Fit to compete? What does that mean for competition horses?

Researchers discover that veterinarians differ in their understanding of what "fit to compete" actually means.
Photo by Daphne

Researchers have raised questions over what they describe as the vague formulation of the key FEI principle that competition horses must be fit to compete.

Researchers in Austria, after surveying veterinarians who dealt regularly with competition horses, concluded that clearer definitions of phrases such as “fit to compete” may support veterinarians in conducting their professional responsibilities during competitions.

Svenja Springer and her fellow researchers, writing in the journal Animals, noted that ethical concerns about the use of horses for competitions have been raised in both public and academic debates in recent years.

Veterinarians, they said, play a key role in protecting the welfare of horses in various settings.

“Where equine athletes are concerned, they not only provide professional medical care for the horses in general, but also have a monitoring role during competitions, where they ensure the animals are healthy and fit to participate.”

The authors said veterinarians face a range of challenges when attending to competition horses. Athletic goals and high expectations surrounding the performance of the horse may impact treatment decisions, and veterinarians working at competitions may feel reputational pressure in what is a very public working context.

For veterinary work during competitions, the FEI has laid down comprehensive veterinary regulations covering well-defined responsibilities. These are often the basis of the regulations for national competitions applied in individual countries, such as Germany, Austria and Switzerland.

The veterinary regulations include the FEI Code of Conduct for the Welfare of the Horse, which covers general welfare elements, aspects related to the horse’s fitness to compete, and the humane treatment of horses.

These regulations provide a consistent set of animal welfare standards that form an important basis for the veterinarian’s decision-making during horse competitions, including decisions around the use of medication and providing permission for horses to start.

The researchers said the evaluation of equine lameness is of particular importance, since its presence may violate the FEI requirement that competition horses need to be fit to compete.

The code of conduct states: “Participation in competition must be restricted to fit horses and athletes of proven competence.”

In relation to this, two questions arise, according to the researchers. First, what does “fit to compete” mean, and second, how does the subjective evaluation of veterinarians impact the assessment of a horse’s fitness to compete (or not)?

“This rather vague formulation of the FEI regulation, given the problems of subjectivity, can lead to a disagreement between the veterinarian and the rider/owner of a horse, as well as among the veterinary professionals working at horse competitions,” the study team said.

In their study, the researchers sought the views of equine veterinarians on their attitudes towards various issues that arise specifically during the care of competition horses (as opposed to leisure horses). They also sought to discover what proportion of veterinarians would give a start approval to a horse with slight lameness at an international horse competition and what reasons would be given for that decision.

In all, 172 equine veterinarians in Germany, Austria and Switzerland responded to an online questionnaire.

Most agreed that competition horse owners have higher expectations than the owners of leisure horses in relation to their medical services, and that the veterinarian’s reputation plays a more important role. The research also revealed that such owners appear to be better informed about the diagnostics and therapies that may positively impact the care of their competition horses.

The final section of the questionnaire included a case scenario to identify whether the veterinarians would give a start approval for a horse with slight lameness at an international horse competition and their reasons for their decision.

The case vignette stated:

You are one of three veterinarians at an international competition. During the VetCheck on the day before the competition, you discover low-grade lameness in one of the dressage horses. Your colleagues are of the opinion that the animal is “fit for competition” according to the tournament regulations and that a start permit can be issued. How would you proceed?

More than half of the respondents (57.8%) indicated that they would not give a start approval in this case. Only 18.1% would agree with the opinion of their colleagues and give approval.

The researchers found that, on the grounds of equine welfare, the majority of respondents indicated that they were against starting a dressage horse with low-grade lameness in a competition.

Among the respondents who indicated they would agree to the start, 85% indicated that it was crucial to note it was a low-grade lameness and that the horse was “fit enough to compete”.

This contradicted the attitude of the veterinarians who went against the start. Here, almost all of them indicated that a key reason to not agree with the two colleagues was that lameness was a limitation of the animal’s fitness to compete.

Over 20% of the study participants indicated that situations where owners presented competition horses with low-grade lameness occurred often or very often.

“As already indicated, these findings suggest that there exists a mismatch of how veterinarians interpret the requirement of ‘fitness to compete’ which can, in turn, lead to conflicts.

“Since the regulations and codes aim, among other things, to provide certain safeguards for veterinarians, we suggest that important terms, such as ‘fitness to compete’, require clearer and more transparent definitions to avoid possible disagreements and conflicts during competition.”

Undoubtedly, veterinarians have the necessary expertise to develop a clearer and more transparent definition of relevant terms, such as “fitness to compete”, they said. “However, we strongly suggest interdisciplinary reflections on such important issues, involving not only equine veterinarians but also experts in the fields of animal behavior, animal welfare, ethology, (veterinary) ethicists, etc.”

This, they said, would allow an all-encompassing debate, leading to reliable consensus terminology.

“In addition, we believe that the results of such interdisciplinary approaches, in combination with our study results and findings of other relevant stakeholders, can be an important basis for the further development and application of guidelines and codes of conduct published by equine veterinary associations and equine sports associations.”

The authors said it is apparent that equine veterinarians understand the regulatory term “fit to compete” differently. This may lead to situations where there are disagreements among veterinarians during competitions.

“Further research into the use of terminology such as this in the context of horse sport is desirable. Such research could provide veterinarians with improved guidance as to their professional responsibilities during competitions and reduce the levels of stress connected with reputational concerns in this working context.

“Furthermore, with respect to the significant increase in the intensity of the public discussion of the use of horses in sports, future research should shed light on how veterinarians can be sensitized about their influential role in this public discourse.”

The study team comprised Springer and Herwig Grimm, with the Medical University of Vienna, which is part of the University of Vienna; and Denise Isabell Mihatsch and Florien Jenner, with the University of Veterinary Medicine in Vienna.

Springer, S.; Mihatsch, D.I.; Grimm, H.; Jenner, F. Between Leisure and Pressure—Veterinarians’ Attitudes towards the Care of Competition Horses in Germany, Austria and Switzerland. Animals 2023, 13, 2126.

The study, published under a Creative Commons License, can be read here


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