Accidental contamination is among the equestrian world’s worst nightmares: for riders, grooms and anyone who works with sporting horses, extra precautions are a necessity.

A simple pat from a hand contaminated with a banned substance can result in a horse failing an anti-doping test.

Sporting justice (or injustice)?


Contamination from hay or fodder, from the environment, from medications used by humans or from non-declared ingredients in various products: the reasons for horses failing anti-doping tests sometimes seem without end. Despite having no idea of the contamination’s origin, some riders have even been stripped of prizes or medals.

Over the past years, investigations into contamination (and doping) have increased, due, at least in part, to better detection technologies. If in 1930, laboratories were able to detect milligrams (0.00, or two zeroes after the point), today they can easily trace substances up to the zeptogram (0.021, or twenty-one zeroes after the point). In other words, a concentration of one zeptogram per millilitre equals a concentration of one per every quintillion.

In 1990 ‘exposure’, when doping was detected, and ‘efficiency’, referring to threshold values (Level), began to be discussed for substances that have a therapeutic use, with reference to EPC (Effective Plasma Concentration) and IPC (Ineffective Plasma Concentration).

Knowing the relationship between the level of concentration of a pharmaceutical drug in urine and in plasma is a prerequisite for accurate calculation of percentages in the urine itself.

Some people suggest that, when it comes to a clear case of contamination, a sample of blood or urine should not be considered positive when the level is below the Ineffective Plasma Concentration.


Administrative procedure only applicable in controlled medication cases not in banned substances.

Anyone receiving notification of an investigation into contamination involving controlled medication can choose one of two options. The first is to accept the administrative procedure. Sanctions will not be imposed but the violation will appear on the rider’s curriculum for four years.

The second option is to take the case to the FEI tribunal to prove the rider’s innocence. If this path is selected, scientific evidence must be provided (following the principle of No Fault, No Negligence) to demonstrate that no error has been made on the part of the rider or his entourage (groom, owner, etc) -- otherwise suspension may ensue.


Under the procedure for doping, pharmaceuticals or contamination, the usual principles regarding burden of proof are inverted. The tribunal is not responsible for demonstrating the rider’s guilt; it is the rider who has to prove him or herself innocent. The rider must therefore be able to show how the substance entered into the horse’s system and prove that there has been neither error nor negligence.

Most perplexing of all is that even when the FEI tribunal declares a rider innocent, prizes (cash, medals, or other) must still be returned, even in the case of involuntary human contamination. Disqualification will be pronounced in all cases.

For this reason, in some cases the athlete does not want to undergo a costly trial (involving travel expenses for lawyers, pharmacologists, veterinary surgeons and laboratory technicians), or risk suspension, however brief, even when he/she is aware that he/she could prove his/her innocence.

Apart from the psychological impact on the rider, there are other aspects which give cause for concern. On the one hand there is the law which states that even if declared innocent, the rider must return the prizes, and on the other the vet’s report which states that even if the substance isn’t active and has been caused by involuntary contamination, the rider must be subjected to investigation.

What are the labs doing?

Evolution of detection technologies for prohibited substances DEVELOPMENTS IN ANALYTICAL SENSITIVITY


Paper chromatography    milligram   0,001g

Thin layer chromatography  microgram  0,000001g

Gas chromatography   nanogram   0,0000000001g

High Performance Liquid chromatography

Tandem mass spectrometry   picogram



Mass/mass spectrometry   femtogram     0,0000000000000001g


New technologies   zeptogram    0,0000000000000000000001g

To make these concentrations more comprehensible, consider a drop of water containing a prohibited substance dropped into the water at Villeneuve at the eastern end of Lake Geneva. Traces will later be found at the west end of the same lake, in Geneva, under Mont Blanc bridge!

The paradox will come to a head shortly, when a laboratory finally detects the concentration of the atto gram order (10- 23) which corresponds to the Avogadro number limit, below which a molecule simply and physically DOES not exist!

To avoid problems, obsessive checks are necessary--but even that isn’t always enough.

Fodder is one of the principle contamination ‘vehicles’ but it’s not alone: a shower involving involuntary use of a shampoo containing a banned substance can be enough to start a doping dispute.


Riders have to plan for all possible contingencies. To protect yourself, it is important to work with reputable suppliers with excellent reputations and to use products tested by NOPS (Naturally Occurring Prohibitive Substances). Producers must guarantee that the product does not contain traces of common contaminates such as caffeine, theobromine (cacao), theophylline (tea), morphine (poppies), hyoscine (nightshade), hordenine (germinating barley), oripravine or atropine (nightshade).

Other important precautions include keeping samples of fodder and hay with corresponding packaging codes and always closing fodder bags, since prohibited substances and contaminants can more easily find their way into open sacks. For the same reason, fodder containers should always be kept scrupulously clean. What’s more, some feed stuffs or supplements contain substances not indicated on the label which may be contaminants.

Everything that is administered should be written up in each horse’s FEI Medication Logbook. It was thanks to the precise and professional management of one particular stable, including the daily registering of deliveries with bar codes for every bag, that an Olympic rider was able to prove that he was innocent.

Contamination can have diverse origins, including environmental, from other animals, or, human. The only true protection is to pay acute – at times, obsessive -- attention to every aspect of horse management and welfare.


It’s always advisable to consult local authorities to find out if the area around the stables is known for plants or flowers that contain contaminants, such as poppies, crocus or lupins.

Stables must be kept clean. In competitions, it is the rider’s right to insist on clean horse-boxes with saw-dust still in its packaging. It’s important to ensure that washing areas are spotless, too. Look out for horse shampoos and bathing products that contain caffeine, even if they are not indicated on the labels.

Substances such as Flunixin (an anti-inflammatory, analgesic and antipyretic) are at high risk of contagion: placing a horse in a box previously used by a horse in treatment with Flunixin is dangerous. The same thing applies to paddocks which, if used by horses under treatment, should not be used by healthy horses.


Members of the team, especially grooms who are using pharmaceutical products, should be extra careful to wash their hands after touching a medicinal substance, whether it’s a pill, a powder or a cream (including painkillers, creams for eczema or grazes, etc). Animals (dogs and cats) assuming medicines should not be allowed inside the stables. Urine from people or animals under medicinal treatment (anti-inflammatories, painkillers) is a strong contaminant.


It is absolutely essential that every horse should have its own log in the stables and that the horse’s name is written on the packets of any drugs administered.

Just as important is the use of individual basins for fodder, horse brushes and curry combs for each horse, both in competition and at home. When a horse is being treated, foodstuff should be prepared in a separate location to that of the healthy horses. It may seem absurd, but it’s better to make such precautions a habit than to fall into the contamination trap. Even if innocence is proven, the experience is always traumatic and leaves emotional scars that may never completely heal.

Eleonora Ottaviani, IJRC Director