The FEI Tribunal’s 20-year suspension of UAE Endurance rider Sh Abdul Aziz Bin Faisal Al Qasimi has been overruled on appeal to the Court of Arbitration for Sport (CAS).
In its decision, the court eliminated all sanctions, ruling that in its view the burden of proof of horse abuse had not been sufficiently met by the FEI.
The initial FEI Tribunal ruling involved the horse Castlebar Contraband, ridden by Al Qasimi at the CE1* in Fontainebleau, France, on October 15, 2016.
The horse suffered an open fracture to its front right cannon bone during the event and had to be euthanised.
Blood samples collected from the horse after its death revealed the presence of the xylazine, classed as a controlled medication substance under the FEI’s anti-doping rules. The substance is is used as a sedative, analgesic and muscle relaxant but is prohibited in competition. Xylazine, which is rapidly excreted from the body, is known to be used in endurance to lower the heart rate. No valid veterinary form, the equine equivalent of a therapeutic use exemption, exists for this substance.
The FEI Tribunal accepted the explanation of the treating veterinarian who performed the euthanasia that she had followed the standard protocol, which did not include the use of xylazine, refuting the claim by the defendant’s legal team that xylazine had been used in the euthanasia process.
The post-mortem report revealed the appearance of multiple lesions with a highly targeted location, consistent with recent injections, which the FEI said demonstrated that the horse had been nerve-blocked (desensitised) in training, and both before and during the competition. The FEI’s view was that this desensitisation, in combination with osteoarthritis in the right front fetlock joint, resulted in stress fractures that ultimately caused the catastrophic injury.
In his report for both the FEI Tribunal and CAS proceedings, and during cross-examination, FEI veterinary director Dr Göran Åkerström said that nerve-blocking removes the “very fundamental protective function of sensitivity” and increases the risk of catastrophic injury. This is especially relevant for fractures that are due to bone fatigue (stress fractures) as a horse will not show any signs of pain, such as lameness, while under the influence of an injected substance.
In its decision, the CAS Panel stated that neither the athlete nor his veterinarian could have “reasonably detected” alleged bone fatigue in the horse. Despite extensive veterinary evidence presented by the FEI and its expert witnesses, the CAS Panel found that there was no proof that the horse had been nerve-blocked or abnormally desensitised in competition.
The panel stated that as Castlebar Contraband had passed the horse inspection the day before the event, and had also passed the veterinary checks at the vet gates during the competition, it could not be ruled as being unfit to compete. The panel ruled that the FEI had failed to establish that the athlete competed on an exhausted, lame or injured horse, or committed “an action or omission which caused or was likely to cause pain or unnecessary discomfort to a horse”.
As a result, the panel found that the athlete had not committed a violation of Article 142.1 of the FEI General Regulations and that, therefore, no sanctions for abuse of horse could be imposed. The panel ruled that all findings and sanctions imposed by the FEI Tribunal to be “ill-founded” and ordered that they be set aside.
The court said: “While it is true that circumstantial evidence may have some probative value, the fact remains that, in a case such as the present, which concerns severe allegations of abuse of horse that may, if established, entail heavy sanctions for the appellant, there must be cogent evidence establishing the commission of the alleged rule violation”.
“Although we respect the CAS decision, we are extremely disappointed,” FEI Secretary General Sabrina Ibáñez said.
“The FEI has to stand up for horse welfare and clamp down on horse abuse, so to lose this case on appeal is more than disheartening. The FEI believed that this was an important case to prosecute in order to protect horse welfare, and the FEI Endurance Rules have been further improved from a welfare perspective since this 2016 case. However, the CAS Panel has been clear that they feel that there was insufficient substantive evidence for them to uphold the sanctions imposed by the FEI Tribunal.
“The FEI will of course continue to investigate and prosecute horse abuse cases and we will also work hard to ensure that this CAS decision does not discourage third parties from bringing horse abuse cases forward to the FEI. We need to work together to ensure that those who abuse horses are brought to justice, but we also need to ensure that we have solid and irrefutable evidence.”
The FEI veterinary director, who was an expert witness in both the FEI Tribunal and CAS proceedings, also expressed his disappointment over the result. “We are incredibly frustrated to have lost this CAS appeal, especially as the catastrophic injury to this horse involved a combination of risk factors that ultimately led to its death,” Åkerström said.
“But this particular case was one of the main drivers for the development of the FEI Hyposensitivity Control System, which provides physical evidence of nerve blocking, something that was virtually impossible previously. So while the CAS decision sadly does not provide justice for this individual horse, it has resulted in a system that is already being used and which will help prevent similar tragic injuries in the future.”
The full CAS decision can be read here.