The FEI has apparently rowed back on its own proposal to sanction national equestrian federations with a “prevalence” of doping. If the measure had gone forward it would most likely have penalised the sport’s wealthiest benefactors; Middle Eastern endurance racing still returns more positives than any other region or any other FEI discipline.

New sanctions were suggested last year following a significant spike in positives in Saudi Arabia.  But despite enquiries by over the past seven weeks, the FEI has declined to confirm if new sanctions are in the draft EADCMP (anti-doping) rules for 2025, slated for debate at the FEI Sport Forum on April 29-30.

The FEI already stands accused of succumbing to “sportswashing” through allocating this week’s World Cup jumping and dressage finals to Saudi Arabia. Three leading equestrian news organisations, The Horse Magazine, Reiten St Georg and  announced a boycott, largely citing Saudi Arabia’s attitude to human rights.

The FEI is, however, is challenged in finding hosts for their major events which is a topic of discussion at their Sports Forum next week. As of now, the FEI has not yet received an application to host next year’s European Jumping, Eventing, or Senior Para Championships. The announcement about Saudi Arabia hosting these Finals was announced at the end of 2019 (four and half years ahead of the event) and it’s not clear whether any bidding took place. Typically, the FEI offers the chance to bid on hosting the World Cup Finals three years in advance.

Simultaneously, has pressed the FEI on the contradiction of allocating “big-ticket” championships to countries with known equine doping and cheating problems at a time when the FEI is focussed on public concern about sport horse welfare and the Social Licence to Operate (SLO).

Since 2019, FEI endurance racing has been heavily promoted at Al Ula in Saudi Arabia. It has staged the world’s richest annual race ever since the Al Wathba venue in UAE pulled the Presidents Cup from the FEI calendar in reaction to the stricter FEI endurance rules effective from 2020.

There have always been multiple doping positives from Al Ula, involving cocktails of up to seven different drugs, highlighting the ease with which routinely doped horses progress to top level endurance sport. In 2020, the FEI disciplined three senior officials for “failing in their duty” after a large number of field-of-play violations at Al Ula were not not acted upon.

Last November Al Ula was allocated the 2026 FEI World Endurance Championships, despite having recently returned the greatest number of positives (14 Saudi owned and trained horses out of the 33 sampled) at any single show or event in equestrian anti-doping history. One rider-trainer received a record seven-and-a-half-year ban. Sampling returns from the big 2024 Al Ula fixture are notably better, but could not have been predicted last November.

Not surprisingly, the FEI seems reluctant to answer the question actually asked regarding Saudi Arabia by any media organisation.

Last June asked if it was wise, or fair to other federations, that a country with a poor doping record was “rewarded” with a prestigious championship. The FEI did not answer directly but mentioned a possible mechanism to remove (already allocated) finals on that basis and added: “The EADCM Regulations will be undergoing a full review in 2024 and one of the items that will be discussed is the possibility to sanction a national federation that has a prevalence of doping cases.

“The FEI has raised its concerns regarding the high level of positives with the KSA [Kingdom of Saudi Arabia] national federation. They are taking the matter seriously and planning a series of educational workshops for their athletes.”

With the 2024 FEI rules revision consulation about to commence, on February 29 asked the FEI for a progress report on its sanctions proposal, again querying the allocation of “big-ticket” events to Saudi Arabia before there was any evidence of horse welfare improvements.

Despite several reminders, a partial reply was only received this morning (April 18.) It does not mention the sanctions proposal at all.

Regarding the Saudi “education workshops,” the FEI spokesperson said it was exchanging information with the Saudi NF on a regular basis but had no “official” update on the educational programme and no “deadline” had been set.

On the ethics of allocating headlining events to Saudi Arabia, the FEI replied: “Awarding Al Ula the opportunity to host the 2026 FEI World Endurance Championships reflects the FEI’s belief that these Championships should have the opportunity to be hosted around the globe. The spotlight placed on the host nation is also motivation for ongoing improvements and accountability within its equestrian community.” [Editor’s note: the 2022 World Endurance Championship was also in the Middle East, with Bahrain later stripped of team gold due to a banned substance positive.]

The FEI did supply extra detail of yellow warning cards to Saudi endurance riders this winter season (13 at Al Ula, one in Riyadh) saying one was for horse abuse, but it was “important to note” most were for “offenses such as non-compliance with weight requirements, wrongful usage of GPS equipment and receiving prohibited assistance.”

If not at FEI HQ, those categories of rule breach are regarded as serious cheating by the wider endurance community. Official FEI footage shows a groom picking up rocks and stuffing them into an arriving rider’s pockets at Al Ula. HorseSport has been told that the “wrongful use of GPS equipment” (which among other reasons stops cheats from taking a short cut) included seven riders not carrying the device at all.

As well as the new EADCMP rules, final recommendations of the FEI’s ethics commission are due to be discussed at the FEI sport forum, though with six working days to go, no advance information is yet available.