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Clean Sport for Horses: FEI Drug Rules

12 min read

Horse competing at an FEI competition, must follow FEI drug rules and equine prohibited substances list

The Federation Equestre Internationale, or FEI, takes anti-doping rules extremely seriously. The main purpose of the FEI drug rules is “to preserve what is intrinsically valuable about sport. This intrinsic value is often referred to as "the spirit of sport"; it is the essence of Olympism; it is how we play true.”

Doping is fundamentally contrary to the spirit of equestrian sports and is a black mark upon the good name of equestrians everywhere. The FEI drug rules and equine prohibited substances list protects horses from abuse and works hard to maintain a level playing field free from cheating via chemical substances. Adopted in 2009, these regulations are modeled after the WADA Model Code for human athletes, but adjusted to apply to the nature of equestrian sports, which rely on the partnership of horse and rider. 

Today, the FEI drug rules play an important role in keeping both horses and riders safe from harm on the international and national stages. 

Banned vs Controlled Substances

There are three main categories of substances that the FEI regulates: banned, controlled, and specified substances. Any drug that is classified as a Banned Substance is never allowed, even with a veterinary form. These substances are dangerous to the horse and have been shown to artificially improve performance. Some Banned Substances prevent the horse from displaying lameness, while others sedate or stimulate the horse, while still others allow the horse to breathe better or grow bigger muscles. Commonly-known Banned Substances include:

  • Arsenic
  • Cannabinoids
  • Dopamine
  • Growth Hormones
  • Heroin

While Banned Substances are pretty simple to understand (i.e. not allowed, ever), Controlled Substances can be a little more confusing. Controlled Substances are drugs that have a documented medical purpose. For example, a horse with heaves may have Clenbuterol in their system, as this bronchodilator is often used to treat horses with inflammatory airway disease. This horse may still be able to compete, but in order to do so legally it must have an approved veterinary form. 

According to the FEI, “Horses with documented medical conditions requiring the Use of a Controlled Medication Substance or a Controlled Medication Method during or prior to an

Event must obtain permission for ongoing participation in accordance with the FEI Veterinary Regulations as specified therein.”

If a horse were to compete without the approved veterinary form, the horse, rider, and any personnel involved may face severe consequences, exactly as if they had competed while doping with a Banned Substance. Horse owners and trainers must be careful about the products they use when it comes to Controlled Substances, as these medications may be encountered in supplements and topicals. Commonly-known Controlled Substances include:

  • Diphenhydramine
  • Furosemide
  • Gabapentin

Last but not least, are Specified Substances. Both Controlled and Banned Substances can be listed as “specified.” When a drug is listed as a Specified Substance, this means that the horse may have encountered it in nature or through contaminated feed, unlike the other drugs on the list. The FEI has a statement about Specified Substances at the top of their equine prohibited substances list saying, “Specified Substances in the List below should not in any way be considered less important or less dangerous than other Prohibited Substances. Rather, they are simply substances which are more likely to have been ingested by Horses for a purpose other than the enhancement of sport performance, for example, through a contaminated food substance.”

In short, just because the horse is more likely to encounter these substances through non-malicious circumstances does not make these drugs any less forbidden or dangerous. 

What’s on the Banned Substances List?

The Equine Prohibited Substances List is over 35 pages long. If you’d like to see all of the drugs on the list, click here. The main categories on the list include stimulants, sedatives, anticoagulants, anabolic, nerve-blocking agents, NSAIDs, anesthetics, bronchodilators, antipsychotics, antidepressants, steroids, and more. 

When evaluating whether any product in your horse’s diet or grooming routine is banned, first stop to think about how it impacts your horse. Is it changing their behavior, i.e. calming them down? How does it impact their performance? Is it giving them an edge that they would not be able to achieve naturally, like building more muscle or increasing endurance?

Any substance that creates any of the above effects is likely to be banned. However, if you’re ever in doubt about whether or not a substance you’re using is banned, check the list before you compete. Your veterinarian is an excellent resource to rely on, as they are well-educated on the impacts of each medication. 

While the majority of equestrians would never give their horse heroin, it’s actually relatively common to find FEI Banned or Controlled Substances in topicals or supplements. For example, the popular liniment Sore-No-More contains Lobelia, which is banned by the FEI and listed on the equine prohibited substances list as Lobeline. Many calming supplements also contain ingredients like valerian, which is listed as a Controlled Substance.

When it comes to the supplements and products that you use on your horse, it’s best to follow this statement from the FEI, “Any substances which affects the performance of a horse in a calming (tranquilizing) or an energizing (stimulant) manner and which contain a Prohibited Substance are forbidden. Athletes should also be aware that the use of a calming product during competition may also have important safety consequences.”

Herbs: Not a Safe Alternative

Because the majority of equestrians are aware that many medications are on the equine prohibited substances list, they may attempt to get around the FEI drug rules by electing to give their horse certain herbs. Unfortunately, the idea that herbs are less dangerous than medications developed in a lab is woefully incorrect. 

There’s a reason why flora and fauna were the main forms of medication throughout the previous centuries– they really did work. While some herbs may have less of an acute effect on the horse, they will still impact their behavior and performance, which is, to put it plainly, cheating. 

For example, if you compare the popular sedative acepromazine to the herb valerian, of course the “ace” will have more of an acutely sedative effect on the horse, as it has been engineered to work efficiently. However, valerian will still act as a calming agent on the horse’s behavior. 

Think twice before reaching for herbs in an effort to circumvent FEI drug rules and compare all herbal supplements against the equine prohibited substances list well prior to your competition. Common herbs like valerian, chamomile, vervain, and Devil’s Claw are all prohibited from use in competition by the FEI drug rules. 

What Happens If Your Horse is Selected?

Did you know that all horses registered with the FEI, competing at an FEI event, or competing at a nationally sanctioned event are subject to random testing? Even if you know you have not broken any FEI drug rules, your heart will probably still skip a beat if your horse has been selected for testing. Understanding what happens after your horse has been selected can help you better prepare for that moment if and when it happens. 

According to the FEI drug rules, “The FEI Veterinary Department shall be responsible for overseeing all Testing conducted by the FEI. Testing may be conducted by the Testing Veterinarians, Veterinary Delegate, and/or by other qualified persons at a given Event. The Veterinary Commission/Veterinary Delegate/Testing Veterinarian in cooperation with the Ground Jury at International Events may also select Horses for Random Testing.”

All of this jargon can be a little confusing. To put it simply, let’s look at a sample scenario:

You’ve just finished your show jumping round and you’re exiting the ring, where your trainer greets you to discuss how the round went and where you can improve prior to your next ride. Suddenly, you spot an official-looking person walking up to you and your horse. After introducing themselves, you learn that your horse has been selected for random testing. They will walk with you back to your horse trailer and typically wait for a urine sample, although they may also take a blood sample. 

This sample will be shipped off to one of a number of FEI-approved laboratories where they will conduct sample analysis in accordance with the FEI standards. The number of tests performed is up to the decision of the individual National Federations. A test may be reanalyzed for research purposes or at your request if you believe the results of the tests are incorrect. However, if you request a retest, you don’t get to choose which FEI-approved laboratory it gets sent to, only that it be sent to a different laboratory than the one who originally tested the sample. An FEI-approved lab is also able to conduct repeat or additional analysis on a sample prior to notifying the “Person Responsible” (typically the horse owner, rider, or trainer). 

Proof of an equine anti-doping rule violation is established by the presence of a banned substance or its markers or metabolites in any of the horse’s samples. The test results are sent directly to the FEI from the lab in a confidential manner. If the results are positive for substances, the FEI reviews whether the findings are consistent with a Controlled Substance used with permission via a valid veterinary form, or if the findings break FEI drug rules. 

Consequences of Doping Your Horse

The consequences of doping a horse extend far beyond any one person. FEI drug rules target the Person Responsible, as well as any Support Personnel. So, for example, if a trainer wants a horse given a Banned Substance, but the groom is the one to actually apply it, both parties will face consequences. However, the FEI does say that “the inclusion of Support Personnel is in no way intended to lessen or shift the responsibility of the Person Responsible. The Person Responsible remains ultimately responsible, and thereby ultimately liable, for EADCM violations.”

Those who violated the FEI drug rules and used something from the equine prohibited substances list could be suspended provisionally prior to a full hearing. Once the rulebreakers have been provisionally suspended, the FEI will publicly identify those involved. The Person Responsible, Support Personnel, and/or the Horse involved could be provisionally suspended prior to a trial based on:

  1. An admission that a rule violation has taken place (this can be an admission by any person).
  2. A positive test result for any Substances, provided that neither is a specified substance.
  3. An involved person or horse has had a  pending EAD or ECM Rule violation or previously violated the EAD Rules in the last ten (10) years or the ECM Rules in the last four (4) years.
  4. Evidence that a violation of these rules is highly likely to have been committed by the respective Person.

If, after a fair hearing, you have been found guilty of doping your horse and breaking the FEI drug rules, the results of the competition in which you were breaking the rules are immediately disqualified. This includes the forfeit of all medals, prizes, and points. The disqualification of results could also apply to other tests and classes ridden on that day, even if the rider was someone other than the Person Responsible. 

If the Person Responsible is charged with the use or attempted use of a Controlled Substance, the standard period of ineligibility is set to six months, although this can be reduced or extended based upon extenuating circumstances such as trafficking or intimidation. Anyone who has been declared ineligible is unable to compete in any FEI or nationally sanctioned events for the entire period and is only able to return to train with a team or to use the facilities of a club or other FEI member organization towards the end of this period. A fine of up to CHF 15,000, the equivalent of $15,156, is also imposed on anyone responsible for a controlled medication violation. 

The sanctions against those who have used or attempted to use Banned Substances are much harsher than those for Controlled Substances. For the use of Banned Substances, the ineligibility period is set to a minimum of two years with the possibility of a lifetime ban depending on the severity of the violation. Fines can go up to CHF 25,000, which is the equivalent of $25261.15 US dollars.

Changes to the Equine Prohibited Substances List

It’s necessary for the FEI to provide continuous updates to the equine prohibited substances list and FEI drug rules as there are always new supplements and medications coming onto the market. For the purpose of maintaining the spirit of equestrian sport and preventing cheating in competition, the FEI revises the list at least once a year. It is then posted to the FEI website and will go into effect no sooner than 90 days after its publication. 

If you compete regularly in FEI or nationally sanctioned shows, it’s a good idea to get into the habit of checking more often than just once a year. The equine prohibited substances list can be updated at any time.

Anti-Doping Rules for Equestrians

While the equine prohibited substances list tends to get a lot of focus as the main purpose of the FEI drug rules, there are also anti-doping rules in place for equestrians, too. If you’ve never heard of these anti-doping rules, there’s most likely no need to panic as they only apply to specific riders. The FEI drug rules for equestrians apply to: 

  • In Jumping: Any Athlete who is ranked in the top 500 of the FEI Jumping World Rankings
  • In Dressage: Any Athlete who is ranked in the top 300 of the FEI Dressage World Rankings
  • In Eventing: Any Athlete who is ranked in the top 300 of the FEI Eventing World Rankings
  • In Para Dressage: Any Athlete who is ranked in the top 100 of the FEI Para Dressage World Rankings
  • In Endurance: Any Athlete who is ranked in the top 100 of the FEI Endurance World Rankings
  • In Driving: Any Athlete who is ranked in the top 100 of the FEI Driving World Rankings
  • In Vaulting: Any Athlete who is ranked in the top 100 of the FEI Vaulting World Rankings
  • In Reining: Any Athlete who is ranked in the top 100 of the FEI Reining World Rankings
  • Any Athlete who is included in either the Registered Testing Pool and/or the Testing Pool

Prohibited Substances for equestrian athletes are the exact same as those found on the World Anti-Doping Agency List. This includes:

  • Anabolic agents
  • Peptide Hormones & Growth Factors
  • Beta-2 Agonists
  • Hormone & Metabolic Modulators
  • Chemical & Physical Manipulation
  • Gene & Cell Doping
  • Stimulants
  • Narcotics
  • Cannabinoids
  • Glucocorticoids

One thing to be mindful of is that the FEI also considers associating in a professional or sport-related capacity with certain persons to violate these rules. Athletes should not associate with anyone serving a period of ineligibility under FEI rules or anyone who is not subject to FEI rules but who has been convicted or found in a criminal, disciplinary or professional proceeding to have engaged in conduct which would have constituted a violation of anti-doping rules.

Consequences of breaking these rules are serious. Violations result in immediate disqualification of all results in the competition where the athlete was found to have been doping, including forfeiture of all medals, points and prizes. The ineligibility period varies greatly, ranging between one month to a lifetime ban for serious offenses. The financial consequences are also severe, with fines listed up to CHF 15,000.

Not Just FEI 

FEI has jurisdiction over horse sports including Dressage, Combined driving, Endurance.

Eventing, Para-equestrian, Reining, Show jumping, and Equestrian vaulting. But, as all equestrians know, there are governing equestrian organizations with the power to make their own drug rules, outside of the FEI. In fact, most equine disciplines that fall outside these eight typically have their own anti-doping rules to maintain a level playing field and protect the horses from abuse. 

Most recently, the Horse Racing Integrity Act has made a splash as it was recently enacted in July 2022. Unlike the FEI, the Horse Racing Integrity Act only applies to those racing in the United States. The hot topic of conversation for the Horse Racing Integrity Act is, of course, the banned substances list. But, in reality, the Act does so much more than that. This Act also regulates the turf the horses run on, the use of the crop, programs for injury and fatality analysis, investigation and disciplinary procedures, and an evaluation and accreditation program.

Similar to FEI drug rules, the Horse Racing Integrity Act has created two different categories of limited access medication: Banned Substances and Controlled Substances. Banned substances are out and out banned for any and all use. Controlled substances have perfectly valid veterinary uses and so are not on the banned substance list, however they must be used carefully to allow enough time for the medication to fully withdraw from the horse’s system prior to the race. According to the Horse Racing Integrity Act, consequences include “lifetime bans from horse racing, disgorgement of purses, monetary fines and penalties, and changes to the order of finish in covered races.”

In short, even if you compete outside of FEI regulations, it’s important to stay on top of the drug rules for the particular competition you’re riding in. 

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