Cuckson Report // Pippa Cuckson

UAE Endurance: Letting the Fox Rule the Hen House

The FEI’s latest attempts at reforming endurance rules are in the final stages of consultation, and the UAE has offered some questionable suggestions.

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By: Cuckson Report // Pippa Cuckson

Only someone who has been either a) in a coma or b) resident on Mars for several years cannot know that FEI endurance has spiralled out of control in the Middle East, and the UAE in particular, for nearly 20 years.

The FEI’s latest attempts at reform are in the final stages of consultation. On top of the standard procedure, a day was devoted to the draft proposals of the FEI’s “emergency” endurance committee at the FEI Sports Forum in April. Riders have enjoyed unprecedented input via surveys and encouragement to write to the national federations (NFs) direct.

Of course, we expect the drastic changes to be opposed by countries with the most to lose from the restoration of the old values of partnership and tactical riding. But I nearly choked over my toast when a 12-page missive from the UAE to the other 130-odd NFs plopped into my mailbox at breakfast time.

In holier-than-thou terms it sets out its “recommendations” and urges all NFs to support the UAE viewpoint when consultation closes in 10 days’ time, alleging it is the FEI that is “hindering the growth of the sport.”

Let’s just recap that umpteen doping, cheating, fraud and horse fatality scandals led to the UAE’s suspension by the FEI in 2015, and being stripped of hosting the 2016 world championship “because horse welfare could not be guaranteed.” That setback instilled no shame; at the replacement worlds the UAE team went for the land-speed record and killed their stable star.

Matters have only worsened since then. In the past year alone UAE riders have added use of other people’s IDs to their catalogue of fakery and now top the poll for horse abuse at FEI Tribunal. Nineteen riders representing UAE endurance are suspended for doping offences (out of a world/all-discipline total of 54.)

For sure, the UAE is entitled to a vote and a point of view. So are the 65-odd NFs who don’t even do endurance – if anything, the FEI rule-making system is too democratic.

But no one should be taking a steer from the UAE, for goodness sakes! How preposterous that the rest of the world is being thrust unsolicited advice by the only country ever made to sign a legal agreement about upholding FEI rules! Talk about letting the fox run the hen house. Whatever is next – Lance Armstrong’s appointment as a WADA’s roving ambassador?

While a growing band of young people – regrettably from Europe as well as the Middle East – is seduced by all the Group 7 glitz, most people want an end to the cheating and death. This is a notion the UAE has either chosen to reject, or simply doesn’t comprehend and never will, especially as its newest intake has grown up in an endurance world that knows nothing but foot-on-the-gas.

I have lost count of fatalities where the horse was being piloted at advanced level by a brand new and ill-prepared jockey. The fact the horse got through the vet-gate faster than the speed of light is no real indicator of its fitness or the rider’s skill, due to likely chemical enhancement.

At the April sports forum FEI head vet Goran Akerstrom openly discussed the prevalence of doping in FEI Group 7 (Middle East.) If not themselves, who else did the UAE delegation think Akerstrom was talking about when he said “if a horse has done 39-40kph in the last loop and presents with a heart-rate of 42, come on – it’s not possible! Such a horse must be tested?” And what did the UAE delegation not understand when FEI president Ingmar de Vos stressed his intention to take endurance back to “a ride, not a race” and that “if you don’t respect these values, go somewhere else?”

In fairness, not all of the draft new endurance rules have been enthusiastically received by the wider community. New qualification criteria and recovery parameters have been proposed to curb jockey riders being let loose on novices at break-leg speed – which is the normal way in the UAE. But as the FEI can’t apply region-specific rules, these same rules will have serious consequences for countries staging a just handful of FEI rides each year. For some, horse and rider upgrading will take an awful lot longer.

Neither is it entirely fair to compare the (still) lenient qualifying criteria in endurance with other disciplines which are, obviously, not governed by long mandatory horse rests between events. Nonetheless, endurance must adjust to the idea that “doing FEI” should be an aspiration, not a right. It is hardly best practice that, if lent sufficient conveyances, a beginner could start FEI endurance tomorrow and be eligible for a world championship in six months and three days’ time.

The UAE does not disagree with every FEI proposal. And where it does disagree, within its own context its objections are cogently argued – notably regarding the curtailment of intensive mobile crewing. The UAE has cynically referred to Dr David Marlin’s cooling research for the Tokyo Olympic horses to bolster its case for slosh-bottling on the move.

But I write “in its own context,” for the penny has not dropped that these latest reforms are all about moving away from racing on flat, prepared pistes. The FEI wants the desert racers to get their heads around the concept of riding according to the climatic conditions, so that in future a horse is not already spent when it reaches a designated crew point. Sadly, I think this change is just too big an “ask” for them now. It is at least 10 years too late.

The UAE also cannot see smaller practicalities from anyone else’s point of view. For instance, the FEI wants to prevent the use of dyes, barrier cream and henna to conceal the needle marks of nerve-blocking. The UAE agrees with banning the first two but not natural henna – as used in the desert – because henna “is not the same colour as blood.” Well, barrier cream isn’t the same colour as blood either, but heck, let’s not worry about what the more temperate climates traditionally use for legitimate protection of the lower limbs.

I was also interested that the UAE hired Equiratings – best known for its risk management work in eventing – to crunch some numbers. Their findings have been used to undermine FEI proposals about speed caps and increased rest period between events.

I am sure Equiratings did a thorough job with what they were given. But I would also note that in 2017, Equiratings was contracted direct by the FEI to study endurance for them, and it soon went rather quiet. When I enquired, I was told the FEI project had more or less ground to a halt because available data in endurance was not reliable…

Wealthy countries became used to getting their own way with the FEI and its extended family in the past. The large pool of small NFs holding a lot of General Assembly votes have almost certainly been loved-up by UAE supporters since April.

So I also worry that the UAE’s reference to precedents in other horse sports will be taken at face value by the NFs who don’t know any better. For instance, in endurance Elite rider status means you can pitch up at a championship even if you have hardly ridden all year. The FEI wants to end this practice, the UAE does not, pointing to the privileges afforded to Elite riders in other sports.

Yet this is hardly the same as being an Elite show jumper, who earns his position on the world rankings through merit-based performance 365 days of the year. The UAE says “rewarding Elite riders will encourage another rider to reach this status which we believe it will promote the horse welfare.” Well it sure would, in terms of relieving horses of being ridden by three or four notorious thugs, but I don’t think that’s actually what the UAE means!

We have now lived through several false dawns. A lot of people wearily feel this latest initiative is just another paper exercise. I don’t know yet if the rules will be voted for en bloc, or one at a time at the FEI General Assembly in November. I just hope we don’t have another fiasco like Montevideo 2017.

I do, though, believe endurance is now just steps away from the Last Chance Saloon. People closer to Lausanne HQ than me believe the FEI did not give itself powers to remove a discipline simply to dispense with its youngest truculent child: reining’s imminent ejection is maybe a test-run for something bigger.

If endurance is eventually chucked out of the FEI, it would not take long for its Middle Eastern benefactors to set up their own new organisation – maybe the components are in place already, to follow up de Vos’s suggestion they “go somewhere else.”

But while FEI endurance is badly regulated, it is at least regulated. Endurance can’t live within the FEI as things stand. But were it to live outside the FEI, heaven help the thousands of horses mustered from a semblance of protection onto a roller-coaster of unfettered abuse.