Endurance reform requires the eloquence of wisdom, not the burden of more bureaucracy, suggests leading American endurance rider John Crandell, who has represented the United States internationally.
The reports from the Endurance Strategic Planning Group (ESPG) presented at the International Equestrian Federation’s General Assembly depict an earnest and hardworking effort by some to salvage endurance’s status and reputation within FEI nations.
This report also demonstrates the “systemic” problems, as described by chairman Andrew Finding, that have plagued the FEI permeate the ESPG as well.
It is clear the ESPG recognizes the scope of issues is vast and must reach into many areas of the organization at once to incite real and lasting change.
The very professionally developed schematic format and its “Plan on a Page” represented considerable expertise in planning.
This work indicates that the ESPG wisely recognizes that we need to carefully develop consensus on schematic levels of this initiative before we can effectively develop details of a comprehensive overhaul.
I was very pleased to see some emphasis on education and reminders of the history of endurance riding as part of the program.
Endurance testing could play a unique role in mankind’s relationship with animals if we define and regulate the discipline thoughtfully.
It can even be an essential force in the long-term health and happiness of equines as a sustainable species if we do this very well. We all need to remember both the noble and productive, as well as the cruel and destructive moments in endurance riding history and pre-history, to guide our path into the future.
The modern era of equine endurance, the transformation of the practice into a socially acceptable and regulated form of equine testing, was founded on the interest of dedicated horsemen. These were passionate enthusiasts looking for an academically valued way to identify great horses and horsemanship based on a natural spectrum of the species’ most definitive and historic abilities.
The discipline has proven that it can be an engaging sport and economically sustainable, even in its most academic forms. The stringent preservation of this academic aspect of the discipline is essential to the nobility of the sport, its long-term net value to the equine species, and is at the core of any meaningful philosophy of respect for the horses.
Even as the schematic and gestural elements of the ESPG plan presented great promise, hints and examples of the concrete details of how this program might be implemented are very concerning.
Chairmen Andrew Finding acknowledged that there needs to be complete “rule by rule” revisiting of the FEI endurance rule book. While it’s encouraging that there is an understanding that the rule book needs to be thoroughly revisited, simple line item changes will not be enough, even if we edit almost every line.
The inherent incentives and disincentives of the rules and award system are established more by the philosophies and basic constructs behind the document than by letter of the rules themselves.
The fundamental errors of the rules, award philosophies and their motivations cannot be corrected by line-item edits and definitely not by adding more and more regulations. We need the eloquence of wisdom, not the burden of more bureaucracy.
Concepts like extended rest periods and the growing horse qualifying hierarchies seem justifiable and necessary in the context of the current regulations. These ever-expanding attempts to micro-manage training practice are only more evidence that the underlying motivations, which are established by the rules and awards structure, are misdirected.
Even now, good trainers’ efforts are being compromised by the logistic wastefulness of compliance to increasingly intrusive regulation. Economic wastefulness mandated by the FEI system only amplifies the competitive advantages of wealth.
We cannot correct these embedded inefficiencies without going deeply into the core constructs of the system, such as the very definitions of the CEI “*” levels, and then reconstructing from there.
The endurance rules and policies could be much simpler and much more effective at encouraging noble behavior we could all be proud of.
The most detailed example of the ESPG’s intentions, the proposal for a professional trainer registry, was presented from a region that has already licensed and ranked trainers within its federations for almost two decades.
This is also the region that has seen the most overwhelming concentration of rule violations and subsequent animal abuse in the same time period. The entire world has seen the results of philosophies like using a professional trainer’s registry to institutionalize the limiting of accountability at the trainer level.
One of the most common quips among those that bear close witness to Middle Eastern endurance racing is “I guess another groom will be sent back to India (Pakistan) over that one”.
Fingering someone that is not only easily replaced, but is also suspected of disloyalty would be a double bonus, and a signal to others who might express independent thoughts.
Larger scandals sometimes require more significant scapegoats, so someone of higher rank in the systems, such as a veterinarian, assistant trainer, or even a principal managing trainer must take the fall.
If the circumstances of the offence are such that even powerful media and information controls cannot deflect blame to someone haplessly innocent and powerless, then someone of loyalty or value must take the fall.
These persons are likely to know too much about where the directives are really coming from, or may represent strategic political alliances, so they must be compensated to retain their loyalty. These same persons also know that overt demonstrations of extreme loyalty, taking personal risks such as throwing races, or joining in on rule violations in a “one for all and all for one” manner are seen as acts worthy of exceptional generosity in gifting.
It is in this manner that influence and incentive to cheat transcends and blurs the boundaries of stables and their ownership of record.
The overt presence of cheaters driving their choice of a fleet of gifted luxury vehicles, and of banned trainers pensioned or promoted to an active role supervising assistant trainers, has been the powerful driving force of a depraved competition culture.
This environment has made the worst violators secure, wealthy, and powerful, while the honorable horsemen in their region have been ostracized. This duality of the mechanisms is the most fundamental reason the region fell to such deplorable depths so completely and so rapidly. Ethically weak and incompetent FEI stewardship simply added the credibility and cloak of that brand, sold at a relatively low price.
Suggestion of an enforcement strategy based on the professional career sensibilities of trainers is therefore a preposterous statement that offends the intelligence of anyone with exposure to the environment that spawned the current outrage.
Like so many rules and policies now embedded in the FEI system, implementation of such a program would only further institutionalize the shielding of the ultimate financial and political sources of inappropriate directives.
Any measure that further inhibits tracking of these depraved incentives to their political and economic roots will only make the systemic corruption issues worse, not better. As Abraham Lincoln said, “You can fool some of the people, some of the time, but you cannot fool all of the people all of the time.”
Trainer licensing at this time, and in the manner presented, is therefore a proposal that would be counterproductive to the purported goals of the ESPG. At best it could result only in the better concealment of the roots of moral poverty.
It will eventually necessitate new cycles of rules and regulations to further address the un-remedied issues and will extend the burden of an expanding bureaucracy to the rest of the world.
The chairman of the ESPG further endorsed and applauded this proposal in the proceedings of the recent FEI General Assembly.
It is time for us to question why the FEI needs to be so diplomatic as to publicly advance the offerings of the fox on the security of the hen house. This repeated occurrence in rule and policy development has become an open source of embarrassment and a divisive wedge in the equestrian endurance community.
The chairman went further to suggest the future of endurance riding lies in modeling after flat racing.
Traditional flat racing has been in a popular decline in much of the developed world for the last half century.
The simple fact is that the new sources of wealth that might support flat racing have become wary of its marginalized record and publicity. Even those that don’t fully understand flat racing have developed a visceral sense that something is fundamentally questionable about the sport’s economic institutions and influence on equine genetics.
The obsession for genetic development toward an unnaturally narrow performance attribute is a source of inherent conflict with the principals of wholesome and sustainable well-being. At this time it is widely understood the flat racing is only supported at its present level by the extreme financial commitments of an increasingly few wealthy people.
It only seems apparent that endurance riding must advance in the direction of the “Sport of Kings” by the trajectory of the aforementioned rule and reward guidance.
Following flat racing as a model is not a wise and sustainable long-term path. The entire world is evolving much too fast in an opposing direction.
Equine endurance tests can be a leader, and not a trailing victim, of the advancing public awareness if we manage this discipline with a regard for its potential academic values.
While the public has been presented with an ESPG program that is just what it wanted to hear in schematic approach and background rhetoric, the closer we look at the most detailed visions and proposals, the more utterly alarming it becomes. The devil is in the details.
It is a fact of human interaction that we most efficiently develop new concepts in relatively small groups. This, however, depends on the fortunate or wise assembly of the right individuals, as the contribution of each is critical to the outcome.
The FEI has now put itself in a position that will eventually require it to withdraw the most detailed aspect of the ESPG proposal and restructure the personnel and visions of that group in order to retain the support of the broader community worldwide.
The can has only been kicked down the road. The biggest debates and conflicts still lie ahead.
The entire world has been moving toward an increasingly critical scrutiny of equestrian sports for more than a century.
This trend has accelerated and gained significant political traction in the last 50 years and is very unlike to reverse in the foreseeable future.
The current controversies in endurance racing present an opportunity for the FEI to not just survive, but to lead through the next century if it can act with exceptional courage, decisiveness and commitment to begin a major change to the philosophies of equestrian sports.
The close relationship of long distance events to the equine species’ most fundamentally definitive abilities put endurance racing and other forms of long distance tests at the vanguard of mankind’s quest to create relationships with domestic animals that result in real and lasting good for the species.
The intimate proximity with the core abilities of the horse makes endurance racing easily abused. However, this proximity is also the basis of the discipline’s great potential for net good toward the long range health and happiness of the species.
A creature born of movements that spanned continents cannot be healthfully guided into the next century only by information sampled in a small arena.
The current FEI endurance controversy is really just part of a greater debate that will only expand and intensify in the coming decades until the FEI eventually witnesses a major modernization of equine sports toward service as more academically valued tests.
The FEI will either undertake this evolution, or it will suffer the same fate as other great dinosaurs, and be replaced by other more adaptive organizations.
To start its role in this evolution today, the FEI needs to subdue the organization’s ego that grows itself only in economic terms, as this competes with any attempts to initiate genuine intellectual advancement.
Most immediately it must end what too many view as protectionism for its major sources of finance, which is confusing and distorting every attempt to heal the endurance discipline. The influence of the FEI’s current sources of finance creates long-term costs the organization cannot afford to pay.
There is a tremendous amount of work to be done to develop new definitions of sport, and the methods to scientifically assess the academic value and benefits of those tests. We need to make learning how to better husband animals by the most forethoughtful terms the more rewarded object, and to never let ourselves forget that this is why most of us get into animal sports in the first place.
We are only humans, and are likely to find more mistakes and pitfalls along such a complex path, but that should not deter us from such an honorable venture. Our collective dignity depends on it, and we will learn vital lessons about our own kind along the way.
Endurance riding is one of the best vehicles we have for such a journey.
John Crandell III is a leading American endurance rider who has represented the United States internationally. He has been involved in distance riding since his childhood, and his extended family has focused on the discipline of endurance since the mid-1970s. He has experience of endurance operations in Dubai, having worked there in part-time and full-time roles from 1997 till late 2000.