Endurance is again embroiled in controversy, with welfare concerns in the United Arab Emirates again taking centre-stage. One of its venues, Bouthieb, has taken a different approach, with rules designed to safeguard horse welfare. It has been stunningly successful. Four-star endurance judge François Kerboul, who was involved in setting up the Bouthieb initiative, explains how it works, and provides some insights into UAE endurance.
Endurance competitions at Bouthieb essentially ensure that speed is not the main obsession at the expense of the horse.
Its rules, in which speeds are GPS-monitored and the majority of prize-money is allocated to the best-conditioned horses, have resulted in remarkably few horses requring veterinary treatment, and even then for only minor issues.
Bouthieb’s rules were made possible by the determination of the venue’s owner, Sheikh Sultan bin Zayed Al Nahyan, who was not afraid to return to the fundamentals of endurance.
Is it so hard to do the same elsewhere?
Organising endurance competitions in the UAE
Every year, the national federation of the UAE publishes its calendar for the season, which is amended if necessary as the weeks go by. It is the result of negotiations between the three organizing committees and the federation.
The resulting official calendar is made in such a way that the distribution of the rides is balanced equally. There are 22 competitions in each of the three venues for the 2015-16 season, totaling 66 for the country.
Bouthieb alone represents 33% of the UAE competitions for the current season. So it is not a minor venue.
We could argue that, with its qualifying events being more numerous, the number of horses that pass through Bouthieb make it the most important venue.
A more detailed study would probably show that, for an average year, this site has between 40% and 45% of the overall number of horses in competition.
Bouthieb is not a minor venue in a corner of the UAE. Yet this is what surfaces in the news we read here and there over the world.
Why new rules
For years, Sheikh Sultan has criticized what he calls the “flat endurance race”, a usual deviation of the discipline in the UAE, which included Bouthieb until the creation of the new rules this season.
Last year’s suspension of the UAE’s national federation over endurance welfare issues proved him right and he saw an unparalleled opportunity for change, while others chose to feel humiliated, angry or resentful.
He asked that we provide him with measures based on one main objective that can be summarized by “kill the speed, not the horse”. For him, there was a clear cause-and-effect relationship between the two, which the FEI is now acknowledging.
It was considered that the international rules of endurance would not, on their own, be enough to keep speeds in check when prizemoney was at stake. This led to the development of the new rules at Bouthieb that have given such dramatic results.
What are the measures taken?
The double question at the heart of the matter was: how to kill the speed that kills, and how to educate the competitors so they could understand that the horses are not interchangeable motorbikes.
We set up a system based on four main axes:
- To reduce speed by strongly tightening the FEI’s conventional parameters that would make it simply impossible to gallop for 40km at 40kmh while forgetting everything else.
- To establish a joint system, taking into account the welfare of the horse in competition by setting up a system of points that grade the ability of a rider to manage his horse safely (the Best Riding Challenge).
- To reward the joint system much better than the traditional classification to make it a more “attractive” component in order to redirect people’s attitudes with the help of financial gain.
- To include controlling rules to return to a healthy sport and support the general education purpose.
We responded to the double question by creating a dual system.
Tightening the “traditional” parameters
It is clear in the UAE that the FEI rules alone, as they are implemented, have not solved the problem of speed for speed’s sake and that excesses continue to occur.
It was therefore necessary to “work hard on them” and to add something more.
We often forget that the FEI schedules are special-condition contracts for rides and that it is possible and legal to amend the general rules to a certain extent.
Many think that the limit of 64 heartbeats per minute (bpm) is an obligation, while it is clearly stated – in particular with the reformulation made during the revision of the 9th edition – that this limit is valid if nothing more binding was written in the schedule.
For two years in Bouthieb this limit has been lowered to 60 bpm, and this season it has been fixed at 56 bpm.
To ensure this impacted on endurance speeds, the presentation time was lowered to 10 minutes.
Together with the decrease of the maximum heart rate, this would inevitably have an impact on the speed on the track. It was found impossible to exceed the 23-24kmh thanks to this double provision.
These two amendments were subjected to consultation with the FEI that confirmed such changes were permitted under the regulations.
Setting up a joint system for protection
Reducing speed is good, but it is not sufficient to put the welfare of the horse at the center of the riders’ attention.
We know that many sports include penalty points systems that interfere with the concept of speed. It is particularly the case in cross-country tests in eventing, or in driving events.
Among solutions found by national federations for the initiation and training of endurance riders, there is one that we found as a source of inspiration. It is the Belgian system in which a series of penalty points are awarded depending on the speed, the recovery time, the heart rate, etc.
We saw that this system of penalties reflected the ability of the rider to manage the horse, which is, or should be, the goal of any endurance training.
Built on the basic idea of this system, several methods have been developed to account for the “management” of the horse by the rider.
A systems of points to be awarded, based on multiple criteria, was eventually implemented as follows:
- Speed: Points are awarded depending on the speed. 20kmh gives the maximum number of points. Exceeding this limit is worth zero. Below 20kmh, 1 point per kmh is lost.
- Recovery: The number of points is inversely proportional to the time and is growing faster than the speed points and heart rate points. One minute gives the maximum number of points. 10 minutes is the maximum time allowed and earns the minimum number of points. A time above 10 minutes means elimination.
- Heart rate: Again the number of points awarded is inversely proportional to the heart rate. 56 bpm are eligible for 1 point and it increases gradually as the frequency lowers. More than 56 bpm means elimination.
- Gait: The gait also comes into play in the awarding of points, but to a lesser extent. There are just two possibilities: “A” gives the maximum and “B” is the minimum, “C” being eliminatory by definition (lameness).
- Metabolism: Out of the six usual criteria, we kept three considered as less “subjective”, i.e. mucous membrane, capillary refill and girth/withers/ back (pain or injury). The system operates in such a way that 3 “A” (or “1”) gives the maximum points, 2 “A” (or “1”) and 1 “B” (or “2”) gives one less, and so on. A “C” on girth/withers gives zero points whatever the result of the other two criteria (which makes sense because such a horse, having wound or pain, should not leave for another phase anyway). This applies continuously during the competition and not just on the end result, in order to be a permanent concern.
Considering the timing element, this obviously complicates the situation, and it is impossible to manage this data without a sophisticated automatic programme.
Balancing the prizes
The two systems are not only parallel but also intertwine during competitions.
We now get two rankings at the end of the competition: the traditional FEI classification with the tightened constraints as explained above, and the points classification that reflect the good management of the horse with regard to its welfare throughout the ride.
To keep the FEI ranking while promoting the points classification, the overall allocation is apportioned as follows:
- FEI classification: 30%
- Points classification (non FEI): 70%
This distribution makes the points classification very attractive from a financial point of view.
Competitors try to gain as many points as they can while aiming to arrive first, but their preference goes to the highest endowment. The ideal is, of course, to be ranked first in both systems. The winners in this arrangement are certainly the horses.
Gradually, a new perception arises; a new way to compete. It is no longer only about arriving first, even with a horse on the verge of collapsing, but to arrive better.
From the viewpoint of the competition itself, more rider calculations and a different strategy are required.
This is a true revolution that has, and will, affect the training mode, the type of horses used, and, ultimately, even their breeding.
One can see trainers getting hooked and changing their ways. Actually, the goal is to win in both systems: That is, arrive first at the finish while having the highest number of points. This can be done only by adapting to the new rules.
The Bouthieb endurance rules introduce subtlety to the competition that makes it all the more interesting. It is, moreover, entirely consistent with the spirit of endurance – that is, to win while preserving one’s mount (which is theoretically contained in the classical interrelation between heart rate and speed).
Re-educating thanks to a new set of rules
We have seen that all this aims at preserving the horse’s welfare and rebalancing the scale of values in the participants’ minds.
But we cannot end things here as it would not be enough if we did not consider and deal with all the different ways of behaving during a competition.
Therefore, strict rules were set up to accompany the new provisions mentioned earlier.
We will only list a few here:
- The control of the number of crew cars;
- The end of the mixing of cars and horses on the tracks (occurring at Bouthieb for three years running);
- The establishment of fixed water points and the banning of continuous watering;
- The banning of pedestrians on the horse track. They should instead be at the water points;
- Prohibition of the urging-on or encouragement of the horses from the crew cars;
- The introduction of briefings, which did not exist up to now;
- The obligation to keep the grooming area clean;
- The establishment of a network of surveillance cameras with recordings (including on the trotting lines);
- Random checks on identification microchips during the competitions;
- The strengthening of weight controls;
- The control of identities on the track in case of doubt;
- Random checks of equipment and harnesses;
- Close examination of the hold-time areas.
These measures aim to create a framework for a return to normal conditions for the practice of endurance.
Bouthieb: A solution to the crisis?
The new rules at Bouthieb provide incentives to care for the horses and are not at all repressive.
We have seen their immediate effectiveness and I believe we will observe equally positive future impacts on attitudes and, ultimately, the welfare of horses across the entire sector.
The measures implemented are in no way contradictory to the aims of the FEI.
The question is: What could prevent the spread of protocols similar to those developed at Bouthieb?
This could be done under the patronage of the FEI.
One also has to wonder whether it is time to take a new look at the international endurance regulations and the entire discipline, given the success of Sheikh Sultan’s Bouthieb initiative.
Can we imagine amended international endurance rules that provide a better framework under which horses and riders can compete? The end result would surely be a more positive public image.
Endurance is a great discipline, provided its participants are willing to continue to improve the foundation of the sport.