The UAE desert endurance season is chugging into gear. It is accompanied by the annual spike in FEI horse registrations, mostly of the plane-loads of imported unfortunates set to hustle round the early 40km and 80km desert rides to “qualify” for the more onerous winter races to come. How much easier it must have been to invent the qualifying results in times past.

Current UAE endurance FEI registrations stand at 6,091 today, September 19th, out of 13,016 current FEI endurance horses worldwide. This is a 600% growth in 10 years, compared with 947 UAE horses in 2006. The biggest spurt was 2014-2015, around 1,500 extra horses year to year. That is depressing when you consider that by 2014 the abuses were more widely known, and that it might have occurred to people not to sell.

Last year, UAE registrations represented 46% of FEI endurance horses worldwide. Now it is 46.79%. No other country dominates horse ownership in any other discipline on this scale.

Worryingly, this figure taken in isolation makes it easy for the folks who support the warped notion of race-till-it-breaks to suggest that UAE domination means “best practice” and that they should be allowed to do what they want.

Even the FEI flags up that endurance is the world’s second fastest-growing horse sport: who they are trying to impress with that factoid, I don’t know. But it isn’t, anyway. Endurance is the fastest-growing sport in the UAE, but the UAE is just one of 130-odd countries affiliated to the FEI. The rest are not following at the same rate. Nothing like, in fact, and even if they wanted to, their best horses will quickly be sold to the UAE. What was it Benjamin Disraeli and Mark Twain said about Lies, Damned Lies, and Statistics?

Subtract the UAE, and worldwide there are then 6,925 currently FEI-registered endurance horses. This compares with 45,199 FEI jumpers, 8,811 eventers and 4,683 dressage horses.

Just 52 countries have riders in the top 1,000 of the endurance world rankings. That level of participation is pretty akin the more skilful equestrian sports. Jumping has 60 countries represented in its top 1,000 of the rider rankings, eventing 44 and dressage 43. (Those latter figures should also alarm the lobby that reckons format changes will see godzillions more flags at the Olympic Games).

Even if it can be argued that in numbers, endurance beats eventing and dressage, and is, thereby, the second-most horse-populated FEI sport, in reality, endurance should be embarrassed it is not right up there with jumping. After all, endurance was adopted by the FEI as something its newer horse countries could readily take up, using inexpensive horses and without needing to jump things or to be able to steer with laser-sharp precision.

I wish that by now, more people would have decided not to sell endurance horses to the desert, but, then again, some vendors will have succumbed to agents who misled them. Mississippi, one of the tiny handful of discarded endurance horses rescued from the UAE is typical of those whose vendor believed he was going to a good home when she sold him from New Zealand nine years ago.

The UAE sport would soon collapse if its big barns could not so readily import “made” horses; scour any set of results and you will struggle to identify many horses actually born and produced in the UAE. In a study of a typical 80km UAE winter qualifier from 2014 that I undertook this spring, only two of 40 horses were born in the UAE. The others originated as follows: France 12, Argentina 9, Australia 4, South Africa 4, Uruguay 3, Spain 3, and Italy, Belgium, USA and the UK one each. Only 12 of them are still in action.

So much information about wastage rates hides in plain sight on the FEI database. No wonder no-one flinched at the 2014 FEI endurance forum in Lausanne when the 4* judge and vet Juliette Mallison remarked that the average career span of a horse once sold to the UAE was 18 months to two years.

Mississippi, the rescued horse, was passed off as a skinny 10-year-old in his for-sale advert posted online earlier this year. He was in fact nearly 19, and his FEI record shows he had been re-registered annually including 2017, despite having done nothing at all since 2012, four years after he was imported to one of Sheikh Hamdan’s barns, though that depends of which of his two FEI IDs you are inclined to believe.

Why anyone would bother to keep registering a horse that is long-term out of work interested me, so I had a more detailed look at other horses’ competition records.

The FEI considers a horse to be “active” on the strength of its current registration. Yet large swathes of currently registered UAE horses may well have done no rides since at least spring 2016.

Absolutely no other country bothers to re-register horses that are off work. I looked at Europe, North America and elsewhere in the Middle East, and where a horse comes back from long-term injury, 99 times out of 100 its FEI registration is renewed only at the very point it starts competing again.

I mentioned this to the FEI, who took the view it was up to each national federation. It makes me uncomfortable. If you exclude UAE horses that haven’t done a ride since at least spring 2016, then the UAE represents nearer 25% of the active FEI endurance population: still big, but not 46% or 47% or nearly as huge as is popularly thought.
Does the perceived dominance by one country influence policy-making and rule changes? Do these needless re-registrations deflect attention from the true wastage rate, but no one says anything because the FEI gets a nice, extra unearned income from all these automatic renewal fees?

Here are some details from my study of CURRENTLY registered UAE horses, which I undertook in June. The genuine activity figures for younger horses (aged eight and under) that have only just landed on desert soil are slightly better, as you might expect, so I did not examine them in detail for now.

Nine-year-olds. Sample: all 69 whose names begin with A. 28 (40%) haven’t done anything since the end of the 2015-2016 winter season. 17 have never started a ride at all. Chewed up and spat out at an age every other sport regards as young for a sports horse.

10-year-olds. Sample: all 65 whose names begin with A. 10 have never done anything. Only 23 started rides in the October 2016-April 2017 UAE season, of which five nothing since the end of 2016. Six last started rides in the earlier part of 2016. Two haven’t done anything for 44 months and five nothing for 42 months. So: 36 of 65 (55%) have not competed for over 18 months. I haven’t even started to consider what has happened to the 470-odd UAE-owned 10-year-olds whose registrations were NOT renewed for 2017.

17-year-olds. Sample: all 75, names A-Z. Only 13 raced in the 2016-2017 UAE winter season. Five have never raced since entering the UAE. Another 48 have not raced since 2015 or earlier, 13 not since 2012. One was declared Catastrophically Injured in 2014 but has risen from the dead, apparently. So 52 of 75 (69%) of these currently registered teens haven’t raced for over 18 months.

Very old horses. All 37 UAE FEI-registered horses aged 20 or over. The oldest is 26. One has competed in the 2016-2017 winter season. Only three in 2015. Two have done nothing at all in their lives. Four of the 37 have not competed since 2015. So 33 of 37 (89% ) very old UAE horses have a needless, current FEI registration. It goes without saying that they have mostly not been skipping round national rides instead.

Some might think my sample base is too small. Still, after commissioning its own scientific studies on attrition the FEI has decided to raise the age group of the world young endurance championships, because only 50% of the seven-year-olds studied were still in action two years later. The FEI sample base comprised a mere 20 horses. I guess they didn’t want or need to look any further; it’s all too demoralising.

The FEI’s other response is to increase the mandatory rest period for all horses exceeding 20kph by seven days from January 1. That will hardly stop the UAE. All they have to do is buy even more horses.

The only thing “growing” about endurance is the global production line sending young horses to be tested to destruction in Group 7. Is this a sports development success? I don’t think so.