“There is no room or place in our sport for rule violations leading to cheating. There is no place for doping. There is no place for our partner the horse to end an event suffering from a life threatening, irreversible or untreatable illness or injury.”
With those words, the Australian head of the FEI’s Endurance Committee, Dr Brian Sheahan, encapsulated the sentiment that pervaded the special two-hour endurance session at the FEI General Assembly in Montreux, Switzerland, today.
Andrew Finding, the chairman of the Endurance Strategic Planning Group, set up to examine endurance reform following serious welfare concerns in the Middle East over the frequency of doping violations and unacceptable fracture rates, had a similar message.
“The strategic plan we propose sets out a vision and a set of values we will expect everyone to adhere to if they genuinely want to be an active part of our family. Those who do not should be asked to leave us.”
Delegates reportedly left no doubt that immediate and sustainable action was needed to safeguard the welfare of horses and reinforce the FEI’s anti-doping and fair play policies at endurance events globally.
Finding, of Britain, told delegates: “We are all responsible to find the solutions for the problems we face today. We need a clear vision and a strong strategy for endurance sport, and where better to develop this than from within the equestrian community that cares about the future of this sport so much.
“By working together we will achieve this.”
FEI veterinary director Graeme Cooke presented statistics on the trends in positive dope tests, which had spiked in FEI Regional Group VII, but were now starting to decrease.
He provided data on the officially reported serious injuries and fatalities in the sport, stressing the urgent need for a radically improved reporting system.
“We are aware of trends, and we are producing a new system that will record injuries and fatalities in a much better way, but other measures are needed.”
Jean-Louis Leclerc, a French veterinary surgeon and one of the most successful Endurance chefs d’equipe in the sport, spoke on the importance of education for athletes and officials, and reinforcing leadership.
A minimum level of horsemanship should be required from all athletes, said Leclerc, who is a member of the endurance planning group
All officials – ground jury members, stewards and veterinarians – should have a thorough knowledge of the rules, and their performance at events should be reviewed, he argued.
At 5* level, excellence by officials should be rewarded, he said.
Leclerc also called for a new definition and management of conflicts of interest.
Saeed Al Tayer, of the United Arab Emirates, who is vice-president of the Dubai Equestrian Club, was unable to be in Montreux and gave his presentation by video link from Dubai.
He proposed the introduction of an endurance trainers register with the FEI, similar to the system used in thoroughbred racing, to ensure accountability.
He also proposed a code of conduct for trainers, and a disciplinary board to investigate and review cases of trainer-induced injury or doping.
Repeat offenders would be excluded from the discipline, he said. He suggested there should also be a reward for trainers with successful completion rates, bringing trainers into the FEI global rankings system.
Sheahan, from Australia, stressed the importance of leadership, accountability and structural governance.
He recommended that the FEI appoint and pay independent governance advisers at major championships to supervise and mentor officials on the ground, helping to ensure that endurance rules were fully understood and enforced at every level.
Accountability and sanctions for officials, national federations, athletes and trainers were imperative, he argued.
Riders, he said, needed to compete within the capacity of their horses’ ability to perform.
American Joe Mattingley, vice-president of the United States Equestrian Federation and chairman of the FEI’s High Performance Working Group and of the High Performance Endurance Committee, said: “As an athlete of the sport, I am in no doubt that now is the time to introduce a professional and sustainable plan to protect the sport we are all so passionate about.”
Other recommendations specifically aimed at horse welfare and fair play include making course design more technical to challenge the athletes’ level of skill, and the use of out-of-competition testing for banned substances.
“Athletes, all athletes, and their trainers need to compete on a level playing field where natural talent wins out without artificial and performance-enhancing support,” Finding told delegates.
“We need national federations, all of you, in every region of the world to take responsibility and provide leadership.
“We need every single person involved in the sport to be self-disciplined, to respect their horses and abide by the code of conduct for the welfare of the horse; it was carefully developed and it must be adhered to if we are not to fail.”
The scope of the planning group’s proposals received positive feedback from New Zealand, The Netherlands, Belgium, South Africa, Namibia, Jamaica, France, and the US during the question-and-answer session.
The planning group will now present a consultation package to national federations by the end of November, including feedback from today’s session.
Its conclusions will be finalised by the end of January and will then be presented at an endurance conference in Lausanne, Switzerland, in February.
National federations will be asked to develop and set the key performance indicators: the measures for success. This process will start at the endurance conference in February. The conclusions will be shared with the FEI Bureau in March 2014 and, in conjunction with the final bureau decisions, will then be made public at a special endurance session at the FEI Sports Forum in Lausanne at the end of April.
“There is a problem to resolve, it is serious and systemic,” Finding said. “I am confident that it can be resolved, but no committee and no plan on paper can achieve anything without the commitment of people.”
“I urge you please to work with us in a spirit of positive determination to succeed. Failure cannot be an option.”