I have been writing about the woes of desert endurance for over seven years. I didn’t want to feel a sense of “déjà vu” when the latest beefed-up FEI rule proposals were published a few days ago, but read them – or more accurately, the response to them – with more weariness and exasperation.
The FEI’s Endurance Temporary Committee (ETC) has worked tirelessly for a year, going further than any of its predecessors dared to with reforms to rescue endurance’s social licence to exist. The elected athletes’ representative Tarek Taher, in particular, has been harassed on social media by anonymous cowards so blatantly in thrall to Dubai. Yet the ETC has pressed on, when others would have walked away.
The ETC undertook unprecedented consultation, listening to all territories, geographies and cultures. It has published the observations of all national federations (NFs); even the incoherent ones, and those of South Africa, Libya, Lebanon and Sudan who simply cut and pasted bumph circulated by the UAE earlier this summer opposing most of the proposals.
The ETC has carefully explained why NF suggestions have been adopted or not. No other discipline has ever reached out to its global community in this way (though no other is in such a mess that it needs to.)
But inevitably the ballsy rhetoric at the FEI Sports Forum in April has been watered-down prior to the FEI General Assembly in Moscow next month, because any rules package has to get past the national federations.
The most obvious casualty of rule reform is Valerie Kanavy’s qualifying/upgrading system, which aimed to reduce fracture-risking high speeds and encourage tactical riding. The speed merchants were always going to oppose it, but it had unintended consequences for countries practising traditional endurance, and who resent having to compromise because of the excesses spread by one region.
The re-vamped qualification system has also met mixed response. It approaches the same aim by demoting fast riders and horses who have too many consecutive vettings-out. This is a nightmare for the FEI’s IT department, who don’t yet know what new software they’ll have to write. So the new rules – if passed – may not be implemented till later in 2020.
Before and especially during the presidency of Sheikh Mohammed’s now estranged wife Princess Haya, the FEI let desert endurance run out of control, allowing the handful of brave whistle-blowers to be dismissed as scaremongering fantasists.
But by 2015 the scale of horse abuse and rule-breaking was so widely acknowledged that the FEI suspended the UAE for three months and stripped it of hosting the 2016 world championship. In 2016, a senior member of Abu Dhabi’s ruling family, Sheikh Sultan, broke ranks and addressed the World Horse Welfare’s annual conference about his personal mission to promote decent horsemanship at his ride venue Bou Thib.
The return of positives for prohibited drugs is around 12% in UAE endurance, 10 times greater than other countries or other horse sports. The FEI is recruiting at least two new members to its independent disciplinary Tribunal, and in 2020 FEI headquarters gain powers to handle the “minor” cases itself. This is because of the growing workload for Tribunal in doping and horse abuse – the majority of which involve endurance.
But it’s all too little, too late. There are now too many adrenalin junkies who enjoy riding at break-leg speed on disposable horses at richly-sponsored Meydan events. Producers won’t want to stop selling super-fast horses for huge money to Group 7 (Middle East). The UAE imports around 1,500 new endurance horses each year, mostly from south America, southern Europe and the Antipodes; what happens to the still young-ish horses they replace? From October, the UAE calendar usually includes wall-to-wall 80km fixtures to “prepare” and sift out the less durable new purchases for the big days out over 120km and 160km in January, February and March.
Supporters of desert racing have lobbied behind the scenes, targeting NFs that don’t do endurance and who thus might be persuaded the new rules are “over the top” and vote against. Though the reality is that even the NFs that deplore desert racing will nonetheless vote against many of the new rules for viability reasons – countries running just three or four rides on a shoestring, countries unable to afford a new state-of-the-art timing system, far flung countries with access to a very small pool of officials.
Some believe we are close to the self-exile of desert racing anyway. There is strong rumour that UAE personnel are setting up a breakaway series – “World Endurance Conference” or something like that – to be announced soon after Moscow.
That could explain the total absence of any FEI dates in the 2019-2020 season at the principal Abu Dhabi venue, Al Wathba – not even the President’s Cup. A tiny handful of CEIs are slated for Dubai International Endurance City (DIEC) though these same dates are shown solely as national events in domestic listings. Only Bou Thib – already boycotted by the big UAE stables – is running a full FEI programme.
Splitting the FEI sport into “classic” and “desert racing” has been debated since 2012 but resisted – at least while under jurisdiction of the FEI, horses have a semblance of protection. Officials at DIEC and Al Wathba and UAE sponsored venues in other countries repeatedly fail to notice rule breaches that the rest of the world sees clearly on the livestream. How likely will those officials have an epiphany with the arrival of a new organisation and rigorously apply its rules – such as they may be?
How will any new organisation/unofficial series function if the FEI applies its unsanctioned events rules which have, by the way, been clarified for 2020? There may well be ample officials and riders willing to give up their FEI credentials and throw their lot in with a rival organisation for keeps; many will say “good riddance,” while lamenting the fate of the horses.
Has the long-term horse supply for any rival series been considered, though? Unless the UAE intends to start raising and producing their own endurance horses on the scale of their Thoroughbred breeding operations, the FEI system in the rest of the world is still only way for sellers to prove a horse’s worth. That won’t be quite so easy for foreign nationals who return home from a de-recognised junket in Dubai to find themselves barred six months from anything FEI.
Some tell me that the (unconfirmed) “World Endurance Conference” would be endurance’s version of jumping’s Global Champions League, which of course challenged the FEI’s unsanctioned events rules in the Belgian courts in 2015, though the action was later dropped. If it eventuates I’d suggest riders do some homework before making any hasty decisions. Global Champions had plenty of beefs with the FEI but the last thing it wanted was NOT to run its competitions according to FEI sport and anti-doping rules.
Dr Al Hajri, secretary general of the UAE national federation, told me that while the Emirates disagree with many of the ETC proposals the UAE will respect them if the General Assembly adopts them. He had not heard about any breakaway organisation.
Dr Al Hajri said it was up to the ride organisers to decide if they wanted to run FEI events – there was, he said, still time for OCs to change their minds and re-affiliate with the FEI. Maybe, though only if the FEI continues to allow UAE venues to mess around with the international calendar at the last minute in a way no other NF would contemplate. When I exposed the UAE’s “fake rides” scandal in 2015, I saw how the casual rubber-stamping of “pop-up” fixtures by past administrators enabled hundreds of results to be falsified for years without anyone noticing.
Meanwhile, the desert scene and its satellite venues in other regions increasingly appear hedonistic – even criminal. Animals are not the only beings whose welfare is at stake.
I have received information about “fixers” who have offered help to younger riders wanting a place in the big races in return for sex with goodness knows who. Understandably, those riders are too terrified to go on the record. The FEI is also investigating the championship weekend in Pisa, Italy last month, where a distinguished vet who eliminated a well-known rider was accosted by four thugs in such a frightening way he left the venue immediately.
In any other horse sport, such incidents would provoke big headlines. But endurance is so inured to systemic debasement I doubt anyone will be remotely surprised by the paragraph above.
There can be no gain for horses or the reputation of endurance without some pain for its stakeholders, but I just don’t think enough people are willing to make that sacrifice. The vote in Moscow could be even closer than Brexit. And we have all seen the chaos and nastiness that results when only a weeny majority gets its way.
New rule proposals for endurance and all other FEI sports can be found here.