Written by: Kimberly French

There have been an increasing amount of cases of horses testing positive to micro-levels of methamphetamines lately. Why it’s happening – and how you can avoid becoming a victim.

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On December 30, 2015, a Shelbyville, Indiana, resident and her children were evacuated from their mobile home after the local health department reported the presence of materials from a methamphetamine lab that were still present and active in the residence. The mobile home had previously been unoccupied since November 2012 – when a drug bust had occurred.

The letter from the health department stated, “The Shelby County Health Department recently found out that you are living in a residence that was previously vacant due to the fact it was used to manufacture methamphetamine. The manufacture of meth causes a residue that coats surfaces, absorbing into porous materials and contaminating the forced air heaters/cooling (HVAC) system. If not decontaminated, the drug lab can leave toxic residue behind indefinitely.”

Despite recent reports suggesting illegal “meth” production and usage has been waning over the last several years, the substance is very chemically stable in the environment. This means it does not break down or fade away and can infiltrate materials and remain active for decades.

Why Should Horse Owners Care?

Although horses certainly do not possess the ability to ingest meth under their own power, a cluster of recent positives for the drug in equines in Ontario last October, and in the United States over the last year in several locales, has sparked interest. Questions have arisen as to whether greater sensitivity in drug testing has resulted in these positives being called as a result of ultra-trace-level environmental contamination. And where are the horses being exposed to the substances in the first place?

Three positives occurred on October 13 and 14, 2014, in Ontario, involving a trainer who purchased what turned out to be a methamphetamine-contaminated horse trailer just a day prior to shipping her horses from Michigan to Ajax Downs to compete in that facility’s Quarter Horse meet. The three horses that were shipped in the meth-affected trailer all tested positive for trace levels of that drug, while a fourth horse transported in a separate vehicle did not.

“Following a series of interviews with the trainer and her staff and considering the overall circumstances of this matter, the Ontario Racing Commission (ORC) investigators elected to take a number of samples from the trailer in which the horses in question were transported from Michigan to Toronto for methamphetamine testing, with a particular focus on the manger areas of the trailer,” states the Canadian report. “Analysis of these trailer samples showed that at least one of these samples taken from the manger area of the trailer tested positive for methamphetamine at a concentration of 22 ng/gram or 22 parts per billion. This positive finding for methamphetamine in the trailer is entirely consistent with the underlying cause of this cluster of trace urinary concentration methamphetamine identifications … since the horses spent six hours in the contaminated trailer during their journey from Michigan to Toronto while being shipped to Ajax Downs.”

It was suspected the trailer had been used as a mobile meth lab prior to being purchased by the hapless trainer. The chemical residue from production, which is extremely difficult to completely remove, entered the horses’ systems via respiration and/or ingestion during the journey.

In 2015, thoroughbred trainer Kellyn Gorder was suspended when Bourbon Warfare won a maiden race at Churchill Downs and later tested positive for meth – but not enough to “get a flea high,” according to one vet. And at Canterbury Park in Minnesota, the racing commission took similar action against trainer Mac Robertson when a positive test for meth came back for his horse Purest Form. Robertson noted that there had been some instances on the backside where people were found with the drug. He tested all 30 of his employees; two people tested positive for meth and were fired.

Dr. Clara K. Fenger of Equine Integrated Medicine in Georgetown, KY, says, “Methamphetamine adheres to the three key factors of an inadvertent environmental exposure: (1) it is a chemically stable substance that is (2) orally absorbed from the environment of a horse and (3) can appear in urine at extremely low concentrations, but such findings are indicative of nothing more than totally minuscule exposure of the animal to the substance in question. Further, the pervasiveness with which methamphetamine is used as a substance of human abuse greatly increases the likelihood that it will overlap with an unsuspecting population of horses.”

Other Ultra-Trace Hazards

Besides meth, other items on the FEI’s Equine Prohibited Substances List which fall under the human recreational drug category include cocaine, cannabis, opioids (codeine, oxycodone), dextromethorphan (antitussive), anxiolytics (ativan, lorazepam), to name just a few.

A well-publicized equine case involving cocaine took place in 2012 in the US when the show jumper Urico, ridden at the time by Mario Deslauriers, tested positive for cocaine while showing in Wellington, FL. The Dutch Warmblood gelding’s trainer, Bruce Burr, was suspended for two years, even though Urico’s positive test was likely not deliberate and instead due to contamination.

Testing laboratories now incorporate highly-sensitive Liquid Chromatography-Tandem Mass Spectrometry (LC/MS/MS) to test for methamphetamine. This has resulted in a thousand-fold or more increase in the sensitivity of testing compared with traditional ELISA testing.

Although the levels of methamphetamine discovered in the racehorses’ urine was not considered substantial enough to be referred to as anything more than a trace, the potential issue of environmental contamination under zero-tolerance policies has become a tremendous concern in horse racing and other equestrian sports. A minute amount of methamphetamine present in the environment of a horse is all that needs to be present for a horse to test positive.

This should be a wake-up call to horse owners who compete in all sports to be super-vigilant with every aspect of their horses’ care – from handling to feeding to shipping to security.

Although the levels of meth discovered in the racehorses’ urine was not considered substantial enough to be referred to as anything more than a trace, the potential issue of environmental contamination under zero-tolerance policies has become a tremendous concern in horse racing and other equestrian sports.

Humans Beware

Riders competing in FEI-sanctioned events, or anywhere they might be subjected to random drug testing, should take heed. “In the US, d-methamphetamine is FDA (Food and Drug Administration) approved for human use and is available as Desoxyn for the treatment of Attention-Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD) and other conditions,” states a Canadian research paper authored by a number of US and Canadian researchers. One of them is Ted Shults, founder and chairman of the American Association of Medical Review Officers and an expert on methamphetamine and its over-the-counter version, l-methamphetamine. The latter is available in the States in over-the-counter decongestant products such as Vicks Vapor Inhaler, in which the l-methamphetamine is identified as “levmetamfetamine.”

One high-profile human case involved Scottish ski racer Alain Baxter, whose post-race urine sample tested positive for methamphetamine after his third-place finish in the Men’s Slalom at the 2002 Winter Olympics in Salt Lake City Winter Olympics. The source of the “levmetamfetamine” was identified as a Vicks Vapor Inhaler; even with the court of arbitration acknowledging there was a valid reason for its presence and no performance advantage, Baxter was still stripped of his bronze medal.