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Any equestrian discipline must surely confront a simple and unappetizing truth when three horses perish in one contest, as happened in Dubai recently in a national 100km Endurance ride.
Clearly, the measures in place to safeguard the horses are not working.
Sadly, yet again, it is Endurance in the United Arab Emirates (UAE) sitting squarely in the spotlight.
There is a terrible sense of dread and inevitability with every shattering leg in the desert form of the sport of endurance.
Based on disclosures in the last week of worrying numbers of deaths, even the most impartial of observers would likely agree that the FEI has failed to get on top of the problem.
Research by the group Clean Endurance, whose volunteers have been poring through the FEI Database, has cast light on a series of deaths which had not initially been coded in the results as Catastrophic Injuries (CIs).
It is a poor look for equestrian sport, and the numbers publicized by the group would indicate this ranks as a major failure for the world governing body.
Yes, the FEI did impose a provisional suspension on the UAE Equestrian Federation in 2015 over its Endurance transgressions, which was lifted relatively quickly after both parties signed a three-year legally binding agreement in which the national body promised to make improvements.
Yes, the FEI has engaged experts to explore Endurance injuries, and there have been rule changes aimed at curbing the excesses.
But none of that has worked or, to be fair, worked effectively, in terms of horse deaths. Why? Because the FEI has failed to address the key issue, in my view.
Dare I repeat myself, but the central issue is that the very nature of desert Endurance poses a risk to horses. Major prizes and jockey-style riders, who may have a limited relationship with their mount, represent a risky combination for the horses.
Desert Endurance is challenging at the best of times, and I have long thought that the grading of courses could be incorporated in the rules to justify more stringent safeguards for rides on faster tracks, or in conditions that require them.
Last week, the chairwoman of Equestrian Australia’s Endurance Committee, Linda Tanian, wrote to Brian Sheahan, who chairs the FEI’s Endurance Technical Committee.
Tanian’s voice, we hope, is among many seeking constructive ways to solve the problems in Endurance, the worst of which remain firmly mired in the Middle East.
“We remain concerned that catastrophic injuries are still occurring, and still believe there are some rules that can be imposed that will assist in limiting injuries,” she wrote on the Australian committee’s behalf.
“We strongly believe that sensitivity testing should be conducted routinely pre-ride and at other inspections, to determine the possibility of nerve blocking to the lower limbs. This is a routine procedure in other disciplines and could be adopted in Endurance.
“We also strongly believe that lowering the maximum heart rate to 56 at all inspections will assist in altering the management of horses at rides.”
These are sensible proposals that deserve urgent consideration, given the deaths that continue to occur.
There is also the growing and compelling body of evidence which suggests many of these catastrophic injuries are not isolated events, with micro-fractures in the leg bones being a major contributing factor. Greater urgency needs to be applied to effectively identify these horses and prevent them from competing.
Further, we need to understand whether there is a genetic or conformational element, and what role over-training plays in their development.
In the shorter term, the FEI and the UAE Equestrian Federation need to stop these deaths, and if more conservative heart rates and extra checks of any kind are needed to do that, they must be imposed as a matter of urgency.
The FEI makes much of our relationship with the horse, and how their welfare should be at the heart of everything we do in the sporting sphere. It is entirely inappropriate to “Keep calm and carry on” in such circumstances.
Horse sport will be in trouble if the wider public starts taking the view that horses are mere commodities in these endeavors.
Sadly, given the deaths reported, one could be forgiven for thinking that these horses are churn – that horrible marketing expression for a turnover of customers in a commodity-driven industry. Except, of course, in this case the horses are not customers. They have no say over their participation.
Now, let’s look at the findings of the Clean Endurance Group, which was set up to improve horse welfare through monitoring events and providing solutions within the discipline.
Last week, it released a statement highlighting the three fatalities in the Commemoration Day National 100km ride in Dubai on November 29.
It confirmed the three deaths on the horse registrations database of the FEI, adding that they had not been recorded on the official ride timing and results system.
Patrolons Moonstruck, originally from the United States, and Azzam Al Khamis, from the UAE, did not finish the first loop, whilst Syferpan Usain, originally from South Africa, did not finish the third loop.
The group has been going through the FEI Database to identify additional horse fatalities.
Globally, it has identified 26 horse fatalities at rides staged since 2014, in addition to the 22 horses that were officially declared Catastrophically Injured (CI) in the final result sheets over the same period.
Most of the 26 fatalities were listed with the elimination code FTC (Failed to Complete), despite the FEI introducing the official CI code in 2014 to provide greater transparency around fatalities. All these deaths were recorded on the FEI Database on the same date as the ride in which they competed, Clean Endurance says.
For the UAE alone, since 2014 the group has found 23 deaths on the FEI Database recorded as being on the same day as their ride. They cross-checked them with the results, finding various elimination codes used for these horses, but none of them using CI. This compares to 16 official CIs recorded for those rides.
The group says it continues to monitor ride results globally, and it believes the number of deaths will rise. It is, by its own admission, a mammoth task.
Since its press release last week, it has found three more deaths globally that were not coded as such in the results, taking the tally to 29 since 2014 – and these, bear in mind, are only the deaths not coded (initially at least) as CIs.
It noted that, in 2016, the FEI introduced a rider penalty point system for serious field-of-play offences, including CIs in Endurance, which can lead to suspension of the rider.
“This, and the rising global awareness of horse welfare issues, may be possible deterrents to the correct reporting of these deaths,” it said in a statement.
“There is ever-growing dissent within the global endurance community about the true number of fatalities at rides in the UAE.
“Despite the FEI’s best efforts to curb horse abuse, the officially recorded death toll at UAE rides also continues to increase. To date, this season there have been seven officially recorded CIs compared to four at this time last season.
“A number of historic results have only been corrected to CI on the Emirates Equestrian Federation in the past few days, after the additional fatalities were drawn to the FEI’s attention.”
The FEI, in response to questions from Horsetalk, said that, since the signing of an agreement by the UAE Federation in July 2015, all national results, including any fatalities, are reported to the FEI by the UAE Federation.
This included the three fatalities in the national ride on November 29, it said.
The national federation sanctions athletes and trainers for both international and national events, in addition to any FEI sanctions, it added.
“The FEI now has a robust system in place for reporting equine fatalities in international rides to the FEI and there is follow-up and potential sanctions for any unreported fatalities.
“We have a weekly update from our IT department on the dates of death that have been entered on the FEI Database by national federations across all disciplines.
“In addition, and as part of the extended agreement with Glasgow University, we are working with our IT department to put in place an automated system across all disciplines that will flag up when a national federation enters a date of death on the FEI Database, triggering an alert so that our veterinary department can follow up if the correct reporting system has not been followed.
“The purpose of the new system is to ensure that all horse deaths, whether in-competition, post-competition or unrelated to competition, are looked into.
“Unreported fatalities are always investigated and, depending on the findings, could result in a sanction such as a warning letter or suspension.”
Robust systems. Monitoring. Rule changes. Investigations. The threat of rider sanctions. It appears to have made precious little difference so far in terms of horse deaths. And that is a tragedy, not only for the horses but for the wider Endurance community, which finds the reputation of its sport tarnished.
These are urgent matters. And I’m not convinced enough is being done.