Cuckson Report // Pippa Cuckson

Is Welfare ‘Paramount’ – or Just a Pain in the Neck?

On Saturday, I went National Hunt racing to support a friend̵

By: Cuckson Report // Pippa Cuckson

On Saturday, I went National Hunt racing to support a friend’s horse. He was caught on the line for third place, but connections were thrilled as he has come back from a couple of niggles last year and runs and jumps better every time. At 15-1, it was also a profitable each-way bet. This prodded to me ponder that no bookmaker would have offered odds on the dead-certainty that Ingmar de Vos would be voted new president of the FEI. The only wager you might have considered was the extent of Ingmar’s landslide.

Thanks to modern technology, I was able to follow the “meet the presidential candidates session” in Baku from the racecourse’s owners and trainers bar. What a futile session that must have seemed for the four other candidates, who already realized they were going to be hammered at the polls (De Vos, 98 votes; Durand, 21; Genecand, 6, McEwen, 6; Helgstrand – dropped out before ballot). Even the FEI’s press release about that session was brief, containing as much information about the marvelousness of Princess Haya as it did about the vision of the quintet vying to be her successor. Maybe profitable bets can be placed on how many times the FEI can magic-up a reason to mention Princess Haya in its future press releases, even though she is longer in office.

You can read about General Assembly decisions on the FEI website or click here.  These include positive innovations and other revenue achievements. What you won’t find flagged-up is the day’s most articulate and thought-provoking address, given by Roly Owers of World Horse Welfare.

On Sunday, I followed the GA throughout by livestream, from 5:00 a.m., UK time. The mantra “welfare is paramount” was dropped into several discussions, but there was not much actual discussion about what this means. The presentations about clean sport initiatives were mostly from the statistical and regulation perspective. We did learn about the excellent new online education tool “FEI Campus,” but this is obviously aimed at the younger national federations, such as FEI newbie Angola, that are still working out what end the oats go in, and not at the established nations who should know better.

Roly fingered aspects of dressage training as well as endurance, tactfully queried if the FEI’s understanding of what the public will accept has not kept up with “generational shift” and suggested the FEI should be leading, not “reluctantly following.” We got the answer in the applause, which could not be described as deafening or prolonged. Conversely, in her outgoing presidential speech, Princess Haya made some carefully-framed remarks about respecting federations from other regions and cultures. I couldn’t agree more. But that does not overwrite the core requirement of every participating country to show respect the horse.

Those who wanted Haya to stand a third term have more or less got what they want, anyway. De Vos openly mentioned his closeness to the Princess and his determination to uphold her “legacy” throughout his campaign, having told national federations in writing that he was even considering asking her to be available for a hand-over period. Key names and job titles may have chopped and changed, but the regime is essentially the same, and we can resign ourselves to more foot-dragging reactivity on things the FEI finds uncomfortable.

Some people tell me the media should back off for a while and give the FEI a chance to effect improvements in endurance that they have enacted (under duress). To me, the FEI long ago forfeited the right to any such sabbatical. It is entirely because the FEI genuflected too much in favour of cultural differences and were seduced by all the Middle Eastern money that that this grotesque version of a well-intentioned pastime ran out of control in the first place. Someone has to keep on their case. It’s not just we headlining-seeking press. Even their own welfare advisor has now felt moved to prod the FEI and all its members, in a public forum.

You will have realized that because I enjoy [Thoroughbred] racing, I cannot be an animal rights extremist or a bleeding heart. I recognize that horses have to be used, that there are risks, and that no horse sport is squeaky clean. But I honestly don’t think that the vast majority of racehorses or sports horses are sent out by their trainers/producers/riders with any other expectation than that it has been prepared to give of its best that the chances of something career ending happening in that competition or race are small, as a result of careful prep and proficient riding. And all this happens within the framework of bespoke regulations that are 99 per cent enforced, at least in the country I live in. The difference with Middle Eastern endurance is that welfare violations are now an everyday occurrence and endurance has most literally come to mean testing-to-destruction. Even if it passes the veterinary parameters, what the hell is it like for the horses forced to lumber 100 miles under someone who has not even mastered rising trot or an independent seat? No other FEI sport has been reduced to openly debating how to punish its own officials for turning a blind eye, or whether it should introduce incentive for horses that are still alive a mere three years after retiring from competition (FEI Endurance Forum, Lausanne, February 9, 2014).

I was first aware of growing welfare issues in desert endurance some 15-20 years ago, but the internet was still embryonic, so information was sketchy and pictures, never mind videos, of dubious goings-on rarely reached us. Also, many Europeans were being hired to help grow the sport in the Middle East so we assumed the horses were in fairly safe hands.

I was deputy editor of Horse & Hound at the time. One day we received a bona fide, verified report about five horse fatalities at one desert ride and four from another. We published this and, in due course, received a letter from some lawyers, insisting the horses were alive and well. The editor invited them to send us current pictures; guess what, we heard no more.

Then in 2001, I was on holiday in Dubai when I met some local equestrians by the pool, who asked if I would like to visit some equestrian establishments. I was bewildered to be taken into the desert to find a bunch of subdued-looking endurance horses in cage-like stalls – no air con for them, unlike the lavish facilities I’d seen in the Zabeel racing stables nearer town earlier that day. They then invited me to follow an endurance ride with the person driving the horse ambulance. He picked up five “walking wounded,” and while none of them looked likely to expire in my presence, it was still a rude shock: this was a whole different sport to the fabulous world championship ride I’d followed at WEG 1990, and to our iconic Golden Horseshoe Ride in the UK.

I then fell into conversation with an overseas vet, who was just ending a short-term contract in the UAE. She burst into tears, saying “All I ever do in mend horses, only for them to be immediately broken again.” Shown round the new-ish Dubai Equine Hospital, my guide told me every single horse came here for treatment after an endurance ride. Trying not offend, I meekly opined I thought the point of endurance was that you reached the finish with the horse still clinically fit to go on. Yes, there is a cultural divide.

Shortly after that I had a radical change in career direction. When I reverted to equestrian journalism in 2009, naturally endurance again came under my radar, but it was hard to pitch any stories because editors are, frankly, nowhere as interested in endurance as they are in the Olympic disciplines.

Then in spring 2013, all national newspapers became gripped by the biggest doping scandal ever to hit British racing, which ended up with Sheikh Mohammed’s Godolphin trainer Mahmood Al Zarooni (who started his career in endurance, at a stables implicated in five doping FEI Tribunal cases at that time) being banned for eight years. The Telegraph’s sports desk rang me and said: “Remind us, wasn’t Sheikh Moh caught up in an endurance doping thing a few years ago?” I explained it was no surprise to equestrians that another Maktoum employee had been over-familiar with syringes. They said “write us a piece,” so I went back over all FEI Tribunal cases, wrote this and the rest, as they say, is history.

I often feel terrible that I did not try harder to highlight all this years ago, though it is hardly my responsibility to shoulder. However, I have no doubt whatsoever that if the “window” on Middle East endurance had not been handed to us by Mr Al Zarooni, there would have be no public shaming of endurance last year and thus no PR disaster of a magnitude too large for even the FEI to sweep under the carpet. Group 7 desert rides would still be horse sport’s worst kept secret, it would be business as usual and the FEI budget would have been 500,000 Swiss francs better off because there would have been no call for the Endurance Strategic Planning Group.

Actually, it is still business as usual. The ESPG’s main provisions aimed to improve completion rates and to slow people down. No sign of that yet. A growing percentage of Group 7 rides are being run as CENs, where the FEI has no jurisdiction. Official results from the 100km CEN “for private owners” at Al Wathba, Abu Dhabi, last Friday (December 12) show a completion rate of 37.25% (38 out of 102 starters), with the top 15 all recording average speeds over 27kph. The top three each finished the final loop at an average speed the wrong side of 33.5kph (21 miles per hour). Which reminds me, we are only days away from the expiration of the American Endurance Ride Conference’s “deadline” for the FEI to show “measurable progress” in addressing concerns about Middle East endurance. Good luck with that.