Horsemen around the world appreciate the high level of performance of our equine athletes. Horses have been selectively bred for performance for many generations, and maintaining the health and peak physical condition of these magnificent athletes involves proper training, physical therapy, rest, rehabilitation, and use of therapeutic medications.

Fuzzy old horses in snow

The use of therapeutic medication in performance horses is a complex issue.
Photo by Anne M. Eberhardt

Just like in human medicine, therapeutic medications are used to help prevent or cure medical conditions: Vaccinations and anthelmintics prevent disease and maintain health; antibiotics control and cure infections; and many proven pharmaceuticals allow veterinarians to treat disease conditions. Furthermore, newer regenerative medications show promise to help heal athletic injuries.

The use of therapeutic medications in performance horses, including racehorses, is a complex issue. Oftentimes there is more than one way to address an illness or injury, and veterinarians follow a set of practices and policies that correspond to the health needs of each horse. Therapeutic medications are closely regulated in horse racing and some other competitive disciplines, and veterinarians must follow the rules of competition. The advancement of laboratory detection to identify most any foreign substance at a very minute level has brought the topic of performance horse medication to the forefront. Blood and urine testing are very sophisticated and can detect some medications for weeks and months after administration.

The medication challenge in today's environment is to do what is right for the horse. The elimination of all medication for horses in performance training is not in the athlete's best interest. The American Association of Equine Practitioners (AAEP) believes, and best practices within veterinary medicine demonstrate, that therapeutic medications play a vital role in ensuring the health of horses. Conversely, horses should not perform on medications that are directly performance-altering or that increase the risk of injury. Certain pharmacologic agents that have no therapeutic use in the horse and have the potential to alter performance should be banned in any trace level in the performance horse. Products that have been proven to interfere with accurate post-performance testing should be strictly forbidden.

The AAEP is proactive in addressing medication challenges. Since its inception, this organization has been the source of expertise for the equine industry concerning the health and welfare of the horse. The AAEP sponsored the first-ever Racehorse Medication Summit in 2001, which led to the formation of the Racing Medication & Testing Consortium. The AAEP has developed medication recommendations for many types of performance horses, and the association is currently working on uniform recommendations for veterinarians who practice in a pari-mutuel environment. Veterinarians understand not only the important therapeutic role of medication, but also the necessity of uniform medication regulations and the continual advancement of our testing technology.

Owners, trainers, and veterinarians of performance horses are entering a new era of education and cooperation with regulatory groups to ensure the safety and well-being of our equine athletes. We must all work together to learn what is best for the horse and how to interpret the increasingly sophisticated testing that is an important part of protecting our horses from improper medicating. As advocates for the horse, veterinarians must be instrumental in the continuing evolution of sound equine medication policy and enforcement.

John S. Mitchell, DVM, of Boca Raton, Fla., was the 2010 AAEP vice president. His practice is focused on the care of Standardbred racehorses.

This was originally published in the July 2010 issue of The Horse: Your Guide To Equine Health Care.