At least five horses have died as the UAE endurance season reaches its halfway point, with no significant reduction in rule-breaking or improvement in completion rates, despite FEI measures put in place.

Among recent measures, a horse euthanised at or after a ride must be notified as catastrophically injured (CI) in official results. By mid-December, six UAE CIs were listed, although the FEI says two listings were later advised as “mistakes”.

However, a further horse has since died. Australian-bred Woodbourne Elvis was euthanised on the first loop of the Boxing Day CEN 100km at Al Wathba.

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“We are working closely with the Emirates Endurance Federation (EEF), including putting in place a separate injuries study to identify the cause of these catastrophic injuries,” said the FEI’s Manuel Bandeira de Mello.

The EEF’s five-month suspension for “major” welfare issues was lifted in August, after it signed a legally-binding agreement to apply FEI rules at both FEI and national rides.

The FEI drafted in new personnel to supervise the EEF’s day-to-day workings and the running of competitions. Two senior EEF figures, Dr Hallvard Sommerseth and Abdul Aziz Mohd Yasin Sheikh, were provisionally suspended after falsifying results of 15 CEIs, in a scandal exposed by H&H last March.

Finishers still low

Completion rates remain mostly well below 25%. At Dubai Endurance City on 12 December, just 13 horses finished out of 76 (17%). The FEI believes this shows rigorous vetting, although riders are not yet starting to “conserve” their horses. At the Al Wathba CEN 100km, also on 12 December, the top five all recorded final loop speeds of over 30kph.

FEI rules were tightened on 1 August 2014, and further constraints apply from 1 January, which include the ground jury’s right to halt any ride if rules are being breached.

At Al Wathba’s seasonal opener, 21 yellow cards were handed out for illegal crewing. But only a handful of yellow cards have been recorded since, despite clips posted on Facebook by official live-stream provider YAS of illegal “mobile crewing”, such as riders being handed a constant supply of “slosh bottles” outside official crew points.

YAS also filmed Sheikh Mohammed as a passenger in a car that was openly following on the piste, which breaches rules, at different rides.

The FEI has inspected these clips. Its spokesman said that on the first occasion, in late November, the ground jury allowed mobile crewing because of the extreme heat.

Another instance occurred during a national ride “for private owners”. The FEI says it has asked the EEF to address the issue of close-following vehicles, and will raise it again at a meeting with the UAE this week, but says rule-breaches cannot be punished unless reported within a 30-minute deadline after results (see p5).

It has also emerged that the Swiss federation, a long-time critic of Middle East endurance, sent a delegation to the FEI last month. The Swiss want horses and riders to qualify as a pair in two races before upgrading.

“The discipline’s credibility is at stake,” said the federation’s Dr Claude Nordmann.

Voting with their feet

HH Sheikh Sultan Al Nahyan has campaigned for reform for many years. He is running Bou Thib, one of the UAE’s three permanent venues, under FEI rules, but will award prizes only to riders meeting his own welfare-orientated criteria, which include a 20kph speed limit. However, at the Bou Thib ride last week, the start list for an 80km ride was drastically reduced — riders appeared to be voting with their feet.

However,the first two rides adopting a his “Top Condition Challenge” have enjoyed completion rates of 67%, with no horses spun for more serious metabolic issues requiring “invasive” treatment.