World’s highest sporting court rules in Endurance horse abuse case

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The world’s top sporting court has upheld an FEI Tribunal decision of horse abuse against one of the United Arab Emirate’s top Endurance riders.

Abdul Rahman Saeed Saleh Al Ghailani took his case to the Court of Arbitration for Sport in Switzerland after being fined and suspended over the nature of his riding in an Endurance race by the FEI Tribunal.

Al Ghailani, who rides with the Al Wathba Stables, had Sarab in the CEI 3* President’s Cup in Al Wathba on February 9 last year.

The combination finished second. Sarab had passed six veterinary checks and none of the FEI Endurance officials watching the event, including the seven-member Ground Jury, reported any violations by Al Ghailani.

Subsequently, Pauline van Drumpt from the organisation Clean Endurance, lodged a formal protest over his riding, alleging horse abuse. Her protest included a written summary and two videos.

The protest described at least eight people hazing the horse once it left the out-gate on to loop six. At various times, Al Ghailani was seen to use his reins aggressively on the horse, kick the animal repeatedly, and flick it with a water bottle.

The FEI Tribunal subsequently ruled that the protest was admissible and that horse abuse had occurred. Al Ghailani was suspended for 12 months, fined 4000 Swiss Francs ($US4200; $NZ6500) and ordered to contribute another 1000 francs towards the cost of the proceedings.

Al Ghailani subsequently took the case to the Court of Arbitration for Sport.

There were several thrusts to his appeal. Firstly, he argued that the initial complaint, filed by van Drumpt, was inadmissible on procedural grounds as it did not meet required criteria laid out under FEI rules.

Secondly, even if the court found the protest to be admissible, Al Ghailani’s riding on the day was a field-of-play issue, to be assessed and ruled upon by the Ground Jury. No issues around his riding were raised with, or by, the Ground Jury on the day. The rules state that, except in rare circumstances, no appeals can be lodged against the decisions of the Ground Jury arising from field-of-play matters.

Thirdly, Al Ghailani argued that his conduct in the race did not amount to horse abuse. He argued that he did not push the horse beyond its limits, nor did he kick the horse excessively or pull the horse’s reins with high hands. He argued that such actions are commonplace in Endurance. The horse, he noted, had passed all veterinary checks, including at the end of the race. No officials at the event raised any concerns over his riding of the horse. Indeed, other competitors in the same event and other competitions have adopted the same actions without being sanctioned.

Finally, if the court was to reject all of his submissions, he argued that the sanctions imposed were excessive. The tribunal had not taken into consideration that he had never been sanctioned before and that none of the violations were sufficiently obvious to be noticed by officials at the event.

The court rejected Al Ghailani’s grounds for appeal and upheld the FEI Tribunal decision, although it did reduce his suspension by four months.

It noted the FEI’s objective of establishing a global process for protecting the welfare of horses and preventing horse abuse.

“Indeed, in order to reach this objective, the panel finds it only logical that the procedural conditions to bring a protest against alleged horse abuses be kept flexible.”

On the field-of-play position taken by Al Ghailani, the court said he was, in effect, asserting that only the Ground Jury was empowered to determine whether horse abuse occurred in an Endurance contest.

“The panel rejects this contention.”

It continued: “The question arises as to whether the fact that the Ground Jury did not sanction (Al Ghailani) at the event constitutes a field-of-play decision in the present matter.”

It did not accept that position.

“In the panel’s view, (Al Ghailani’s) reading and implementation of the relevant provisions of the General Regulations would mean that there is no possibility whatsoever to review any finding on the field that horse abuse was committed — or was not.”

The court noted that the General Regulations provided the FEI with a statutory right to act against horse abuse, independently of a Ground Jury’s finding.

Under Al Ghailani’s interpretation, only the Ground Jury would be able to observe, determine and sanction horse abuse — a position that was incompatible with the FEI’s laudatory goal of establishing a worldwide uniform process for ensuring the protection of horses, the court said.

Acceptance of Al Ghailani’s assertion would have created an unjustifiable gap in the FEI regulatory system for the legal protection of horses, it added.

“The panel finds that the fact that the Ground Jury did not observe or sanction the appellant for horse abuse at the event does not constitute a field-of-play decision.”

Turning to the issue of whether horse abuse had occurred, the panel said it had carefully reviewed the videos produced by the parties.

Al Ghailani can clearly be seen repetitively kicking and flapping forcefully with his legs, powerfully pulling up and down on the reins, as well as flicking the reins in the air.

The panel said it accepted the view that the horse was clearly exhausted. It concluded that Al Ghailani’s actions caused pain and/or unnecessary discomfort to the horse, both physically and mentally.

“The panel strongly disagrees with the appellant’s submission that such actions are commonplace and accepted practices in Endurance racing.”

Further, it accepted that support personnel were clearly clapping their hands and chasing the horse in order to encourage it. This was also a violation of the rules.

Turning to sanctions, the court said several mitigating factors needed to be taken into account.

It was Al Ghailani’s first infraction. “This is not an obvious case of horse abuse: the horse successfully passed all veterinary checks during the event, including at the end of the race; the Ground Jury, present at the event, did not observe any horse abuse in the appellant’s actions; and the FEI has not initiated any disciplinary proceeding against any members of the Ground Jury for not observing and sanctioning the appellant’s horse abuse during the event.”

It reduced the suspension from 12 months to eight months. It also ordered Al Ghailani to pay an additional 3000 Swiss francs to the FEI for expenses.

The full Court of Arbitration for Sport decision can be read here

The original FEI decision can be read here

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