The race for the FEI presidency

July 27, 2010

Three contenders are vying for the role of president of the International Equestrian Federation. Neil Clarkson explores the issues and examines the stakes in this high-profile contest.

» Candidates announce their teams


Princess Haya


Sven Holmberg


Henk Rottinghuis

In the internet age, the nuts and bolts of a presidential race that spans the globe can be found at the click of a mouse.

Three accomplished individuals are vying for the presidency of the International Equestrian Federation (FEI).

The incumbent of nearly four years, Princess Haya, faces a challenge from two European candidates - Swede Sven Holmberg and Dutchman Henk Rottinghuis.

The presidency will be decided at the FEI General Assembly in Chinese Taipei early in November.

The accomplishments and busy life of Princess Haya are laid out at princesshaya.net. The vision proffered by Holmberg is there for all to see at svenholmberg.com. Rottinghuis expounds his views at henkrottinghuis.org.

An avid follower of FEI politics could spend hours carefully comparing the views and policy positions of the candidates.

Rottinghuis is busy with his 100-day listening programme and has published the findings from his commissioned survey of national federations.

Holmberg has put out his 12-page manifesto, entitled "The FEI, as I see it".

The credentials of the three candidates are impressive by any definition.

Holmberg, 65, who is FEI first vice-president, is a highly respected judge and administrator at the highest levels of the sport.

His professional career has centred around IT and company management. He is now an independent computer and management consultant.

Rottinghuis, 54, has held senior management roles in multi-national companies. He was an accomplished dressage rider and was pivotal in steering the Dutch Equestrian Federation through change which saw the amalgamation of 16 groups into a single national organisation.

Princess Haya, who is married to the ruler of Dubai, Sheikh Mohammed Bin Rashid Al Maktoum, can boast an impressive list of sporting and humanitarian achievements.

She has arguably carved out a higher profile for the FEI presidency than any of her predecessors. The 36-year-old has worked hard in her role and has been unwavering in her determination to ensure the global reach of equestrian sport.


"I would pursue good governance in the belief that we need to meet the needs of a modern sport in a modern world - one that demands democracy and transparency." - Henk Rottinghuis

"Equestrianism needs to unite around common values, where the horse's welfare is central." - Sven Holmberg

"An election that focuses on ways to strengthen, improve and unify our federation is good for the FEI and our sport." - Princess Haya, commenting in Britain's Horse and Hound magazine.


All three candidates acknowledge the importance of growing equestrian sport across the globe. The inclusion of its key disciplines at the Olympic Games is dependent on the sport demonstrating a global reach. All profess to understand the importance of national federations in the FEI family.

One could argue that national federations are spoilt for choice over the presidency. The reality is that nations face a choice that largely has its roots in FEI politics, and the undercurrents are very strong.

The key issues behind this three-way election battle will not be spelt out on any of the candidates' websites.

It is clear there is some discontent over Princess Haya's handling of several key issues, among them the controversial proposal to allow low levels of non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs) in competition horses.

The handling of the NSAIDs debate at the FEI's General Assembly in Copenhagen last November was little short of a debacle.

The proposal was sprung on delegates late and there was a strong view that many from small federations did not fully understand what they were voting for, particularly those from non-English-speaking countries.

Some federations may well have believed it was simply another strand to the much-vaunted Clean Sport initiative that member nations had voted in only a few minutes earlier. Even the ascribed name, the co-called "progressive list", sounded like a positive step forward.

To this day, the precise origin of the progressive list remains a mystery, although there is a perception that Princess Haya had a major hand in getting it on the agenda.

It is also unclear why the list was suddenly sprung on nations around six days before the meeting, at a time when many national delegates were already in transit.

The narrow vote in favour of the list left key European equestrian nations in a very dark mood indeed. Holmberg immediately recognised the ramifications of what had occurred and told delegates they had taken a vote which was about to divide the sport.

Holmberg formally noted his objection to the progressive list before successfully standing for re-election as chairman of the FEI Jumping Committee.

The progressive list cast a shadow over the whole raft of changes encompassed by the Clean Sport initiatives. The FEI had triumphantly floated its Clean Sport programme then torpedoed it only minutes later.

The organisation was thrown into damage control in the weeks following and back-tracked on the list, largely accepting there was a need for more consultation.

The former zero-tolerance policy was resurrected, with an extensive consultation programme put in place in the months leading up to this November's General Assembly.

The Copenhagen meeting also saw a valuable opportunity lost to meld the somewhat unwieldy 22-member FEI Bureau into a more streamlined and skills-based team comprising some seven people.

However, poor process surrounding the plan led to its demise.

Despite strong support from nations for the general concept, the FEI seemed hell-bent on not only making the constitutional reforms needed to bring about the change, but to get the new team in place as quickly as possible.

National federations understood the need for the constitutional changes. However, many felt it would have been best to pass the constitutional reforms and then set about an orderly transition to the seven-person panel in the following year.

Remarkably, no debate was allowed on the statute changes and member nations, viewing the approach as high-handed, voted against them. Plans for a tighter management structure were left dead in the water.

The fact that several major equestrian nations were angered by the passing of the progressive list is now a matter of very public record. Many pulled no punches in their condemnation of the move.

There was also discontent over the squandering of the opportunity to streamline the FEI Bureau.

Rightly or wrongly, some put at least part of the responsibility on Princess Haya.

There was disgruntlement, too, over the paper war generated by the FEI in the lead-up to the General Assembly.

Many federation representatives were annoyed by what seemed like an endless series of tweaks in what was, by all accounts, an ongoing stream of communication.

Similar concerns had been raised over the 2008 General Assembly but little, it seemed, had changed in the intervening year.

The winds of discontent were blowing, and in Europe they were reaching gale force.

Three months after Copenhagen came the announcement of the formation of the new European Equestrian Federation (EEF), with 27 member nations.

The EEF was not formed as a result of misgivings over the Copenhagen meeting. The process to form a European union had started in March 2009 in France. That said, if timing is everything, the EEF certainly nailed a home-run.

The FEI's group system splits Europe three ways - Western Europe (group 1), Central Europe (group 2) and Eastern Europe (group 3).

"The EEF will represent the interests of European horse sport within the FEI," a release announcing its formation said.

While the EEF's formation is a positive development on many levels, the cynic might see it as putting a statutory framework in place should European nations ever have a serious disagreement with the FEI.

And the one issue that might conceivably do that is drugs.

The two major issues to be decided in Chinese Taipei are the presidency and whether the sport will stick to its current zero-tolerance policy toward drugs or relax it a little around NSAIDs.

Member nations have been invited to a two-day congress in Lausanne, Switzerland, in August to air issues around the merits or otherwise of such a policy change.

The first day will focus on the scientific evidence and the second on broader issues around their use.

For many major equestrian nations, any scientific evidence suggesting low-levels of NSAIDs would be safe in competition horses is unlikely to be enough to sway them.

For such nations, the key issue is whether such a policy would be seen as doping in the eyes of the public and sponsors. Might it potentially be seen as abuse of the horse?

A vote in favour of the progressive list in Chinese Taipei will almost certainly see the member nations of the European Equestrian Federation meeting to discuss developments.

Any international split, even on a modest scale, could potentially cause major damage to the sport globally.

The inclusion of equestrian sports at the Olympic Games is dependent on the sport satisfying the International Olympic Committee that it has global reach. There is no permanent room at the Games for any sport that cannot demonstrate that international appeal.

The FEI has pushed hard to fulfil that goal and all candidates for the presidency recognise its importance.

The last thing the FEI needs is anything that fuels the perception that equestrian sport is the sole domain of rich European nations, the United States and Canada.

It seems likely the sport is already on an unofficial yellow card after the doping scandals of the Beijing Olympics.

So, what of the three candidates?

Princess Haya is young and dynamic, but her handling of the NSAIDs issue and the failure to secure a more streamlined management structure has counted against her with some federations. The poor management of both issues in Copenhagen and Princess Haya's perceived role in that may well have eroded her support.

What is intriguing is that Europe has managed to generate two candidates to stand against her.

Holmberg is globally well-known and widely respected. He is perceived as the candidate with the backing of the European Equestrian Federation.

He emerges as the logical European candidate, well-versed in the machinations of the FEI through his role as first vice-president and as head of the Jumping Committee.

His support in Europe will undoubtedly be strong, but it is much harder to quantify among smaller nations.

He is likely to find an erosion of support in the Asia-Pacific region. Holmberg is viewed as having played a pivotal role in his Jumping Committee's decision to align those nations with Eastern Europe in the qualifying road to the 2012 Olympics.

Asia-Pacific countries face a much tougher path to the Games as a result.

He undoubtedly would have thought long and hard about challenging for the presidency.

The top job is effectively a full-time role whereas his current FEI vice-presidency is far less demanding of time.

FEI vice-presidents are usually elected unopposed. Holmberg was the president's choice for the role and the member-nations rubber-stamped her choice.

The fact he is now standing against the princess perhaps indicates the depth of feeling - and support - for Holmberg.

Rottinghuis is a man of undoubted ability, but it is puzzling as to why the Dutch federation would feel the need to stand a candidate as well.

The Netherlands is without a representative on the board of the new European body. Could that have played a part?

Rottinghuis is less well-known than Holmberg and acknowledges he will need to win the support of smaller federations to stand a chance in the election.

Indeed, all candidates will require significant support from smaller federations to secure a win.

In the vote, one of the candidates must secure a two-thirds majority for a win. In the event none can reach that threshold in a three-way contest, the lowest-polling candidate will bow out before a re-vote.

At present, with three months to the General Assembly, it is hard to see any of the candidates winning outright in a first-round vote.

The most likely first casualty would be Rottinghuis, unless he can build a strong support base among the smaller federations in the next 90 days.

If he drops out in the first round, a vote between Princess Haya and Holmberg would likely be very close, with neither at this stage appearing likely to easily gain the required two-thirds majority.

Many smaller nations will perceive this contest as one pitting European history and tradition against the rest of the world.

They will likely address several key questions before voting. Would a sport which is already seen as Euro-centric benefit from having a European president? Does Princess Haya perhaps offer wider global appeal? How accountable is she for the failure to streamline the FEI Bureau and the controversy around NSAIDs?

That is for the 133 member-nations to decide.

Should Princess Haya emerge victorious, it is possible Holmberg's position as first vice-president would no longer be tenable. That said, in the event of a close vote, Princess Haya might see Holmberg's continuation in the role as a politically astute move to retain European support for her new mandate.

The 2010 General Assembly will deliver an answer on the presidency and provide what will undoubtedly be the last word on whether equestrian sport is taking a zero-tolerance stance on drugs or a more permissive approach.

Ironically, it will not deliver a resolution to the other outstanding issue from Copenhagen that muddied the waters for the princess: that of the cumbersome FEI Bureau structure.

Streamlining is not on the agenda.

That issue will be waiting in the in-box of the future president.