“A study published last year in the Journal of the American Veterinary Medical Association found that horses racing on Lasix were 62% more likely to die within three days of racing than horses running without the drug.” Is this really in the best interest of our horses?
… Just because everyone is using medications, does that make it right? And is it in the best interest of my horse?”
Last month, the Pink Buckle Barrel Race was held at the Lazy E Arena in Oklahoma City, Oklahoma. Since 2018, the event has grown from $1 million in prize money to over $4 million, making the Pink Buckle the richest barrel race in the world. The Pink Buckle and other incentive barrel races have made it possible for trainers, owners and breeders to win significant amounts of money. However, as payouts have increased, so has the use of medications. With few rules and no testing in place, barrel racing has become a pharmaceutical free-for-all. While most barrel racers have accepted drug use as normal, it is hard not to wonder what implications it will have on the future of our horses and the sport.
Why Is Drug Use a Problem?
Although a number of different drugs are used for a variety of reasons, one of the most commonly used drugs in barrel racing is Lasix (furosemide). The prevalence of the use of Lasix was highlighted by a TikTok video that was posted during the Pink Buckle. Several of the top riders were asked if they run on Lasix. All answered yes. The video was probably posted with the intention of helping competitors. Many barrel racers believe that running on Lasix is beneficial for horses, but is it?
Lasix is often prescribed to prevent exercise-induced pulmonary hemorrhage (EIPH), which is commonly referred to as “bleeding.” Lasix is a diuretic. It reduces the severity of bleeding by increasing urine production and decreasing blood volume. This lowers blood pressure and the risk of pulmonary hemorrhage. While Lasix has been shown to reduce the severity of EIPH in 64% of cases (Pascoe, J. et al.), it does not stop EIPH. Furthermore, it is considered performance enhancing. Lasix also has severe negative side effects, which can include:
- Increased risk of dehydration
- Increased risk of electrolyte imbalance
- Increased risk of colic
- Increased risk of abnormal heart rhythms
- Decreased calcium absorption
- Decreased bone mineral density after prolonged use
A study published last year in the Journal of the American Veterinary Medical Association found that horses racing on Lasix were 62% more likely to die within three days of racing than horses running without the drug. Because of increased risk of injury or death, Lasix is controlled or banned in every major racing jurisdiction outside of North America. It is also controlled by the International Federation for Equestrian Sports (FEI), the global governing body for Dressage, Endurance, Eventing, Show Jumping and Driving.
Lasix is a hot-button topic, but it is not the only controlled medication or banned substance that barrel racers regularly use – it just underscores the larger problem of unchecked drug use in barrel racing. In addition to diuretics, barrel horses also run on steroids such as Dexamethasone (Dex); sedatives such as Acepromazine (Ace) and Guanabenz; and painkillers such Phenylbutazone (Bute), Flunixin (Banamine) and Firocoxib (Equioxx). Barrel racers may consider the use of these medications to be standard practice, but almost all other disciplines have chosen to control or ban these substances because of their performance enhancing qualities and/or negative health effects.
Why Are Barrel Racers Using Drugs?
Widespread drug use has been normalized in barrel racing over the past few decades. There may be many reasons for this, but the biggest is that there are no rules. Drug use is possible because barrel racing has no coherent governance. Unlike disciplines that are governed by the FEI, there are dozens of barrel racing organizations that all have different rules and regulations. The Women’s Professional Rodeo Association and the American Quarter Horse Association are the only organizations with clear-cut drug policies in place. However, drug tests are rarely performed at professional rodeos. The International Barrel Racing Association rulebook mentions the possibility of drug testing at sanctioned events, but it does not clarify which drugs are controlled or banned. The rulebooks of the National Barrel Horse Association, Better Barrel Races and Barrel Futurities of America do not mention drugs at all.
As a barrel racer myself, I have been advised to use medications on my own horses during competitions. A vet even suggested that I run my footsore horse on bute because I did not have to worry about testing at an event. But I do worry. Just because everyone is using medications, does that make it right? And is it in the best interest of my horse?
Is Drug Use In Barrel Racing Necessary?
When I started asking these types of questions, I discovered that outside of North America, barrel racers must adhere to strict FEI drug policies. Brazil is one of the countries where FEI rules are being applied to barrel racing. According to the rules in Brazil, Lasix is a controlled medication which means that it cannot be present in the horse’s body during an event without a valid veterinary form. Even with approval from a vet, it cannot exceed a quantitative threshold. Since the threshold is so low, most Brazilian barrel racers choose not to use Lasix or any other controlled medications to avoid disqualification.
Without diuretics, steroids, sedatives and painkillers, many assume that horses in Brazil must be running slower than horses in the United States. However this assumption is wrong. For the last decade, Brazilian barrel racers have held all the world records. The fastest time on a standard pattern in the United States is a 16.479 seconds. Last spring, a Brazilian barrel racer ran a 16.109 on a standard pattern. While less than four tenths of a second may not seem like a lot of time, in the context of barrel racing, Brazilians might as well be lightyears ahead of everyone else.
Barrel racing in Brazil is different in other ways, too. The horses not only run drug-free, but also there are judges present at events to ensure that horses are not injured or abused. This prohibits competitors from entering horses that are unsound. Secondly, since Brazilians cannot use drugs, their conditioning programs have become world class. Like Thoroughbred racehorses in Europe where Lasix and other drugs are illegal, Brazilian barrel horses trot and canter for long intervals. This type of low-impact, long-distance conditioning reduces the risk of EIPH, increases bone density, and strengthens tendons and ligaments. Brazilians still use supplements to prevent bleeding and joint pain, but those supplements are FEI approved and do not unfairly enhance performance. Finally, and perhaps most importantly, if a horse is suffering from EIPH or any other ailment, Brazilians must give their horses adequate time to recover.
Implications for United States Barrel Racing
In Brazil, drug rules have raised the level of competition. However, many barrel racers in the United States seem to be opposed to following their lead in adopting FEI regulations. US barrel racers claim that drug laws would reduce the number of entries and prohibit some horses from competing. While that may be true in the short term, drug rules would level the playing field. If the use of performance enhancing substances were punishable by disqualification, the sport would be more equitable for everyone. Furthermore, controlling the use of drugs with negative side effects would improve the longevity of our horses. In the long run, drug policies would benefit all competitors and horses.
With Brazil as a model, we know that sound and fit horses can run barrels — and win — without medication. Drugs are not an acceptable substitute for proper conditioning. We cannot keep taking shortcuts and making excuses. Currently, barrel racing is the unregulated wild west of the equine industry. If barrel races continue to pay as well as major horseracing and show jumping events, they should be subject to the same scrutiny by animal welfare organizations. We must raise our standards. Whether that means adopting FEI rules or creating our own, it’s time to start a discussion on how to improve the integrity of our sport.