No Sign of Improvement in Desert Racing

Clean Endurance is dismayed that, exactly four years after the Endurance Strategic Planning Group (ESPG) set out a blueprint for change, there are no concrete signs of improvement in FEI Group 7 (Middle East) region. Clean Endurance is a worldwide network that works on improving clean sport ethics through research, publicity and education within the equestrian endurance sport.

Endurance UAE-300pxThe FEI formed the ESPG in 2013 in response to growing concern about horse welfare, doping and rule-breaking. The United Arab Emirates (UAE) has been the main focus, for its huge purchasing power means its stable now own 50% of the world population of FEI registered endurance horses. After months of consultation, the ESPG presented 41 recommendations to the FEI Sports Forum in April 2014.
The ESPG’s no-holds-barred approach gave campaigners cautious hope. But regrettably, four years on Clean Endurance has revisited the recommendations and believes that half of them were never adopted. Others have been only partially executed so far.
In some respects, the situation has even worsened in the desert rides since 2014: average winning speeds increase year-on-year, despite scientific evidence linking high speed to fractures; completion rates as low as 15%, suggest that while veterinary teams are eliminating horses more rigorously, riders have learned nothing about horse management; while anti-doping offences involving endurance horses continue to dominate the caseload of the FEI Tribunal.

Key areas of ongoing concern are:


ESPG recommend testing levels be increased, and this was agreed by 96% of consultees. However, published figures from the FEI’s Equine Anti-Doping and Controlled Medication Programme (EADCMP) show an average 11.9% positives from horses sampled during UAE rides – 10 times the level returned by all horse sport in the rest of the world. Even though the UAE is deemed “high risk” by the FEI, less than 4% UAE’s FEI rides were sampled last year.
Three times as many horses start in rides run under Emirates Equestrian Federation (EEF) national rules. Clean Endurance believes there is a serious question mark over the extent of sampling at these events.
Clean Endurance does not believe that the ESPG’s recommendations for out-of-competition testing have been applied: no such results are published alongside the in-competition results.


ESPG wanted qualifications reviewed so that only “competent” riders could compete. However, the live-stream from any ride in Group 7 will show very poor equitation standards throughout, often contributing to horse abuse. Most horses wear severe long-shanked bits and other extreme bridle arrangements. Unlike other FEI disciplines, endurance has no rules governing bits. An educational programme only started to be rolled out last year.


ESPG asked for “severe” penalties and tighter controls on access to the field-of-play. Yet in the current winter season (2017-2018) just two yellow warning cards are recorded as handed out in the UAE, with a small handful of disqualifications for abuse or the undefined “not conforming to applicable sport rules.”
Numerous field-of-play violations have been captured on video by Clean Endurance over the past four seasons and provided to the FEI. These invariably include extra-long reins being used to whip a horse (sticks, whips and spurs are barred under FEI rules); ear-twitching at the vet gates (believed to help lower heart-rate); and many more crew that the limit of five per horse.
“Mobile crewing” is against FEI rules but apparently condoned as a “necessary evil” in very hot climates. Nothing has been done, though, to curtail vehicle cavalcades on the field-of-play which provide authorized assistance by “hazing” the horses.
It still seems that some officials turn a blind eye. However, any possibility of sanction is handicapped by the “30-minute rule.” This tight deadline for lodging field-of-play protests may work for the arena-based horse sports but it is totally unrealistic for endurance. In addition, because of the nature of endurance, the ground jury and other officials are often 20km or more away from the scene of any incident

Fatal injuries

The FEI’s injuries surveillance study, led by Prof Tim Parkin at the University of Glasgow, UK, is one of the few major ESPG recommendations to materialize. Its findings were discussed at the 2017 FEI Sports Forum in Lausanne and 2017 Endurance Forum in Vic, Spain. The FEI endurance technical committee then formulated a rule extending the mandatory rest period for horses whose speeds have exceeded 20kph. That would have been a major step, following the cap on speed promoted through his own best condition awards by HH Sheikh Sultan at Boudhieb.
However, this and other welfare measures intended for 2018 were deferred to 2019 following confusion at the FEI General Assembly last November in Uruguay.
In 2014 the code CI (Catastrophic Injury) was introduced so that fatalities would be specified in ride results. Clean Endurance recently provided evidence to the FEI of 26 horses, since 2014, whose deaths the day of their last ride were not noted CI.
Clean Endurance believes the “official” fatality figures are just the tip of the iceberg and that many traumatically injured horses are shipped off-site prior to euthanasia, to avoid inclusion in statistics, and/or the application of 80 rider penalty points for horse fatalities.


In most horse sports, and in endurance in the rest of the world, the rider is also the horse’s trainer. In the UAE, horses are produced from large stables overseen by professional trainers, and partnered-up “on the day” with a stable jockey or overseas visitors.
ESPG wanted to see trainers registered and ranked according to their horses’ completion rates, and automatically joined with the rider in anti-doping cases. None of this has happened. When riding to a trainer’s instructions, it is self-evident that jockeys will press on and ignore signs that the horse underneath him isn’t coping.

In March 2015, in a worsening situation the FEI suspended the EEF for four months. Two senior EEF executives were also suspended for falsifying the entire results of at least 15 rides, following an investigation by the FEI’s Equine Community Integrity Unit. In April 2016, the FEI removed the 2016 World Endurance Championship from Dubai, citing concerns that horse welfare could not be upheld at that venue.

Clean Endurance of course understands that change was never going to be immediate. But how much more damage will be done to horses and to the reputation of equestrian sport if we have to wait another four years for concrete measures to be fearlessly applied?
Clean Endurance
The ESPG papers are archived here: ESPG-Papier (193 downloads)