Desert endurance racing in the Middle East continues to exact a heavy toll on horses, four years on from what should have been a watershed moment for the sport, according to the group Clean Endurance.
The group says it is dismayed that, four years after the Endurance Strategic Planning Group (ESPG) set out a blueprint for change, there have been no concrete signs of improvement in the FEI’s Group 7 region, in the Middle East.
The FEI formed the ESPG in 2013 amid growing concerns about horse welfare, doping and rule-breaking. Delegates included representatives from Switzerland, the United Arab Emirates (UAE), the European Equestrian Federation, the FEI Endurance Committee and FEI headquarters.
All had agreed, according to Clean Endurance, that, globally, all efforts had to be made to reduce the numbers of horses testing positive for prohibited substances and suffering injuries.
On November 6 that year, ESPG chairman Andrew Finding opened his presentation to the FEI General Assembly session on Endurance in Montreux, Switzerland, with the words: “President, ladies, gentlemen, friends: we have a serious problem to resolve for Endurance sport and thus for all equestrian sport. We may not like the nature of the media coverage, we may feel that it is not all correct, but we cannot deny the fact that the levels of doping and the incidence of catastrophic injury to horses are unacceptable.”
The ESPG, after months of consultation, presented 41 recommendations to the FEI Sports Forum in April 2014.
“The ESPG’s clear-cut approach gave campaigners cautious hope,” Clean Endurance said.
Four years later, Clean Endurance has revisited the recommendations. It believes that half of them were never adopted. Others, it says, have been only partially executed so far.
“In some respects, the situation has worsened in the desert rides since 2014,” it says.
It points to average winning speeds increasing year-on-year, despite scientific evidence linking high speed to fractures. It says completion rates as low as 15% have been recorded, suggesting that while veterinary teams are eliminating horses more rigorously, riders and trainers have learned nothing about horse management.
“Anti-doping offences involving endurance horses continue to dominate the caseload of the FEI Tribunal,” it notes, adding that the number of catastrophic injuries are unacceptable.
In March 2015, the FEI suspended the Emirates Equestrian Federation (EEF) for four months. Two senior EEF executives were also suspended for falsifying the results of at least 15 rides, following an investigation by the FEI’s Equine Community Integrity Unit. In April 2016, the FEI removed the 2016 World Endurance Championship from Dubai, citing concerns that horse welfare could not be upheld at that venue.
Clean Endurance continued: “The UAE has been the main focus, for its huge purchasing power means its stable now own 50% of the world population of FEI-registered endurance horses.”
The group cited several areas of concern:
The ESPG recommended testing levels be increased, and this was agreed by 96% of consultees. However, published figures from the FEI’s Equine Anti-Doping and Controlled Medication Programme show an average 11.9% positives from horses sampled during UAE rides – 10 times the level returned by all horse sport in the rest of the world. Even though the UAE is deemed “high risk” by the FEI, less than 4% UAE’s FEI rides were sampled last year.
Three times as many horses start in rides run under EEF national rules. it notes. Clean Endurance says it believes there is a serious question mark over the extent of sampling at these events. It does not believe that the ESPG’s recommendations for out-of-competition testing have been applied: no such results are published alongside the in-competition results.
The ESPG wanted qualifications reviewed so that only “competent” riders could compete. However, the live-stream from any ride in Group 7 will show very poor horsemanship standards throughout, according to Clean Endurance, often contributing to horse abuse.
Most horses wear very severe bits and other extreme bridle arrangements. Unlike other FEI disciplines, Endurance has no rules governing bits. An educational programme only started to be rolled out last year on the FEI online campus site.
More recently, the Endurance Technical Committee recommended a minimum completion rate percentage should be applied for horses and riders so that only those combinations with a 66% completion rate would be able to progress to the next ride distance and star rating.
The ESPG asked for “severe” penalties and tighter controls on access to the field-of-play. Yet in the current winter season (2017-2018) just two yellow warning cards were recorded as handed out in the UAE, with a small handful of disqualifications for abuse or the undefined “not conforming to applicable sport rules”.
Clean Endurance asserts that many field-of-play violations had been captured by members on video over the past four seasons and provided to the FEI. These include extra-long reins being used to whip a horse (sticks, whips and spurs are barred under FEI rules); ear-twitching at the vet gates (believed to help lower heart-rate); and many more crew than the limit of five per horse.
Mobile crewing, it noted, was against FEI rules but apparently condoned as a “necessary evil” in very hot climates. “Nothing has been done, though, to lessen vehicle cavalcades on the field-of-play which provide authorized assistance , but are also often seen ‘hazing’ the horses,” it says.
“It seems that some officials still turn a blind eye. However, any possibility of sanction is handicapped by the ’30-minute rule’. This tight deadline for lodging field-of-play protests may work for the arena-based horse sports but it is totally unrealistic for Endurance. In addition, because of the nature of Endurance, the ground jury and other officials are often 20km or more away from the scene of any incident.
The FEI’s injuries surveillance study, led by Professor Tim Parkin at the University of Glasgow, is one of the few major ESPG recommendations to materialize, the group says. Its findings were discussed at the 2017 FEI Sports Forum in Lausanne and 2017 Endurance Forum in Spain.
The FEI endurance technical committee then formulated a rule extending the mandatory rest period for horses whose speeds have exceeded 20kmh. That would have been a major step, following the cap on speed promoted through his own best condition awards by Sheikh Sultan at Boudhieb. However, this and other welfare measures intended for 2018 were deferred to 2019 following confusion at the FEI General Assembly last November in Uruguay.
In 2014, the code CI (Catastrophic Injury) was introduced so that fatalities would be specified in ride results.
Clean Endurance recently provided evidence to the FEI of 26 horses, since 2014, whose deaths the day of their last ride were not declared as CI.
Clean Endurance says it believes the “official” fatality figures are just the tip of the iceberg and that many traumatically injured horses are transported off-site prior to euthanasia to avoid inclusion in statistics, and/or the application of 80 rider penalty points for horse fatalities.
In most horse sports, and in Endurance in the rest of the world, the rider is also the horse’s trainer. In the UAE, horses are produced from large stables overseen by professional trainers, and partnered-up “on the day” with a stable jockey or overseas visitors.
The ESPG wanted to see trainers registered and ranked according to their horses’ completion rates, and automatically joined with the rider in anti-doping cases.
“None of this has happened,” Clean Endurance says. “When riding to a trainer’s instructions, it is self-evident that jockeys will press on and ignore signs that the horse underneath him isn’t coping.
“Clean Endurance of course understands that change was never going to be immediate. But how much more damage will be done to horses and to the reputation of equestrian sport if we have to wait another four years for concrete measures to be fearlessly applied?”
The ESPG papers can be found here.