How many people urinate in their horse’s stable? I must confess I did, occasionally, as a little kid: the stables were not at my home, and there wasn’t a bathroom at the barn. Nowadays I show more decorum! And of course it’s more of a procedure for women than for men.

This is a highly personal question, I hear you say. But I have a serious reason for asking it. Doing this can seriously kibosh someone else’s equestrian career.

This week the FEI Tribunal handed down yet another decision for a doping offence attributed to someone on heavy meds urinating in the stall during a major show. Even if your horse does not eat his bedding, simply inspecting his new straw or shavings, messing up his hay with the bedding and/or having a good sniff around a strange stable really is enough to register a positive for a prohibited substance.

The Tribunal has now registered concern about the prevalence of this kind of case. I always seem to be writing about rider vagueness/apathy/inertia over doping, but make no apology. Horses can test positive due to unfortunate events as well as by intent to cheat. The standard tariff for a banned substances offence is a two-year suspension, unless the rider can categorically prove the positive wasn’t intentional. But most riders can’t prove this, because knowing something and proving it are different things.

Seeking out the bathroom in future could be even more important, because the FEI is contemplating a further two-year extension, ie to FOUR years, under new provisions dealing with aggravating circumstances from 2021. Don’t say you haven’t been warned…!

The lenience usually shown to riders whose friends or grooms admit urinating in the stable might convey its becoming an all-too-convenient “go to” defence. In another fairly recent case, a rider blamed their horse’s positive on a guest deciding to pee in the corner of the stable before taking her VIP seat at a famous 5* venue. She was taking prescribed anti-depressants.

What a hospitality guest is doing in supposedly secure FEI stables, why she decided to squat in the straw in smart clothes, and why she couldn’t use the VIPs’ luxury facilities pose serious questions in themselves. (Hold on: she did answer the last bit: the line for the VIP bathroom was too long and she didn’t want to miss the start of the Nations Cup!)

However, this type of case mostly involves meds with no apparent benefit for horses; sometimes even the opposite. Several of the substances detected in recent years have been associated with human mental health. This poses a completely different set of questions about the pressures on stable staff in high performance sport and why some conceal their use of prescription drugs, even though contamination is such a big issue right now.

Readers might remember this case about a Swiss jumping rider whose horse tested positive for O-Desmethyltramadol, a metabolite of Tramadol, at a CSI in Morocco in 2017. She was certain it was caused by her horse being held by a stranger during the prize-giving and licking his hands. The FEI Tribunal was not convinced and imposed a two-year suspension.

It was only much later that the groom who drove the horse from Europe to Morocco admitted taking Tramadol to relieve back pain during the journey. He said he urinated in the horse compartment of the transporter, and “possibly” in the vicinity of the stable at the show. Armed with this new information, this spring the rider appealed to the Court of Arbitration for Sport and was finally exonerated. But her long spell out of competition while this case creaked through the system and her legal expenses can never be recouped.

This week’s FEI Tribunal decision involves a member of Italy’s 2018 WEG dressage team, Pierluigi Sangiorgi. At last year’s CDI-W in Lipica, Slovenia, his horse tested positive to Aripiprazole which is used in humans to treat schizophrenia, bipolar disorder, other depressive conditions, Tourette syndrome and irritability as suffered by some on the autism spectrum. It is on the FEI “banned” list for equines, so Sangiorgi faced two years out of the sport if he could not prove “no fault no negligence.”

Sangiorgi was notified of the positive at the end of August 2019. In January 2020 he advised that he had only just learned his groom was prescribed “Abilify” in January 2019. It contains Aripiprazole, and was given to treat the groom’s “severe depressive disorder.” He had taken it two to three times a day ever since. The groom “repeatedly fulfilled his physiological needs” to urinate in the stable throughout Lipica.

An expert witness said there was no doubt the “very low” concentration detected was attributable to the ingestion of contaminated hay. The FEI accepted that, and so Sangiori was not further suspended or fined. He has, though, been provisionally suspended for nearly a year, having only got round to requesting reinstatement in July 2020, pending the final Tribunal decision. Sangiori still bears his own legal costs, and his results from Lipica are disqualified.

Riders have always been “strictly liable” for whatever happens to their horses, even when it’s someone else’s fault. So it’s a change in stance if riders are not expected to know their grooms urinate in stables, or are on meds. The latter is, of course, totally the groom’s own business. Rightly, the groom in the Lipica incident has not been identified.

In handing down the decision, Tribunal said, “In the view of the Tribunal those are clearly cases which could easily be avoided if all stakeholders in equestrian sport were properly educated about the risks of this kind of contamination. The Tribunal therefore strongly encourages the FEI, as well as those expected to educate others, for example riders that are supposed to educate their Support Personnel, to re-enforce their information and education duties.”

Unfortunately, while the FEI Tribunal often makes very sensible suggestions, FEI HQ rarely follows up. We can wait for an official announcement from Lausanne about toilet protocol, but I’m not holding my breath or crossing my fingers. But I will keep crossing my legs.