Reallocation of the FEI 2022 World Endurance Championship to the last week of February 2023 at Boudheib in the United Arab Emirates (UAE) has met pushback from a variety of stakeholders.
Some competitors are dismayed that they now face a desert race after training for completely different terrain in Verona, Italy. Meanwhile the active “Clean Endurance” community is astonished that the UAE – a hub of doping and rule-breaking – has been rewarded with a prestigious championship, especially when equestrianism’s “social licence” is under the spotlight.
Clean Endurance also queried the technical suitability of Boudheib for a potentially fast-paced championship. It feels the FEI’s decision was influenced by the new organizer’s financial package which includes prize money of $545,000 USD, ten times the minimum requested in the bid document. Half will be split between all finishers, plus a best condition award.
In September the FEI cancelled the Verona world championship at six week’s notice. It re-opened bids with the option to run as late as April 30, 2023, and announced the winner last month. Five national federations applied – UAE, Italy (promoting Pisa), Portugal, France and Slovakia. The European applicants were expected to have run later.
The test event on December 11th will be the first one-day 160-km race at Boudheib in at least 30 years. Boudheib’s founder, the late Sheikh Sultan, deliberately ran his longer distance races over two days because of the extra demands posed by areas of deep sand. This means Boudheib was ineligible when the initial bid criteria was published on September 12th. A later amendment that opened the door to Boudheib was described as a “typo.”
Italy-based Felipe de Azevedo Morgulis, who placed eighth for Brazil at the last world championship, told HorseSport.com he had “utmost respect” for Boudheib and thought it deserved a championship in, say 2026, giving the organisers ample time to prepare. But he added, “The FEI should have been more coherent in terms of course conditions and location. With less than four months to go, there were better alternatives to mitigate the impact for those already preparing their horses for a long time.”
Heather Reynolds, who has represented the US at four world championship, said, “The trail and time of year originally selected are not even close to the replacement race; that is what is most unfair. If the ride was always to be in the Middle East, then you would have prepared for it.”
She added, “Its not a level playing field when you go to the UAE. This also shows how out of touch FEI is with horsemen. I am willing to bet the vast majority of riders share my feelings.”
A Clean Endurance spokesman said, “We believe the terrain at this venue with its deep sand is conducive to injuries, especially since it is very different from the type of terrain the competing horses have been prepared for. There have been no CEI 3* 160-km competitions in Boudheib for several decades, and local riders and trainers have informed us that the terrain is simply too damaging to the horses over such a long distance.
“Sheikh Sultan’s laudable efforts to improve horse welfare were based on limiting speed and are not at all applicable to a World Championship. We also believe that awarding a Championship to a country well known for its struggle with horse welfare and rule abidance is damaging to endurance in particular and horse sport in general.
“The FEI mentions in their press release that the Boudheib clinic is well equipped, but this does by no means compensate for the higher injury risk at this venue – we need injury prevention in equestrian sport, first and foremost.”
FEI: ‘confident’ welfare will be safeguarded during the entire event
The FEI has emphasised Boudheib’s good welfare record, as distinct from the other main UAE venues, but was unable to tell HorseSport.com if the welfare protocols pioneered by Sheikh Sultan continued after his fatal illness in 2019, during which time some of his key personal staff lost their jobs.
Horsesport.com put stakeholder concerns to the FEI. These included the rationale for choosing the UAE when horse welfare and doping is not yet under control; the technical suitability of Boudheib for a 160-km championship; and the significant financial package which also includes free flights and implies an advantage over other bidders.
The FEI gave a generalised reply. A FEI spokesman said, “The information I can give you at this time is that the decision to award Butheeb [sic] the FEI Endurance World Championships was based on the technical merits of the bid and the ability of the organising committee to organise and host an Endurance World Championship in a short period of time. The endurance community had also expressed their profound disappointment following the cancellation of the World Championship in Verona, and Butheeb is now providing an opportunity for the athletes to compete in the sport’s flagship event at a world class venue.
“The FEI Board was well aware of previous issues with the discipline in the UAE but also noted that those issues did not involve the Butheeb venue and that previous sanctions imposed had been served. Therefore, the FEI is confident that with the procedures and protocols now contained in the FEI Endurance Rules horse welfare will be safeguarded during the entire staging of the event.”
Boudhieb founder’s dismay over desert’s ‘insane gymkhana’
The UAE has three main endurance centers, all promoted by the ruling families of Dubai and Abu Dhabi. Dubai International Endurance Village was founded by Sheikh Mohammed al Maktoum. Al Wathba is promoted by his son-in-law, Sheikh Mansour al Nahyan and Boudhieb was founded by the late Sheikh Sultan al Nahyan.
Endurance scandals in the UAE have been associated with Al Wathba and Dubai. These led to the UAE federation being suspended by the FEI in 2015 and again in 2019. Dubai was stripped of staging the FEI 2016 World Endurance Championship due to welfare concerns. In 2019, the UAE national federation lobbied other countries to reject the FEI’s new welfare-orientated rules. Al Wathba has not staged any FEI rides since the FEI toughened-up its endurance rules at the end of 2019. Al Wathba’s disaffiliated races include the headlining President’s Cup.
Even with Al Wathba out of the picture, the UAE has returned more positive dope tests in endurance than the rest of the world combined. In the past 12 months the FEI Tribunal has handled 37 doping cases spanning all disciplines. Of these, 12 took place at endurance rides in the UAE. Ongoing doping in endurance was highlighted by FEI head vet Goran Akerstrom at the recent General Assembly in Cape Town.
Sheikh Sultan tried to promote a gentler endurance sport at Boudheib. In 2016, he openly criticised the “insane gymkhana” of desert racing during the World Horse Welfare (WHW) conference. Mindful of new FEI research showing the risk of fracture increases at speeds over 20 kph, Sheikh Sultan introduced the Boudheib Initiative. His own rules ran in tandem with the FEI’s, though he awarded 70% of prize money to those meeting his best condition criteria, irrespective of placing.
Sheikh Sultan told the WHW conference that by setting a maximum 20 kph speed over a technical track, tougher heart-rate parameters (56 bpm) and tighter presentation times of just 10 minutes had drastically improved completion rates, with almost no horses requiring invasive treatment. “The clinic has been so quiet, vets are starting to bring books to read while they wait!” He also funded research into detection of de-sensitised limbs (hyposensitivity testing is now standard FEI practice) and prevented crew cars following closely, so that “riders have to think for themselves.”
Some of the fast-riding stables in the UAE stopped competing regularly at Boudheib and have returned only since Sheikh Sultan’s death. Average speeds of the leading pack in its FEI races are already returning to 20 kph-plus.
Clean Endurance acknowledged the UAE national federation’s reported intention to improve. But if there have been any changes, the outside world cannot tell because uninterrupted livestreams have stopped in the past two winter seasons. Available footage is now limited to edited highlights from the track, with nothing from the vet gates.
The spokesman added: “Clean Endurance is discomfited that the 2022 WEC livestream will broadcast images associated with desert racing, and that this championship could be perceived as a form of sports-washing: it appears the only considerations taken into account are political and financial.”
Editor’s note: Boudheib is subject to many spellings when anglicised. The venue’s original Facebook page spells it Boudheib. In some FEI communications and on the FEI database it used to be referred to as Bou Thib but was recently changed to Butheeb.