March 2017 - Candid With Karen: Who Knows?
Written by Karen Healey
Tuesday, 28 February 2017 03:25

Will the Federation’s stiffer drug penalties curtain the cheaters?

by Karen Healey

"Who knows?”

That’s my answer to the question a lot of people have been asking about whether the United States Equestrian Federation’s aggressive stance on medication abuses will make a difference.

As most everybody knows, two prominent and very successful East Coast trainers received $24,000 and $12,000 fines in January, and were suspended from USEF competition for two years and one year, respectively. They were busted for using “GABA,” a calming agent that is on the Federation’s list of forbidden substances, on a top horse competing in Kentucky last summer.

The size and severity of the fines were definitely done to make a statement. The Federation issued news of the suspension on Jan. 11, in the middle of their annual meeting, and I must say it was the first time ever in my life that I have received an email about that kind of news. I’m not so sure that part of it was correct. It should have been published in Equestrian Magazine, where hearing committee decisions are normally published. The way they did that was really to make an example out of them.

As to whether it will help reduce the amount of medication abuses, I really don’t know. The cheaters are always two steps ahead and there are always people who will do anything and everything to try to get an edge over other competitors. You know, the trainer who did it is a good enough horseman to win without cheating. It’s just that this is the way he’s always done it.

I did like the advance notice the Federation put out regarding GABA, which is found in the product Carolina Gold. Some time ago, the Federation made it known that they were testing for it and that abusers would get nailed. At least that helps some from a deterrent standpoint.

There were some interesting discussions about other methods of curbing drug abuse during the USHJA Annual Meeting. Trying to reduce the incentives for cheating was one idea. The USHJA’s new task force on this issue will first look at what the incentives for cheating are – beyond the obvious desire to win.

Some have asked if changing judging standards might help, but I think that would be totally wrong. Nobody who is a good judge will penalize a horse that jumps a phenomenal jump, lands and plays a little bit on the landing side. If a horse looks a little in the corner, you do have to make note of it, but, as a judge, I’m not going to kill the round for it.

Author Karen Healey is one of our sport’s most accomplished teachers and coaches. She worked for George Morris in the early 70s and has carried on his teachings ever since, along the way coaching 100-plus-and-counting medal finals winners. NAJYRC medalists and international stars including Meredith Michaels-Beerbaum are among her protégés. Karen shuttered her California training barn at the end of 2015, after 34 years, and continues to work with riders in lessons, clinic and coaching at shows through Karen Healey Training. For more information, visit or e-mail Karen at This e-mail address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it . Photo: Paul Mason

I think that any horseman capable of seeing what’s good in a horse’s round would say the same. Unfortunately, there are many people with a judge’s card who can only see what’s wrong, not what’s right. Either way, I don’t think that changing the standards we are looking for in a beautiful hunter will help. There’s this idea that a horse can’t take a breath out there on course and win, and I don’t think that’s true. A horse is certainly allowed to have a pulse!

Owner Awareness

There was also a lot of talk about horse owners having little idea what medications their horse is getting and I think that is a widespread reality. Owners have a voice, for sure, both with their trainers and within the industry. I think if the owners had any idea their horses were getting illegal medications, I think 98% would say no to it, so that would help.

I’ve seen owners take extreme positions and that can backfire. I’m talking about legal medications here: NSAIDs like bute and banamine, for example. I had a customer years ago who said, “I don’t want my horse to have anything.” And I said, “Fine,” but explained to them that you are going to be at a disadvantage because every horse in the ring is getting something. I’ve seen horses whose owners have taken the no medications stance and, at the end of the day, you see that horse and my feeling is, “I think he really would like a gram of bute!”

Small NSAID doses are done for the horse’s sake: to keep him comfortable and alleviate inflammation at the end of the day. It’s no different than people taking Tylenol at the end of the day. It’s an analgesic that helps the horse feel better, but in too small a dose to mask an injury.

My thinking on some parts of this discussion have changed. Over the years, there’s been a lot of talk about legalizing small doses of the tranquilizer, acepromazine. At one point many years ago, I was all for that. I believed that a quarter CC of “ace” was better than “LTD,” “lunge ‘til dead,” on the basis that it’s kinder to the horse. But, I’ve since grown to believe that that levels the sport’s playing field in a bad way. It allows non-trainers and non-horsemen to be on the same level as those of us who learned to train horses without that. There are people who could never do that. By using illegal meds, someone who’s not a very good trainer can win and move up in the sport.

I don’t know if anything is going to curb abuse by certain professionals. I think there are certain people who are arrogant and think they are above the law or that it doesn’t apply to them. I am fully in favor of anything and everything that makes the sport more transparent and if these stiffer fines and public “shaming” serve that end, then I’m behind them.