The world championship endurance race at the upcoming World Equestrian Games could well be the most scrutinized long-distance horse race in history, following a recent flurry of publicity around the problems within the discipline.
A group of six German endurance veterinarians have written an open letter to the German Equestrian Federation outlining a raft of concerns about the global development of the discipline. They asked that the national body pass it on to the world governing body, the FEI.
Five officials from the German Distance Riders Group, which runs endurance in the country, also weighed in on the debate, with their own open letter to the FEI.
Both letters follow just days after the respected group Clean Endurance released an A-to-Z guide to aid onlookers in spotting cheating in the sport.
The six German vets, Juliette Mallison, Claudia Bretthauer, Christian Dreker, Martin Grell, Christina Pleuger and Claudia Zerlik, aired their concerns about the direction on the sport.
“For many rides the competition is no longer a competition, whereby the athlete’s ability to safely manage the stamina and fitness of the horse over an endurance course is measured against the clock, the distance, the terrain and weather conditions in a way that the welfare of the horse is not compromised.”
They said the endurance courses in many major competitions, such as in the United Arab Emirates and at Tryon, North Carolina, where the WEG endurance championship will be held this month, are prepared and not left in their natural condition. They tend to be straight and flat.
“This means that the ability of a rider to asses the track and ride tactically is not taken into account and that riders can ride much faster.”
They said it has clearly been shown that increased speed increases the risk to horses, and that the number of horses who fail to qualify for not reaching gait or metabolic parameters rises considerably. Catastrophic injuries are also more common.
“This does not mean that dangerous parts of a course should not be corrected,” they stressed. “This is important for the welfare of the horse and rider. However the tracks should fit into the ecology of the terrain. This is important and part of the sport of endurance, otherwise endurance rides could be run around race tracks.”
The vets also discussed the alleged influence of ride officials by organisers of big rides to ensure some horses passed.
“Vets that protest or do not conform are no longer asked to be on commissions at particular rides. Is this in the interests of horse welfare or fair play?” they asked.
They proposed that a rotation of vets be required.
“Doping is still a problem,” they continued. “There should be much tougher sanctions for riders, trainers and owners of such horses, not just a few months [ban]. It should be years or in some cases for life.”
They noted that several experienced FEI endurance vets have resigned over their frustrations with the discipline.
They called on the FEI to remedy the situation.
The letter from German endurance body officials Christian Lüke, Tatiana Peter, Anne Wegner, Sabine Pfaff and Renan Borowicz to FEI president Ingmar De Vos described their “deep concern” over recent incidents during international endurance events.
There had been a dead horse in a top class generously sponsored ride in Europe, shocking pictures from the European Championships for Young Riders and, once more, high-ranking endurance horses testing positive for drugs.
“We are seriously concerned for the welfare of the horses,” they said, questioning whether welfare really was a priority in competitions.
“We appeal to the FEI to do everything within their power to guarantee fair and horse-friendly competitions, to ensure that the FEI rules are complied with, and that the welfare of the horses always has the highest priority, so that horses can compete safely and finishers are really fit to continue after their successfully passed final inspection.
“Animal welfare is essential for the future of our sport and has to have the highest priority.”
The officials sent a similar letter to the German Equestrian Federation, calling on the body to use its influence with the FEI to encourage a sporting and fair endurance contest at Tryon, and to make every effort to ensure that the FEI regulations are taken into account that require horses are healthy on the track, and those that have successfully completed 160km are still “fit to continue”.
Endurance is the first discipline under way at the Games on September 11, with 124 horses and riders from 40 countries tackling the 160km course.