No nukes please, we’re the FEI

A 23 kiloton nuke goes up in the Nevada desert in 1953. Photo: National Nuclear Security Administration/US Govt
A 23 kiloton nuke goes up in the Nevada desert in 1953. Photo: National Nuclear Security Administration/US Govt

It seems that the world’s major powers have struck a deal with Iran over the future of its nuclear programme after lengthy talks in Lausanne.

There are still the details to be thrashed out, of course, but the negotiators seem cautiously optimistic.

One suspects these aren’t the toughest talks that will unfold in the Swiss city this year.

Up the road, staff in the Lausanne headquarters of the FEI face the joyous prospect of trying to strike some kind of accord with the United Arab Emirates Equestrian Federation over endurance.

It doesn’t look easy to me. The UAE federation had its FEI membership suspended last month over what the world governing body described as welfare concerns.

The sport in the region had been ground zero for a worrying list of concerns, the latest – and perhaps most spectacular – involving results from a dozen or so endurance races in the UAE which mysteriously mirrored results from earlier events.

It is no surprise that this discovery has some people questioning whether these races took place at all.

The Equestrian Community Integrity Unit is investigating, and I dare say we will eventually get some account of what actually went on.

The FEI has told the UAE federation that any potential reinstatement to membership was dependent on it signing an agreement under which it pledged to take any action that the FEI Bureau deemed necessary to protect the welfare of horses. Such a deal also had to carry an assurance that the UAE would comply fully with the FEI rules and regulations.

In short, a deal must be done.

The problem for all parties is that this has to be an ironclad assurance. Lip-service simply won’t cut it. Should the UAE be re-admitted, only to generate more bad publicity for the sport, the reaction among some member-nations would be little short of nuclear.

There are, in my view, several reasons why kissing and making up is going to be very hard in this case. It has precious little to do with the rules, nor anything else over which the FEI can exert control. This makes the whole process doubly complex.

In my view, the fundamental nature of endurance in the region sets it apart in a way that makes the issues very difficult to resolve.

These are the factors at play:

High stakes

It is important to realize that endurance in the UAE is highly organised and professional. The facilities are excellent and the training of large numbers of horses at the big endurance stables would require the same sort of organisation that one might expect to see at large professional thoroughbred training operations around the globe.

The stakes in the most prestigious races in the UAE are considerable.

This has always sat uncomfortably with me. Money – or the prospect of it – has a bad habit of modifying behaviour, and not usually in a good way.

Endurance was always intended as a sport where the rider and horse work as a team. The rider is supposed to be familiar with his or her horse and its abilities, and able to recognise the smallest of signs that might signal trouble. That is endurance at its pinnacle.

When you’re racing at distances of up to 160km and a close finish is in prospect, the rider’s judgment is challenged to the utmost. How hard can I afford go? Is my horse performing as he or she should?

That process can hardly be helped if the prospect of winning a car or collecting a generous cash bonus is in prospect. There’s nothing like the possibility of a handsome payday to cloud one’s judgment.

In traditional horse-racing, this is far less of an issue, as the horses are worked to their maximum for only a few minutes at a time at the most. It’s a far different proposition when you’re talking about 160km.

No investment in the horses by ‘jockeys’

The sport in the region employs riders, both for training and in competition. Now, I do not doubt that some of these riders form attachments with the horses and solid bonds, but I doubt they can ride every horse they train in competition. They are often training the horses for others to ride. This is what you get in large operations. However, it does not encourage the close bond between horse and rider that I think is necessary in endurance riding to minimise the risk to the horse. Endurance, in my view, is no place for jockey-style riders.

Fast desert courses

Endurance in any country must work with the raw geographical material that is available. Some countries are blessed with fantastic endurance country, with varied terrain and footing that lends itself to dream endurance courses. Others, such as the UAE, have desert. I’m not sure how the fast desert courses in the region can be made into anything else? It’s a real challenge and I don’t have the answers.

Mindset

It seems to me that the UAE has a vision of endurance that isn’t entirely compatible with those involved in the sport elsewhere in the world. There is, for example, the track-side fleet of vehicles, only made possibly by the open desert country on which these horses are raced. It is a mindset that I believe is born from the high-stakes, professional nature of the sport in the region. In years to come, I may be proven wrong and we might one day see the spread of high-stakes endurance around the world. To be frank, I very much doubt it. The UAE has given it a shot and its school report card doesn’t look good. In fact, the nation now finds itself in detention.

Can Lausanne deliver two peace deals in one year?

The nuclear deal may yet fall over, of course. I’m not sure which deal I’d back for success.

4 thoughts on “No nukes please, we’re the FEI

  • April 14, 2015 at 12:50 am
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    The only way to make the UAE keep to the original ethos of endurance, i.e. the close partnership between the horse and a regular rider, would be to limit the number of named horses that any rider could compete during a season. Six horses per rider, all named and identified and qualified , would be my ideal.
    Whether this would be either possible, because of the enormous number of horses in training, or acceptable, is of course debatable.
    However this idea, if taken up, would have the result of levelling the playing field for competitors without unlimited funds – surely an important consideration in what is supposed to be an amateur sport.

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  • April 14, 2015 at 7:19 am
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    This could be so simple to solve:

    how about instead of tightening the rules and set up even harder sanctions, we should start simple and with something positive …

    Instead of caring how good one horse is over the period of a year, we need rankings covering a horses full career ! … Than UAE horses wouldn’t be even close to the top, as they don’t last, no way they’d clock in lots of mileage, doping doesn’t help here lots either …

    Positively encouraging people to ride in ways that your horse stands for many seasons -> to finish is to win – and not just aim for first in a single big event and points at the end of the year … An outstanding endurance horse performs well again and again, not just once !

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  • April 15, 2015 at 1:25 pm
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    The simplest solution to the issues of abuse is to totally disallow the fleets of SUVs ‘following’ the horses. It is, of course, already against FEI rules to provide ‘assistance’ anywhere on the trail except the designated stops; how this travesty came to be accepted is a mystery. They began with ‘observers/bodyguards’ and morphed into throwing water from the trucks. If the horses could only be watered and cooled at designated stops it would by impossible to ride at the current speeds; the horses would have to stop periodically. Not a total solution, but certainly a good start.

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