Cuckson Report // Pippa Cuckson

Can This Latest Endurance Review Make a Difference?

The temporary committee charged with reinventing endurance has been bombarded with ideas before its first face-to-face meeting with the FEI on December 12th

By: Cuckson Report // Pippa Cuckson

The temporary committee charged with reinventing endurance (yet again) has been bombarded with ideas before its first face-to-face meeting with the FEI on December 12th.

The committee’s new athlete representative, Tarek Taher, is also launching a long overdue riders group – the True Endurance International Riders Association (TEIRA.) It should eventually enjoy the same MoU with the FEI as the rider groups for jumping, dressage and eventing.

TEIRA hasn’t hung about, commissioning a detailed survey which, among other things, showed that most of the 700 respondents want stricter qualifying criteria to improve riding standards and encourage longevity in the horse.

How embarrassing, though, that before the temporary committee has even defined its remit, the potentially invaluable member Meg Sleeper has resigned. She failed to observe FEI rest periods with her own horse this fall, warranting a two-month suspension. She wouldn’t be the first experienced rider to overlook this, but still…Dr Sleeper did at least own up before anyone else did the math.

She is replaced by fellow American Valerie Kanavy, twice world champion and Taher’s predecessor as athletes’ rep. Kanavy has previously worked on proposals to improve an individual’s completion rates by making them part of qualification criteria. These surely have more chance of becoming rules with the new regime.

How likely, though, will the new committee change hearts and minds where others have failed? Endurance malaise was first discussed openly at a global forum over 11 years ago, which, with hindsight, over-egged the proactivity of reformers somewhat.

In 2013, after media scrutiny intensified, the FEI’s special Endurance Strategic Planning Group labored away for nine months, only to find most of its 40-odd recommendations unadopted.

FEI then tried the short sharp shock treatment, suspending the UAE in March 2015 (an unprecedented decision) and in 2016 stripping Dubai of hosting the world championship (ditto).

I’d have thought it blindingly obvious that before doing anything else, FEI should overhaul the appointment of officials. As long as the Meydan in-crowd is in charge of so many major gigs, little will improve. Before Tryon, the FEI was lobbied on this very topic by 30 senior endurance vets, citing decreasing opportunities at upper tier fixtures if your face does not fit with the Sheikhs. Some officials now struggle to secure sufficient invitations to enable them to remain on the FEI panel.

For some organising committees, admitting your ground jury missed the major rule violation that everyone else saw on the livestream elicits just an “Oops, sorry,” in the certain knowledge you can’t sanction the offender in hindsight.

Existing endurance rules already contain everything necessary to reduce speeds (thereby, as official FEI research shows, reducing fractures), to create technical courses, to punish rule-breakers on-the-day and to target those suspected of doping. Officials have just got to want to use the rules.

Is it really shit or bust with this latest review? There’s mounting belief the FEI is finally contemplating the unthinkable – removing endurance from the family. The mechanism to eject any discipline became FEI statute last month.

Of course, aside from ride sponsorship, FEI derives significant revenues from Group 7 (Middle East) registration and affiliation fees. Over half the FEI endurance horses worldwide belong to the UAE, such is the export circus. But then again, if FEI endurance does not exist, are those revenues needed? We will never unravel from published financial accounts the extent to which richer disciplines are required or not to subsidise minor participant sports like driving, para and FEI reining.

The Tryon experience remains so raw that endurance could well remove itself from the FEI, anyway. How that would work is debateable, but for now the normally polarised desert and classic practitioners are united by their feelings of betrayal at WEG by the FEI.

A not very illuminating summary of the Equine Community Integrity Unit (ECIU) investigation into the WEG false-start etc was presented to the FEI General Assembly in Bahrain two weeks ago.

We were entitled to expect slightly more flesh on the bones by now; the fact the false start was caused by unfinished facilities, miscommunication and general incompetence was something riders managed to work out for themselves around 7:00 a.m. on September 12th.

Someone has to be accountable for the last-minute vet-gate. I have often wondered if constructing that component was consciously left till last, just in case it wasn’t needed… The US Department of Agriculture was unhappy about the multi-million dollar piroplasmosis measures on the loops; had USDA refused approval there would have been no endurance at all. A deputation even made a mercy dash to Washington to avert that particular crisis.

We still don’t know why chefs d’equipe couldn’t inspect the loops in advance (I am not sure FEI officials were familiar with them either.) We still don’t know who was in charge of ensuring teams knew quite basic things like when and where they needed to be somewhere. Who was the mystery man mis-directing riders where they met head-on at a bridge, mentioned in countless first-hand rider testimonies and spotted by thousands more watching the livestream? Inevitably, ride footage has disappeared from the FEI TV archive.

It won’t be convenient for the FEI to publish any level of detail. Had the ride been called off after the first loop, the false start would undeniably be the cause; writs would fly. Once the ride was re-started and the day became hotter and more humid, extreme weather could be blamed, an act of God providing the get-out clause. There must be many, though, still looking for ammunition to underpin a claim for compensation.

I hope the Spanish chef Ignasi Casas Vaque is not the only person expected to face Tribunal for his verbal assault on the ground jury president J-P Allegret, following the decision to cancel just as Spain had medals in its sights.

A separate ECIU investigation into other misconduct allegations is ongoing. Morale in the endurance community would be boosted by assurances now that those responsible for the cock-ups which provoked others to lose their temper will face a public reprimand at the very least, even if they can’t be named yet.

Unfortunately, we only know Dr Casas Vaque faces a charge this soon because of his removal from the FEI endurance technical committee. The new temporary committee could not have been announced without explaining the demise of the old one.

Unfortunately, simply being crap at your allocated task is not an offence under FEI rules. In recent years the only officials coming before Tribunal have been a jumping judge from a former remote Soviet republic who pretended to officiate at a show while in another country, and the national federation chief who colluded with this subterfuge; two UAE executives who falsified endurance results on an industrial scale; two jumping course-builders who worked for the Global tour during its “exclusivity” dispute with the FEI; and two dressage judges, also from eastern Europe, accused of nationalistic scoring in Olympic qualifiers.

A quick reminder to the FEI, though you have General Regulations (as yet unused) to charge people with dragging horse sport into disrepute. If ever it was time to apply them, it’s now! Just wondering, too, if the FEI could even bring that accusation against itself…