Emirates endurance: Actions speak louder than words

NZ-endurance-champs8509Welcome news emerged today that the Emirates Equestrian Federation had come to the table to talk with the FEI about the issues surrounding endurance in the region.

The Emirates national body agreed to withdraw its legal challenge to its suspension, which was apparently an FEI requirement before round-table talks on the issues could begin.

The UAE federation’s secretary general, Taleb Al Muhairi, has set a conciliatory tone and there are naturally hopes that significant improvements will result.

The FEI Bureau imposed the provisional suspension on March 12 in response to what it described as horse welfare issues and non-compliance with the world governing body’s rules and regulations in endurance.

The fact that the Emirates federation decided to appeal the suspension was disappointing on many levels. Lawyers were never going to solve the issues in endurance in the UAE, and the fact its national federation chose to pursue this route hinted at a worrying lack of contrition.

Even putting that aside, the legal route struck me as very challenging for the Emirates. Had it succeeded, it would hardly have been welcomed back into the international fold with open arms.

The only way that was ever going to happen was if it came to the table and started dealing with the issues that gave rise to the suspension in the first place.

It now appears that the Emirates federation has come to that realisation. The first talks have been held in Switzerland and the FEI has laid out its requirements.

It would be nice to think that this was the end-game in what has been a long and sorry saga, but I believe the challenges ahead remain significant.

It will, ultimately, be a test of the rules of endurance as well as a test of the willingness of the Emirates to bring about change.

Endurance in the United Arab Emirates is a racing-style industry. There are stables of endurance horses under trainers and they compete, in some cases, in races that offer significant prizes, cash or otherwise.

Additionally, I do not believe we will see the end of the fast desert courses that unquestionably contribute to the problems.

The sport is very well organised in the UAE, but the combination of fast courses, jockey-style riders, and the lure of big prizes have, in my view, been significant contributors to the welfare issues that resulted in the suspension. Some loose interpretations of the rules and patchy enforcement have compounded the problems.

Will the FEI’s rules of endurance provide sufficient safeguards to ensure the welfare of horses in such challenging circumstances?

The controversies may not be over. We have yet to learn the findings of the investigation by the Equestrian Community Integrity Unit into a dozen or so UAE races in which results appear to mirror those of previous races.

Still, it is encouraging that the Emirates federation has decided that the only viable route back is by engaging with the FEI. It will hopefully throw its support behind the changes that the FEI will require before the suspension is lifted.

We should not forget what the FEI Tribunal decision on the Emirates’ bid to lift the provisional suspension disclosed. The FEI raised with tribunal members what it described as the federation’s previous non-cooperation, and said the UAE body had backed away from signing a memorandum of understanding aimed at resolving the endurance impasse.

The fact the UAE has now abandoned its appeal is hopefully a sign that it genuinely wants to resolve the issues.

We must hope that the Emirates realise that its obligations here extend beyond races run formally under the FEI’s rules and regulations. It can no longer realistically expect to run races under “national rules” that don’t provide the same levels of protection for horses.

The important thing, for now, is that the process has begun. However, we shouldn’t delude ourselves that it’s going to easy.

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