It does us all good, from time to time, to ponder the challenges we present to the horse.
We ask a lot of these animals. For the most part, they are compliant in partnering with us in our many riding endeavours.
Horse sport is unique. We join with a horse to race, jump, dance, pull chuckwagons, race around barrels, and any number of other athletic pursuits.
It is our responsibility as guardians – from the president of the FEI right down to the horse owner – to ensure that everything we do in these pursuits begins and ends with respect for the horse.
Those who watch horse sport, and wider members of the public with an affinity for animals, don’t much care for seeing them breaking their legs on racetracks or tumbling over jumps in any discipline.
Horse-sport administrators recognise this and have been doing what they can to lower injury and mortality rates in most horse-related disciplines, albeit with mixed success.
Any horse-related discipline that fails to tackle its welfare obligations head-on is on course for deep trouble.
Followers of endurance will be familiar with the controversies that have plagued the sport for years. Most of these headline-grabbing problems have centered on the United Arab Emirates, where I believe the fast desert courses, jockey-style riders, and high stakes have proven to be a dangerous combination for the endurance horse.
I confess to having a soft spot for this sport. It has always struck me as being the ultimate partnership between horse and rider. At its pinnacle, riders will be attuned to their mounts; quick to detect the slightest of problems as they eat through the miles.
Problems around rule enforcement and welfare led to the FEI suspending the UAE from the world governing body last year.
Contrition wasn’t terribly apparent when the UAE lodged an appeal. But the nation was never likely to grab the moral or legal high ground on this issue, and it eventually withdrew its appeal and headed for the negotiating table.
The result, a few months later, was a deal in which the UAE promised to abide by FEI rules, during which it would be carefully monitored. It was, for the current UAE endurance season, a test of the sport’s rules and the FEI’s ability to maintain a handle on the situation.
But, we still had the fast desert courses, the jockey-style riders, and the significant prizes.
The season grinds on, but if the FEI can claim any kind of victory here, it would be a hollow one indeed. In general, there have been more eliminations, which the optimistic declare to be the result of more stringent vetting. Perhaps so.
But, without presenting a massive race-by-race breakdown, it seems that speeds are still too great, too many horses are suffering major – sometimes catastrophic – injuries, and too many horses are being pushed too hard. Too many are being eliminated through lameness-related issues, in my view.
You may remember the terrible demise last year of the Australian-bred horse, Splitters Creek Bundy, and the harrowing images of the horse stricken in the desert with two broken front legs while competing in the Al Reef Cup. The whole episode did enormous damage to the reputation of endurance.
Endurance followers will already know that this year’s Al Reef Cup claimed the life of another horse, South African-bred Idaho Rabba, who apparently ran out of control into a fence during the first loop and broke his leg.
The number of casualties for the season so far would seem to be seven. It simply isn’t good enough.
This morning, I perused the results of the Sheik Zayed Bin Mansoor Al Nahyan Junior & Young Riders Endurance Cup, raced over 120km on Saturaday at the Emirates International Endurance Village in Al Wathba, Abu Dhabi.
The results, I think, speak for themselves. There were 55 starters, 18 of whom successfully completed the four-loop race. The winning gelding had average speeds of 26.5kmh on the first loop, 26.933kmh on the second, 26.3kmh on the third, and 25.805kmh on the fourth.
Let’s now look at the 37 eliminations. Nineteen were recorded as going out because of an irregular gait (including one before the race even started); another went out because of an irregular gait and metabolic issues; three were listed as failing to complete; five were retired by the rider; one was disqualified for departing 10 minutes early; one was listed as being out of time; and six were disqualified for beating their horse. A horse named Ainhoa Catharissime, a grey Arab mare, went out on loop three after suffering a catastrophic injury.
Altogether, it hardly amounts to a ringing endorsement of endurance, in my view. The comparative lack of metabolic issues is about the only encouraging element in these figures.
Not far away, at the endurance centre at Bouthib, a rather different story is unfolding.
The Bouthieb facility in Abu Dhabi is owned by Sheikh Sultan bin Zayed Al Nahyan, who has spearheaded stringent local rules designed to safeguard the welfare of horses.
These comparatively simple rules reward the condition of the horse over speed, which is reflected in the distribution of prize money. Speeds must be kept in check and are monitored by GPS.
The results have been impressive. The new rules have so far been implemented at three events totaling eight competitions, covering a period of 23 days. Racing has involved 1077 horses to date.
Of that number, only five horses required any sort of significant care, but their lives or athletic futures were never at risk. They all left Bouthib’s clinic the same afternoon.
Now, the FEI is talking with UAE endurance officials about whether rules similar to those in Bouthieb could be implemented across the Emirates.
The FEI’s endurance director, Manuel Bandeira de Mello, issued a statement amid the growing unrest over the way the UAE season is unfolding.
He confirmed that the loss of Idaho Rabba in the Al Reef was the sixth fatality so far in the UAE so far this season, with Ainhoa Catharissime joining that list this weekend.
“It is abundantly clear that speed is a major factor in these incidents and that it is necessary to introduce measures to slow down the horses in order to reduce the number of catastrophic injuries,” he said.
“The FEI is in urgent discussions with the Emirates Equestrian Federation and individual event organisers to introduce similar protocols to those used so successfully at the recent event in Bouthib to reduce the speed.”
He said the FEI took any horse fatalities seriously and samples had been taken from all the dead horses to test for prohibited substances. Post mortem examinations have also been carried out.
The FEI was now notified about all fatalities in national events, which was not the case in the past.
“At a similar point in the UAE season last year, there had been three equine fatalities in international events so the number of deaths at international level has been reduced, but it is clear that we would like to see a similar reduction at national level.”
He said the official vets were now eliminating more horses at the vet gates, meaning that the completion rates were lower. “But but this has not yet had the effect of reducing the level of catastrophic injuries at national events.”
So, I think we can take from this that the measures aren’t working, which hardly comes as a surprise to those who have been following the situation in the UAE for years.
I continue to believe that the core problem is the lethal cocktail of fast tracks, jockey-style riders and big prizemoney.
Sheikh Sultan appears to have the answer, and I doubt it took a team of veterinarians and FEI boffins sitting on a high-powered committee to sort it out: cut the speed and, if you’re going to offer prizemoney, give the lion’s share for the condition of the horse.
Get riders back in touch with their horses and UAE endurance may well prove salvageable.
Will the UAE be prepared to take the Bouthib route? We will have to wait and see. I’m not sure what bargaining chips the FEI has left. It cashed in most of them when it struck the deal with the UAE allowing it back into the FEI’s fold.