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Hypersensitivity issue leaves riders scratching their heads

Canada's Tiffany Foster rides Victor during the equestrian individual jumping first qualifier in Greenwich Park at the London 2012 Olympic Games August 4, 2012.


At her first Olympics, Tiffany Foster felt the sting of the hypersensitivity issue in show jumping.

Her mount, Victor, was disqualified before the second qualifying round on Sunday in London, because he failed a hypersensitivity test.

The test is meant to weed out inhumane practices of rapping or blistering a horse's legs to get them to jump higher in the ring. The practice is considered a form of performance enhancement.

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Years ago, horsemen would have a spotter rap the horse's legs as it cleared a jump in warmup sessions, with the thought that the horse would be more careful the next time, in the ring, when it counted. Putting abrasive substances inside a horse's leg bandages would do the same.

A hypersensitivity ruling does not always imply that a rider or horsemen is guilty of mishandling the horse because sensitivity can be caused by natural means. The FEI admits that hypersensitivity is a subjective condition. The clinical examination is considered more important than the thermography test to determine heat in a horse's legs.

At the 2008 Olympics, Irish rider Denis Lynch was suspended just before the individual final after his horse tested positive for capsaicin, used for pain-relieving properties. But it's also a derivative of chili peppers, which leave a burning sensation on the skin and could also be used to create an artificial hypersensitivity in a horse.

With welfare of the horse now a primary issue, the International Equestrian Federation instituted rules that allow veterinarians to take a closer look, using a thermography camera to detect hotspots on a horse's ankles or legs, or to palpate the limbs.

But in April of 2010, at the World Cup Final of showjumping, the U.S. equestrian team said the FEI went too far in disqualifying Sapphire, the mount of McLain Ward, after she had been tested for hypersensitity and cleared to compete. After she competed – and placed Ward in first place after the second round – she was tested again and banned from the competition.

The palpation test showed sensitivity on the left foreleg. But she showed responses to touch three times on 33 touches of the right foreleg, and four times in response to 24 touches to the left. U.S team veterinary, Dr. Tim Ober, said the mare's reaction was reasonable. The FEI veterinarians said she was out for the rest of the competition.

Chef d'equipe George Morris called the decision "hasty," "subjective," "arbitrary," "wispy" and "disgusting."

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At the time, no appeals were allowed, but eventually the FEI concluded that its veterinarians were incorrect to disqualify the American mare. But it was too late for Sapphire and Ward; The competition was over.

Ward said he felt that the true concept of the hypersensitivity rules was not applied at the World Cup Final. "It was to be used in extreme circumstances," he said. "This wasn't the case in my situation. I think the rules were taken out of context and misused."

Ward said he considered himself an easy target for the FEI because of his history. His father, Barney Ward, was sentenced to 33 months in prison after being found guilty of conspiring to kill four show-jumping horses for insurance money in 1996. And McLain Ward was suspended for eight months by the FEI in 1999 when stewards claim to have found plastic chips in his horse's boots at an event in Germany in 1999. Ward denies the charges, and his record has been clean since.

About 60 horses were tested in that World Cup Final, and Alex McLin, secretary-general of the FEI said that no one was singled out because of any ruling in the past. The FEI, he said, errs on the side of caution to protect the welfare of the horse.

Ward's mount, Sapphire, had helped the United States win two Olympic team gold medals in 2004 and 2008.

Since Ward's incident, the FEI has revamped its hypersensitivity testing guidelines, so that no horse can be retroactively eliminated from a competition and now an appeal to the ground jury is possible.

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Ironically, Irish rider Lynch was suspended from riding at the London Olympics, because his horses had failed hypersensitivity tests three times over the past 12 months, most recently in July.

Taking his place at Greenwich Park this week? Cian O'Connor, who had to give up his gold medal at the 2004 Olympics – Ireland's only gold medal of the Games - when his mount tested positive for a banned substance.

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