Horse sport’s governing body has defended the inclusion of an exceptionally thin horse in the 160CEI at Compiègne, France, last week (23 May).

A photograph of the horse — described as “disturbing” by a leading equine welfare charity — was widely circulated on social media.

The FEI has not confirmed the horse’s identity, but it is understood to represent one of the Middle Eastern teams based in Europe for the summer.

The main outcry centred on a Facebook group for endurance specialists, who are familiar with the sport’s tough demands, but were “horrified” and “ashamed” by the horse’s appearance at the initial inspection.

Jean-Louis Tosque, a rider and breeder, told H&H: “This horse was seen several times at the competition by FEI officials, who let it pass without saying anything. If this kind of horse was in the wild, someone would be reported for abuse.”

The FEI said the horse was inspected by two four-star vets before and during the ride. He was eliminated at the second vetgate for lameness and found not to be “metabolically compromised” during later examination at a clinic.

An FEI spokesman added: ”The horse was found to be lean but not emaciated, similar to many endurance athletes, including human marathon runners.”

Christian Dupuille, president of the Compiègne organising committee, has also likened the horse’s condition to that of the distance runner Mo Farah in French news media.

World Horse Welfare’s Roly Owers said: “Our view, as it has been throughout the endurance discussions, is that effective enforcement of the rules is essential to support and protect horse welfare in any sport.

“Integral to the FEI rules is the Code of Conduct, which clearly states that no horse deemed unfit to compete may take part.

“With regards to this particular incident, the photo is certainly disturbing and could not be described as a good advert for the sport.”

Feelings about the extent of doping and fractures in Middle East endurance were already running high in France.

The French national federation lobbied the FEI in 2012 to act in time to avoid a “major welfare scandal” at this August’s World Equestrian Games which the French host in Normandy.

This news story was first published in 29 May issue of H&H.