The Danish equestrian federation has dropped Andreas Helgstrand from its national dressage squad until further notice and condemned training practices shown at his huge stables following last night’s (November 22) much-vaunted TV exposé by the experienced investigative team “Operation X”.

The Danish federation has also severed connection with Helgstrand Event as promoter of national shows and next year’s Danish championships, and will ask the FEI to reconsider Helgstrand’s involvement with a leg of the EEF Nations Cup due to take place in May. (Helgstrand was a main sponsor of the World Championships at Herning last year.) When asked to comment, the EEF said that they will “urgently” look into the Danish NF’s request.

The Danish federation said, “The DRF board strongly denounces the unacceptable riding, training methods and treatment of the horses, as the broadcasts clearly show. Therefore, it is now clear that Andreas Helgstrand, based on the broadcasts, cannot represent DRF.”

Andreas Helgstrand, 46, is said to have become a krone billionaire from his equine business dealings (one krone is worth about 20 cents.) In 2021 he expanded across the Atlantic through collaborations of his joint venture Global Equestrian Group with Wellington Equestrian Partners. Over 90% of his horses are sold overseas.

Operation X is a long-standing investigative programme on the Danish state-owned channel TV 2. It sent an undercover reporter, Rebekka Klubien, to work as a groom at Helgstrand and she filmed with a concealed camera. The broadcasts are only available in Danish territority but TV 2 has made some clips more widely available, and others have already found their way onto social media.

The video clips so far available outside Denmark show multiple horses being ridden in tight draw reins, and one horse being roughly kicked by the rider. The on-camera testimony of staff is more damning, including:

  • the admission that wounds from spur marks and weals from use of the whip are routinely concealed by shoe polish and not allowed to heal before whips and spurs were used again; that horses were rugged even in hot weather to conceal wounds; that some wounds were left untreated to “make them [horses] think about what had gone on”;
  • that a number of horses continue to be ridden despite bleeding in the mouth;
  • grooms were not well paid, generally spoken to badly, not allowed to take photographs and required to sign non-disclosure agreements;
  • instruction to grooms not to use draw-reins when owners or potential customers were due to visit.

When Klubien confronted Helgstrand on camera at the end of her stay, he said bleeding in the mouth might be connected to dental issues, and the draw rein use would help prevent bleeding mouths “to show horses the way.”

Helgstrand told TV2 that his staff ride 350 horses a day. Significantly, Helgstrand is not riding in any of the video clips. The members of his 60-strong staff who are riding or filmed in the stables were pixelated by Operation X to protect their identity. The Danish federation has asked these riders to come forward, saying that if they do not identify themselves they will be sought out.

Vets and other independent experts are interviewed on camera, having been shown the footage, with veteran coach John Randskov deeming the set-up “violent” and a “money printing factory.”

Helgstrand tried to stop the broadcast through legal action during the summer and fall, including a last-ditch attempt last week.

Days before the two-part documentary was aired, Helgstrand published a new welfare protocol for his barn which he described as “industry-leading.” But any attempts at damage limitation have been eclipsed by reaction overnight to the programme. The Danish Riding Instructors Association (DR-IF) has distanced itself from “violent” riding and is considering excluding Helgstrand, while an animal welfare organisation has reported him to the North Jutland police under Demark’s animal welfare laws. There is inevitably a huge backlash on social media, with some wondering why it has taken equestrian organisations so long to say or do anything, Helgstrand being no stranger to controversy.

Unexpectedly, last evening Helgstrand gave an interview to Danish equestrian news platform in which he apologised for what had occurred at the barn. He closed his Facebook page but later issued a longer statement (in English, which has since disappeared) on his website saying the programme has made a “big impression on us” and that what is showed was “not OK … we can see that there has been a shift in our values, and it is our responsibility as leaders to ensure that our training and treatment of horses are done in the best possible way. We can see in the programs that this has not happened. We can and must do better.

“We can see that some of our training equipment has been used incorrectly in the recordings. It should guide and correct the horse, but it should never be used as punishment. We would like to make it clear that rollkur and excessive use of whip or draw reins are not accepted by us.

“The same applies to covering spur marks with colored cream. Therefore, we have made it clear that no form of colored cream is accepted by us. We acknowledge that our horses may occasionally have sores in the mouth. This can be from biting themselves in the mouth or the tongue or grinding their teeth. That said, no horse should be ridden with sores that require care and rest. We have since introduced a thorough check of our horses every 14 days, where our stable managers assess the physical and mental condition of the horses.”

The undercover footage was shot in January. Despite the constant media scrutiny in 2023, Helgstrand went ahead with riding a horse, Jovian, that had been treated with two drugs for mild colic the night before at the Danish national championships without authorisation of the show vetinarian. He was stripped of his bronze medal.

In this, as with the revelations of Operation X, Helgstrand has suggested he cannot know what staff do in his absence. Helgstrand claimed to have no knowledge of Jovian’s treatment happened until notified of a complaint two days later. He told news organisation DR Sport that he is a busy man and, because he does not have time, he has staff to “give the love” to the horses.

As well as the Jovian case, the Danish federation investigated Helgstrand in 2015 for his “completely unacceptable” use of the bridle after video emerged of his riding a horse with a “blue tongue” at an open day. He lost several sponsors. However, he received just a formal warning and a court found there was no evidence his horse suffered harm.

The programme also goes into some of Helgstrand’s alleged financial dealings, separately the subject numerous articles this year by another mainstream Danish news organisation Nordjyske. Various clients claim they were seriously misled about the prices paid for horses bought or sold or their behalf by Helgstrand and the commission taken; cite other alleged breaches of agreements; and complain about issues with returning horses that proved unsound.

One article involves Canadian Vicky Lavoie, previously a long-standing loyal supporter, over Helgstrand’s alleged refusal to hand over a foal she had bought at auction.  The dispute dragged on for two years and Nordjyske claims that they agreed not to publish anything about it until Lavoie has safely extricated the youngster from Helgstrand.

Karl Erik Stougaard, editor of Nordjyske, took the unprecedented step of writing an opinion piece  explaining why he had devoted so many resources to Helgstrand – two reporters have worked on the financial stories for months: “It is useful for everyone to know about the methods of a company that takes up so much space in North Jutland, and when a prominent businessman sets himself up on his decency, he has to live with the fact that the outside world tests the sincerity of it.”

In September, Andreas’s father Ulf, 72, a senior figure in the European equestrian community, took “leave” from his 20-year presidency of the Danish federation amid the growing controversies. Ulf Helgstrand stood against Ingmar de Vos for the FEI presidency in 2014.