Even small reductions in speed have large beneficial effects on bone fatigue for the fastest horses, delegate to this week’s FEI Endurance Forum were told.
A total of 100 delegates from more than 30 countries gathered in Spain to discuss the way ahead for the growing sport.
Horse welfare, education and the future direction of the sport were primary topics, with delegates weighing the challenges of keeping endurance horses healthy and free from injury in a discipline in which speeds are likely to increase through the likes of better training, breeding, feeding and riding.
The University of Glasgow’s Dr Euan Bennet took delegates through the highlights and main results of the first year and a half of the FEI’s Global Endurance Injuries Study, and Professor Chris Whitton from the University of Melbourne presented data on bone fatigue.
Both reiterated the message that speed and non-compliance with mandatory rest periods were the key risk factors, highlighting that an increase of seven days on the mandatory rest periods established in 2014 could potentially prevent 10% of the failed-to-qualify statistics. Small reductions in speed have large beneficial effects on bone fatigue for the fastest horses, they said.
FEI Endurance director Manuel Bandeira de Mello led delegates in a discussion around potential rule revisions aimed at improving horse welfare and based on the scientific findings relating to areas such as qualifications, speeds, rest periods and weight regulations.
Discussions also covered the need for any potential changes to mandatory rest periods to be clearly based on welfare and not as sanctions for speed. The extensive feedback will be discussed by the FEI Endurance Committee as the next step in this rules revision process.
Delegates agreed that the key to injury reduction was a combination of rules revisions and education for athletes, trainers and all involved in the sport.
Diarmuid Byrne and Sam Watson from equestrian data science company EquiRatings presented a potential model for an athlete index in Endurance, aimed at identifying those at higher risk of non-completion and following a similar concept to a model used in Eventing.
Their presentation generated discussion on data collection in the future to enhance the tool, as well as its possible applications to reward positive performance and good horsemanship, and potential application to trainers, and horse/athlete combinations.
“It is about changing psychology and attitude,” EquiRatings’ founder, Sam Watson, explained.
“We need to create awareness and provide a tool that can guide the level of responsible horsemanship and help maintain a standard for the sport around the world.”
The new education system for Endurance officials was presented and received widespread support, with unanimous agreement on the benefit and importance of rewarding excellence and increasing experience.
The introduction of job descriptions, promotional courses for top-level officials, horsemanship education for all Endurance officials, requalification every three years and the introduction of a new 5* level of Officials were all on the agenda.
There was widespread support for the creation of a new 5* level of elite competition, with further consultation needed on what form it will take, and a general consensus that there should be clear and increased qualification criteria for entry to 1* level and for progression on to 4* and 5*.
However, further work was needed to flesh out proposals for the introduction of completion rates for championship qualifications.
Topics on the second day included event promotion, sponsorship, innovation in promotion, and what the sport could look like in the future.
Athlete education was again central to the debate as discussion turned to how speed related to the future of the sport.
Delegates noted Endurance was ultimately a sport against the clock, but this could be to the detriment of the horse. However, it was acknowledged that as the sport progressed, then speeds would get higher through the likes of better training, breeding, feeding and riding.
All acknowledged that speed contributed to injury, which was not acceptable for horse welfare and had a negative effect on the perception of the sport. Minimum weights and course design were discussed as examples of how to regulate speed, but the conversation returned to athlete responsibility and training.
FEI Secretary General Sabrina Ibáñez, who opened the forum, said the growth of Endurance brought opportunities as well as challenges.
“Endurance is clearly appealing and has potential, but as we grow we need to secure the integrity of the sport with correct processes, and maintain the highest standards of horse welfare,” she said.
“We are all here because we want to ensure that Endurance continues to develop and thrive around the world. And we are also here because we want to ensure the very best for our horses, for our athletes and for the greater Endurance community.”
Ibáñez, who went on to close the forum, said the FEI was committed to continue to organise these types of discussion forums for the discipline on a regular basis.