Last August, the National Reining Horse Association (NRHA) board approved a substantially improved medication control policy effective from June this year. But stakeholders were stunned when simultaneously, the board announced it would allow administration of 0.5 cc romifidine, a sedative and analgesic that is the active ingredient of Sedivet, 30 minutes before the competition.

Romifidine is not FDA-approved and so can only be obtained in the US from a compounder. According to the American Association of Equine Practitioners (AAEP), it can also reduce signs of lameness 30 minutes after administration. This has obvious safety and welfare risks, while being “performance enhancing and an affront to the spirit of fair competition.”
The NRHA is now showing signs of second thoughts over its controversial decision after numerous petitions and letters landed at their Oklahoma City headquarters following the initial furor last fall.

US reining legend Carol Rose said it was the “very worst thing she could ever imagine happening – where have the true horsemen and horsewomen gone?” World Horse Welfare said tolerance of romifidine, banned in all other horse sports, was “as outrageous as it is wrong… the NRHA should consider how the current decision is seen by the wider public and the negative impact this will undoubtedly have on reining’s social licence.”

Over the winter, the NRHA board kept quiet on the matter while social media raged on. One global online survey by Francesca Sternberg, the last reiner to sit on the FEI athletes’ committee, returned a 98% vote against romifidine from bona fide NRHA members.

It then emerged that USEF has quit operating NRHA’s sampling programme in protest at the romifidine decision, leaving NRHA to find new contractors with only a few months to go.

New NRHA president Mark Blake recently announced further consultation of members after stating the pushback “weighs heavily” on him – and that was before the Run for a Million qualifier at the Cactus Reining Classic in Arizona (happening March 25) announced its own tough ‘no drugs’ policy. Cactus specifically highlights zero tolerance of Sedivet, which some have interpreted as a public calling-out of the new rule. The stance of the world’s richest event is difficult to ignore because Run for a Million was devised by Taylor Sheridan, co-creator of the Paramount drama Yellowstone which has introduced millions of viewers to reining. (The Cactus Reining Classic will use licensed veterinarians to test all top 10-placed horses, sending the samples to a NRHA-designated laboratory.)

Reining in the sport’s US heartland returns the largest percentage of prohibited substance positives – 10% – in horse sport worldwide. Sanctions are generally regarded as weak.

A NRHA spokesman told it was “working on a plan” to contract alternate testing teams. “We have been using a laboratory separate from USEF for some time. For over a decade, we’ve managed with a contracted team and labs in Europe.” They hope their relationship with USEF can one day be renewed.

Meanwhile, Blake acknowledged the pushback in an open letter last month. In a short period of time, he has distributed a questionnaire which invites comment on horse welfare policies and set up a welfare taskforce. NRHA recently confirmed that the romifidine allowance will not apply to European affiliates, where there has been opposition and confusion.

Blake said the NRHA ought to apprise itself of what is happening in the wider equestrian industry. “We need to work harder on being proactive so that we can be best prepared. This [welfare taskforce] will be responsible for helping to review statistics, rules, policies, and procedures and bring forward recommendations to the board as needed.” A NRHA spokesman added the survey will “drive these foundational conversations, especially those with a high level of consensus and strong feedback,” though no specific timeline is mentioned.

Last year it fell to previous NRHA president Rick Clark to explain that board opinions ranged from having no medication policy at all to zero tolerance. The only way to get the main anti-doping changes voted in was by compromising on romifidine. Clark will not allow it on his own 30 horses.

The AEEP view

The AEEP has not publicly issued any instruction to its 9,300 member vets, but says it goes against guidelines to administer romifidine at a competition. Thirty minutes after being administered romifidine, 80% of horses can still show signs of mild to moderate sedation; signs of lameness are significantly decreased; they may have impaired coordination for up to an hour; and a diminished response to painful stimuli and other signs of sedation for up to two hours.

AAEP said this “presents a safety and welfare risk to both the horse and rider, including masking a lameness that could become worse with riding, or results in the horse tripping and injuring him/herself and the rider. The analgesic effects of this drug furthermore can be considered performance enhancing and an affront to the spirit of fair competition.”

No FDA-approved form of romifidine is manufactured in the US. Sedivet was previously manufactured but now is only available in Canada and Europe. A compounded medication can only be used in the US when no equivalent FDA-approved medication is available. AEEP reminded NRHA of “disastrous” consequences of drugs obtained from unregulated compounders, notably the 21 polo pony deaths in Florida in 2009.

How is romifidine justified by reiners?

Riders in other disciplines would generally think it odd to use sedatives close to competition. However, reining horses are not as controlled through the bit as classically trained horses. While the reining community is largely opposed to sedatives, there remains a cohort of riders who feel that a more relaxed horse will attain the high level of accuracy necessary to achieve winning scores.

NRHA did not provide a direct reply to questions from about the welfare or clinical justification for romifidine. A spokesman said: “Although the policy now provides an allowance for its use, the philosophy is not to condone it for the long-term, nor suggest that members begin its use, but to move to a policy that does not allow it.

“To that end, the amount allowed is a very small amount that can be administered as chosen by the rider and owner, but not any sooner than 30 minutes prior to competition to give time to evaluate the horse for any reactions, as with any administered medication.

“Both rider and owner must sign the romifidine declaration and the prescribing veterinarian must be listed. This was an important part of the discussion, that both parties be aware, be in agreement and acknowledge the use, dosage and timing prior to competition. This ensures the horses are being treated in the way the owner feels is appropriate and that the rider is aware, as well, if they have any concerns.”

All other short-acting tranquilizers, sedatives and antihypertensives cannot be used within 92 hours of show time.
Asked by if alternatives to romifidine with less or no analgesic effect were considered, NRHA responded: “Several experts were consulted to investigate options and the pros/cons of each. One of our sister organizations allows the use of another sedative, but the consensus of our conversations was to provide an allowance for only one substance, and romifidine was more widely accepted.”

Asked by what will happen when a veterinarian refuses to administer romifidine shortly before competition because it goes against AEEP guidelines, the NRHA spokesman said that if reiners wish to “utilize that option, it is their responsibility to select their own veterinarian and work with them.” Failing to submit a declaration form will result in “proper penalties.”

In 2021, the FEI axed reining as a discipline. This was primarily due to conflicting policies and governance issues with NRHA and the American Quarter Horse Association, although differing medication control policies were also a stumbling block.

Over the last five years, sampling at NRHA events in the US has returned 10% positives compared with 0.7% at NRHA shows in Europe and an average 1.5% across the FEI range of other equestrian sports.

NRHA has also been notable for not publicising disciplinary findings, which Clark said rarely extend beyond a letter or an “insignificant” fine. The new policy ramps up sanctions; more serious or repeat offenders will now be named, though otherwise punished by substantial fines rather than the lengthy suspensions associated with FEI and other WADA-aligned sports.