I was sorry to miss the FEI’s endurance forum at Vic in Spain. I went to the 2014 version in Lausanne, the first specialist endurance open forum staged after the extent of the cheating, doping and attrition in FEI Group 7 and the UAE in particular came to wider attention.
Not much seems to have changed, other than officialdom now being less uncomfortable about openly naming the problem countries. And it would be difficult now not to name the UAE when they were suspended (2015) and stripped of running a world championship (2016) because of horse welfare concerns. Even three years ago it was taboo to mention a Group 7 federation by name in an open FEI endurance debate.
Given that weeny increase in transparency, I was disappointed to be told in February that the 2017 renewal was limited to national federations. By the time the FEI changed its mind in April and invited general observers, I had arranged to do something else, which could not be rescheduled without inconveniencing other people and causing me irrecoverable expense.
I am thus indebted to attendees who kept me posted and provided context to the presentations now available on the FEI website, and for amplifying the topics excluded from the FEI’s media round-up.
Much was made at both the main FEI sports forum in Lausanne in April and at Vic about extensive veterinary studies into bone fatigue and metabolic failures, and how they might be mitigated by extending rest periods. Another proposal that has got as far as a draft rule is adding an extra seven days’ rest where speed has exceeded an average 20kph. But why not actively cap high speeds, as successfully already trialled at Boudhieb? All the evidence is that Group 7 horses continue to train hard during compulsory “rests,” and turn up at national rides – over which the FEI is always keen to tell us it has no jurisdiction or knowledge. A half-way house measure will merely encourage Group 7 to buy even more horses.
Yet the appalling attrition rate because of the failure to address this systemic horse abuse eons ago seemed skipped-over in comparison. It’s also proposed to raise the minimum age for horses at championships and other major rides. The rationale was illustrated in a bar chart about the top 20 from the 2010 world young horse championships. Incredibly, just 50 per cent were still competing two years later: from a championship purportedly highlighting the world’s best seven-year-olds, and in a sport which used to be all about durability.
I don’t understand yet why raising the minimum age for this one to eight will make a huge difference to longevity. But, nonetheless, the FEI wouldn’t change this rule on the strength of a single small sample, so I dipped in myself to see if things were really that bad.
I plumped for young horse championship at Valeggio sul Minchio in Italy in the fall of 2013, because by then the Endurance Strategic Planning Group was up and running. By the time the Valeggio starters had been competing for two further years, FEI rules would surely have been sufficiently beefed-up, and officials now under the cosh to apply them properly. Surely, there would be a few more horses from the 2013 event in circulation in 2017? But there aren’t.
Ten of the top 20 had stopped competing in FEI within two years – six well within a year. A further six disappeared within three years. Only four have started in FEI rides this spring. The class of 2013 are only 11-year-olds now, for crying out loud, the age horses in other disciplines are only just reaching their prime.
I then looked at the next 10, hoping for a change in pattern. Just three have competed this spring. The other seven all disappeared within two seasons.
A similar exercise for the top 20 seven-year-olds from the 2013 eventing equivalent in Le Lion d’Angers, France produced, inevitably, a happy picture. Only three disappeared from FEI competition within two years, while 14 have all started in three-star and above this spring. Three of them have been to the 2016 Rio Olympics, Burghley and Badminton. Seventeen are still with the same riders.
So: top 20 from the 2013 eventing young horse world championships still in action aged 11 – 70 per cent; top 20 from the 2013 endurance young horse world championships still in action aged 11 – 20 per cent.
The Valeggio results tell us more than that. There were 64 starters. Only five had Group 7 riders – four from Oman and one from the UAE (who was eliminated), though you would be right in thinking that a great many horses from this annual so-called championship are then sold to the Middle East.
Supporters are forever boasting that the UAE has the world’s best endurance horses, as if they are all home-grown. The reality is that you could count the active contenders originating from the Middle East on the fingers of two hands. Foreign agents scoop up the “made” ones plane-loads at a time. Many of the riders on expenses-paid trips to UAE rides do so under the obligation to give the UAE first refusal if they sell. No wonder Group 7 needs replacements “on tap” when you look at their own wastage rate. At the 2014 endurance forum, I was shocked by the rest of the delegates’ failure to be shocked when one senior judge mentioned that most horses last only 18 months/two years once sold to the UAE.
Even if no one will admit the young horse endurance championship is primarily a sales platform, it would at least be more honest to re-name it. Most of the 64 starters were fielded by France, Italy and Spain – all major exporters – with just one or two each from Bulgaria, Austria, Belgium, Germany, Slovakia and Denmark. Added to the Omani and Emirati representatives, that only looks like 11 countries to me, not exactly a worldwide representation. I don’t know the venues, but I reckon it’s odds-on this particular championship is usually at locations that would bear a remarkable resemblance to a desert track once stripped of grass, trees and scenic views.
It’s also often claimed endurance is the FEI’s second fastest-growing sport. That seemed rather odd, too, when membership of the national sport in my own country, Britain, is decreasing.
According to a recent FEI blurb, registered endurance horses from 2011 to 2016 increased by 37 per cent overall, and the increase in UAE-registered horses was 128 per cent (not including the myriad UAE-owned horses administered by other national federations). The UAE administered 46 per cent of FEI registered endurance horses last year. Take out UAE, and the total increase was two per cent. Not exactly a mad global scramble to participate, then.
For all the rhetoric about welfare and level playing fields, the FEI is still only fiddling round the edges with no real indication that it wants to restore the sport’s core values. The FEI competition structure and its laughable “qualification” criteria have evolved, deliberately or otherwise, to support the supply of cannon fodder to the mega stables in Group 7 from producers whose moral compasses stopped working years ago.
The one-way gravy train to the Middle East is now so valuable that the FEI couldn’t control it even if it wanted to.