I almost checked my calendar when I saw this – surely an April Fool? If only it were a subject for levity.

The Tryon Daily Bulletin labels itself the world’s smallest daily newspaper; not difficult because Tryon, Polk County, North Carolina has a population of just 1,700. I’d wager that article has garnered more page views than anything else they’ve published this year. It was shared like topsy around the global endurance community, which then did its collective nut.

The news story describes the incredible 60-mile excavation frantically underway to complete the track for the World Equestrian Games endurance ride which is, er, due to run three weeks today (September 12th).

The article begins: “Amber Hall owns A & M Site Services in Columbus. She, along with her husband Milford and their crews are responsible for making the trials safe and making sure they meet all the Fédération Equestre Internationale rules and regulations. It has to be 30 feet wide and 14 feet high, completely clear of rocks, holes and tree limbs for 100 miles.”

That statement, as writ, is a gross distortion of FEI technical spec. It’s beyond tragic that this contrived track is being represented as what a championship ride should be. So many had pinned hopes on the return of the world championship endurance ride to its spiritual home. Surely at last we’d see riders win medals for actually being able to do steering, and for the tactical conservation of their horse (heck, a horse they even know by name) over a natural trail.

I trained on a regional newspaper back in the day. Local journalists can’t be experts on everything, so I can easily see how the Daily Bulletin went off-piste with this story: a reporter with no knowledge of endurance was briefed by a contractor also with no knowledge of endurance. That’s a real pity. I’ve been reading the Daily Bulletin this past week for other WEG-related gems, and it’s a very good local news resource.

Mention of track-widening and tree-felling as a tick control measure didn’t appear till a few paragraphs down, and even then piroplasmosis issues came over as the secondary consideration. So when read in conjunction with news of Meydan’s endurance ride sponsorship, folk naturally concluded the trail was being deliberately manicured to suit the UAE’s fast-riding peloton style.

Piroplasmosis control has, by luck or design, worked to the huge advantage of the sponsor’s own team. Some of the rationale still stretches the credulity, though. Polk County must have the world’s only rock-dwelling ticks.
The FEI assures me it will still be “extremely technical, hilly and twisting” but it is simple geometry that if a narrow, natural trail is widened to 30 feet it drastically eases the bends. Everyone who drives a car knows this, instinctively taking the “racing” line along a winding highway when there is no other traffic.

The works are so extensive they can surely be seen from Outer Space, so it is odd there was so little public awareness. We only know now because the authorities were forced into explaining it, after the furore over the Daily Bulletin. As recently as June, one USDA official explained Tryon’s piro measures here without a hint about the track.

It turns out that tick-control negotiations with USDA (US Department of Agriculture) and other agencies began last September but were not finalised till April. Many at the pre-ride were none the wiser. The works only started in July. One can only imagine the further panic if some loops were not being ridden twice to make up the 100 miles.

To be fair, the whole WEG project has been kiboshed by huge, unseasonal dumps of rain. Newly sown grass across swathes of the eventing cross-country was completely washed away in the spring. (Eventing and the driving marathon are also subject to tick-control, though those measures are not so radical that you’d notice.)

Cash-flow must also be a massive issue for Tryon, even though since WEG 1994 (The Hague) it’s been obvious that any WEG burns millions in unrecoverable cash. We also learn this week, courtesy of the local media, that ticket sales are so low the police have been asked to halve their planned manpower.

Without doubt a late very large cash injection from Meydan has saved the ride. But it also cannot be ignored that Meydan has played a large part in trashing the reputation of endurance to the extent no other sponsor will touch it, even if Tryon gave them title for a token dollar!

I am not surprised the piro nightmare wasn’t shouted from the rooftops. The organisers are having enough problems getting the main venue serviceable in time without revealing that USDA has not yet signed-off the endurance track.

A handful of people, some with UAE connections, have patiently explained the tick issues on social media, and lamented the tendency of the masses to blame the UAE every time something goes wrong.

We certainly can’t blame the UAE for the creepy-crawlies that afflict the southern states, but the public perception of UAE endurance is wholly justifiable. Despite all efforts to coax or cajole them into change, the UAE have cheerfully bashed on with their preferred pastime of testing horses to destruction.

The latest ploy is direct targeting of the everyday rider, with the carrot of “appearance” money at multi-million dollar rides in UK and Italy. These have seriously reduced entries at non Meydan-sponsored rides this season, forcing at least four in France and Belgium to cancel. I cannot think of anything more welfare-averse than offering a cash bonus for pressing on with a tired horse, on the proviso you finish within a set time of the super-charged (UAE) winner. There is nothing in FEI rules to prevent organisers offering this so-called “benefit,” because no regulatory body can spend its life imagining every sort of amoral gimmick and drafting a rule to prevent it, just in case.
When the FEI’s Endurance Strategic Planning Group tried to encourage reform in 2014, many folk realised things would get worse before they got better (if ever). We are still in the getting-worse phase.

In July 2015 the UAE federation signed a legal agreement with the FEI which enabled its unprecedented suspension (for welfare issues) to be lifted. Since the start of the suspension, in March 2015, we’ve had the fake rides scandal, another mini suspension, proof that many fatalities have not been correctly recorded as catastrophic injuries. Dubai stripped of running the 2016 world championship, and countless instances on video of rule-breaking on the field of play.

From 2016 all FEI dope test results had to be published globally for the first time, providing corroboration of what everyone instinctively knew: not only does the UAE carry out the smallest per cent of sampling but it returns 10 times more positives per horses tested than anywhere else in the world. Only this past week Shaddad, the world number one ranked horse, was revealed as positive to a banned substance. He is trained by one of the Maktoum family’s long-time staffers who has past “form” for doping. Because the FEI has no connection with Thoroughbred racing this gentleman, while provisionally suspended by the FEI, remains free to pursue his parallel Flat training career in Newmarket, heart of the UK racing industry.

Meanwhile, the FEI must have spent a fortune on scientific studies showing a link between high speed endurance and attrition. Because of these findings a draft rule was contrived during 2017, aimed at incentivising riders to cap speed around 20kph. This was abandoned after a few powerful stakeholders kicked up a fuss.

Also two years ago, endurance set up a bespoke rider “de-merit” scheme. Kill two or more horses in a short time and you are suspended. Mention that endurance even needs this sort of provision to riders in other equestrian disciplines, and they’ll think you’ve lost your mind.

The original FEI/UAE legal agreement has now petered out. I asked the FEI for a few examples of how UAE endurance had improved with all the welfare initiatives and new rules since 2015. Their written reply covered other matters I’d raised, but my main question was ignored, so I asked again. Eventually, the FEI said the Emirates Equestrian Federation was now more “transparent.” Yes folks, that’s all the FEI could come up with. And in any case it’s the federation they’re talking about, not the powerful stables at the core of the abuses.

I hope the Tryon ride happens, and is free for death and disaster, but who dares hold their breath? The endurance track will leave a scar through Polk County, though in time the trees and brush will return. But the scar gouged on the sport by the UAE grows ever deeper and more putrid.