Puerto Rico, where national delegates are about to gather for this year’s FEI General Assembly, can lay claim to no fewer than five Miss Universe pageant winners. One imagines that the beautiful people of the FEI would fit in very nicely there.
Its capital, San Juan, oozes character, with its blue cobblestone streets, friendly inhabitants and copious quantities of the local delight, rum. And let’s not forget that this is the home of the beautiful Paso Fino horse.
So, in between downing rum-laden daiquiris, what can we expect from the movers and shakers of the equestrian world?
Here’s a few snippets to whet your appetite:
What a year it has been. Negative headlines have abounded, almost exclusively centred on the United Arab Emirates (UAE). The country was provisionally suspended in March amid welfare concerns, but has since been welcomed back after agreeing to reforms.
And let’s not forget the so-called phantom rides – a dozen or so races in which the results mirrored those of previous events. The endurance world remains frustratingly short of answers. Two senior endurance officials in the country have been provisionally suspended and results in the FEI database have been amended, but we really need to know much more.
The FEI’s Endurance Technical Committee, in an October 7 report which will go to delegates, alludes to the horrible year. Its introduction reads: “Around the world, almost instantaneously, horse lovers were shocked to see a picture of a horse with two fractured cannons stumbling in an endurance ride in the desert. Such a scene challenged our principles of horse welfare, assaulted our sense of fair play and competition and left us questioning where our sport is heading and who is responsible for protecting the horse.
“The Endurance Technical Committee endorsed the swift action taken by the leadership of the FEI in facing the issue of horse injuries in our discipline.”
For the record, the Australian-bred horse’s name was Splitters Creek Bundy.
It remains to be seen whether the promised compliance with FEI rules and regulations by the UAE will see an end to the tribulations.
With the big opening race of the UAE’s current season resulting in 81.48% of the 108-strong field being eliminated or withdrawn, I would suggest it’s far from certain that these troubles are behind us.
Endurance, along with the other FEI disciplines, has been looking at reform.
The most controversial proposal involves changing the 160km race that decides the world champion at the World Equestrian Games to a two-day 100km-a-day competition.
The limited evidence to date suggests this does not have great support. Following the Sports Forum in April this year, the FEI surveyed national federations for their views on some quite specific issues around formats for the World Equestrian Games and the Olympics.
In all, 47 countries responded – a surprisingly low number considering the importance of the issues. Nations were asked for their opinion of the two-day format, and a majority opposed the idea.
The FEI’s Jumping Committee, in a report dated October 9, acknowledged that a large portion of its time this year has been devoted to “developing a vision for the future format of the Olympic Games and the World Equestrian Games”.
An outline of its views will be presented to delegates during a special session in Puerto Rico.
The aforementioned survey gave some insights into the views of nations on the key reform issues on the table, the main one being the treatment of drop scores.
A majority favoured having a drop score in both rounds of the team competition, and opposed having a drop score in only the first round, or only the second round. A majority also opposed running the individual competition before the team competition.
A majority of the 47 nations agreed that having the option of substituting one combination before the individual competition or before the team competition could resolve any perceived concerns about horse welfare.
For now, we’ll have to wait to learn what the technical committee thinks about it all.
The key issues for dressage centered, at least initially, on the length of tests and the dress code.
The Dressage Technical Committee’s October 16 report acknowledges the importance of the reform question. It, too, will present more details on its views to delegates, with more discussion planned in the coming months, with plan to present a final paper at next April’s Sports Forum.
The Olympic competition format is the headline issue, but the discipline is also examining, among other things, competition formats in general, the use of music in tests, harmonising the formats with other disciplines, modernising the dress code, and strategies for making the sport easier to understand.
In short, the discipline is looking to make itself more attractive and broaden its appeal.
It seems that the proposal to introduce shorter tests is already dead and buried. The committee said the proposal had been tested and discussed in detail. There were many negative comments from national federations and the proposal has been withdrawn.
So, what sort of feedback did national federations provide in the survey?
Two proposed Olympic competition formats were put to nations. The one that got majority backing had a grand prix involving all competitors on the first two days, as a qualifier only. The third day was a rest day, with the team medals decided among the top six teams on day 4. Day 5 would see the competition for the individual medals decided in grand prix freestyle, involving a yet-to-be-agreed number of competitors.
One possible format for future team competitions at the Olympics, involving teams of two or three, was rejected by a majority of nations.
A majority of the 47 nations thought that the world governing body should relax the dress code for FEI dressage events.
The Eventing Technical Committee, in its October 15 report, said it would continue discussions on some possible new concepts for the future of top-level eventing during 2016, for implementation in the 2017 rules.
Matters under consideration include a minimum width for narrow cross-country fences, the creation of a half-star level with 1.05-metre cross-country fences, and a reviewed star-level categorisation.
Other possibilities include the introduction of a 4 star CIC (short) category, a review of the coefficient of dressage, an examination of cross-country penalties, and a look at the minimum eligibility requirements for all categories of events.
The committee also addressed the risk in the sport, noting that the number of competitions had increased by 68% from 2005 to 2014. The number of starters had risen 53% in that time.
Falls were examined as a percentage of starters. The average risk of a fall that every rider had in starting a competition was 5.59% in 2014 – lower than the average of 6.59% in 2005.
The total number of falls in absolute terms had increased from 826 in 2005 to 1051 in 2014. There were 35 serious injuries in 2005 and 31 in 2014.
The committee said it was important that a common view on the level of risk deemed acceptable be found and agreed to by all involved.
“The athletes were aware and accepted the risk, shown by the increase of starters,” the committee noted. “The level of risk was recognised by insiders of the sport, however it had also to be endorsed by the outside world.”
Results from the survey of nations indicated little appetite for change in the discipline. A majority opposed completely separate competitions for teams and individuals. A majority of the 47 respondents preferred the long format with the jumping test last, as opposed to a short format with the cross-country last.
A majority felt the level of difficulty should be the same at the World Equestrian Games and the Olympics. Most opposed having any differences in the difficulty of the cross-country course, jumping course and dressage test for team and individual competitors.
More on the survey
The survey also sought some broader views, with a majority agreeing with the “basic conclusion” that efforts should be made to make horse sport more universal and increase the number of countries taking part.
A majority favoured keeping team and individual competitions completely separate for both jumping and dressage, while a majority opposed separating them for eventing, opting for the status quo.
For the Olympic disciplines, a majority would support a three-member team competition with no drop score, provided there was a possibility to substitute reserve combinations.
Most agreed there should be a cap on the number of athletes and horses at the World Equestrian Games, not only on logistical grounds but to make the event more marketable for broadcasters, media and spectators.
FEI Veterinary Committee
The FEI Veterinary Committee said the Injuries Surveillance System had continued from 2014 in endurance. The collection and collation of data was continuing and it would be analysed by a specialist epidemiologist. The committee said preparations were under way to roll out the system to other disciplines.
The push continued to allow easier international movement of top sport horses, under the High Health High Performance horse (HHP) concept. The FEI has been working with the World Organisation for Animal Health (OIE) and the International Federation of Horseracing Authorities (IFHA) in this regard.
The FEI founded the International Sports Horse Confederation in order to establish a common pathway to implement the concept.
Appetite for change?
Well, if that’s not enough to earn a humble delegate a daiquiri or three, I don’t know what would. And what better place to enjoy them than a tropical island group in the northeastern Caribbean?
Relaxation aside, key questions around discipline reform remain on the table.
This General Assembly might ultimately provide the first true measure of the appetite for change.
Documentation released ahead of the FEI General Assembly can be found here.