All that’s gold does not glitter



Carolina Gold, a drug that was banned in February of 2012 by the USEF (U.S. Equestrian Federation), has stealthily permeated the shedrows of North American horse racing tracks.

Horse in silhouette. Photo:
Photo Credit:

In Part VI of a ”A Painful Truth” — a six-part TDN (Thoroughbred Daily News) magazine series on medication and reform in the racing industry — Dr. Mary Scollay acknowledged there was evidence that a drug called GABA, short for gamma-aminobutyric acid which is present in an injectable amino acid supplement called Carolina Gold is commonplace in Kentucky. [1]

And as anyone familiar with the NA drug culture in the racing industry can affirm, there is no doubt it is both ubiquitous and insidious.

GABA, endogenous to both horses and humans alike, is the chief inhibitory neurotransmitter that blocks impulses between nerve cells in the brain. It is believed that this confers a pain- mitigating and calming effect to conserve a horse’s energy prior to a race. [2]

GABA supplements are not new by any means. Body builders take this supplement due to its potential benefit of increasing levels of HGH (Human Growth Hormone) within the body which aids in lean muscle mass growth, reduction of fat mass and increasing bone density. Others use it to relieve pain, increase tolerance to exercise, lower blood pressure, improve mood and relieve anxiety.

Carolina Gold. Photo:
Carolina Gold. Photo:

While Carolina Gold was not initially considered a forbidden substance, what prompted the USEF to ban it, and any other product containing GABA, was principally the calming effect which “violates the spirit and intent” of the Equine Drugs and Medication Rules. The bottom line is that it is cheating.

That said, the calming effect as with the majority of “performance-enhancing drugs” isn’t the only consequence of this so-called benign supplement.

    “During recent research and administration trials involving ‘Carolina Gold,’ many adverse reactions were documented. The nature of these reactions has prompted immediate action from the USEF Equine Drugs and Medications Program.” [3]

    Some are concerned that it’s offering an unfair competitive advantage, but [the USEF] is most concerned about the welfare issues. We have seen first-hand through the administration of this drug in our research the shaking [of horses’ bodies after injection].” Other side effects, including extremely low head carriage, have been recorded.” [4]

Calming drugs have a history in many equestrian competitions. Show hunter competitions fall into this category where awards and ribbons equate to higher value horses. Moreover these horses are judged on their stable temperament, flawless execution of jumps and overall manners. Naturally a calmer horse will move more fluidly than one more temperamental who may be prone to minor and major faults such as spooking, refusal, breaking stride or late lead changes for example. Despite the fact that such behavior-modifying drugs are illegal in competition they are still employed by many.

As Dr. Steve Soule points out in his article “Carolina Gold is the Newest Face of an Old Problem”;

    “Decades ago, acepromazine was the gold standard. Then it went to reserpine and then to fluphenizine. Then it went to Dormosedan in minute quantities and then magnesium sulfate, and now GABA in Carolina Gold. There are others that have come and gone, but those are the biggest ones I remember in my time.” [5]

Acepromazine and Reserpine are tranquilizers that have dangerous side effects – lack of coordination, stumbling , decrease in blood pressure, irregular heartbeat, drop in red blood cell, colic, gastrointestinal upset and mild diarrhea that can last for days to name a few. [6]

Fluphenizine is an antipsychotic (crazy horses?) and Dormosedan is a sedative and analgesic that relieves pain, decreases heart rate, can increase blood pressure and cause abnormal heart rhythms. [7],[8]

Of these, probably the most insidious and perilous medication of all is the injectable form of magnesium sulfate – ostensibly a harmless mineral in pill form that is a popular method of calming horses.

However, as with many trainers who have no redeeming scruples other than satisfying their own rapacity, the use of injectable magnesium sulfate still prevails despite the looming danger associated with its use. These words from Matthew Lawson, who was taking over from a trainer for a small private barn in Tennessee, are alarming.

    “He told me his system of injecting magnesium sulfate solution [intravenously] to quiet a horse down or help one that maybe had a buck in him,” he added. “The way he described it to me, it was really quite horrifying. He was telling me that it had to be injected very slowly into the blood stream because if you did it too quickly, it would slow the heartbeat and cause them to die.” [9]

Again this is only a partial list of side effects. Need I say more?

What better way to elude testing positive for illegal drugs with something that has no traceable component?

Like GABA, magnesium sulfate is not a medication per se but rather a substance that occurs naturally in the horse’s body. What better way to elude testing positive for illegal drugs with something that has no traceable component?

    “As drug testing gets more and more sophisticated, efforts have moved toward compounds which have less detectable aspects to them,” said Midge Leitch, VMD, who works at the University of Pennsylvania School of Veterinary Medicine, was a former U.S. Equestrian Team veterinarian and serves on the USEF Drugs and Medications Committee.” [10]


As many scientific articles point out, GABA cannot be taken orally for it to be effective as it does not cross the blood brain barrier. Hence administration by injection. Anytime an injection is involved in medicating horse or human alike serious repercussions can occur. This is no different for Carolina Gold. Adverse reactions to GABA, used intravenously, can lead to sudden death. [11]

Why someone would use these potent drugs in competition is incomprehensible to anyone remotely concerned about the welfare of the horse and their riders. This is particularly disconcerting when it comes to putting a child at risk as in the case of hunter/jumper shows, for example, where the use of calming agents is prevalent due to the lower skill levels of young riders.

In the three days before Humble died, he had been scheduled to receive 15 separate drug treatments, including anti-inflammatories, corticosteroids and muscle relaxants, according to his medication chart. Photo: NYT.
In the three days before Humble died, he had been scheduled to receive 15 separate drug treatments, including anti-inflammatories, corticosteroids and muscle relaxants, according to his medication chart. Photo: NYT.

The sad New York Times story of the sudden death of a show pony called Humble written by Walt Bogdanich with contributions by Joe Drape in 2012 underscores some of the apprehension and inherent risks associated with these calming medications and in particular Carolina Gold. Here are some excerpts from that article. [12]

    “Besides creating an uneven playing field, some calming drugs can endanger horse and rider, and be difficult to detect in post-competition testing.”

    “A prime example: an injectable calming supplement called Carolina Gold. The federation first heard of it from competitors early in the summer of 2011, according to Dr. Stephen Schumacher, the federation’s chief veterinarian.”

    “The reason people were talking about it was because they were tired of getting beat by people using this substance,” he said. “We were also hearing reports of horses falling down.”

    “To see how Carolina Gold affected horses, federation officials injected one with the substance. The horse nearly collapsed,” Dr. Schumacher said. “It starts shaking and was really out of it. The reaction was so worrisome that the attending veterinarian refused to test it on any more horses.”

    “Dr. Alex G. Emerson, a Kentucky veterinarian who blogs about horses, wrote this year that he had long worried about Carolina Gold’s ‘narcoleptic’ effect. ‘How can half-asleep horses jumping three-foot wooden fences with a live human on their back be considered safe?’ he wrote.”

It is unknown whether Carolina Gold was responsible for the death of Humble in this unfortunate incident since a post-mortem exam only found an anti-inflammatory and a muscle relaxant though not in excessive amounts and no illegal drugs. However the intensive regimen of medications administered to him the week prior to the event and the conveniently disposed of syringe that delivered a final injection just before the start of the show seem to indicate drugs were a factor. [13]

Of particular note is that at that time Carolina Gold was undetectable as there was no test developed for its detection. Since this time the federation has developed a test yet some continue to attempt to beat the system — faithful to cheating in the pursuit of glory and greed.

On no account a pretty picture but typical of the pervasive drug use in the majority of equestrian sporting events. Unlike the common misconception that racing is the only villain in the illicit use of medications to enhance performance, reality proves otherwise.

“When morality comes up against profit, it is seldom that profit loses.” ~ Shirley Chisholm

It comes as no surprise that the use of Carolina Gold on the track has a crafty relationship with Lasix . . .

Getting back to racing. It comes as no surprise that the use of Carolina Gold on the track has a crafty relationship with Lasix (now known as Salix). Perhaps not from the traditional standpoint but rather from a timing aspect. [14]

What a convenient coincidence that furosemide is typically administered within four hours of a race together with the fact that the effects of GABA usually wear off after three or four hours. Perfect. By conserving the horse’s energy prior to a race along with its pain-mitigating properties the GABA in Carolina Gold provides a tempting method to enhance performance during the actual race itself.

Moreover since it is a naturally occurring substance within the body and the fact that it is relatively quickly eliminated from the horse’s system it is inherently difficult to detect an administration four hours prior to race time. And of course the diuretic action of Lasix may further enhance concealment of any traces of GABA. There is also the question of the accuracy of the test methods used for its detection.

According to Attorney Alan Foreman, chairman of the Thoroughbred Horsemen’s Association and Dr. Scollay:

    “Foreman and Scollay said from a testing perspective, the difficulty comes in establishing the normal level of the amino acid in a horse, and then setting an accurate threshold level.” [15]

Indeed laboratory testing has in fact produced different results. Dr. George Maylin at Cornell University and Dr. Tom Lomangino at the USEF testing laboratory tested GABA levels in racehorses and pleasure horses respectively.

    “The levels of the amino acid were substantially lower in the pleasure horses. “Was that due to treatment (administration of GABA in racehorses) or because there were methodological differences in the testing?” said Sams, who agreed with Scollay and Foreman that establishing the naturally occurring level in a horse is the primary challenge to testing.” [16]

What is interesting about the use of “Carolina Gold” in the case of racehorses is that Kentucky horsemen were and undoubtedly are still hiding its use behind Lasix. When Kentucky switched from private vets to state-employed vets for the administration of Lasix on race day, the concentration of Lasix in post-race samples dropped 30%. [17]

According to Scollay the private veterinarians were consistently giving Lasix much closer to the start of the race meaning the rules had been compromised in favor of cheating and the degree of compliance was lacking prior to state regulation. With this came the disappearance of certain “murkier” drugs from post-race testing. [18] Whether the use of Carolina Gold in racing has abated is questionable given the inconsistency of accurate testing and its ability to be masked by endogenous GABA concentrations in the plasma.

    “Kentucky horsemen had bitterly contested the change to state regulation. It only came into practice after an overriding vote from Governor Steve Beshear. Scollay now believes the reasons for the fight are clear. “It really wasn’t about Lasix but all this other stuff,” she said. (The president of the Kentucky HBPA did not return several messages seeking comment.)” [19]

No surprise there. Speaks volumes about the racing industry’s integrity doesn’t it?

[1] at
[2] Ibid
[4] at
[7] at
[9] at
[10] Ibid
[12] / at
[13] Ibid
[15] Ibid
[16] Ibid
[17] at
[18] Ibid
[19] Ibid


© Int’l Fund for Horses

5 thoughts on “All that’s gold does not glitter”

  1. When harmful drugs are given at any horse event to any horse it becomes a criminal action !!!!! Said perpetrator is a criminal and should be punished , by jail and never to have or own a horse or horses or any other animal !!!!!!!


  2. Excellent article!

    Drugging your horse with illegal (or even simply harmful) substances is cheating. Period. You do not deserve to win if you have to resort to a chemical edge. Just ask Lance Armstrong. Every time I read about another fallen horse due to being injected with performance enhancing drugs I cringe and think when will this stop? No matter how thorough any committee tries to police this abuse (and yes, it is abuse) it has to begin with individual owners deciding to be responsible and do right by their own horses. Don’t blame an industry — blame the owners who choose to do this to their horses.


    1. Thank you Lahle. Jane always does a magnificent job.

      I agree about the owners. Trainers usually take all the heat. Owners often claim they do not know what the trainers are giving their horses. Well, when they get a huge drug bill that should tell them something. Or perhaps it is all just lumped in with their veterinary care bill. If it is not itemized, they should get it itemized. Owners and trainers are part of the industry who seem to question little to nothing. They think drug testing is the answer. That just keeps proving they have a serious problem. And on it goes. When you have top trainers with numerous violations and then put them in the industry’s Hall of Fame, well … enough said really.


  3. I have one word to say here and that is greed. Drugs like this is the reason that a horse will drop dead after a race.


  4. Honestly, how in the world can you even call this a “sport”. Drugged animals are not something that anyone should be proud of ever. If you win a ribbon, and you have manipulated your animal in anyway using drugs to become a recipient of that award, you should be disbarred, I don’t care if it is an aspirin. It is truly spine chilling to think that giving animals any drug to enhance performance is cowardly, and something I certainly would have no problem stating evoquically as “abuse”. A level playing field is certainly something that this group of individuals feel is not something they are able to do in order to win “fair and square”. Shameful, truly shameful. Can you imagine if this was done to any other animal in the world, what the outrage would be? Clearly, this animal is not an important one, as Shirley Chisholm eloquently stated: “When morality comes up against profit, it is seldom that profit loses.” ~


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