What a Dep-bacle

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.

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me, reading the hundreds of comments

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. 

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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.

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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).

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“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.

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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?

15 thoughts on “What a Dep-bacle

  1. There are many layers to this. Hopefully someday soon judges will start rewarding a hunter that goes FORWARD and doesn’t actually look like it’s been sedated. Last time I checked the hunters are supposedly based on foxhunting and most of the top level hunters couldn’t even hilltop safely they are so fat and slow. And then comes horsemanship. If the person can’t ride the horse unless it has been sedated in some way or has been lunged to exhaustion, maybe they need to either learn to ride better before showing OR get a different horse. Novel ideas, really. I wish more hunter riders would go out on a few foxhunts once in their lives so they at least have an idea what their sport is based on. Plus it’s WAY funner!

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    1. I really couldn’t even get started on this aspect of the hunters because it’s why I left that world in the first place. It’s unfortunate what it’s become, because I love the premise, and I think there’s a lot of value to be found in the hunter ring for young horses especially. But… not so much in the current format. I don’t think there’s any saving it at this point, but what do I know.

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      1. I’m going to do my itty bitty part by showing my foxhunting horses in the hunters. I’m not the bestest rider, but I have a couple really lovely and talented horses and they can keep up with a first flight gallop just as well as canter nicely around a show ring. 🙂

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  2. I did use Depo back when I had a mare that would have ovulation pain. Low and behold, we noticed she was still ovulating so we moved to Regu-mate since uhhhhh, it didn’t work! But now I see gelding ponies getting depo and their owners getting weird answers as to why their ponies are getting this drug. “He’s studdish so he gets Depo”. What? You have a sassy pony that takes advantage of you at shows, he’s not studdish. But they hit him with the needle and bingo, he’s ‘better’. And now the rider is nervous to show without it so she’s freaking out over this rule. This is the epitome of a drug being abused. This ban is in the best interest of the horses and I’m so relieved to see it.

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  3. The hunters must be quaking. HITS Ocala this year should be a shit show of lunging, and hand galloping in the warm up rings, but at least the FarmVet trailer will still be able to gouge people for Perfect Prep in their pop up lol

    I don’t have any feelings towards depo per say, but I do hate Regumate. It’s just a PITA and I’ve always hating feeling like I’m forcing the horses

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    1. So if a veterinarian gives you a prescription for reserpine, and you misuse it, is that the vet’s fault too?

      I get what you’re saying, and there are vets out there who won’t write scripts for any type of compounded, non-FDA approved drug, but the truth is that if you come to them saying the horse has XYZ behavioral problem, would depo help? And said vet thinks it could (and they’re right, it probably could), they’re most likely gonna write the script. If that vet won’t then another vet probably will. Especially if it’s for a long time, many-horse client.

      Willingness to prescribe unnecessary drugs is part of the problem, sure, but definitely not even close to the largest part of the problem, IMO. I think it’s a mistake to place the blame largely on the vets when it’s the owners that are asking for it and then administering it.

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  4. I saw this hilarious powerpoint, i need to find it again, where one of the arguments FOR depo was because it ‘made the sport more accessible’

    because without it horses are dangerous and unhandleable and amateurs and juniors would have to pay for a groom to handle an otherwise risky horse. so it would make the sport more dangerous and more expensive… to get RID of depo.

    it really said that!!!!!!!!1 I couldn’t believe it. i laughed out loud. and then shed a tear because… forreal.

    I boarded at a barn that had so many of the horses on depo. I was like I think y’all have a problem here. And it’s not the horses’ ‘hormonal mood swings’.

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    1. It is CRAZY the lies people will tell themselves to reason away something they know is wrong. It’s been boggling my mind too. Totally bonkers. And I too have noticed that the barns that use it tend to have a suspicious number of horses that “need” it, which to me is a red flag that there are other issues at play.

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  5. I work at a compounding pharmacy – we stopped selling medroxyprogesterone YEARS ago for several reasons that I will not disclose here. I am a hunter rider and have NEVER used medroxy because I have been privy to the research that shows it reacts on the GABA receptors… it is cheating, and it covers up behavioral issues without fixing the cause. I will say that back in 2017, when the USHJA was considering banning medroxy, I wrote an email in support of banning it, citing research that it does not interfere with ovulation and that it works as an anti-anxiety medication and proclaiming that the welfare of my horses was the most important and that mare owners have the option of using altrenogest (I was a breeding manager for years, handled regu-mate extensively, was careful and never grew an ovary out of my forehead or anything) and that medroxy has no place in horses – mares, geldings or stallions. I received an email back from someone high up at USHJA, who I will not name, but the email essentially said that this person has been training horses and using medroxyprogesterone for years for “reasonable” purposes and was appalled that I would accuse anyone that used medroxy as not caring about the welfare of their horses and basically that I was wrong and misinformed. I was shocked but I shouldn’t have been. My horses act like horses sometimes at shows, and the reaction I get from other people ringside when they “misbehave” is ridiculous. I truly enjoy the hunters, I know I show against doped/lunged horses, and accept that although I have too notch animals, sometimes I will be out of the ribbons because my flight animal acted like a flight animal. I’m thrilled about the banning of medroxyprogesterone- it’s long overdue

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  6. I feel like Jamp would have been an entirely different horse (not in a bad way…) if we had anti anxiety meds for horses (that were also legal). I did try depo on him at one point right after he was gelded, but I didn’t notice a difference in him and took him off it. Once I heard of horses dying from it, was definitely all set with trying it again.

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  7. I considered giving Depo to my semi-retired gelding. I hadn’t done any research yet, but was thinking about something specifically to relieve his anxiety. He OBSESSES about the mares that are in the catty-corner pasture and any changes in the other two bordering pastures will put him into a non-eating, fence pacing, screaming, tail spin for about 2 weeks. New horse in one of the pastures? Sets him off. Lesson kid doesn’t properly latch a gate and the mares get out? Tail spin. There was a while that right as he settled back down, something new would happen. Ugh. Ground manners and undersaddle manners were still intact…it was just, you know, the eating and drinking and not running around in his pasture making himself lame I was trying to address. He’s been in a stall now for a while and he’s much calmer, but I prefer him to be out moving SOME, at least.

    I’m still shocked that he’s such a case when he lives in the pasture. He loves it, it’s better for his body in some ways, but it’s so hard to manage him. Maybe it’s CA pasture life (which is really just a dry lot that would be considered a paddock in other places…

    Had I completed my research, I would not have moved forward with the risks…but it was a consideration for him at one point. Not to make him more rideable, not to win ribbons, but to relieve some of his anxiety. I was happy my vet didn’t really even know about it and was reluctant to try it.

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