It is a very rare thing when I am riled up enough to get out of bed at 5.15 in the morning to write about something that’s been churning around my head the whole night.
Lisa Williams (one of our best South African showjumpers) was unable to ride in the Derby this weekend because her horse, Campbell, tested positive for synephrine (a stimulant). Sounds reasonable, right?
The answer is actually no.
Synephrine doping, or feeding your horse?
In my opinion, this is a completely unreasonable decision by the FEI. In the last few months there have been a run of synephrine positives. Almost all of them are from South Africa. Why? Because our hay (teff) contains synephrine.
Synephrine is a naturally occurring plant alkaloid. It has a structure very similar to ephedrine, which has an adrenergic (increases adrenalin) effect. The effect of increasing adrenalin is to increase heart rate, blood pressure, sending more blood to the muscles and air to the lungs).
Little evidence that shows Synephrine increases performance
So it is completely correct that it has the potential to increase performance. And yet, studies in humans (as far as I know none have been done in horses) have shown little to no influence on exercise ability. A small preliminary study showed some increase in human ability to do squats. But other studies showed no improvement in lifting, cycling or sprinting. Nor did it improve strength or decrease tiredness.
So, it is almost certain that, even in medicinal doses (way, way more than the trace levels in teff and the levels detected by the FEI), synephrine would not have influenced Campbell’s performance in the Derby anyway.
Synephrine is safe if used in low doses, like that naturally found in teff
The other very valid point regarding synephrine is safety. Ephedra was banned for use in human diet supplements after some very serious adverse events, including death. Studies to date indicate that synephrine is most likely safe in commonly used dosages. And almost definitely safe when naturally occurring in food (like Campbell’s teff) in healthy individuals. (It would however be best to avoid in animals with heart problems.)
A short-sighted banning by the FEI?
The FEI in this case, took the decision to ban Campbell for two months. In my opinion, this is short sighted and unsustainable. Because:
- This substance is in our hay. It occurs naturally and there is nothing we can do about it. All of our horses, to some extent or another, will test positive for synephrine.
- In the levels in which it occurs naturally, it is safe and also extremely unlikely to have a performance enhancing effect.
- To avoid the synephrine positive, riders are opting to starve their horses. (The withdrawal time for synephrine is estimated to be 40 hours.) What do you think is more harmful for a horse – jumping a top level course with a trace amount of natural stimulant in its blood (with probably less stimulatory effect than the sugar in the same teff) or jumping a horse which has been starved for a day or two?
Setting a threshold level for Synephrine can control abuse
In my past life, before The Herbal Horse, I worked for the National Horse Racing authority in the laboratory which did the blood and urine tests for racehorses. For a substance which is naturally occurring and which no-one deliberately gives their horse for the purpose of influencing performance, a threshold level can be set. This is a quantitative level, below which it is accepted to be completely legal. In South Africa, I think we need a threshold level for synephrine.
Alkaloids in plants are usually a defence mechanism against insects. Possibly levels in South Africa and other hot countries like Mexico are higher because of a greater insect threat.
I really do believe that this is one of the cases where the FEI needs to, in the genuine interest of horse sport, re-examine their ‘one size fits all’ zero tolerance approach to prohibited substances.
Lisa Williams, if you need a biochemist horse person on your side, I’m here for you at zero cost. Let me know.