Heated debate over endurance’s future continues *H&H Plus*

  • After a year of unprecedented and sometimes acrimonious public debate, new FEI endurance rules were published on 16 December, aimed at re-emphasising horsemanship and restoring the sport’s reputation, which has been blackened by doping and fatality scandals.

    But while the rules won landslide approval — national federations voted 94 to 19 in favour at the FEI general assembly (GA) in Moscow in November — dispute rages on. Even senior figures such as the FEI’s endurance temporary committee (ETC) chair Dr Sarah Coombs have posted on Facebook to calm the storm.

    Many riders feel the new rules unfairly punish them for the poor behaviour of others, notably in the Middle East. The prolonged period to upgrade horses — the ETC’s bid to re-emphasise partnership and consistency — will make the sport unviable for many ordinary riders, especially in countries running far fewer rides.

    There is meanwhile every indication that the prospect of tougher rules has had no impact on the UAE, whose many scandals were the catalyst for reform.

    In recent years, the UAE has increasingly avoided FEI scrutiny by disaffiliating some key events and running them as CENs under UAE national rules. With new FEI rules applicable from 1 January, only one of the three main UAE venues Bou Thib — which already applies its own welfare code — is running FEI competitions in the short term. Even the 160km President’s Cup at Al Wathba in Abu Dhabi, next month, the world’s richest race, will be a CEN.

    In a further apparent indication UAE is walking away from FEI sport, only 59 UAE-administered endurance riders renewed FEI membership on 1 January — at this time of year there would normally be 1,100.

    Meanwhile, Endurance GB (EGB) is recommending riders to consider carefully whether they participate in UAE CEN/national rides, after British rider Sophie Moorhouse rode a borrowed horse at the Sheikh Mohammed Festival (28-29 December), during which fixture four horses died. The festival had swapped to “national” status. The Dutch national federation is also asking FEI to review CEN classifications, as a result of one of its own riders, Bianca Schutz, taking part on a horse which died.

    Sophie’s borrowed horse was vetted out for metabolics. EGB has been criticised on social media for sending her messages of support. EGB’s Esther Young said: “Sophie Moorhouse is a successful and popular young rider and the good wishes to her simply reflected the desire of EGB and very many members who also offered their support, that having embarked on this trip, she had a safe and successful ride.”

    New EGB welfare director Antonia Milner-Matthews has called on the FEI to review the status of CENs. In Sophie Moorhouse’s ride, “at least” 20 nationalities were represented.

    “It is clear that running these events with a very international flavour as CENs is not within the spirit of Article 101 of the FEI’s general regulations and we have grave concerns that such rides do not carry the level of scrutiny, welfare safeguards or sanctions in place at FEI competition,” said Ms Milner-Matthews.

    EGB is recommending riders consider carefully whether to support such rides and has re-issued the procedure by which British riders must obtain a no-objection certificate (NOC) from EGB in order to compete at endurance rides abroad.

    EGB vice-chair Esther Young told H&H: “Endurance GB is monitoring the situation carefully and grants NOC documentation on the basis of FEI regulations. This will be reviewed in light of any further developments, but it is currently considered that a blanket ban on British riders competing in certain countries would be draconian and will not solve the current crisis. It is for British riders to make their own decisions and judgements about where they compete and as a governing body operating under FEI regulations and guidelines we can only offer advice on this.

    “British riders competing abroad are representing EGB and operating under our rules; therefore, we are pleased to say, can and do continue to meet the highest standards.”

    Nor has awareness of the FEI’s tougher stance improved rider behaviour. Despite a decrease in the number of UAE horses sampled under the FEI’s anti-doping programme, 24 UAE endurance riders and trainers are awaiting a Tribunal decision over banned and controlled medication positives.

    In 2019, the FEI Tribunal also gave lengthy suspensions to a record five UAE riders for alleged horse abuse, and recommended the FEI consider proceedings against officials who had ignored these incidents.

    Four cases were protested by campaigning group Clean Endurance, whose spokesman Pauline van Drumpt said: “To our knowledge, the FEI has not acted yet on the Tribunal’s recommendation. Until the FEI does, Clean Endurance regrets that it is apparently up to [us] to lodge abuse protests to avoid abusive riders’ continuing to escape the sanctions they so deserve.”

    After the new rules were passed in Moscow, social media debate moved on to possible break-away movements, outside the FEI. The American Endurance Riding Conference, founding fathers of the original endurance sport, had already walked away. Now the Namibia Endurance Riding Association (NERA) has done the same.

    NERA was already at odds with the Namibian equestrian federation over governance. Describing how new FEI rules presented them with the final straw, NERA president Jan Meeser said: “Only a few privileged individuals who can financially afford to pay the cost might qualify, but they are not necessarily the best riders our country has to offer.”

    The failure of previous initiatives to curb excesses, with furore over the world championship ride cancellation at Tryon caused the FEI to sideline its statutory endurance committee a year ago.
    It set up the ETC to rewrite the rulebook. Two top British vets were involved — Dr Coombs and Tim Parkin, whose team at the University of Glasgow manages the FEI’s global injuries study.

    The need for reform was highlighted by FEI president Ingmar de Vos’s opening remarks at the GA. He said: “If we want to remain credible and to inspire admiration for the effort and the partnership, we need to change.

    “Let’s not forget the positive [doping] cases, the fractures, the fatalities. This is unacceptable and damages the image of endurance and all the remarkable people in the community who are committed to promoting the very best of the sport.

    “Let’s also not be mistaken that the negative reputation of endurance also impacts on our other disciplines and on the organisation.”

    The ETC consulted stakeholders on an unprecedented scale.

    In response, the UAE lobbied 130 national federations to reject radical change, and suggested what they should reply to the FEI. The UAE also commissioned research hoping to combat Prof Parkin’s studies into the relationship between high speed and fractures. He hit back in a memo to all recipients.
    The UAE also said horses “constantly involved in endurance events develop fewer injuries”.

    But Prof Parkin retorted that horses competing consistently do so precisely because they do not get injured; this was a “classic example” of “mixing up which of two factors is most likely to be causing (or at least contributing to an increased risk of) the other”.

    The ETC remains in place until the 2020 general assembly in 10 months, when a new permanent endurance technical committee will be appointed.

    The imposition of a 60kg (9st 5lb) minimum junior weight has caused most alarm for riders. Prof Parkin said the vetting-out risk “almost doubles” for horses being ridden at 24kph compared with 20kph, irrespective of the rider’s weight.

    The ETC originally proposed zero weight for juniors, but introduced a minimum of 60kg in the further revision circulated in October, after suggestions from Austria, Ireland, Italy, Netherlands, Sweden and Spain. Spain and the European Equestrian Federation had expressed particular concerns that young riders were “wasting” to ride as light, and fast, as possible.

    The endurance reformers have been able to savour a moment of victory, but no one doubts the immense amount of work still to be done.

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