New measures to combat the hypersensitisation of horses’ legs during major show jumping competitions were unveiled recently by the International Equestrian Federation (FEI).

The move aims to eliminate the practice in which substances applied to horses’ legs increase their sensitivity. This makes it painful for the horse to hit a show jumping pole and makes it lift its limbs higher.

“It’s very hard to know how many horses are hypersensitised,” said vet John McEwen, head of the FEI’s veterinary committee which drew up the hypersensitisation protocols.

“We suspect it’s done by a small number of riders, but just because it’s not widespread doesn’t mean it must not be eliminated.

“The work we have done on this — at the request of riders and the FEI show jumping committee — has been a slow evolution. It’s a difficult issue, but we think we’ve got it right.”

Every horse competing in a CSI, CSIO and championship from now will have its legs scanned for heat with an infrared camera — known as thermography — and be examined by two vets at the start of the competition, either after the trot-up or the first time they leave the arena.

If the horse shows a clear abnormal reaction, it will be banned from competing.
Random checks will be made throughout the show, and any horse displaying a change in temperature and/or an extremely high or low temperature in its legs, will be further examined.

If abnormal sensitivity is confirmed by the vets, and/or visible changes on the skin of the legs detected, video evidence will be recorded.

But while horses will be eliminated, riders will not be sanctioned.

“Riders have never been successfully punished [for hypersensitisation] as their level of involvement is difficult to prove,” said an FEI spokesman.

British vet Dr Andrew Higgins, chair of the FEI’s medication advisory group, set up in 2005 to look at doping issues, said: “The level of testing being introduced indicates the seriousness of the issue. We’re not pointing the finger at all top riders, but those on the circuit know who these people are, and we’re going to find them.”

Mr McEwen explained that while the types of substances being used are known, detecting them using leg swabs is difficult because they can often be washed off before FEI tests are taken.

“But even if it has been washed off, sensitivity will continue,” he said. “Looking for the product is not the way to go, it’s looking at whether the leg has been abused.”

This news story was first published in Horse & Hound (22 November, ’07)