Less than a year ago, IN THE FOCUS reported about the intolerable situation of endurance riding in the United Arab Emirates and other countries of the Middle East (“Enough is Enough!”), but unfortunately, one has to say: Nothing much has changed since, but there is a thin silver lining at the horizon!
Whoever saw video of the finish of the 120 km Sheikh Zayed Al Nahyan Cup for Juniors and Young Riders at the infamous Al Wathba Endurance Course (race track might be more appropriate), had – once again – tears in his eyes, about the way the horses were forced and pushed over the 2,5 km-long home stretch. Under wildly flailing (with arms and legs!) riders, the horses were – although barely able to gallop and more often than not falling back to trot, staggering – with the help of grooms pushed and forced towards the finish line. It was once more an example of a disgusting, horses despising perversion of a sport, which actually is, if done well, a very beautiful one. And the whole atrocity was broadcasted via live-stream throughout the world.
Let’s have a look back: In February 2015, Splitters Creek Bundy broke both his front legs at the Al Reef Cup, one of three deaths at this ride. The video went viral in social media and the internet and caused a worldwide outcry. Also, there were numerous doping cases in the UAE, and swapped horses. On top of that, equestrian journalist Pippa Cuckson proved that the national Federation of the UAE, the Emirates Equestrian Federation (EEF), forwarded falsified results to the FEI, by which horses and riders had qualified, who did not earn this qualification. In March 2015, the EEF was suspended by FEI for various rule infringements and disregard of animal welfare. It meant, that the EEF was no longer allowed to organize international rides, and their (endurance)riders were no longer allowed to participate in rides abroad. After four months of negotiation between FEI and EEF, an agreement was signed and the suspension was lifted. One of the points of the agreement was, that even national rides had to follow FEI rules. In September 2015, two FEI Officials, the Head of the Veterinary Department and the Head of Endurance at the EEF, were provisionally suspended. In October 2015, FEI proudly announced that close to 1,400 people, including athletes, trainers, grooms, Veterinarians, Judges, Technical Delegates and Stewards, have attended a series of FEI Endurance educational courses in Dubai and Abu Dhabi, which were also part of the agreement. However, “to participate” in such a course does not say anything about how much they learned, took home and implemented. This question needs to be raised, because according to Pippa Cuckson, who follows the events in the UAE closely, the 10th case of “Catastrophic Injury” of the season occurred at the earlier mentioned ride. To mention that the first three riders, who crossed the finish line, were later disqualified because of outside help, as well as two others, and their stables fined with 100.000 Dirham (ca. 25.000 €) each, shall be mentioned for the sake of completeness.
This last ride, of January 30th, has forced FEI to become active again, and it threatened EEF with suspension if they don’t get things under control. This move was three months too late, because already the first ride of the new season (2015/2016) on 20th October had a fail rate of more than 80 %, at two other rides early December it were similarly high, and at these two rides alone three “Catastrophic Injuries” happened (A “Catastrophic Injury” is defined as an injury which, in the opinion of the Veterinary Commission, requires immediate euthanasia or contributes to a death of a horse in competition howsoever caused). Latest at this point, the FEI should have reacted.
Silver Lining at the Horizon
Reacted someone else has, and this is presently the only silver lining at the horizon: H.H. Sheikh Sultan bin Zayed Al Nahyan at his Endurance Village Bouthieb at Abu Dhabi has implemented new rules all by himself, which obviously show some effect. So, at “his” rides, the horse with the “Best Condition” is being awarded, the maximum speed is limited to 20 km/h (and controlled by GPS), Crewing Points are located every 1 km, crewing is only allowed at these crewing points and the last crewing point is 2,5 km before the finish line. There is only one car per trainer and five horses allowed. Maximum heartbeat shall be 56 bpm at all vetgates, and a compulsory hyposensibility test will be done on all legs. Awards are offered on a best condition evaluation that is cumulatively calculated as the ride progresses, and is an accumulation of the scores at the vet gates.
The rides at Bouthieb are still under FEI and the results recognized by FEI, but the official winner, who is the fastest, will only get 30% of the prize money, 70% will be given to those, who ride according to the rules of Sheikh Sultan – and these rules have the welfare of the horses as main priority.
In the meantime, these rules were tested at three events with eight rides and 1077 horses altogether (as of end of January). The result: Only five horses had to be treated in the veterinarian clinic, but neither their lifes or their future in the sport were at stakes, and they left the clinic already the same afternoon. If you compare this to the 10 deaths at the other rides, the result is obvious.
Now that others have done the work, the FEI jumped on the moving train. FEI Endurance director Manuel Bandeira de Mello stated: “It is abundantly clear that speed is a major factor in these incidents and that it is necessary to introduce measures to slow down the horses in order to reduce the number of catastrophic injuries. The FEI is in urgent discussions with the Emirates Equestrian Federation (EEF) and individual event organisers to introduce similar protocols to those used so successfully at the recent event in Bouthieb to reduce the speed.” The FEI has given EEF until February 11th, to get things under control. The rides until February 11th were all postponed, without any reason given. However, this does not seem to affect the President’s Cup, scheduled for February, 13th.
But there is one point, the FEI has not yet addressed: Will the World Championships in Endurance, scheduled for December 2016, indeed take place in the UAE? That’s how you can still read it in the calendar. But this prospect has created quite some resistance. The American Endurance Ride Conference (AERC) wrote to the US Equestrian Federation (USEF) on behalf of its membership and board of directors asking them not to send any American riders to these World Championships. Also in countries such as the Netherlands, Great Britain and Switzerland anger is building up. A petition at change.org has been initiated, called “SAY NO! TO 2016 WORLD ENDURANCE CHAMPIONSHIPS IN DUBAI”, which requests that the World Championships in December 2016 shall not be held in Dubai, but be given to a country who upholds the values of “Clean Endurance”.
Whether or not the new rules to reduce speed will prevail depends on many different factors. Not least of the FEI who holds with the world championships a good pressure means at hand, but needs to use it wisely. A first indicator, in which direction the drama will further develop, may be the prestigious President’s Cup on February 13th. Hope dies last, as we all know.