The endurance controversy: It’s showtime!

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Most Las Vegas shows needs a headline act – a big-name star to generate publicity and get bums on seats for the show of a lifetime. It costs casinos millions.

The FEI, on the other hand, has the remarkable ability to get gifted a headline act just about every year for its annual General Assembly.

In recent years we’ve seen squabbles over drugs lists, a fascinating challenge to Princess Haya’s presidency, debate around funding of the Nations Cup, and the averted contretempt around the so-called dressage blood rule.

This year, compliments of the Middle East, the FEI will delivering a spectacular floor show on endurance, with a potentially dizzying array of stars.

Representatives of the world’s national equestrian federations are winging their way to Montreux, Switzerland, for the FEI General Assembly.

Delegates to the November 4-7 gathering have plenty of business to get through, but it is the special two-hour session on endurance on November 6 that is set to garner most of the attention.

FEI train spotters will be pretty familiar with the circumstances.

Endurance, overall, has an excellent track record for safety and drug breaches. It has been dragged down only by a series of doping infractions in recent years arising from horses raced in Dubai, Qatar and Bahrain. There have also been welfare concerns around high fracture rates in the region.

Several European federations have criticised the breaches and demanded action.

The FEI organised a round-table discussion and set in train a process.

Belgian endurance official Pierre Arnould, in an interview with The Telegraph newspaper in Britain, voiced his frustrations last month in colourful terms at what he considered was an inadequate response by the FEI.

“The scandals have continued unabated, the press is going wild, horses die, fractures are increasing – and next week the winter season begins in the Middle East,” he said.

“Everything would be idyllic but for three federations who cast shame on the sport.”

He continued: “While the FEI endurance committee, federations, breeders and riders have alerted the FEI board for years to these unacceptable practices, the FEI’s only response is to create a strategic group with the task of studying the evolution of endurance for the next 10 years.

“We need practical, impartial law enforcement measures that will cease these scandals immediately and permanently.”

Arnould was clearly not a happy man. In stepped FEI secretary-general Ingmar de Vos, who put out a press release giving Arnould a firm telling-off.

The story then went ballistic. If it was Arnould who erected the endurance billboard, it was de Vos who installed the red and green flashing lights around it. All very Las Vegas.

The whole endurance issue is unquestionably uncomfortable for the FEI. Its president, Princess Haya, is married to the ruler of Dubai, Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid al-Maktoum, who in 2009 copped a six-month ban when his endurance mount, Tahhan, tested positive for the banned anabolic steroid, stanozolol.

Trainer Abdullah bin Huzaim, who admitted giving the horse drugs before the desert races at Bahrain and Dubai, was handed a one-year ban, but the skeikh received a ban as the rider is ultimately held responsible.

endurance-stockThe sheikh and his wider family are major players in the sport of endurance. He has had troubles in his British thoroughbred and endurance operations, too, with drug use by an errant trainer in several thoroughbreds and the discovery of drugs linked to his endurance operation.

It has to be said that endurance in the Middle East paints an unpleasant picture, backed by a sorry litany of FEI disciplinary cases. One could be forgiven for thinking that a permissive attitude existed towards drug use in endurance horses in the region.

Then, just days ago, an endurance rider from the United Arab Emirates received a two-year ban from the FEI for a doping infraction, just to ensure the issue did not fade from the headlines.

The case involved Mohd Ali Al Shafar winning the February 16 CEI3* 160km President’s Cup race in Abu Dhabi on his mount Orman De Cardonne.

The FEI is treading very carefully, but its diplomacy around the wider issue gives the impression of an organisation walking over egg shells. For example, the FEI announced plans in June for a round-table discussion to “look into areas of concerns within the sport of endurance”.

So, with practically no budget, the FEI has its headline act for Montreux. They are guaranteed to be plenty of bums on seats for the November 6 show, but we fear the choreography may disappoint.

Following the round-table endurance discussion in July, the FEI established the Endurance Strategic Planning Group, headed by Andrew Finding, of Britain.

His group is working on a 10-year strategic plan for the sport, to not only deal with the problem issues but cope with the strong growth in the sport.

Finding, in a report to national federations, promises that the group has been busy.

“I have been impressed by the diligence of the team and the willingness of every member of it to look for a new direction for the FEI’s fastest growing sporting discipline. We are all agreed that change is necessary,” he said.

In the two-hour session, the group expects to take an hour to set out its thinking and proposed strategy to the national representatives.

That leaves an hour for national federations to ask questions and have a say. Fireworks? We’ll have to wait and see.

From there, the planning group intends to circulate a more evolved proposal to national federations by November 30 for consultation.

Then, all national federations will be invited to a special endurance conference in Lausanne in February, after which the planning group will submit its final report and recommendations to the FEI Bureau.

This report and its recommendations will go to a special endurance session during the FEI Sports Forum in April, again in Lausanne.

Finding has assured member nations that the FEI Bureau will take immediate action, where necessary.

Phew!

Yes, there will be reforms at the end of all this, but it all seems unduly diplomatic and laborious.

The great irony is that the only sore backside in all of this belongs to poor Pierre Arnould, who copped a public spanking from the FEI for what amounted to an impassioned plea to sort the problems out.

 

4 thoughts on “The endurance controversy: It’s showtime!

  • November 5, 2013 at 1:43 am
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    Dear Neil,
    Having become, in spite of myself, one of the main characters of the casting of your (excellent) blog on the internet, it is with great interest that I read you.
    Regarding the conclusion of your last article (“The Endurance Controversy: it’s showtime !”, 04 nov. 2013), I would like to reassure you (and your readers): I do not suffer any back pain, and at 54 years old, it is difficult for me to remember when was my last spanking. I even think that I have never received one. This non-experience lets my education probably imperfect. But it also explains why, when a cause is just, shruggings from VIPs do not impress me as much as my few remarks that were published in the British newspaper ”The Telegraph” have generated hundreds of positive feedback from around the world and from simple riders to respected officials or even entire federations (see the last documents posted on http://www.endurance-belgium.com, 03 nov. 2013). So I ‘m not “poor” because I have lots of friends. 
    As full member of the FEI, exposing my opinions, it is not only the view of the vast majority of the equestrian community I defend, but also the respectability of the FEI I protect. Do not forget that this is the addition of all National Federations who is the FEI and not the few who are responsible for the daily administration.

    I am a professional horseman, rider, trainer, manager of a Belgian equine research center, and Belgian national endurance coach. I assume this last position for 14 years ! A record in this corporation. So I had many opportunities and many years of experience to harden my butt and my back muscles .
    I am a full member of the FEI Endurance Technical Committee, organization which one of the essential roles is to ensure the well fare of the horse (“Well fare of the horse is the paramount”).
    I am also an administrator of the Belgian Federation, which I will be one of the three representatives to the General Assembly of the FEI Montreux this week.
    I will attend and participate of course at the sessions about endurance. Standing or sitting because I have no back pain and have had no spanking.
    Hoping to have soon the opportunity to shake your hand ,
    Keep on writing on your great blog ,
    Pierre Arnould

    Reply
  • November 5, 2013 at 7:47 am
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    Hi Mr. Neil Clarkson

    On our Facebook site is our contribution to the discussion regarding endurance.

    https://www.facebook.com/groups/molsridtet/

    Yours sincerely

    Head of Organizing Committee
    The FEI Open European Championship 2015

    Peter Christiansen

    Reply
  • November 6, 2013 at 2:21 am
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    Horse Talk is to be thanked for providing another vital summary of events regarding the on-going controversy swirling around Pierre Arnould’s principled stand against the blatant and on-going corruption which continues to deface the sport he loves.

    Nor is Horse Talk the only media organization to take note of how the Belgian national coach and member of the FEI’s endurance committee has been singled out for public persecution after voicing well-founded concerns regarding the alarming rise of drugs and injuries in the endurance racing community.

    Martin Samuel, of London’s Daily Mail, has published a stinging editorial wherein he warns that, “Endurance racing is only tolerable if it is administered and conducted with care and love.”

    http://www.mailonsunday.co.uk/sport/article-2472492/MARTIN-SAMUEL-Sport-driving-horses-deaths.html

    The British journalist goes on to state, “The FEI is not emerging well from this.”

    Truer words were never written.

    There is a shocking – some might say almost criminal – degree of self-deceit involved in the FEI’s attack against Arnould. Thankfully, various leaders of the FEI have failed in their attempt to silence him.

    In a manner reminiscent of Edward Snowden’s courageous revelations regarding international spying, the Belgian whistle blower has said in public what countless thousands have long known, and been afraid to reveal for years, that the once clean sport of endurance racing has been turned into a travesty by a handful of tainted riders from a tiny group of countries.

    If the Belgian endurance rider is guilty of any crime, surely it must only be that he took so long before revealing evidence of this on-going deception.

    While Arnould continues to battle for the soul of endurance riding, the FEI is busy spinning the misconception that the corruption is limited to a few men devoid of honour and valour.

    Buried amidst the noise emanating from Lausanne is the obvious fact that whereas endurance racing has long been a remarkably clean sport, it is now falling prey to the mindset which has contaminated so much of the modern equestrian world, i.e. viewing the horse as a disposable commodity whose primary attraction is to enlarge individual egos, generate corporate profits and enhance national prestige.

    The public is no longer fooled. Quiet millions, who have become disillusioned by the FEI, endorse Arnould’s courageous conviction that true reform is long overdue.

    Geoff Young, publisher of ‘Horse Connection’ magazine, is one such editorial ally. In an interview conducted and published by the Long Rider’s Guild Academic Foundation he expressed his fear that greed was imperiling the horses’ welfare.

    “It is money that causes a horse to break down from running too many races. It is money that compels a rider to dope a sore horse in order to get him in the competition ring. And it is money that drives the whip in an endurance race with a purse. Money and greed are the biggest threats to the well-being of the horse.”

    Young does not hold out any hope that the FEI will distance itself from a gospel of wealth and privilege. He castigated leaders of the FEI in 2009 when it was revealed that they had been involved in protecting an unethical endurance race in Mongolia.

    “The self-anointed world governing body is collapsing under the weight of scandal and the lack of any discernable moral backbone.”

    He went on to call for the disbanding of the FEI.

    http://www.horseconnection.com/site/pdf_docs/breaches.pdf

    In the ensuing years since Young called for urgent reform, there have been more broken promises and betrayals of faith. Rather than taking strong action designed to seek out wrongdoing and discipline perpetrators, the FEI continues to maintain its concentration of dysfunctional power.

    The FEI’s assault against Arnould demonstrates that any call for reform is seen as an attack on the collective identity of the temple of equestrian power. Such authoritarians are experts in the art of denial. They are quick to denounce critics as mere alarmists. Their goal is to protect the privileges they enjoy inside the ethical vacuum which exists along the shores of Lake Geneva.

    Thankfully Pierre Arnould has provided a voice and a face which the public can rally behind.

    People are increasingly unwilling to condone entrenched deception within the equestrian world. The public has grown sick of witnessing cynicism triumph over truth. Horse riders of every persuasion refuse to condone a twisted culture which tolerates individual cruelty, collective corruption and national chauvinism. As the injuries and deaths in endurance racing prove, it is the horse that always pays the ultimate price for the rider’s ambition.

    Nor is such knowledge new to us.

    In 1902 the noted French equestrian author, Dr. Georges Rouhet, issued a stern rebuke to the horse world of his day. In his celebrated book, “L’entraînement complet de l’homme,” he wrote, “Riding is indispensable to man.”

    Yet Rouhet went on to warn that the business of pitting one horse against the other inevitably provides the elements of tragedy. Lust for a prize, he knew, results in truth being denied for the sake of fame and money.

    If our generation of riders do not learn from our collective equestrian history, we are condemned to repeat the mistakes of our mounted ancestors. All too often it is misunderstood that we owe our equine companion a payment in return, for the horse has no civil rights. He is a creature of innocence, temporarily entrusted to our care, and thus deserving of our sympathy as well as our protection.

    The time has come to publicly state that the FEI has failed to protect the endurance horses which it claims to champion and that the organization has become little more than a cult of respectability that is hobbled by the tyranny of tradition.

    Given the actions taken against Pierre Arnould, wherein he exposed the blatant discrepancy between the FEI’s professed values and actual policies, I believe the public should express their strong support for the man by urging him to run for the Presidency of the organization.

    As his actions have proved, Arnould is a man the public can trust and the horses desperately need.

    CuChullaine O’Reilly FRGS
    Founder, The Long Riders’ Guild

    Reply
  • November 6, 2013 at 9:15 pm
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    Bravo Pierre Arnould! That was a show of personal courage in the face of the lack of it from the FEI.

    Endurance Riding in the Middle East appears to have been hedged about with rumours of drug issues for some time, which under any circumstances, is a pretty pitiful picture. If all the wealth in the world winds up resorting to dirty tricks we cannot help but wonder what kind of people these really are. And if we are left to ponder upon that, we might also be left to ponder upon their attitudes to the welfare of horses engaged in this sport and must be left to assume it cannot be much if these people are prepared to go to such lengths to score a point. It also brings to mind the shocking drug revelation of race horses under Middle Eastern ownership in the UK earlier this year, the inference, to the man on the Clapham omnibus, looking rather uncomfortable.

    Reply

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