Something is rotten in the state of horse sport

Bermuda endurance rider Marvan Brangman was his country's flag-bearer for the WEG Opening Ceremony. 
Bermuda endurance rider Marvan Brangman was his country’s flag-bearer for the WEG Opening Ceremony. © Liz Gregg/FEI

It was Marcellus who declared to Horatio in Shakespeare’s Hamlet: “Something is rotten in the state of Denmark.”

The standout line was written more than 400 years ago. Ironically, despite its fame, the line is left out of some stage productions of the play.

Shakespeare’s immortal words came to mind as I pondered the ongoing World Equestrian Games in Tryon, North Carolina.

It is fair to say that elements of the Games have not gone well.

The Endurance contest had some competitors misdirected and was then called off due to the heat, humidity and deteriorating underfoot conditions.

The number of horses receiving attention for metabolic issues at the time it was called off would seem to suggest it was the right call. There was the subsequent loss of a New Zealand horse due to kidney issues.

Eventing was delayed due to weather, and we have another loss of a horse, due to circulatory complications following a soft tissue injury.

The ever-popular freestyle dressage was cancelled due to weather. Due to scheduling issues, it proved  impossible to delay the event, according to reports.

The departure of some horses – and competitors and spectators – were locked into tight timetables, and that is understandable.

And let’s not forget the direct hit on the Carolinas of Hurricane Florence, which weakened as it rumbled inland, dumping rain on the Tryon parade.

There has been little word on all this from the organizers and the world governing body, the FEI.

Dutch dressage rider Edward Gal at the WEG 2018 Opening Ceremony. 
Dutch dressage rider Edward Gal at the WEG 2018 Opening Ceremony. © Liz Gregg/FEI

That is entirely understandable.

WEG is in full swing and competitors who have made the sacrifices and commitment to get there deserve their moment in the sun – even if it is accompanied by heat and humidity.

I have read a lot online on the unfortunate circumstances that surrounded the endurance contest, including video footage showing some of the chaos that unfolded at various stages during the day.

Some of the comments have been from people who were there, some from those who were not. There have been some comments from officials explaining their position, and some quite lengthy responses. Some of the debate has been measured, some less so.

To some extent, this has been filling what I will call the “official vacuum”.

The time to tackle all these issues will be after WEG.

To date, we know that the independent Equestrian Community Integrity Unit (ECIU), which is onsite at Tryon, will investigate the circumstances that resulted in some horse/athlete combinations being misdirected on the first loop.

It is inevitable, I think, that a far wider inquiry is warranted by an independent commission comprised of individuals with a range of equestrian skill-sets and outlooks.

Let me quickly traverse some of these issues. Firstly, endurance. There was the much-reported confusion at the start. Some individuals were misdirected, resulting in the voiding of the first loop and the shortening of the race to 120km.

Heavy rain during one of the loops cleared, leaving sunshine, heat and humidity in its wake. Conditions underfoot on some parts of the course deteriorated. Worsening underfoot conditions on the course is understandable if weather conditions are not favorable, but video has also emerged of the ride base, where conditions underfoot were also poor.

Surely, proper preparation beforehand in this area could have reduced the likelihood of this problem.

The decision to call off the endurance by officials sparked anger, but it seems to me to have been the least contentious of the controversies.

The number of horses requiring treatment for metabolic issues would suggest one of two possibilities: either, conditions were so extreme in terms of heat and humidity that it was impossible to complete the contest, or some riders had not read the conditions well enough and had not adjusted their riding to suit.

There was also, from accounts I have seen, ongoing work at the venue until quite close to the race, as there was in other parts of the WEG venue.

And then there is the wider question of the weather. A few days before the start of the Games I came across a fascinating map.

Hurricane Florence is bearing down on the east coast of the USA.
Hurricane Florence bearing down on the east coast of the USA last week. © GOES-East

It showed no fewer than nine severe storms – hurricanes among them – around the globe. All were clustered around the equator.

Yes folks, it’s hurricane season for this part of the world, and WEG was in line take a nasty hit from the stormy aftermath of Hurricance Florence. We knew this before the opening ceremony.

I’m not sure what the odds are of the Carolinas taking a hit during the hurricane season. Perhaps the risk was relatively low.

In any event, the storm came and it caused scheduling problems.

The question needs to be asked and answered: Were the weather risks in South Carolina (and I’m not just talking hurricanes here) too great for the Games to be staged in North Carolina at this time of the year?

And then there is the bigger question. Is the Olympic-style model of the World Equestrian Games, moving it around the world every four years, really fit-for-purpose?

There have been major issues in recent years finding suitable venues, with the bidding process for the Games having all the hallmarks of a game of Whack-a-Mole.

The Games are costly to stage, and taxpayer funding is hard to come by. It seems that authorities don’t seem too keen to put public money into expensive venues for horse riders.

This has narrowed options and raises the question whether a different format might better suit the current economic climate.

I can see the argument for WEG. It’s a high-profile event that provides impetus for spectators to attend as it provides the opportunity to watch the world’s elite competitors in various disciplines compete in the same place.

But – and this is a very big but – we cannot continue to have these ongoing problems, logistical or otherwise, at world equestrian sport’s showcase event.

The FEI and its partners sung the praises of the last WEG in Normandy, France, but in reality it delivered a mixed experience for many spectators. For example, spectators had terrible problems getting to the cross-country venue, and found facilities seriously lacking when they got there. Many missed a lot of the action.

The Normandy endurance contest had a huge attrition rate due to the challenging conditions, which certainly showed that the veterinary officials were putting horse welfare first. However, it certainly reduced the spectator experience, with so many competitors and countries knocked out.

These Games, I think, have delivered the same mixed experience.

Sponsors want to be associated with popular, largely flawless, feel-good events. Many thousands of endurance followers, for example, watched the cellphone footage of the mayhem that unfolded toward the end of the first endurance loop, as officials were meeting to work out a way forward after the misdirection of competitors.

Meydan had stepped in as a major race sponsor quite late, and would hardly have been delighted to be associated with that kind of coverage, with its brand emblazoned across the T-shirts of the several dozen people milling around as the controversy unfolded.

Swedish dressage rider Tinne Vilhemson- Silfvén and Swiss eventer Patricia Attinger at the Opening Ceremony for the FEI World Equestrian Games.
Swedish dressage rider Tinne Vilhemson- Silfvén and Swiss eventer Patricia Attinger at the Opening Ceremony for the FEI World Equestrian Games. © FEI / Liz Gregg

Perhaps the disciplines need to be staged individually around the globe, or in related groups.

Perhaps permanent venues, no more than one or two, need to be found, which can provide unsurpassed facilities. Aachen in Germany perhaps?

These are all important questions for the future of horse sport, and some of them are very uncomfortable indeed.

It is ridiculous to think that the only inquiry following these Games will focus on why some endurance competitors were misdirected. For endurance, by way of example, we should be asking how it ended up in this place – and I’m not talking North Carolina.

It has been troubled for some time, and its reputation has been damaged in recent years by welfare issues, most of them centered on the Middle East. Tryon was perhaps the perfect storm for endurance and, if anything, may well show how the discipline has to change.

Endurance aside, I believe there will be a much wider-ranging inquiry which could have far-reaching implications for horse sport.

There have been too many problems, too often, and finding hosts is becoming too challenging.

But these are challenges that must be faced in the months ahead. For now, let’s enjoy WEG.

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One thought on “Something is rotten in the state of horse sport

  • September 23, 2018 at 6:50 am

    To quote: “There have been major issues in recent years finding suitable venues, with the bidding process for the Games having all the hallmarks of a game of Whack-a-Mole.

    The Games are costly to stage, and taxpayer funding is hard to come by. It seems that authorities don’t seem too keen to put public money into expensive venues for horse riders.”

    I have been saddened by the negativity surrounding the Tryon venue. Funding and support for equestrian events in the USA is very hard to come by. The fact that Mark Bellissimo is willing to fund and develop such a facility is remarkable and appreciated by me. A friend who has shown at the National level gave high grades to the facility as a spectator and said she found it world class.

    I hope that the Equestrian Community Integrity Unit (ECIU) will be able to unravel the issues in a factual manner. The continuing negativity toward venues is counterproductive and basically deeply ungrateful to those who support equestrian sport.

    I have been in worse thunderstorms in Lexington and Louisville, KY, than the hurricane produced in Tryon, NC, which is in the mountains a good three hundred miles from the ocean. Years ago, during the Arabian Sport Horse Nationals in Lexington, VA, at the VA Horse Park, the venue housed evacuees for another hurricane, changed outdoor rings to indoors, and didn’t miss a beat in the “show goes on.”

    For those of us who grew up showing outdoors in the 60’s with no indoor arenas such a place as Tryon would have been magical.

    The endurance fiasco was a charlie foxtrot with plenty of room for improvement between FEI, the USDA and the education of all event ground personnel involved. Hopefully this will be defined and improved by the ECIU inquiry.

    I am all about calling a spade a spade, but I, for one, am deeply grateful to Mark Bellissimo and his investors for supporting equestrian activity in the USA~!


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