Normally, when my colleague calls me over to her computer to watch a video, it’s going to show a fluffy kitten doing something insanely cute, a horse unlatching his stable door, or a dog proving that he’s smarter than his master.
But yesterday I was instead subjected to 7 minutes and 53 seconds of endurance from the United Arab Emirates. More specifically, the Sheikh Zayed Bin Mansoor Al Nahyan Junior & Young Riders Endurance Cup, raced over 120 kilometres on Saturday at the Emirates International Endurance Village in Al Wathba, Abu Dhabi.
I wrote about this particular race the day after the event, having read the results.
The results, I felt, spoke for themselves in terms of the issues with UAE endurance. There were 55 starters, only 18 of whom successfully completed the four-loop race. Of the 37 eliminations, 19 were recorded as going out because of an irregular gait (including one before the race even started); another 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.
Now, having watched the video, which shows the closing stages of the race, I find myself almost lost for words. There is no point in me providing a forensic analysis of the video – you can watch it for yourself – but it is not pretty. In fact, it’s appalling.
The sea of support vehicles vastly outnumber the horses, some of whom are visibly struggling in the long straight haul for home. The coverage shows individuals running on to the course in their droves, spraying the horses with water and hoozling the animals along.
One leading contender, a grey horse, is seen to struggle. It finally falls back to a trot, clearly unable to maintain a canter. The rider is damn near having a fit on the horse’s back in a bid to encourage the animal to keep going, when any rider with any kind of affinity with their mount would have known it was done long ago. A few minutes later, we are shown the same combination again, and the horse is back at the canter. The rider was one of those later eliminated for beating the horse.
All this unfolds amid a cacophony of car horns, all accompanied by an edge-of-your-seat blow-by-blow account from a breathless commentator.
Is it sport? Not in my book. Is it fair on the horse? Not even close.
Surely, it is time for the FEI to act decisively and reimpose the suspension on the UAE.
Problems around rule enforcement and welfare led to the FEI suspending the UAE from the world governing body last year. Negotiations unfolded, and a few months later a deal was struck 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.
It has not gone well, as most endurance train-spotters had predicted. Liberties are still being taken, there are too many eliminations for lameness, and too many fatalities, with at least seven catastrophic injuries so far this season.
We are led to believe that the FEI is in urgent talks with UAE endurance officials about whether local rules similar to those being used just down the road in Bouthieb could be implemented across the Emirates.
The Bouthieb endurance facility is owned by Sheikh Sultan bin Zayed Al Nahyan, who has spearheaded stringent local rules designed to safeguard the welfare of horses. They are designed to keep speeds down and primarily reward the condition of the horse, for which 70 percent of the prizemoney is allocated. It has worked spectacularly well.
The FEI’s endurance director, Manuel Bandeira de Mello, has issued a statement saying it is abundantly clear that speed is a major factor in the catastrophic injuries to date and that it is necessary to introduce measures to slow down the horses.
One hopes that such abundant clarity translates into decisive action.
I have said before that the core problem with UAE endurance is that the combination of fast tracks, jockey-style riders and big prizemoney is a lethal cocktail for the horses.
We have no idea how much progress has been made in the talks between the FEI and the UAE. One suspects that lawyers will be involved and the FEI will carefully be following “process”. Meanwhile, horses continues to suffer and endurance continues to attract bad headlines.
Much is at stake, of course, with this year’s World Endurance Championships set to be held in Dubai.
With the way things stand, I can’t understand why any self-respecting endurance nation would go.