Well guys, we’re almost a week into the announcement of the USEF ban on depo and nobody has imploded yet. Whew, it was touch and go there for a while. My goodness. If the comments on the COTH facebook thread about it weren’t enough to convince you just how much credence this ban has, nothing will.
The whole depo thing is a little confusing to me, to be honest. It was never on the prohibited substances list before, but the drug rule is:
Any product is prohibited if it contains an ingredient that is a
prohibited substance, or is a drug which might affect the performance
of a horse and/or pony as a stimulant, depressant, tranquilizer,
analgesic, local anesthetic, psychotropic (mood and/or behavior
altering) substance, or might interfere with drug testing procedures.
The USEF provides a common list of prohibited substances, however,
the number of substances that potentially affect the performance of a
horse are too numerous to list.
Considering that everyone says they were using depo to help horses “even out their moods” or “make them easier to handle”, it was technically already prohibited for that purpose. Just not expressly prohibited and testable as illegal. Of course, Perfect Prep would also fall under the psychotropic category IMO, and they have been a friggin sponsor for USHJA. That one has always really confused me, but that’s a rabbit trail for another day.
So what is depo, really? It’s a human hormone that most will be familiar with:
Medroxyprogesterone acetate (MPA), also known as depot medroxyprogesterone acetate in injectable form and sold under the brand name Depo-Provera among others, is a hormonal medication of the progestin type. It is used as a method of birth control and as a part of menopausal hormone therapy.
Depo is particularly interesting due to it’s rampant misuse and the deaths attributed to it over the past couple years. I’ve never quite understood why in the world people were giving human female hormones to geldings. It makes no logical sense, unless the depo was giving some other effect outside of basic hormone therapy. Most over the year have used it in geldings to modify mood or behavior, although Depo defenders are very quick to insist that it isn’t a sedative. Technically they’re right. However:
Dr. Stephen Schumacher, DVM and chief administrator of the USEF Drugs and Medications Program, spoke about the perceived calming effect that MPA has on both mares and geldings and stallions, and the possibility that it’s related to the fact that MPA reacts with GABA receptors in the brain (much like benzodiazepines such as Valium or Xanax) to create an effect similar to tranquilizers. These receptors are very similar across mammalian species, so although the research hasn’t been done on horses specifically, it’s likely that the effect is similar to species that have been studied.
While it’s not explicitly manufactured to be a sedative or tranquilizer, in horses it certainly has the potential to work like one.
More recent studies also showed that it does not in fact have the ability to prevent ovulation in mares either, which was why most mare owners used it. Depo was a common alternative to Regu-Mate, since it’s easier to administer, but now we know that it doesn’t actually do what everyone thought it did for mares. In fact, from another article:
When MPA seems to be working better than altrenogest for mares, it’s likely because it’s working on the GABA receptors in their brains rather than preventing them from suffering the discomfort of ovulating at a show.
Basically, it’s covering up their anxiety about the discomfort, rather than actually addressing the physical issue that causes the “misbehavior” in the first place. Reading through the comments from a lot of depo users, that was a concern I had over and over again. People claiming that depo helped a horse with bad behavior, or one who didn’t like being turned out with other horses, or one who was sore, or one who was unhappy in the barn. It was concerning to me that people so often resorted to a needle in those behavioral situations, rather than looking deeper at the underlying problem. So much of what was described, particularly with the geldings who used it, sounded suspiciously like management issues.
I’m definitely not on board with giving it to geldings and stallions in any scenario, since it doesn’t make any logical sense whatsoever. I do understand, though, why people might have opted for it for mares in the past, thinking that it helped with their cycles. Of course, now we know that isn’t true at all, plus there IS a scientifically proven, USEF-compliant, FDA-approved alternative – Regu-Mate (altrenogest).
“Medroxy (depo) is probably our single most abused drug currently,” said Allen. “If we had nothing to control estrus behavior in the mare, then it would be a different question, but we do, and it’s approved, and it’s FDA approved.”
The common complaint with Regu-Mate is that it puts the humans who handle it at risk. To an extent that’s true, it IS a hormone, so you don’t want to get it on your skin. However, I’m gonna call bullshit here. I worked at a breeding farm for years and handled Regu-Mate on a daily basis for much of that time. It’s called gloves. You can even use a handy little dosing gun to make it easier to administer. It’s just… not that hard or complicated. At all. Plus it’s SO MUCH safer than depo, and it’s actually proven to work. I admittedly don’t really understand the backlash against using Regu-Mate.
Another pro-depo argument that I saw was that banning depo will mean that horses will have to be lunged a lot more, which is even worse for them than an injection. That one admittedly shocked me a bit. Especially when it came from the same people who insisted that depo isn’t a sedative. Those two points, uh… definitely don’t work together. If we find ourselves in a sport where horses either have to be lunged to death or given mood-altering drugs, either we need a different horse for the job or we need to look more closely at the sport itself. Maybe both. Excuse my language, but that is fucked up.
I have never used depo, so okay maybe I just “don’t get it”. But to be honest, we know that a) it has caused horse deaths in the past 2 years. b) it does not work in horses the way we thought it did – it does not suppress estrus. c) for horses it actually most likely works more like anti-anxiety medication. d) it can potentially cover up underlying problems. e) it was being used for mood-altering reasons. f) due to all of the above reasons, it really has no legitimate use for horses at all.
I have a hard time looking at all that and understanding why anyone would still want to use it, or advocate for it’s use as a legal substance in equestrian sports, yet it still seems to have a lot of supporters despite all those things.
Maybe this will make people take a harder look at their programs and the suitability of their horses. Or maybe they’ll just find the next best “non-testable” thing and use that instead. I don’t know. But I do think, for sure, that banning depo was the right move overall, and there’s no doubt at all that it was being heavily misused. How often are we reaching for a needle when horses are trying to tell us something?