A formal protest lodged with the FEI by two British journalists has resulted in the disqualification of the winning rider in last February’s King’s Cup 120km endurance race in Sakhir, Bahrain.
The disqualification of Sheikh Mohammed Bin Mubarak Al Khalifa, of Bahrain, was handed down by the FEI Tribunal early today.
The February 8 race, a CEI2* event, was at the centre of controversy over online video footage.
It showed the horse ridden by the sheikh, Tarabic Carl appearing to slow. Two men emerged from a nearby pickup truck and ran towards the horse. The footage appeared to show one of them beating the horse on the rump with an object. Tarabic Carl then quickened his pace, later breaking into a canter.
Towards the end of the clip a cacophony of horns from vehicles driving alongside the horse can be heard as the rider thrusts an arm in the air.
The journalists who lodged the protest, Horse & Hound freelance contributor Pippa Cuckson and the magazine’s former editor, Lucy Higginson, also cited a second video that appeared to show the rider hitting the horse with a lash.
The FEI argued in the case that the matter was handled on the day by the Ground Jury as a field-of-play incident, with the imposition of a fine and the issuance of a yellow card. Such decisions could be reviewed only under very restrictive conditions relating to procedural issues, it said. It argued for the protest to be dismissed on its merits.
However, the tribunal, comprising chairman Henrik Arle, Randi Haukebø and Pierre Ketterer, found that the yellow card was issued specifically for horse abuse and therefore, under the rules of endurance, a disqualification should have been imposed.
It disqualified Al Khalifa from the event and ordered that all medals, points and prize money be forfeited.
The tribunal, in traversing the facts, said Al Khalifa was delivered a yellow warning card for horse abuse and non-compliance with the applicable rules. The rider accepted and signed the yellow warning card, the tribunal noted.
He was also fined 500 Swiss francs, which was paid the following day, and, subsequently, the rider and his groom were suspended by the Bahrain Royal Equestrian and Endurance Federation.
Later in the month, Cuckson and Higginson lodged their protest.
The pair provided the two video clips, which showed the rider hitting the horse with a lash, and another showing two individuals leaving a moving vehicle and one of them striking the horse several times.
“It is not clear from the video whether one of the individuals is using a hand-held implement. The videos further show several vehicles blasting their horns and following the horse and the other horses on both sides of the endurance track.”
Cuckson and Higginson asserted that Al Khalifa and the groom had committed an abuse of the horse during the closing stage of the final loop of the race.
“More specifically, the protesters argued that the rider had kicked his horse ‘vigorously’, and that furthermore he had hit the horse with a lash. That the rider’s conduct would be in breach of the endurance rules regarding whipping, and that, furthermore, the two actions constituted ‘gratuitous abuse’ insofar as the horse had been moving freely forward and had not required either encouragement or correction.”
Additionally, they argued that the groom who emerged from the vehicle, in striking the horse several times with a handheld implement, had also committed horse abuse.
“The protesters argued that the fact that numerous vehicles had followed the horse along the track with blasting horns had also to be considered as horse abuse.”
The pair argued for the disqualification of Al Khalifa.
Late in March, Al Khalifa and his groom were invited to comment on the allegation and provide any relevant information and evidence.
Al Khalifa responded on behalf of both.
“In essence the rider argued that, whereas he and the groom would accept their mistakes, they also believed that they had received a fair punishment for their actions at the event,” the tribunal said.
“That, as he had already received a yellow warning card from the Ground Jury at the event, and as he and the groom had already been suspended by the Bahrain national federation, a further disqualification would contravene the well-recognized principle of double jeopardy, according to which it was forbidden to charge a defendant again on the same (or similar) charges following a legitimate acquittal or conviction.”
The FEI submitted statements from the president of the Ground Jury at the event, Ghalib Al Alawi, and the chairman of the FEI Endurance Committee, Dr Brian Sheahan, who is an experienced endurance vet.
Al Alawi said he had not observed the incidents in question, but had watched the videos soon after and, as a result, issued a yellow card.
He had chosen not to give a yellow warning card to the groom, as he had been a local groom who had no understanding of the surrounding liability under FEI Rules.
He said that, in the video, Al Khalifa had shown discontent with the groom′s actions, but the sheikh nevertheless had to accept full responsibility for the actions of the groom.
It was his opinion that the case had not qualified as a case of cruelty under the rules of endurance, instead issuing a yellow card for horse abuse.
Sheahan said he had not been at the event, but had watched both videos and had also reviewed the Vet Card of the horse at the event.
That card did not describe any signs of injury such as welts, swellings or weeping skin wounds, which would be associated with skin trauma. The horse had successfully completed the event without signs of metabolic compromise, lameness, back pain, skin abrasions or welts that would be associated with the use of a whip.
“Dr Sheahan further stated that by striking the horse, both the rider and the groom had caused the horse to increase speed, albeit for a short duration only.
“Dr Sheahan concluded that in his opinion, both the rider and the groom had committed a horse abuse, but no cruelty. That furthermore, insofar as the level of horse abuse did not result in injury or distress, it could be considered as a less serious offence.”
The FEI, in arguing for the dismissal of the case, said race officials had made “field-of-play” decisions which could only be reviewed under very restrictive conditions relating to procedural issues.
It also offered the view that disqualification of the rider would amount to double jeopardy.
Cuckson and Higginson responded, saying that the former had attended the FEI Endurance Conference in Switzerland on February 9, and that the two videos had prompted disquiet among those attending.
The pair argued that the FEI′s Endurance Strategic Planning Group had repeatedly emphasised the need for rule enforcement.
“Between the two of them, the protesters had over 40 years of experience in reporting up to the highest level of all equestrian sports, and that they had felt that the incident in question had been one of the most serious field-of-play incidents they had ever seen.”
They further argued that the disqualification had to be imposed under the rules of endurance covering horse abuse.
The tribunal, in reaching its conclusion, said it was of the view that horse abuse had occurred in accordance with Article 811.1 of the endurance rules, given that the yellow warning card had the appropriate box for horse abuse ticked and it had been signed by the president of the Ground Jury. It also relied on the statement of Sheahan in reaching that conclusion.
It was for the Ground Jury to decide whether a horse abuse had been committed and such a decision was reached as a field-of-play decision, it said.
The tribunal said that while the Ground Jury had the discretion to determine whether horse abuse had occurred, it had no discretion under the rules in applying the correct sanction – an automatic disqualification.
The rule in question was clear that horse abuse shall be penalised by disqualification, it said.
While Sheahan and the Ground Jury president, Al Alawi, had been of the view that it was a “less serious abuse”, the rules for endurance did not differentiate between a case of abuse and a case of abuse of “a less serious nature”.
It ruled: “The Ground Jury had to penalise the horse abuse with disqualification, irrespective of the question whether or not a horse abuse of a ‘less severe nature’ had taken place.
“The tribunal does therefore not accept the double jeopardy claim by the FEI and the rider, and follows the protesters’ argument of ‘applying the correct penalty for the offence in hindsight’.”
The tribunal upheld the protest and disqualified Al Khalifa from the event.
Cuckson, in responding to the decision, told Horsetalk: “We brought the protest because, apart from the obvious leniency of the yellow card, FEI rules are quite clear about what the penalty for horse abuse has to be, and the FEI needed to be seen to apply its existing rules before introducing any more.
“I have no legal training apart from what is required for the profession of publishing – that is, defamation and copyright law – but all this required was the ability to read and to apply some commonsense!
“Of course, we can’t be sure the FEI won’t appeal the decision. But I hope our experience will encourage others to make bona fide protests when they see clear evidence of rule-breaking in any equestrian sport, where protests are admissible within the scope of the FEI rules and regulations.
“I also hope this ruling also means video evidence can be used more readily and in hindsight in future.
“When the field of play is 100-miles long, the ground jury can hardly expect to be on the scene of an offence at the moment it is committed.
“Existing rules about what can be protested are fine for arena sports, but hardly for endurance.”