Stormy weather has led to the cancellation of the world endurance championship in North Carolina, but the event was already mired in controversy after some riders were misdirected on the first lap.
The controversial decision was then made to void the first 40km loop and effectively start again, staging a 120km race over four loops.
However, deteriorating weather resulted in the race’s cancellation, with organizers worried about what they described as a dangerously high combination of heat and humidity, as well as worsening conditions on the trail.
The leading riders had just come from the third loop when the decision to can the race was made, in accordance with FEI General Regulations.
The decision was said to be unanimous between the President of the Ground Jury, Technical Delegate and President of the Veterinary Commission, and the Organising Committee.
The decision is also in line with the FEI Code of Conduct for the Welfare of the Horse, which states competitions must not take place in extreme weather conditions that may compromise welfare or safety of the horse.
“This was a difficult decision to make, but it was done with horse and athlete welfare in mind as the conditions this afternoon after the rain resulted in extremely high levels of humidity and, combined with rising heat, it was deemed unsafe to continue the ride,” the president of the Veterinary Commission, Thomas Timmons, said.
British scientist Dr David Marlin, who has been working on heat and humidity studies for the FEI since the 1996 Atlanta Olympic Games, provided the Ground Jury with data from the Wet Bulb Globe Temperature (WBGT) index which showed a reading of 31.
Anything over 25 is monitored very closely, and the officials agreed unanimously that 31 presented an unacceptable risk to horse welfare.
Marlin said after the cancellation “ride was stopped on welfare grounds. Terrible for all involved but better than having dead horses”.
It is understood the conditions were not related to the approach of Cyclone Florence, which is approaching the Carolinas, on the US eastern seaboard.
The weather was yet another stake to the heart the discipline’s showcase event, after problems which resulted in some competitors being sent in the wrong direction on the first loop.
The FEI has asked the independent Equestrian Community Integrity Unit (ECIU), which is onsite at Tryon, to investigate the circumstances that resulted in some horse/athlete combinations being misdirected.
The investigation will include interviews with the officials, volunteers, the organising committee and all other relevant personnel to provide a full picture of what happened.
The findings will be presented to the FEI Bureau and the conclusions will then be made public.
Scenes of confusion had reigned at the ride base when the seriousness of what had occurred became known.
A video posted online by a 4* judge, Ahmed Al Hammadi from the United Arab Emirates, gave a strong sense of the drama as officials sought to find a solution to the problem.
The remarkable call to void the first 40km loop and effectively stage the world championship over the remaining 120km of the course is unprecedented and controversial.
It may well prove open to legal challenge, although a statement by World Equestrian Games officials cited a section of the FEI’s endurance rules that allowed race officials to make a decision in a sporting spirit in unforseen or exceptional circumstances to meet the overall intention of the rules.
There are already calls for the race to be re-staged elsewhere, although that may well prove difficult for those who had to meet their own costs to attend the Games in Tryon.
A petition was circulated calling for people to support horses and riders being flown to Europe for another shot at the championships. Eighteen of the 40 countries in the ride agreed, with two later withdrawing their support.
The misdirection at the beginning of today’s ride led to some riders heading back toward the vetgate, and others covering an extra 5km.
Al Hammadi’s video of events at the ride base shows a series of heated discussions, amid accusations that the FEI was interfering in the role of the ground jury, which was apparently meeting nearby as the video was being taken in a bid to find a way forward.
The video shows FEI secretary General Sabrina Ibanez, speaking on behalf of the ground jury president, explaining that there was a misdirection.
The event, she said, could not be rescheduled.
After exploring different options, the ground jury had decided that all horses would complete the loop one vet check, then restart in what would effectively become a 120km race.
It was, she said, a new race.
A statement released by the organisers said: “As some teams were unfortunately misdirected at the start of today’s endurance ride, the competition will be stopped at the first vet gate and re-started as a 120km championship.
“In order to ensure that all horses are fit to compete they will all go through the vet check. Only horses that have passed the vet check will be allowed to compete. No substitution of horses will be allowed.
“The restart of the ride will take place 45 minutes after the last horse has been inspected at the vet gate.
“As there is no possibility to reschedule the ride tomorrow, the President of the Ground Jury, President of the Veterinary Commission, Foreign Veterinary Delegate and the Organizing Committee agreed that this was the only pragmatic solution.
“This is in line with the preamble to the FEI Endurance Rules which state: ‘in any unforeseen or exceptional circumstances, it is the duty of the Ground Jury and the Veterinarians to make a decision in a sporting spirit and approaching, as nearly as possible, to the intention of these rules and of the General Rules of the FEI’.”