Is the law an ass when it comes to horse sport?

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At times, I need to remind myself that I am but a simple country lad unaccustomed to the big-city ways of the FEI and its administrators.

They make the rules and humble horse owners around the globe, on the whole, do their best to abide by them.

They run a judicial system to deal with the more serious infractions, and we regularly see decisions from the FEI Tribunal on rider transgressions.

Any system of justice has a few necessary requirements, including fairness and the need to ensure that the penalties imposed for breaches are consistent, varying only on the circumstances of each individual case.

It is hard to escape the conclusion that we may not have the balance right when we compare the outcomes of two cases decided by the tribunal this month.

In one, a horse ridden by a young South African rider in a 1* showjumping event returned a positive test for the common household painkiller paracetamol.

Jeanne Engela made extensive inquiries and even arranged lab tests on several supplements given to her horse, Chanel Van De Zeshoek. However, she was unable to determine the source of the drug. The outcome: A two-year suspension and a fine.

The other decision had been released two days earlier. A young Bahraini endurance rider, Khaled Ebrahim Khalil Khairi, was found to have abused his mount in an endurance ride, using an extra set of reins as a whip in a discipline in which whips are forbidden. The outcome: A three-month suspension and a fine.

Horsetalk’s coverage of these cases can be found here for Engela and  here for Khairi.

The circumstances described in both cases would, in my view, leave the average horse owner even more convinced that the FEI and its tribunal haven’t quite got the dials set correctly for this stuff.

Let’s look briefly at Engela’s case. Paracetamol is a Banned Substance under the FEI Equine Prohibited Substances List.

The going tariff for such a breach is a two-year suspension and fine. The strict liability principle applies in such cases, and it falls upon Engela to prove to the tribunal that she bore “No Fault or Negligence” in the matter, or “No Significant Fault or Negligence” to stand any realistic chance of escaping a penalty or having it reduced.

Despite her efforts, she couldn’t establish how paracetamol got into her horse’s system.

She is a professional showjumper who has competed in South Africa since the age of 10, and takes pride in the wellbeing of all the horses on whom she competes.

Paracetamol isn’t a recognised horse drug. The first message Google provides us when we input “paracetamol in horses” is that there is very limited information regarding its use in the species. It’s hardly likely to get any horse owner reaching into their medicine cabinet.

Indeed, the vet clinic she uses neither has nor uses paracetamol for horses.

Engela described her lengthy and unsuccessful efforts to identify the source, saying she was hands-on and very involved in the management of her horses. She used a nutritionist, and fed only reputable well-known supplements to her horses.

The FEI said it understood that Engela was a careful individual with no intention to dope her horses, with several procedures in place to avoid a positive test. However, it was unfortunate that she did not find any plausible explanation for the rule violation.

Without such an explanation, it was impossible to evaluate her degree of fault for the rule violation, the FEI said.

Hence, from an FEI perspective – with the information provided – no reduction was warranted under the rules from the normal two-year sanction.

The tribunal said it had no power to decide on a reduced suspension because it was at the discretion of the FEI and required the world governing body’s approval.

As a result, Engela copped a 2000 Swiss franc fine and a two-year suspension, which runs from the date of the sample collection – September 3, 2016. She will be able to compete again from September 2 this year.

The endurance rider Khairi also received a fine of 2000 Swiss francs, but his three-month suspension was an eighth of that imposed on Engela.

The FEI took action against Khairi after receiving a formal complaint and video footage of his action in a 120km race in Bahrain.

The FEI said the video showed a tired horse named Happy Jack being pushed by its rider to keep going, and that Khairi used a whip on the horse excessively and was pushing him.

The video showed that the horse was followed by a vehicle during the ride, and that the rider used an extra pair of reins as a makeshift whip. He later handed them over to the driver of the following vehicle during the race.

Essentially, the FEI Tribunal agreed that Khairi’s actions amounted to horse abuse under the FEI’s rules.

The FEI was rightly of the opinion that Khairi’s behaviour needed to be penalized not only to protect the welfare of the horse, but to have a deterrent effect for the future.

It had concluded that Khairi had inflicted unnecessary pain and discomfort to Happy Jack through using the extra reins as a whip, and the tribunal effectively agreed in its ruling.

Now, some might argue that the suspension imposed on Khairi was too light, and some would consider that the penalty on Engela was too harsh. Whatever one’s view, I would argue that they are simply not proportionate.

Khairi had whipped his horse when he wasn’t even allowed to be carrying a whip. Happy Jack was clearly tired and Khairi was pushing him.

It is certainly not a good look for horse sport. Nor, of course, is a failed drug test.

I imagine the short suspension imposed on Khairi aligns with the tribunal’s tariff for such infractions.

But the scales of justice don’t seem to be that evenly balanced when we look at these two cases, in my view.

I think the FEI Tribunal needs to be able to exercise more discretion around suspensions in drugs cases.

Engela had argued for a reduction in the likely two-year suspension for her horse’s positive test. The tribunal’s hands were tied because the FEI felt there was no justification, given the circumstances, for reducing it.

I think most fair-minded horse owners would have accepted that some reduction was warranted.

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