Steroids For Horses

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Remember that great movie, Electric Horseman with Robert Redford and Jane Fonda? I was watching it awhile back and reflecting on the adventures of "Sonny" as he sought to take the steroid ridden stallion away from the evil money people who would drug him for a buck. He states so eloquently how Rising Star's owners drugged him so he would race, with a bowed tendon, and then wanted to retire him to stud. And he couldn't breed now, because of the steroid's in his system. So he risks his life and freedom to save the horse. Should we not do the same, albeit less dramatically?

From an August 1991 article published in Equus entitled "Good Steroid, Bad Steroids", written by Laura Hillenbrand, we find the following information: Anabolic steroids, like their therapeutic sister substances, corticosteroids, were developed more than 40 years ago. Anabolic Steroids are patterned on testosterone, the hormone principally responsible for the radical body-wide changes of male puberty, including a deepening of the voice and increases in muscle and bone mass, libido and aggression. (Corticosteroids are a totally different thing and equally as harmful in my opinion. But that's another story.)

Because they induce long-lasting, body-wide changes, anabolic steroids have been popular. Generally administered through intramuscular injections, these substances boost red blood cell count. As a result, they are useful in treating individuals whose blood factors are depressed but who show no other signs of sickness. They can speed recovery of horses suffering from illness, injury or extreme stress by maximizing protein synthesis. They can also induce a hearty appetite in a finicky animal.

Unfortunately, scientists were unable to eliminate all of the androgenic properties when formulating the steroids. As a result, these substances can confer sometimes serious side effects, which in people range from severe heart damage and violent aggression to suicidal depression. In horses we find exaggerated or even dangerous male sexual behavior and troublesome reproductive woes.

Colorado State University undertook a study beginning in late 1980 and used 48 yearling fillies. They were divided into three groups and one control group. Each group received different brands of anabolic steroids every three weeks; one group was given four times the proper dose, consistent with abusive practices. Over the course of a year, none of the treated fillies showed a single normal four day heat, all had fewer ovulations and heats than the control group, and one group never ovulated at all.

The fillies also became aggressive toward other horses and exhibited atypical, stallion like behavior. Each was observed teasing and mounting herd mates. Many of the fillies had shriveled ovaries and all displayed clitorises which were so grossly enlarged that they protruded outside the vagina. As they got older they attempted to breed them. It took them two months longer to become pregnant and once in foal, they had an extremely high 21 percent of early embryo death, compared to the control group which had none.

The Vets recommended never giving anabolic steroids to mares. They also discovered that very young horses should never have them. Some young horses given anabolics to speed growth or enhance muscle definition, never reach full size and never become fertile. Martin Simensen, DVM, the official veterinarian of the United States Equestrian Team says, "I am very strongly opposed to the use of anabolic steroids in a young horse".

Another Colorado State study, in 1982, found that stallions on anabolics experienced a shriveling of the testicles, diminished sperm production and poor semen quality. In response to rumors of young horses, especially race yearlings, being given the drug, several sport bodies, including the AQHA and a number of paramutual racing committees, have outlawed anabolics and instituted testing procedures. But other organizations, most notably the AHSA, have chosen not to specifically forbid the drugs or to test for them.

Whatever the true extent of the misuse or abuse of anabolic steroids, research has shown that these substances are of little or no utility in improving performance. The AAEP stated, "one common misconception is that a horse who has received anabolic steroids has an unfair advantage by increasing his or her natural ability. At this time there is no scientific evidence to support such a perception; however, irresponsible use of these types of drugs may contribute to this belief:"

In a normal, healthy horse, anabolic steroid therapy can give the impression that improved performance is just around the corner: his appetite increases, his muscles appear more prominent and his behavior becomes more aggressive. The fat normally found between muscles is moved elsewhere, making the muscles more noticeable and the extra feed the hungry horse consumes is squandered by the new anxieties and hypersensitivity that the hormones trigger.

Food for thought. Remember, this was 11 years ago. Think about horses you know who've been in training. Did they have these symptoms? Once again we must lock arms, and protect our horses. There are movements afoot to turn back this resolution.

DEL MAR ---- Trainer Laura de Seroux, one of the most outspoken critics of drug use in the sport of thoroughbred racing, was fined $500 by Del Mar stewards Sunday for having two horses test positive for the steroid Trenbolone.

The drug positives for Royal Copenhagen and Johnny Red Kerr occurred last month at Hollywood Park and are a Class VI violation, the second-lowest violation in the state. Trenbolone is a therapeutic steroid that can be used on horses, but the horses must be clear by the time a post-race urine sample is taken.

De Seroux, a Rancho Santa Fe resident, is the first trainer to receive a drug positive for a steroid, but she said others are soon to follow.

"Steroids are not an illegal substance in American horse racing," de Seroux said at her barn Sunday. "Apparently now they are testing for them, and it was unbeknownst to me and quite a few other trainers because the California Thoroughbred Trainers sent out a flier to everybody alerting them to the fact that several complaints have been issued by the CHRB."

Under the direction of Ingrid Fermin, the new executive director of the California Horse Racing Board, the state has adopted tougher polices on drugs, most notably the practice known as milkshaking --- giving horses a sodium bicarbonate solution to reduce fatigue. Fermin was unavailable for comment, and track stewards couldn't comment because de Seroux has 72 hours to appeal.

Mike Marten, a spokesman for the CHRB, said de Seroux "didn't cut it (the drug) off soon enough before the race."

"Why we would have a positive for steroids after all these years? I can't answer right now," Marten said.

De Seroux said the drug usually takes six to eight weeks to leave a horse's system, but the exact period hasn't been pinned down.

"They could have alerted us and given us a grace period," she said. "The CTT letter says for trainers to get with their vets and work out a safe withdrawal time, but they (the CHRB) won't give us a safe guideline as what is an acceptable level of steroids. I made the point to the stewards that the onus lies with the CHRB.

"We're not trying to get away with anything. I'm all for the movement to stiffer medication rules, but we need some warning. I certainly don't think I'm being made an example of. Mine just happens to be the first one past their desk."

De Seroux said she knew of the positive two weeks ago and realized the irony of the situation.

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