Changes to parts of the track for the reallocated FEI World Endurance Championship in Butheeb, Abu Dhabi on February 25 have been proposed following last week’s test ride, the first 160-km ride at the venue in over 30 years.

Footings expert Dr. Lars Roepstroff will assess the track next month “to quell any remaining concerns” and in the championship itself there will be six loops (instead of the test ride’s five) to enable more horse recovery time, plus extra watering points.

The test ride saw just four of 13 starters complete, plus longer presentation times as horses that managed to progress beyond the third loop began to tire. This was the first 160km race at Butheeb in at least three decades. Butheeb founder, the late Sheikh Sultan, always felt his natural terrain was too demanding for 160 km in one day, and so the FEI decision to award Butheeb the world championship after the Verona date in October was cancelled met concern.

FEI rule changes in recent years have been geared at achieving lower speeds and hence a lower attrition rate, but have not yet made an impact, and while the FEI has warned riders to act appropriately, it is a gamble to ask for such a radical change in approach at a championship just two months away. Many riders have trained in expectation that the 2022 championship would be moved from Italy to another European terrain. For others there is dismay that the UAE is hosting a prestigious event when its overall reputation for horse welfare in endurance (excepting Butheeb) is poor.

When the late Sheikh Sultan introduced his own welfare initiatives eight years ago, many larger UAE barns by-passed Butheeb in favour of the fast-riding prepared tracks of the UAE’s two other endurance centers, Dubai and Al Wathba. The FEI database shows that these absentees included UAE nationals in the test event.

The FEI press release is bullish about prospects for a welfare-led championship and praises the venue’s state-of-the-art veterinary facilities. Technical delegate Sharon Du Plessis said, “We were able to see the full spectrum of the terrain on offer at Butheeb, with good, natural, wide tracks, fully secured and very little deep sand, with just five kilometres of deep sand areas to be modified for the championship track – among other improvements to be made in the coming weeks. The whole community has been asking for more technical and slower tracks – and this is what they will get in Butheeb.”

The organisers “pulled out all the stops” to provide an open-house invitation to the test event, and held a hybrid information session for chef d’equipes.

Stressing the need for contenders to ride appropriately for the conditions, FEI endurance director Christina Abu-Dayyeh said, “It’s important that a certain percentage of the track is natural and in keeping with the local environment, wherever that may be, and as you would expect at this level, every athlete taking part will need to plan and manage their ride and pace according to the conditions and according to their horse. We are confident the horses will be very well looked after, with great facilities and an experienced Organising Committee in Butheeb, ensuring all the veterinary checks and processes in line with the FEI Rules are fully adhered to.”

Germany will temporarily lift its ban on German nationals riding in UAE endurance so that its riders can participate in the world championship at Butheeb. The ban has applied for the last four years because of welfare concerns. The national body said it was still not convinced regular races organised by the emiratis themselves abided by FEI rules, but that it expected the world championships to be under the FEI’s “full control.”

The ride officials have yet to be announced.