Former US Team Vet Supports Controversial New FEI Drug List

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Midge Leitch, a former U.S. equestrian team veterinarian, on Friday came out strongly in support of the newly approved drug list that has created controversy in international horse sport.

The so-called Progressive List will allow the practice of “good horsemanship, common sense and modern veterinary medicine in our approach to horse care,” she said in a statement to

Ms. Leitch, who is the staff vet in radiology at the University of Pennsylvania’s world famous New Bolton center near Philadelphia, described as “mind boggling” the effort by current U.S. team veterinarian Tim Ober and other vets in crafting the list that, she said, was a “huge step forward” in the treatment of high performance show horses.

Dr. Ober, of Gordonsville, Virginia, would not comment.

The list was approved by the International Equestrian Federation (FEI) General Assmbly in Copenhagen earlier this month, by a vote  of 53 in favor, 42 against and seven abstentions.

A review of the FEI lists was undertaken as part of high level reports on horse sports following the 2008 Olympics in which one dressage rider and five jumper riders were suspended after prohibited substances were detected in their horses.

The controversy has focused on allowances for non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs), including 8mcg/ml of phenylbutazone in plasma and serum, 750 mcg/ml in urine and up to 6.5 mcg/ml in plasma and serum of salicilyic acid, up to 500mcg/ml in plasma/serum of flunixin and allows acetycysteine/dichloracetate and isoxuprine.

Australia, Germany, Great Britain, Ireland, New Zealand, Sweden and the United States as well as several international vets and veterinary organizations and the organizers of the World Equestrian Festival CHIO in Aachen, Germany have come out against enactment of the list set for Jan. 1, 2010. A petition in English, French, Spanish and German,, on the Internet calling for the list not to be implemented had about 400 names as of Friday.

FEI President Princess Haya has stated there would be no new vote.

Midge Leitch was involved with U.S. team horses for more than 20 years including the Olympics in Atlanta and Sydney. She said she decided to issue her statement as a “concerned vet who enthusiastically supports the FEI coming into the 21st century.”

The FEI, as the governing body of Olympic equestrian sport, she said, was asked to align its doping policy with the approach used by the World Anti-Doping Agency, which coordinates and enforces medication policy in human sport. Central to policy distinguishing appropriate medication from doping is the formation of the Prohibited List of substances.

Dr. Midge Leitch.
Dr. Midge Leitch.

“When forming a Prohibited List, the question of what is and what is not performance enhancing must be considered first and was approached with the guidance of the WADA Code.

“An important observation that quickly becomes apparent is that, in human sport, policy follows the premise that NSAIDs are not considered performance enhancing. In fact, they are permitted in human sport with no restriction. The question arises as to whether NSAIDs should then be considered performance enhancing in the competition horse. The answer to this question must weigh the balance of a decision to allow NSAID use in the interest of horse welfare and must consider the demands on the equine athlete at the highest levels of competition.

“The ‘Current List’ presented to the General Assembly generally preserved the more recent historical approach of FEI medication policy and did not allow the use of any NSAID medication.

“The ‘Progressive List’ presented to the General Assembly took the position that low levels of NSAIDs are not performance enhancing in the competition horse and could be permitted when limited to the administration of a single NSAID at a low dose.

“Recognizing the significance of this question for the sport, the List Group offered two choices to the General Assembly so that National Federations could vote on the matter.

“The General Assembly vote in support of the ‘Progressive List’ indicates that the majority of National Federations believes that this change in policy represents an improvement in the level of care and concern for the welfare of the competition horse, while maintaining the integrity of clean sport.

“The ‘Progressive List’ allows the use of a low dose of one NSAID (from a choice limited to three), when administered within narrow and carefully controlled criteria, including a ban on administration within the 12 hours preceding competition. These controls of administration will be strictly enforced. That enforcement, along with strict laboratory testing already firmly in place, will ensure fair and clean sport. We now have a system within which a horse can be aided in recovery from the aches and pains associated with demanding athletic effort. This new FEI policy is strongly supported by horsemen and veterinarians who seek to maintain a high level of comfort and fitness in the horses in their care as they experience the demands of competition.

“What is good for the welfare of the horse is good for horse sport. The new FEI policy will allow treating veterinarians to provide effective supportive care and horses will benefit in terms of comfort level and general well being. The low dose of a single NSAID that the rules will now allow can in no way be considered performance enhancing.

“Finally, we will be allowed to practice good horsemanship, common sense and modern veterinary medicine in our approach to horse care.

“WADA allows unrestricted use of non-steroidal anti-inflammatory medications in human sport because these medications have been demonstrated to have no performance enhancing effects.

“The ‘Progressive List’ takes a much more conservative point of view in its severely restricted permissible levels of a single NSAID and to describe the use of NSAIDs in this manner as ‘doping’ reflects a perspective that is not in touch with the realities of current scientific information or what we ask the horse to do. It is our obligation to ensure that our horses are well cared for and the new FEI policy is a huge step forward in allowing horsemen, veterinarians included, to meet that obligation.”