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  • Writer's pictureJulie Taylor

Unnerving facts

Imagine a doping test where – instead of sending the sample to an independent laboratory – the rider's own vet as well as the team vet of his or her national federation were asked to evaluate whether the horse's performance had been chemically altered. Would you trust the conclusion of such a doping test? I wouldn't. That's why I was intrigued when I got a call the other day telling me that the disciplinary board of the Danish Equestrian Federation had cleared a horse for competition on an entirely comparable basis.

This horse had not been given performance enhancing medicine. Instead, he had undergone a neurectomy. This is when the nerves to a painful part of the foot or leg are cut, leaving the area numb without the need for medication. According to the horse's owners, the procedure was not performed to get the horse back into Grand Prix showjumping, but to give him a pain free retirement. Nerving chronically lame horses is not uncommon. But a horse who has been numbed this way is – of course – not allowed to compete.

This is where it gets a bit controversial: The owners of the horse in our story were so impressed with the horse's recovery that they started riding and competing him again. A year after the operation, the horse was sound and performing very well. So his owner took him to some shows. It was felt by the rider and his veterinarian that the horse was now sound because the severe lameness from the year before had healed itself. And at the same time, the rider had no ethical qualms as a sportsman about competing the horse, because he also felt that the sensation in the horse's foot had returned completely and that the horse was therefore eligible to compete. His vet agreed.

There were others who thought otherwise. The horse's farrier of 15 years decided to report the rider to the Danish Equestrian Federation. I have spoken with the parties and they disagree about the sequence of events. The horse's owners claim they fired the farrier for other reasons and he took his revenge by shopping them in to the federation. The farrier claims he quit in protest and reported the matter because he felt the horse deserved to be retired, having won his owner a national championship and many other accolades. Whatever the reason the farrier did what he did, others did the same thing. I have spoken with a rider who told the FEI in April 2017 that the horse, Never Say Never, competed by Thomas Dresler (DEN) had undergone two neurectomies. Personally, I have only seen evidence of one so far.

The Danish Equestrian Federation initially did what any federation would. They called their veterinary consultant whose advice was to eliminate the horse from competition based on the fact that a neurectomy had been performed. Mr. Dresler was told this – and I have to say I think the federation was pretty nice to him because he had been competing a nerved horse up until then, with no evidence whatsoever (other than the opinion of himself and his veterinarian) that his horse's performance was not enhanced by the neurectomy performed. He could have done a lot worse than being told to retire his horse.

The Dreslers feel and have felt as if the most plausible scenario is the one where Never Say Never's previously debilitating caudal foot pain healed itself in 9 months while simultaneously, the effects of the neurectomy completely disappeared. They base this belief on the outcome of skin prick tests done by their own vet and, during the disciplinary investigation, by the Danish team vet as well as other vets from the same clinic.

The Dreslers further believe that, as the neurectomy was not originally performed in order to mask symptoms, but simply to make the horse comfortable, it is okay to compete him now. Detractors from this view might feel it equates to giving your horse some bute in the morning because he's lame and you honestly don't want him to suffer... and then taking him to a spur-of-the-moment show in the afternoon because he seems to feel better than you ever hoped he would. Regardless of your original intent, the outcome regarding your horse's eligibility to compete would be the same.

To recap, the Danish Equestrian Federation made an administrative decision to exclude the horse based on the fact that he had a neurectomy and on the statement by its independent veterinary consultant that it would be impossible to rule out any lingering effect of the neurectomy based on skin sensitivity tests. The rider then complained about this decision to the disciplinary board. The result? The horse could keep competing because his day-to-day veterinarian and the team vet (more vets from the same clinic keep cropping up all the time, saying the same thing, so please don't consider this list exhaustive) concluded on the basis of a skin sensitivity test that the limb was in no way affected by the neurectomy. Mr. Dresler officially has the rules on his side.

This leads me back to my doping comparison. For cutting nerves to painful areas is a way to mask symptoms – just like using medication. And if an equestrian federation knew that a horse had been given a drug and they suspected that this drug was still altering the horse's performance, would they take the word of the rider's vet and team vet as objective truth? Would they say: “Hey, vet and team vet and team vet's colleagues from the same clinic. We think your client's horse might be doped. Do us a solid and draw some samples and perform some rigorous analysis and get back to us with a verdict”?

No, of course they wouldn't because that would be completely useless. So why is such an explanation good enough in the case of nerving? I don't know. But I can see that this issue is a lot bigger than Mr. Dresler and Never Say Never and his farrier and the Danish Equestrian Federation. As one source told me: “If we can just nerve lame horses and say we did it because we love them and keep competing them as long as they have superficial skin sensitivity according to our vets, I am going to get rich. I know of at least 20 retired superstar horses with foot pain I can buy for no money. I'll just nerve them and put them back to work and sell them for a million each. If this decision holds, we're in business.”He was joking, of course. But his point stands. 

I asked the FEI what they thought about all this and – as is their habit – they just sent me a copy-pasted snippet of rules.

Hi Julie

Please see below Article 1054 of the FEI Veterinary Regulations:

Article 1054

Prohibited Methods

1. Horses are not permitted to compete:

a) with a tracheotomy/tracheostomy (i.e. a surgical opening through the skin into the trachea);

b) when they have hypersensitive or hyposensitive areas;

c) following gene doping i.e. the non-therapeutic use of cells, genes, genetic elements, or of the modulation of gene expression, having the capacity to improve performance;

d) whilst using kinesio-taping or patches in any way, however their use is permitted in the FEI stables area.

e) blood doping, or similar methods.

Okay, so horses with increased or decreased sensitivity are not eligible to compete. That's great, but as we know from previous years, that is a particularly tricky rule to enforce. Over- and under enforcement of this rule (hyper- and hypo enforcement, if you will) has led to countless scandals. And at the end of my short reply from the FEI, they even admit that they don't actually have a way of objectively measuring skin sensitivity in horses.

“The FEI is currently working with veterinary specialists to develop a method to objectively measure sensitivity in horses - should horses not have normal sensitivity, they would not be able to compete.”

As you can see, objective measurement of sensitivity is something that we're hoping will happen in the future. While the specialists are working out that particular detail, one could argue in favour of giving the benefit of the doubt to the horses by excluding the ones who have had surgery to numb their limbs, regardless of the feelings of the team vets and owners. In fact, that used to be a fairly clear rule in the FEI Veterinary Regulations:

“Horses may not compete with a tracheotomy (i.e. a surgical opening through the skin into the trachea) or after a neurectomy has been carried out.”

That's what it used to say. Your horse is nerved, you don't compete. Easy. The latest edition of the FEI Veterinary Regulations I can find with this wording is from 2009. I don't know exactly when they changed it but now it says:

"Horses are not eligible to compete when a limb, or part of a limb, is hyposensitive or hypersensitive (both of which shall constitute “abnormal limb sensitivity”). Hypersensitive limbs have an excessive or abnormal reaction to palpation. Hyposensitive limbs include any alteration in sensitivity induced by a neurectomy or chemical desensitisation for as long as the alteration in sensitivity persists."

So what has happened is that the FEI has taken a very clear definition and blurred it. At a time where veterinary medicine is making such leaps as to make it possible to nerve horses so precisely that it becomes more difficult to detect whether they have been nerved or not. And at a time when the FEI are fully aware that they don't yet have an optimal method of detecting the difference.

Why? A mean spirited, anti horse sport, tree hugging, veganhippie might say it makes sense to have unenforceable doping rules when you're trying to run a sport where a decent percentage of the horses are actually lame. A more generous soul might see this as an oversight by the FEI which will be swiftly and deftly rectified in the next edition of the Veterinary Regulations.

Nobody - not even the vets - can say whether Never Say Never has regained the full sensitivity of his leg. Perhaps he has. It is entirely possible that Mr. Dresler is in good faith. But this case highlights how unprotected horses are against abuse of this kind of surgery.  If nobody had alerted the Danish Equestrian Federation, this disciplinary issue, the outcome of which sets such a disturbing precedent, would never have happened. The equestrian federations need to step up and make it clear whether nerved horses are eligible for competition or not. Until they do, they might as well not have any doping rules at all.

However you feel about all this, a nerved horse is legally competing in the Danish Showjumping Championships this afternoon. For all I know, he's not the only one. So good luck to all competitors. May the best horse win.

Top photo by Crispin Parelius Johannessen - no relation to this story.

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