Petitions have been a time-honored way to highlight a cause, and the one that seeks to have this year’s World Endurance Championships moved from the United Arab Emirates has certainly done that.
Petitions can be treated purely as a numbers game, but the internet has changed the terrain somewhat.
What constitutes a good number of signatures on a petition about an equestrian discipline that is little known outside the horse world? A thousand? Two thousand? Fifty thousand?
Who knows? The Change.org petition that targets the Dubai event had 5385 at the time of writing, which I would suggest is a solid show of support, indeed, for a sport with a modest international profile.
The first tranche of 4000 online signatures went to FEI President Ingmar De Vos on February 10.
For me, the comments posted by the mix of individuals who signed the petition provide valuable insight into the prevailing views on this matter.
One hopes that De Vos and the FEI’s endurance chiefs have taken the time to read the responses, for they paint a picture of a very angry horse community.
UAE endurance has been a major issue for the FEI for what now seems like an eternity. I think everyone understands the world governing body has processes to follow and has, perhaps, taken the understandable view that it can achieve more by keeping the country within the fold, rather than dispatch it into the equestrian wilderness.
But, what clearly frustrates a great many people is the limited inroads made in resolving the issues in the last two years or so. There have been talks and agreements, but one could easily get the impression that the UAE is more committed to running endurance the way it wants, rather than making meaningful changes that meet with international approval.
The world endurance championships are set down for Dubai in December. As things stand, there is a very good chance that some of the world’s top endurance nations will not be represented, even more so after footage emerged showing ill-treatment of leading horses in the closing stages of a junior and young riders’ race staged in the UAE late in January.
Your typical endurance rider would have watched that footage and asked the very simple question: What has actually changed? The wider horse community would have been appalled, too. One can imagine what a dressage rider would think of footage showing one rider practically convulsing atop his tired mount to get it moving, when in their own discipline they are severely penalised for what would be miniscule infractions by comparison.
And goodness know what the general public would think.
Certainly, there were consequences arising from that late-January ride. The Emirates Equestrian Federation (EEF) suspended five young riders, imposed hefty fines on five stables linked to the violations, and promised to “restructure the sport of endurance riding in the UAE”.
It is clear that the UAE takes great pride in its endurance prowess, so it is understandable that hosting the world championships would mean a great deal to the nation.
Indeed, amid mounting evidence that further controversy is about to erupt, the world championships may well be the only major bargaining chip left for the FEI.
The petition is the brainchild of the informal community, Sustainable Endurance. Its February 10 letter to De Vos accompanying the first 4000 signatures, just ahead of an FEI meeting with UAE officials over ongoing welfare concerns in endurance, laid out its concerns.
The community holds the view that the UAE’s riders and stakeholders have given little impression that they understand the concerns held by the rest of the horse world.
“The decision to launch the petition was not taken lightly,” the letter explained.
“We recognise that when the world championship was allocated to Dubai 14 months ago, the FEI must have been given reason to believe change was under way and that the UAE’s new approach would be evident two years later when the event itself took place.
“Just three months later, the EEF was suspended. Eleven months later, the EEF is still openly betraying the FEI.”
They continued: “Points of interest in the petition include willingness of many hundreds of horsemen and women to make optional comments after signing, using their real names and on a public page. In addition to riders and breeders, signatories include vets who officiate in FEI rides, and distinguished persons from some of the other FEI disciplines.
“The clear message is that immediate, decisive action is the only way to reduce equine suffering, make the EEF take the matter seriously, and halt the considerable reputational damage to the FEI and all its other horse sports.”
No-one can doubt the passion of those who have signed.
They are people including Melissa Marquez-Formica, of Elk Grove, California, who declared: “I do not support the abuse that is tolerated in the UAE. I do not want a pillar event held in a region that will make endurance look like it’s an abusive sport. Endurance is about helping your horse be the best athlete they can be, not about running them into the ground. They are not disposable vehicles, they are partners.”
Theresa Du Toit, of Cape Town, South Africa, commented: “Endurance is my sport and I am proud to be an endurance rider! I have an amazing teammate, one who is worthy of gold. I will not allow the UAE to destroy my discipline!!!!”
Perhaps Penelope Reid, of Sparsholt in the United Kingdom, sums up the mood: “It is entirely inappropriate that the UAE, and Dubai in particular, should be entrusted to host the World Endurance Championships since they have shown no progress in enforcing the welfare and regulatory conditions asked for by the FEI and Western equestrian federations.”
The anger in many of the comments is palpable and I doubt that would surprise anyone, least of all the FEI.
Sustainable Endurance says the petition will remain open for as long as necessary, and is hopeful that more horse people from other disciplines will rally in solidarity to help bring an end to the problems that have plagued the discipline in the UAE.
It says: “This is a chance for members of the equestrian community at large to stand up and be counted on what is an important issue for horse sport in general.
“We all need to defend the basic premise that horse sport can never condone abuse of any kind, and we stand by the FEI in its efforts to achieve this.”
The petition can be found here.