When the U.S. Equestrian Federation’s mantra of fair play and horse welfare got a double whammy in January from a mishandled drug testing process, the organization vowed to make things right and went into action on several fronts.
It was more than just embarrassing that USEF had to announce during its annual meeting that a very high- profile case against a well-known trainer and a rider accused of using a calming agent was dropped because of the problem in the federation’s own laboratory. The incident shook belief in validity of the testing that is a cornerstone of the organization’s existence, since it involves stopping the cheaters and making sure horses are not abused.
“This was a stupid mistake, and when we’re done wiping the egg off our face, we’ll be a stronger federation,” USEF President Murray Kessler vowed.
He believes the majority of members aren’t cheating.
“Most of the violations we get are people who made a mistake,” he contended.
To rectify the loss of trust, he started by appointing a task force to assess the lab. Possible conclusions include dividing the testing between the USEF lab and another facility, or even scrapping the lab based in leased quarters a few miles from USEF headquarters in Lexington, Ky. Independent assessors also are scrutinizing the lab.
“There is a lot of work going on already regarding this strategic review,” noted Tom O’Mara, the USEF board member who is heading the task force. A progress update will be given at the board’s March meeting, according to USEF Executive Director Bill Moroney, and Tom said he expects the complete review will be delivered to the board at its mid-year meeting in June.
In the meantime, Bill said today, as part of a new protocol, three individuals at the lab are now reporting directly to him. The entire USEF staff also has been reminded about the whistleblower policy that is part of the employee handbook.
“We’ve been having staff training sessions with outside experts and they incorporated that,” said Bill.
The people who do the testing at shows were “updated on the policies and procedures they need to follow,” Bill added. Stephen Schumacher, the USEF’s chief administrator of drugs and medications, held a teleconference with testing veterinarians, then went to Florida for refreshers with testing teams.
“Every business needs to continually, on a rotational basis, do an assessment of every department and every function that they do,” said Bill.
“The lab was one we hadn’t gotten to yet. This mistake made by a technician and not disclosed by the lab director in a timely manner led to the immediacy of this evaluation and assessment.”
The lab director is long gone, and the technician involved left to relocate elsewhere. Letters from Murray and Bill also went out to the membership, explaining how the situation would be rectified.
But according to Susie Schoellkopf, a stable owner who is a member of the USEF veterinary committee, people are still “furious” about what happened. She indicated some have concerns about how testing is being done.
It has been suggested that people whose horses are being tested video the procedure, and Bill noted if there is a complaint “and they took a picture or made a video, that’s great evidence. That makes it easy.” If there are several complaints, USEF will look for a pattern. Should that be found, then the organization will “need to make some changes,” Bill said.
People with first-hand knowledge of something they think is not correct procedure during testing should report it to USEF. They can contact Stephen Schumacher at (800) 633-2472, USEF General Counsel Sonja Keating at (859) 225-2045 or Emily Pratt, director of regulation (859) 225-6956.
Members also can air their concerns on any matter, from drugs to misbehavior by a licensed official or a problem involving competition standards, to integrity @usef.org. Those emails go into the legal department, which sorts where the comments need to be directed. It all can be handled confidentially.
“Usually, confidentiality is something people don’t quite understand,” Bill said.
“If you were going to report something and you told a friend and it gets out there, the federation usually gets blamed for breaching confidentiality.” The federation won’t divulge a name unless it has permission from the person making a claim. If people aren’t willing to testify, Bill said, “that will hamper our ability to prosecute or investigate something. We won’t have enough information to go any further and we’ll hit a brick wall.”
by Nancy Jaffer