Lawsuit Challenges GABA
Science and Testing Protocol
Trainer Archibald Cox III of Brookway Stables in California, has filed a lawsuit against the United States Equestrian Federation (USEF), challenging a suspension in August of 2015. The USEF found Cox in violation of anti-doping rules, specifically for elevated levels of gamma-aminobutryric acid (“GABA”) in blood samples of his show horse, Cartaire.
GABA is most commonly known in the horse world as the main ingredient in the injectable calming supplement, Carolina Gold. Calming supplements are used to relieve anxiety, allowing the horse to perform without apprehension or tension. GABA occurs naturally in the body, and is endogenous to horses. When injected intravenously, inhibitory neurotransmitters are affected, dulling or blocking impulses between nerve cells in the horse’s brain. It is speculated that GABA may alter the horse’s alertness, balance, and ability to perform safely during competition.
In 2012, the USEF, as well as other governing bodies of equine competition, banned the use of any product containing GABA. It is alleged in the lawsuit, however, that at the time, there was relatively little published literature on the substance and how it affects horses’ neurological function and behavior. Cox contends that USEF relied almost exclusively on a study conducted by Dr. George Maylin, a long-time USEF consultant, to determine the naturally-occurring level of GABA in horses. Maylin concluded the threshold figure was 190 nanograms per milliliter (ng/ml). Using Dr. Maylin’s informal study, USEF set its “action level” at 190 ng/ml.
According to the Complaint, USEF officials collected blood and urine samples from Cartaire during the 2014 Blenheim Competition in Southern California, where Cox was showing the horse in the 1st Year Green Working Hunters class. USEF officials claim that Cartaire’s blood samples contained an average GABA level of 188 ng/ml. Based on USEF’s established action level, no violation would have been issued. However, based on anecdotal evidence about owners and trainers injecting smaller doses to avoid detection, USEF changed its action level from 190 ng/ml to 100 ng/ml.
Cox’s lawsuit against USEF raises several arguments. First, Cox notes that GABA is naturally occurring in horses (and humans) and that the natural or “normal” level of GABA in horses is not yet scientifically known.
Second, Cox argues that any testing for GABA is necessarily flawed because if you don’t know what the normal level of GABA is in a particular horse, how do you know if a high level was caused by a trainer or owner?
And finally, Cox argues that because there has been so little research conducted about GABA, the threshold “action level” of 100 ng/ml established by USEF is totally arbitrary.
The lawsuit was filed on December 17, 2015. USEF filed an Answer on January 13, 2016. The case is pending in New York State Court in Manhattan.