UAE endurance: We reach the crossroads

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endurance-stockIt is possible that endurance officials in the United Arab Emirates will be wondering where it all went wrong.

Why, they might ask, has the FEI voiced its apparent concern over the state of the discipline, especially when the Emirates Equestrian Federation signed on the dotted line last year promising to uphold the rules of the sport?

Yes, there are the catastrophic injuries. And the rule dealing with extreme climatic conditions does seem to be applied widely, allowing myriad support personnel to run on to the course with slosh bottles.

I could go on, but it seems clear to anyone following UAE endurance that too many horses are being ridden too close to the edge.

Let me get to the nub of the matter – and it is a point I have laboured before. Its national federation is, I suspect, about to pay the price for its lethal endurance cocktail – using jockey-style riders on fast desert courses and offering significant prize-money.

The United Arab Emirates was provisionally suspended from the FEI earlier last year over horse welfare concerns and its rather cavalier application of the rules. It was reinstated a few months later after signing an agreement in which it agreed to follow FEI rules and allow monitoring.

Endurance watchers were sceptical, mainly because the key elements of the sport – the money, the jockeys and the courses – were never likely to change.

Now, the FEI has set the Emirates Equestrian Federation a February 11 deadline to come up with an agreement to address the ongoing issues.

So, as officials of the Emirates Equestrian Federation meet in their air-conditioned Abu Dhabi offices to discuss the next move, it may well slowly dawn on them that they are at an important crossroads.

It seems to me that their only choice, if they wish to stay in the FEI, is to bring in huge reforms which will completely change the face of the sport in the UAE.

The alternative is that they stick with their “sport” and go their own way. They will kiss goodbye to the world endurance championships, to be held in Dubai this year, and its riders will no longer be able to compete internationally.

Some have expressed surprise that last year’s provisional suspension has not been re-imposed by the FEI, but I think this speaks to the overall seriousness of the situation.

I suspect, had it not been for the respectable endurance racing going at Bouthieb, the UAE may have been gone already.

The Bouthieb endurance facility in Abu Dhabi is owned by Sheikh Sultan Al Nahyan, who is insisting on local “house rules” to safeguard the welfare of the horse.

They are designed to keep speeds, which are GPS-monitored, down to 20kmh. Most prize-money goes to the best-conditioned horses, judged on the accumulation of scores from each vet gate.

The results have been stunning, with only a handful of horses requiring moderate veterinary assistance among more than 1000 who have competed under the rules so far.

The Bouthieb initiatives remove the frenetic on-course activity seen in UAE endurance, with support crew members running on to the course with their slosh bottles. Bouthieb has official watering points every kilometre, these being the only points where crewing is allowed. The final crewing point is 2.5km from the finish.

They also impose a limit of one car per trainer per five horses.

The FEI endurance director, Manuel Bandeira de Mello, issued a statement last month in which he acknowledged the six fatalities that had occurred in UAE endurance up to that point.

“It is abundantly clear,” he said, “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 was in urgent talks with the Emirates Equestrian Federation and individual event organisers to introduce similar protocols to those used at Bouthieb to reduce speed.

It is my understanding that Bandeira de Mello has travelled to the UAE in recent days as this matter comes to an inevitable head.

So, let us look at the statement issued by the FEI yesterday: “Following meetings between the FEI and the Emirates Equestrian Federation (EEF), the EEF has postponed four Endurance events so that agreement can be reached on proposed measures to urgently address a number of serious issues in Endurance in the region …. The FEI has set a deadline of 11 February for the EEF to come back with an agreement on the proposed measures.”

So, what can we make of that? It appears the ball is now very much in the UAE’s court. My reading of the situation is that Bandeira de Mello has asserted the view that Bouthieb-style rules are required, and the national federation has until February 11 to draw up an agreement to this effect.

The suspension of four endurance races (plus a ride for private individuals) in the meantime would most likely have been a requirement of the FEI: yes, we’ll give you time to consider your position, but only if you agree not to hold endurance races in the meantime.

So, we arrive at this point. Equestrian sport has laboured under more bad headlines and, yet again, it is the international problem child of endurance at the centre of it all.

I am reminded of the comment of four-star endurance judge, François Kerboul, who has been deeply involved in implementing the house rules at Bouthieb. He describes endurance racing elsewhere in the UAE as an “insane gymkhana”.

What a magnificent choice of words.

François and the owner of the Bouthieb endurance facility, Sheikh Sultan, may well hold the only lifeline left available to the UAE.

It is worth noting that the FEI statement refers to a deadline.

One thing is surely clear: there will be changes, or there will be consequences.

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