Endurance Leaders Take A Proactive Stance At World Forum

Jun 7, 2007 - 10:00 PM


The sport of endurance is at a crossroads. Even though this discipline has grown exponentially since 2000—a 480 percent increase in events—the sport embodies “the good, the bad and the ugly,” according to Swiss presenter Fred Barrelet, who borrowed the phrase from the movie of the same name.

At the FEI World Endurance Forum, held in Paris, France, in April, 70 delegates representing 31 National Federations gathered together to consider the future of endurance. This Forum was the starting point of a serious and ongoing review of the sport, which has come under fire in the past several years with multiple horse deaths at championship competitions.

The Forum opened with a concise statement from Fédération Equestre Inter-nationale First Vice President Sven Homberg, chairman of the conference, who said: “Endurance can no longer be something in the background just for the specialists and connoisseurs. It is becoming public, and this development has many consequences. It’s time for this sport to take the step from ‘just a sport’ into true professionalism.” 

Homberg read an explicit message from FEI President HRH Princess Haya Bint Al Hussein who said, “Those inside the industry need to proactively advance the sport to a place where it truly reflects the values on which it is built.”

In attendance and representing North American interests were: Vonita Bowers (USEF Director of Endurance), Tony Benedetti (USEF IHP and Active Riders Committee), Grace Ramsey (USEF Technical Committee and trainer), Stephanie Teeter (USEF Active Rider Committee and Electronic Media), Daphne Rich and Myna Criderman (members of the Endurance Canada Committee and active riders), and Art Priesz (USEF Chairman, Endurance International and High Performance Committee).

This contingent presented a comprehensive report that opened by spotlighting the points of contention that exist today from within the endurance community, in-cluding: speed, championship distances, qualification, medication and fair play.

“This is not simply a matter of tradition,” said Priesz. “It’s also a matter of horse welfare and needs to be studied before it’s changed ad hoc. We need more than gestures and lip-service to the soul of this discipline, to the fundamental responsibilities of our sport. Doing what is right is hardly ever easy, but it’s what we must do. Some may say that we, as a world endurance community, need to redefine our discipline to make it easier or more spectator friendly. To the extent we can do so and remain ‘true,’ we should. However, substantive changes based upon misperception or expediency generally lead to poor results.”

Several other regional groups presented the sport’s image in their respective countries, including: Jean-Louis Leclerc (FRA) Group I; Suzanne Dollinger (SUI) Group I; Art Priesz (USA) Group IV; Vijay Moorthy (UAE) Group VII; Brian Sheahan (AUS) Group VIII; and Robert Lord (RSA) Group IX.

Thereafter, delegates separated into working groups to consider each region’s defici-encies and proposals in more detail, and summaries from these workshops were presented by the three FEI officials acting as chairmen: Barrelet (SUI), veterinary; Maurizio Stecco (ITA), judges; and John Robertson (GBR), technical delegates.

Seeking Professionalism
In Barrelet’s summary, “the bad and the ugly” outweighed “the good” by a ratio of 3.4:1. Among the issues perceived as good were: growth (of the sport), easily accessible family sport, bond between horse and rider, continuous veterinary monitoring, methods of veterinary decision making (voting, re-examination) and quality control of veterinarians.

However, “true professionalism” and “easily accessible family sport” rarely go hand in hand, otherwise hopscotch would likely warrant Olympic status. Similarly, spotlighting the diverse types and breeds of horses participating in endurance denies the substantial evidence supporting the superiority of Arabians at virtually all levels in this sport.

Barrelet listed among the “bad” issues: quality of course design and associated logistical problems; low standards of equitation and husbandry; qualification system (or lack thereof); rider knowledge; poor veterinary understanding of exercise physiology; low completion rates; high treatment rates; defensive medicine; gamesmanship; and standards of farriery.

The “ugly,” albeit depressing to consider, certainly needed to be aired to start the process of expunging these serious problems from endurance, and they must be resolved if the sport is to fulfill its goal of joining the profes-sional ranks. Not least, according to Barrelet, were: perception of horses at finish, very ill and dead horses, rider irresponsibility, dress code, guidelines for stopping rides, and monitoring environmental conditions.

Some  people also sought to add the accepted completion rate to the “ugly” list. The minimum 40 percent trial-ride completion rate—as per the FEI’s 2008 World Endurance Championship guidelines delivered to the Malaysian Equestrian Federation—is unacceptably low, especially when the public and media perspective will more likely focus on the 60 percent failure rate of horses and riders to complete the course (on average only around 5 percent attributable to a rider suffering sickness or injury).

100 Miles Is Ideal
On behalf of the FEI judges, Stecco’s summation focused on distance and speed, especially when combined with terrain, as components critical to the restructuring process. There was general agreement that 160 kilometers (100 miles) should remain the “golden standard” for championships, and that an adverse local weather condition was the only reason to consider a distance reduction.

“Assignment of championships should take this standard into consideration. For other rides, distances of less than 90 kilometers [56 miles] with open speed are considered a risk [to] horse welfare,” he said.
There was no consensus among this group as to whether the FEI should dictate further rules for shorter distances.

Stecco’s report on endurance race format drew the following conclusions: short loops lead to dangerous speed; a rethinking of distances and categories is necessary; presentation times should be reduced to 20 minutes (although opinions were divided on the usefulness of reducing pulse rate). Opinions were divided with regard to reducing the weight carried to 70 kilograms, although the group agreed that a system of handicapping warrants further study; “not for championships, but potentially for rankings and other competition formats.”

It should be noted that no statistical data or information based on sound scientific evidence accompanied the reporting from the aforementioned discussions.

Attendees agreed that the various levels of endurance should be “strengthened and progressive, with harmonization starting at a national level, and such qualifications should be based on the horse-rider combination.”

It was acknowledged that the latter rule would be prejudicial to countries with issues such as African horse sickness, where their horses would not be admitted into other countries. Under such circumstances, an accessible FEI database would be essential to success-fully control and implement policy, as well as provide accurate rider/horse results and information that could underpin qualification procedures. The introduction of equine log books was also suggested, although back-up information would need to be centrally recorded in the event that a book is lost or accidentally destroyed.

There was general agreement that training, selection and ranking of endurance officials must be addressed, with a comprehensive approach to downgrading and the creation of an additional level of judges by the FEI.

“Officiating needs better international rotation, continent to continent. However, the question over how to fund remains,” said Priesz.

Finally, in terms of fair play issues, there was general agreement that the conflict of interest rule must be clarified for all officials and that creating concise and close relationships between juries and veterinary commissions was fundamental to the well-being of the sport. Priesz suggested that “familiarity will lead to cooperation and trust,” supporting the need for better education/information and more regular forums such as this.

On behalf of the technical delegates, Robertson’s summation opened with a unanimous vote to retain the 160-kilometer distance, taking speed, holding times, vet gates, loops and qualification criteria into consideration.

Reviewing terminology was also debated and considered a positive step toward assisting media presentation and improving the public’s perception of the sport. 

However, with overtones of political spin doctoring, reviewing terminology cannot simply be used to adjust media and public perception. Playing down “the bad and the ugly” is no way to progress the endurance cause, which Priesz described as a struggle for the soul of the discipline, which truly favors horse welfare in the long run.

Truthfully and explicitly explaining the differences between “natural” and “pre-ventable” fatalities and transparent reporting will do more to bolster the evolution and image of endurance.

Endurance Ranks Third
According to the Fédération Equestre Internationale  numbers, endurance is now the third largest FEI discipline after show jumping and eventing. So there’s no doubt that updating the rules is long overdue.

Although this FEI world Endurance Forum offered a valuable staging point toward the future, the yet-to-be-appointed FEI task force must ensure that the new regulations are all-encompassing and sufficiently progressive to reduce or eliminate the bad and the ugly factors in the sport.

In terms of timing, task force candidates will be appointed from National Federation nominations before May 31, 2007, and will be charged with producing an interim report for October 2007, to be finalized by March 31, 2008.

Although the various groups’ summations at the Forum made no reference to statistical data or sound scientific evidence forming the basis for discussions and conclusions—Fred Barrelet’s summation referred to “poor veterinary understanding of exercise physiology”—during the past decade various renowned veterinary faculties have undertaken fields of research focusing on endurance horses.

The World Endurance Forum provided an extremely valuable arena for global discussions, and now the FEI must ensure that science provides the firm foundations upon which to build a sustainable future for endurance sport.

Jean Llewellyn

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