regulations. Would the knowledge that officials could turn up any time and drug test your horse, even if the horse is just hanging out at the home barn in training, make riders think twice about the drugs and medications they use?
Obviously, being Americans, we would also consider the privacy invasion aspect of such a policy. But one could counter this with the argument courts use for politicians who complain about media invasion of their privacy – ‘If you chose to be a public official, then you accept that your life will be public.’ There are some extremely good riders in this country who have opted not to compete simply because they do not want to be exposed to the stress and scrutiny of the competitive world. So the counter argument could be that often heard in politics, which is ‘Yes, but then this is why some very good people don’t get into politics and the loss is ours.’ Might some very good riders decide the drug policies are too much and just get out? I don’t know.
I confess, I don’t have the answer to the drug issue. And my suspicion is that neither do most people involved in equestrian sports because if we had the answer, we’d solve the problem. Perhaps, to use a public policy analogy again, we sit back, watch the Germans and see how things work out for them. They could be our test case from which we learn what works and what doesn’t. U.S. states do this all the time – watch policies implemented in other states and see how they work. The only thing I am sure of is that with issues such as drug use, all sides need to keep an open mind and attempt to understand the perspectives of all involved. Drawing lines in the sand will do no one any good, particularly for the horses. I know a horsewoman who believes there is a place for drugs and uses them carefully to improve the lives of her horses and I know another who avoids drugs like the plague. And I have tremendous respect for the horsemanship of both so I can’t honestly tell you which is right. And, I would never tell you that one loves her horses more than the other.
Feel free to contact Lynndee Kemmet with comments, ideas, feedback. firstname.lastname@example.org