Cuckson Report // Pippa Cuckson

It’s Time to Wind Endurance Back to Zero

While the FEI works to bring Endurance back to its roots, Pippa Cuckson recounts a list of key atrocities that have taken place in the sport in recent years

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By: Cuckson Report // Pippa Cuckson

Meetings of the FEI’s Endurance Temporary Committee – tasked with reviewing their sport for the umpteenth time – are always followed up with a press release. These missives include a quote about the new feeling of optimism and cooperation by everyone in the endurance community.

Sorry for my cynicism, but can someone enlighten me as to when FEI Group 7 (Middle East) underwent this amazing epiphany and agreed that high-speed horse-wrecking must stop? I must have been in a coma that day. The national federations might be saying it and meaning it, but the out on the piste it is a very different story.

We were spoon-fed the same feel-good mantra in 2013 and 2014 by the FEI Endurance Strategic Planning Group (remember them, anyone?) They too enthused about goodwill and engagement (an over-used catch-all term, in my view) toward reform. Yet within a year of the ESPG’s final report in April 2014, recommendations were mostly gathering dust, and the UAE federation had been suspended.

The UAE was let back into the FEI “family” by signing a legal agreement that was then scarcely observed in the 2015-16 winter season. By February 2016 the FEI was seeking further assurances about compliance. In April the UAE was stripped of running the 2016 world endurance championship because “horse welfare could not be guaranteed.”

Speeds got even faster, completion rates no better: so many horses’ careers (and probably lives) over by the age of eight or nine.

Aha, some say, this shows the vets are doing their jobs rigorously, taking so many failing horses out of the race. It sure does – but it also means the desert sport has evolved into something very different from the original premise: it’s now about pushing your horse as hard as you can till an official decrees it is spent. Not one rider twigs that if they ride more sensibly next time they might finish. This will continue as long as the Middle Eastern stables have a bottomless supply of imported horses, and as long as heartless producers in all continents line up to sell to them.

Tighter qualifications have been discussed many times, but not actioned. That is why people who can barely rise to the trot can hop aboard any young, inexperienced horse at a 160km ride. While I vehemently support clean sport, you could be forgiven for hoping these poor horses are on mind-altering drugs, to blank it all out.

What else has happened since ESPG? Bad behaviour became so rife the FEI invented a special warning card for it. In 2016 it introduced “de-merit” points – a system not required in any other horse sport – to monitor and punish those who kill two or more horses a year, or by-pass vet checks etc. Endurance trainers are now automatically provisionally suspended in certain doping cases, in a further attempt to combat chemical enhancement.

The FEI has also tried to stop deaths disappearing from the record, after research by Clean Endurance in 2016 revealed a huge disconnect between the horses marked “Catastrophically Injured” in ride results and the ones euthanized only after they’d been shipped home, to escape the de-merit points mentioned above.

Much store was placed on Professor Tim Parkin’s injuries research, presented in spring 2017. It was used as a basis for draft rules capping speed – all kicked into the long grass/desert sand after confusing scenes at the 2017 FEI General Assembly.

Then there was last summer’s “bodyguard” fiasco at Euston, UK. We’d had the faked horse ID scandal in 2012 and the faked races scandal in 2015, so it is inevitable there are faked riders too. It transpired that pals and minders of 2014 world champion Sheikh Hamdan have are borrowing horses and tagging along in FEI rides unchallenged, under other riders’ names (or no name at all).

It is risible that some numpties still delude themselves a pastime as anarchic as desert endurance could become an Olympic sport.

There’s no improvement in horse fatalities, either officially recorded or anecdotal. A staggering 33 of the 53 doping violations awaiting a Tribunal decision derive from Group 7 endurance, 16 of them for banned substance offences. (That figure doesn’t include bods accepting the fast-track fine for controlled meds offences).

The percentage of positives from horses sampled in Group 7 remains off the scale. In an apparent bid to raise standards, organisers of the rich new ride in Al Ula, Saudi Arabia, last month sampled a way-above-average 30 horses. Already five have returned positives, one of them to six different potions.

And of course: Tryon. Though couldn’t we see this coming? For sure the debacle was primarily down to the WEG organising committee’s incompetence. But it could also be said to result from institutionalised weakness of FEI officials, and a generation of riders who are clueless about riding according to the conditions. The timing of Ignasi Casas Vaque’s suspension is also not ideal, fostering a loss of confidence in the FEI by many who conclude he’s being blamed for the whole Tryon fiasco.

In January, there was another dark day when the American Endurance Ride Conference – whose founders pretty well invented the classic sport – turned its back on the FEI.

Every weekend in the desert winter season, an abomination of some sort is captured on the official livestream that goes viral but unsanctioned. When you describe desert endurance to non-horse people, they can’t believe such a concept exists under a bona fide regulatory body. You might as well stick a cold shower over a treadmill, plonk a horse on it and turn up the speed to Usain Bolt. At least that way the horse would be spared a lumpen passenger for hours on end, and an instrument of torture in its mouth.

The mare in this screenshot is 8 Minute. The image was taken from a livestream at this year's Presidents Cup. The red circle was drawn on by the initial person to share it on social media. There is extensive video footage of the rider completely out of control and having to be boxed in by two others. The footage is currently with FEI Legal in conjunction with another abuse protest.
This screenshot was taken during the Presidents Cup in Abu Dhabi last month and has been widely circulated on social media. It shows the mare 8 Minute in the regularly seen tack of long shanked bit and  reins with handles.

Hardware is another contradiction. FEI dressage rules for bits and bridles extend to seven pages. You can even ride a 2* Grand Prix test in a plain snaffle. Yet tack in FEI endurance are unregulated. Tight, chained nosebands, long-shanked bits and looped handles on reins for maximum leverage are routinely spotted, usually in the hands of thugs who wouldn’t know a 20-metre circle if it bit them in the behind. (I expect that to desert endurance, a “half-pass” means covertly handing a prohibited device to someone when you hope no-one else looking.) Until two years ago, endurance didn’t even have a blood rule.

All such aberrations escape sanction, because even when the “Clean” community notices violations that the ground jury didn’t, it is usually too late under the “30-minute rule.” This time limit for protesting rule breaches is ok for arena sports when all of the judges can see all of the riders all of the time, but hardly practical in endurance.

The UAE’s alleged goodwill toward the FEI was manifested (not) in its disaffiliation of the last major ride of the season, the upcoming Dubai Crown Prince Cup. Does removing this fixture from FEI jurisdiction result from the recent Tribunal decision to bar the UAE from staggered starts? The UAE disaffiliated the same ride in a hissy fit in 2016.

Meanwhile, what’s going on in this video clip below? Footage is now all over Facebook of a horse being injected, allegedly in the final vet gate of the Kings Cup CEI in Bahrain last weekend. If so, it’s the sort of cheating in broad daylight you can expect of those confident no one will stop them. The King’s Cup – headline ride in the homeland of the FEI vice-president Sheikh Khalid – already been tarnished by proven allegations of horse abuse in 2014 and an alleged cover up of an in-ride fracture.

Another incident still under investigation is the December 8, 2018 under 21’s ride at Al Wathba, Abu Dhabi, where unauthorized persons ran onto the piste and bullied several tiring horses. In February 2016, there was a similar incident at the same venue. As a result of the “Al Wathba Five,” the UAE federation “suspended itself” for a week, fined five trainers (though not the brats riding) an eye-watering $100,000 each – small change in those parts – and declared it would stamp out cheats. I see no contrition over this repeat offence.

I have been writing about these travesties for seven years. The FEI endurance temporary committee seems 20 times more determined to provoke change than those who went before. It’s also heartening that riders from most FEI regions are now saying openly that enough is enough.

But all this horse wastage and abuse cannot continue unchecked while a solution is sought. The offending parties will never curb their excesses. They stick a metaphorical finger to the FEI and to practitioners of the technical sport that respects horsemanship and longevity. The rot has spread to Europe, with the young generation seduced by Middle Eastern bling and crazy high prize-money.

Re-writing the rules won’t change much. There too many weak officials in thrall to the Sheikhs, and hundreds of adrenalin junkies who won’t stop tearing through the desert at break-leg speed. You’d have more luck trying to convince teenagers that sex is bad for them.

I believe it’s time to re-wind to zero, and start again from scratch – even it if means suspending the whole discipline indefinitely while endurance decides what the future direction must be. Or even if it has a future.