The FEI Tribunal found the rider guilty of horse abuse as well as breaching anti-doping rules resulting in a record fine and ban from competition. H&H explains the case and shares reaction to the outcome from campaigners Clean Endurance and representatives of Endurance GB...
The rider of a horse thought to have been nerve-blocked who suffered a catastrophic open fracture in competition has been hit with a record fine and ban.
The 10-year-old gelding Castlebar Contraband had to be put down at a one-star endurance ride at Fontainebleau, France, in October 2016, after he sustained what the event organiser described as “the worst fracture I have ever seen” to his right foreleg. Castlebar’s leg, the attending vet said, was “only hanging from the skin and ready to fall off”.
UAE rider Abdul Aziz Bin Faisal Al Qasimi had left the scene, witnesses said, and the horse was put down immediately. A post-mortem examination found the presence of xylazine, which is used as a sedative, analgesic and muscle relaxant and is prohibited in competition.
After “multiple delays”, the FEI Tribunal ruled on the charges, of horse abuse as well as breaching anti-doping rules, this month.
The Tribunal heard Al Qasimi, the person responsible (PR), claimed the vet who put the horse down must have administered the substance. Al Qasmi also claimed there were mistakes in some of the FEI’s documents, while his expert witness, a lecturer in veterinary pathology, thought it likely the vet who put the horse down had administered the substance, arguing that the concentration of xylazine in the sample was too large for it to have been given before the accident. He added that he did not agree with some of the statements and interpretations in the post-mortem and histopathology (tissue examination) reports.
The post-mortem showed fragmentation of bone, rounded bone ends and contamination at the injury site, suggesting contact between the bone fragments before the horse was immobilised.
Examination also found osteoarthritic lesions, especially on the right front fetlock, and both old and recent lesions on the nerve tracts of the limbs, especially the front legs.
“The FEI stated one of the many conclusions to be drawn from the post-mortem report was that it was highly likely Castlebar had been nerve-blocked with local and regional anaesthetics/sedatives both before and during competition,” the Tribunal report states. The FEI also concluded that haemorrhage of the tissues surrounding the ulnar nerve in the front leg shows the horse was injected there two to four hours before his death, so during the competition.
The FEI’s experts stated that the bone ends’ condition indicate that the horse was bearing weight on the limb after it was fractured, and that the signs of injection result from treatment that would have changed Castlebar’s sense of his own movement and position, and so “favoured the occurrence” of the catastrophic fracture.
FEI veterinary director Göran Åkerström told the Tribunal: “It is a well-known fact that removing the very fundamental protective function of sensitivity by practices such as local or regional injections of anaesthetic substances will increase the risk of catastrophic injury. This is especially relevant for fractures that are due to bone fatigue (stress fractures), where Castlebar will not show any signs of pain such as lameness while under influence of the injected substance.
“At an endurance ride, this means FEI veterinary delegates will not be able to identify Castlebar as lame and he will continue the competition. The continuous loading of the fatigued bone tissue will then with high certainty lead to a severe fracture.
“Comminuted (multi-fractured) fractures are typical results of bone fatigue.
“The post-mortem report gives very clear information that Castlebar Contraband was injected on several occasions before and also during the competition before the leg fractured.”
The FEI’s witnesses said when they saw the horse, after the accident, he did not seem to be in pain; he tried to take weight on the broken leg, despite the “horrible” fracture, and after his death fell on this side, which is very rare.
The rider and his witnesses all denied this, saying the horse was clearly in pain and distressed. But the Tribunal found these statements were “scripted in a similar manner”, that there were inconsistencies, such as the fact the rider first said he signed a form consenting to have the horse put down, but then admitted a member of his team had signed it. These “make the Tribunal question” what other details in the first statement may not have been accurate; they stated that one member of the team’s “memory of the euthanasia appears to have changed between May 2017 and May 2019”.
“The Tribunal’s view is that the PR was trying to absolve himself of any responsibility,” the report stated, adding that the fact two of his witnesses worked for him “could have had an influence on their recollections of the event”.
The panel found no convincing evidence that the attending vet had administered the xylazine, adding that in a previous doping case, Al Qasimi had also argued that the substance was given by a third party, but this was “unsubstantiated speculation”.
“The Tribunal is comfortably satisfied that Castlebar received nerve-blocking injections during the event,” the report states. “By abnormally desensitising Castlebar’s limbs, this caused or likely caused pain and unnecessary discomfort to [him].”
The panel said the rider “did not seem to be particularly concerned about Castlebar’s wellbeing”.
“But what the Tribunal finds most troubling is that the PR apparently left the accident site after Castlebar’s catastrophic injury, demonstrating a remarkable lack of compassion for a horse he claimed to have loved and treated like a member of his own family,” the report states.
“This Tribunal has never before adjudicated on a horse abuse case of this magnitude.”
Al Qasimi was suspended for 20 years, fined 17,500 Swiss francs (£14,500) and ordered to pay 15,000 francs (£12,400) in costs.
“This was a tragic case of a horse losing its life due to desensitisation and micro-dosing and, while we have had concerns that this has been ongoing for some time, this was the first solid evidence we have had of nerve-blocking during rides as well as micro-dosing,” said Dr Åkerström said. “This has resulted in a change in our post mortem procedures to make them more forensic and also allowed us to prioritise the research and development of the hyposensitivity control system, which is now in place.”
A spokesman for campaigners Clean Endurance told H&H: “While assisting the FEI in the investigation prior to bringing this complex case in front of the Tribunal, Clean Endurance has witnessed first-hand the determined efforts of the FEI legal and veterinary departments, as well as those of the many excellent vets involved.
“Clean Endurance is heartened by the fact these efforts have resulted in an unprecedented sanction for abuse. The extensive information in the FEI Tribunal decision notice should become required reading for any endurance stakeholder as it provides a rare public insight into the very common and abusive training, competing and medication protocols Clean Endurance exists to fight against.”
Endurance GB chairman Phil Nunnerley said: “There was clearly a shocking case of abuse involving this horse and Endurance GB applauds the efforts of the FEI legal and veterinary teams in bringing the athlete concerned to justice.
“It sends out a clear message that the FEI has strong investigative powers and even though this case has taken nearly four years to bring together, the appropriate severity of the sentence shows the determination to clean up the sport internationally to safeguard horse welfare and provide clean competition. The message from the UK is that the wider endurance community at all levels is sickened by this case and will not tolerate such abuse.”
Castlebar Contraband had competed in the UK twice the summer before the fatal run at Fontainebleau, at an FEI ride at Euston Park and a ride in South Wales.
Antonia Milner-Matthews, MRCVS, director of welfare for Endurance GB added: “This sanction is welcomed by us all and it reflects a growing mood of impatience for change in rooting out the minority who bring our sport into disrepute with such devastating results.
“Judging by the FEI findings, they clearly think that the nerve-blocking which ultimately led to the death of Castlebar Contraband had been going on some time. In the UK we place welfare at the heart of everything we do and from this year Endurance GB has mirrored the FEI limb sensitivity wording in our rules, which allows us to eliminate those which are showing hyper or hyposensitive limbs.”
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