Irish showjumper Kevin Thornton has been fined and suspended after the FEI Tribunal found him guilty of horse abuse.
The horse, 10-year-old Flogas Sunset Cruise, collapsed and died shortly after the riding incident in France that gave rise to the proceedings.
The tribunal, which opened the case against Thornton last November, released its final decision this week, in which it suspended him for four months and imposed a fine of 5000 Swiss francs, as well as costs of the same amount.
FEI Secretary General Sabrina Ibáñez said after the release of the tribunal’s findings: “The FEI stood up for horse welfare by taking this case to the FEI Tribunal and, given the severity of this incident, I truly would have expected a much tougher sanction.
“It was important to the FEI that the allegation of horse abuse was confirmed by the tribunal. We had requested a two-year suspension, but the level of sanctions is at the discretion of the tribunal and we respect its independence.”
The abuse allegation arose from Thornton’s riding of Flogas Sunset Cruise at the Hippodrome de la Cote d’Azur racetrack, where the Cagnes-sur-Mer event venue is located, on October 10 last year.
The horse’s performance and behaviour on the competition day prior to the incident had been disappointing as it did not want to go. As a result, Thornton and the horse’s co-owner had agreed to change the training method, and the session at the racetrack was part of that change.
In its findings, the tribunal determined that the 28-year-old athlete’s behaviour “went way beyond what could be considered an acceptable conduct towards a horse” and further concluded “with confidence that the horse has been whipped repeatedly, substantially and excessively and clearly more than the three times alleged by Mr Thornton”.
The world governing body for horse sport had told the tribunal that “even if the horse had survived, a case of horse abuse would still have been opened by the FEI”.
The autopsy did not confirm the cause of the horse’s death. The tribunal made it clear that it was “not deciding on the potential responsibility of Mr Thornton for the tragic death of the horse”.
The FEI alleged in the case that Thornton, who has been European-based since 2010, engaged in horse abuse when galloping Flogas Sunset Cruise in training at the racetrack on the afternoon of October 10 last year.
Together with its notification letter, the FEI submitted statements of eight eye-witnesses of the incident.
In its brief, the FEI drew the tribunal’s attention to several extracts from the witness statements.
One described the use of Thornton’s switch “for a long time and with great violence in order for his horse to keep galloping even though the horse could not move forward”.
Another said: “He took it out on his horse for several long minutes on the straight line of the racecourse until the horse collapse.”
Another commented: “I heard the noise of a whip. I saw a reluctant grey horse and his rider correct him and gallop on the track.”
Another described a “correction” that “lasted too long”.
Yet another witness said: “The horse was white with sweat, his nostrils dilated, his eyes bulging, several people tried to stop him verbally, without success. The horse finally stopped, began to tremble, neigh and fell to the ground dead.”
Another described how they saw Thornton start on a big gallop for a lap of the large galloping track. “The horse was completely exhausted and Kevin whipped the horse and used his spurs.”
Yet another observed ” … I have seen Kevin Thornton running multiple lengths on the track in full gallop on his grey horse, using his whip many times. The horse seemed to be exhausted, when it stopped Kevin redoubled his blows.”
The FEI argued that the witness statements left no doubt that Thornton used his whip excessively on the horse to force it to continue galloping.
Thornton denied the allegations of horse abuse. He said the horse had not been abused in any way, nor did it show any signs of abuse. He said it had not been ridden excessively. There was no excessive use of the spurs and/or the whip, he argued.
The horse, he said, was not forced to move forward beyond its abilities at all. It had not even reached the level of normal work.
The death of the horse had been a tragic event, and there had been no wrongdoing at all by him, he argued.
Several witnesses were called by Thornton, with one providing an account of the incident. The witness said the horse had reared repeatedly at the entrance to the galloping track. Thornton had tried to bring the horse around quietly, but it persisted in rearing. He used the whip a maximum of three times on the horse’s back end to get it to move forward.
Flogas appeared to then go normally away from the entrance at a canter but then bolted. “I could see in the distance Kevin struggling to hold him …
“In my opinion Kevin did the best he could to get the horse to go forward and was in no way abusive to the horse. Kevin did not force the horse to canter on, when it was tired. The horse did not even sweat.”
Another witness said: “Kevin was always very quiet and careful with Flogas as he had a bit of a special character but had found a friend in Kevin as a result of his quiet and patient way with him.
“From what I have seen from Kevin in the handling of his horses of a day to day basis and his care of Flogas, I would never for one moment believe Kevin would be abusive to any horse.”
The FEI argued that the eight eye-witnesses, six of whom were heard during the hearing, were all equestrian people and knew where the acceptability line was, and that Thornton had gone far beyond that line.
“All witnesses confirmed that they saw Mr Thornton on the horse violently whipping it for far too long, i.e., excessively, and that he did not stop when he should have stopped.
“That the whipping was so loud that other horses got scared. Further, that Mr Thornton had been angry, frustrated and was taking it out on the horse.”
The tribunal, in its decision, said it was undisputed that Thornton had whipped the horse, although how many times and in which manner were disputed.
“Based on the substantially concurring eye-witness testimonies, the tribunal concludes that the whipping and the overall treatment of the horse by Mr Thornton during that incident went way beyond what could be considered an acceptable conduct toward a horse under FEI rules and regulations.
“Based on the evidence on the record, including the concurring testimonies of the eye-witnesses, the tribunal also concludes that the whipping was administered with anger.
“Mr Thornton was required to keep his emotions in check and the Tribunal considers that Mr Thornton violated the prohibition of using the whip to ‘vent an Athlete’s temper’.”
The tribunal said it did not find credible the explanation given by Thornton that the horse had bolted
and that he was struggling to regain control.
“While it is possible that the horse did indeed bolt and rear up, for an experienced rider, as Mr Thornton is, to repeatedly whip a horse on its buttocks cannot be meant to regain control of a horse that bolted and went on an uncontrolled gallop.
“To the contrary, such whipping can only be meant to make the horse gallop faster.”
The decision of the tribunal, which comprised, Laurent Niddam, Henrik Arle and Armand Leone, can be appealed before the Court of Arbitration for Sport within 21 days of its June 6 release.
The full tribunal decision can be read here.