A few of my horses in the foreground. My mother’s and aunt’s dolls in the background.

There’s a connection. Wait for it.

I was crazy for horses as a child. I begged for horse figurines for my birthday, read every horse book in the juvenile section of our local library before I hit adolescence and loved the smell of horse manure. “Can’t I have a pony?” Not in suburbia. I read a British book on stable management intended for adults. I correctly predicted the winner of the Kentucky Derby five years in a row.

In high school, my mother finally granted my dearest childhood wish and gave me weekly riding lessons for a few months. I was terrible. I’ve been bit, kicked, and thrown twice. The worst was the bite’s deep bruise. My last time on a horse my dismount was an embarrassment.

Even all that is not enough to ruin my passion. I still love horses, but I could never afford to keep them.

Instead, for a few decades I showed sighthounds (Afghan Hounds) and ran them in field trials through the American Sighthound Field Association (ASFA) and as one of the original people involved in founding the Canadian Sighthound Field Association (CSFA). I served on Boards. I chaired events, I designed logos, I edited newsletters.

At shows, I sometimes saw medication in tack boxes and overheard conversations about the use of various what-now-would-be-called “performance enhancing” drugs. One Afghan breeder willingly told me she had to medicate her foundation stud because otherwise he was too fearful to show. I witnessed a dog from California bite the judge who went on to give him Best of Breed—that dog is now described in almost worshipful tones by people who never actually saw him in person. In addition to problems with temperament, I knew the dirty laundry about rare eye and hip and thyroid diseases. I ran eye clinics. I read the research. I was careful breeding, and mostly didn’t.

The American Kennel Club has never been quick to address breed problems, trusting the breeders who register puppies to police themselves. (No surprise that judges were always Mrs. or Miss, no Ms. allowed when I was active.) Using drugs on show dogs was absolutely forbidden, but no one was checking. So I began to wonder about how drug abuse in show dogs might be better managed?

I cold-called the Secretary of the Oregon Racing Commission, which at that time regulated dog racing in my state as well as horse racing. This would have been in the 1980s. I had rehearsed my line: “Hello, my name is Jan Priddy, and I am writing an article about drug use in show dogs and would like to know how the state Racing Commission handles drug use in track Greyhounds.” It was a good thing I knew that line because I would repeat it several times.

The Secretary’s secretary was the first to ask, “Who are you? And who are you writing for?”

I repeated my lines, “My name is Jan Priddy, and I am writing an article about drug use in show dogs and would like to know how the state Racing Commission handles drug use in track Greyhounds” and added: “I am free-lancing.”

Almost instantly I was put on to the Secretary, who naturally asked me who I was and who I was writing for?

“My name is Jan Priddy, and I am writing an article about drug use in show dogs and would like to know how the state Racing Commission handles drug use in track Greyhounds.”

“I don’t have time to talk to you,” he said in an irritated tone. He asked me to tell him again who I was. So I did. Again.

And then curiosity got the better of him. “What are they using on show dogs?”

I named what drugs I had seen, including the one I still remember: “bute” (a steroid).

“I don’t have time to talk to you,” he said again, and then: “Why would they do that? Is there any money in showing dogs?”

“Not really. Not at all. It’s an expensive hobby, but there’s ego at stake.”

“I don’t have time to talk to you.” He said it four times, and I said my line four times, and then we talked for almost an hour while he told me how the Racing Commission monitored drug use on racing Greyhounds. He told me the drugs they could test for and the ones they hoped to be able to test for by the following racing season. He told me the drug they tolerated, even though they could test for it, because if they outlawed that drug, trainers would use another drug they could not test for. “And that one is really bad, harder on the dogs. But we once we can test for that, we’ll outlaw both.” He was optimistic about getting ahead of the curve and outlawing medication entirely in racing Greyhounds.

Win and place were tested in every single race. About once a day and without warning, every single dog in a race was tested. Once a month, on an unannounced day, all of the dogs on site—retired dogs, non-Greyhound pets, and Greyhound puppies as well as dogs currently racing, every single dog at the track—were tested. If there was any drug detected, the owner and trainer and all their dogs were banned. The wrath of god came down upon them, and I was talking to god.

By the end of our conversation, god was quite pleasant, I had learned more than I knew there was to know, including the name of the lab that did State blood testing. He offered, at any time, the use of that lab at his cost to test show dogs. I knew that was never going to happen, but I shared his optimism about a drug-free future for racing Greyhounds.

Step forward 35 or so years. I never completed writing my article, I no longer show Afghan Hounds, there is no Greyhound racing in Oregon, and 22 Thoroughbred racehorses died in the last few months in California at the track. No one wants to admit that drugging racehorses is a major contributing factor. (My friendly god was wrong to be optimistic.)

A French racehorse trainer has been arguing for a reasonable approach to drugging racehorses for a long time. Here’s a statement from over a decade ago:

“Anyone who has read any of my comments to posts or my articles will know that I believe eliminating all race-day medication and the use of steroids would be the biggest, most effective first step. Steroids bulk up a young horse’s muscles to a level that the skeleton cannot support. In France, the trainer of a horse that tests positive for steroids will lose his or her license — permanently. A ban on race-day medication of any type seems painfully obvious. If a horse needs medication, it is not fit to run. That principle governs the rules of racing in all of Europe, most of Asia and Dubai. The United States, Canada, Saudi Arabia and some South American countries allow a panoply of race-day medications from anti-inflammatory drugs, which mask pain, to lasix, the diuretic drug that some believe controls bleeding in the lungs of a racehorse.”—Gina Rarick, 2008

More recently she blames the recent racehorse deaths on a number of factors including track surface but there is still the way Americans drug our horses. Yesterday she mentioned steroids, including bute, but also this:

“Breeders need to get the highest price possible for a yearling, so in addition to corrective surgery to fix defective legs, they use steroids to add bulk and sheen, and bisphosphonates to stabilize the bone structure. But these bisphosphonates also limit new bone growth, impairing the young horse’s ability to adapt to the stresses of training and racing.”

“Once the horse has fetched that high price, there is huge pressure on American trainers to get it racing as soon as possible to cover the costs of the purchase and training fees. That means the young racehorse is treated with endless rounds of so-called therapeutic medications: phenylbutazone, known as bute, to help with the aches and pain; clenbuterol to keep the lungs clear (plus there’s that added steroidlike side effect, which keeps them eating and keeps the weight on); and the diuretic Lasix every time before fast workouts and races, ostensibly to prevent bleeding in the lungs. There is little science that says Lasix actually does that job, but quite a lot of science identifying Lasix as a performance-enhancing drug.”—2019

The danger of bisphosphonates is what caught my eye. I wondered how long horse people have been aware that the drug may suppress healing. The result is that micro-fractures or cracks in a bone don’t heal, and if too much minor damage piles up, even a minor bump can result in a disastrous fracture for an animal weighing well over a thousand pounds traveling over 55 mph. The horse breaks a leg and is put down on the spot.

[I remember when the great filly Ruffian bumped into the starting gate and after she took a misstep on the backstretch, broke a leg and was put down the same day. According to Wikipedia: “Medications such as corticosteroids for inflammation and pain management came into common use. However, while helping the horses in the short term, the increased use of medications at the track had a downside, as many more horses were raced while injured. The average number of starts per year steadily declined, though this may also be attributable to economic factors.” I was watching that race when it happened, and mostly stopped watching horseraces after Ruffian was killed.]

Here’s the leap: bisphosphonates are used to treat osteoporosis in human beings, hundreds of millions of human beings have taken this drug. It does increase bone density and studies show that reduces hip fractures. But maybe bisphosphonates are not without drawbacks. A Harvard study in 2006-2008 found that the use of bisphosphonates such as Fosamax used to build bone, might result in fracture from even a slight bump. “The researchers concluded that long-term Fosamax use is a significant risk factor for low-energy fractures of the femur.” Studies conclude, as the French horse-trainer mentions, that bisphosphonates build bone quickly but are not without their down side.

My mother was on Fosamax for a very long time, far longer than the 7 years in the Harvard study. During the years she was on that medication she broke several bones including her arm and both hips, each hip requiring replacement. She did not recover from the second hip fracture. The surgeon shattered her pelvis while trying to repair it. (I shamelessly eavesdropped on the surgeon’s conversation with Mom’s GP. He said he could not understand why her bones were so brittle.)

I have always been a milk-drinker, but I stopped cold after my second bone scan showed terrible score, and then my scores actually improved a year later after I lowered calcium in my diet? They improved again after a year on Fosamax with calcium and D, but none of this means much of anything because each scan showing deterioration or improvement was done on a different machine and bone scan machines are not normalized one against another. Each one does its own readings and has its own standards. Any decent medical advice website will warn you to be sure you are always scanned on the same machine. Even my “second opinion” emphasized that. My local hospital keeps replacing its machines and scores from one machine cannot be compared to scores from another.

And, yeah, how dumb is that? If the scans were reliable, wouldn’t they each find the same reading? But, no, they do not.

So after my most recent scan, I checked back to see what machine had been used each time. When the letter came from my GP expressing optimism that the therapy was improving my bone since my scan numbers had shown improvement, I posted her right back that the new numbers were pretty much meaningless since they came from yet another new machine.

I went off Fosamax in January after a little more than 2 years on the medication. I feel better, maybe. But maybe that’s because I am more careful about water and calcium and vitamin D? Maybe in a year or so, I will go back on the drug? I can’t be sure it’s helped me. Maybe it has, but my bone scans have each time been conducted by a different technician on a different machine, and then, each time reviewed by a different radiologist, I have little confidence and no trust. I tried at the beginning to get a second opinion about my bones before starting treatment, but all I got was a second opinion telling me Fosamax is great, not a second opinion willing to even glance at my medical records or family history. Seriously, he joked about inter-hospital rivalry, refused to look at my records, and mostly got his notes wrong.

If the doctor is making medical decisions about my health based purely on averages and not considering me as a person? I would rather have that new computerized diagnostician. And the physical literal hand-holding (which I experienced only once at another hospital)? Some local doctors all went to a seminar to learn how to pretend to care. It doesn’t mean that are better at their job. It doesn’t mean much at all, though it feels sincere.

Some doctors really do care. There is still at least one local who has not retired, but he is not in family practice anymore. None of the good ones are, it seems.

Once they find a treatment and procedure that insurance will pay for, it’s hard to let go. Statistics suggest Fosamax helps, so it must be okay. And “talk to your doctor” isn’t always an option. (My doctor prefers to lecture rather than listen to anything I might say.) Fosamax is cheap but there are far more expensive substitutes doctors keep urging me to try, just as there were for the drug my husband was on after his one blood clot. I have even less faith in options that have not been in use for decades.

I walk 45 minutes each day. I watch my diet and drink my water and rest and get my sleep and do what I can to stay healthy. I am not as prone to falling as my mother, but I have fallen without breaking a bone, and I am not having another bone scan or taking Fosamax the rest of this year. If the French trainer is correct, there will be another rash of deaths of racehorses on an American racecourse all too soon. I hope to learn from their bad experience.

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