The death of Splitters Creek Bundy on course at the Al Reef Cup, a 120-kilometer endurance race in Abu Dhabi (United Arab Emirates), has caused international uproar. The Al Reef Cup, a national endurance event, was held on Jan. 31. Of the 100 horses that started the race, only 30 finished. The region’s desert courses are known for being flat and nontechnical, inviting fast-paced riding.
Splitters Creek Bundy collapsed on his second circuit of the track with two apparently fractured forelimbs. Reports indicate that fellow competitors and vehicles following the race passed him without stopping to offer aid during the 20 minutes it took for a veterinarian to arrive. The Australian-bred gelding was euthanized on the scene.
The American Endurance Ride Conference quickly reacted to Splitters Creek Bundy’s death and the two other unconfirmed equine fatalities at the Al Reef Cup.
“We’re trying to confront that tragedy, and we want to send a strong message that this is not something that this sport is about; this is not the kind of thing endurance riders around the world will tolerate,” said AERC President Dr. Michael Campbell. “Before you do a 100-mile race, you’ve probably been working that horse for a couple of years, and that’s three to four times a week. You know that horse very well, and he or she is a part of your life at that point. Treating them like so much cannon fodder is just disgusting to American riders.”
Though the Fédération Equestre Internationale regulates international endurance competitions held across the globe, national events such as the Al Reef Cup are not required to adhere to its rules.
Because the Al Reef Cup was out of its jurisdiction, the FEI originally declined to comment or intervene. However, under pressure from the public outcry and national governing bodies, the FEI has requested a full report from the UAE equestrian federation. According to Horse & Hound, the organization explained it’s addressing the major issues associated with endurance in a letter to its national equestrian federations and other concerned individuals. The FEI hasn’t formally released that letter.
In March 2014, the AERC board voted unanimously to propose withdrawal of their sanctioning of international endurance competitions held in the United States until the FEI is capable of regulating races in Group VII, composed of many countries in the Middle East. The U.S. Equestrian Federation suggested they wait and reevaluate.
“Right now, I don’t think that’s a highly likely possibility, but I wouldn’t say that anything’s off the table. People are pretty riled up at this Al Reef ride,” said Campbell.
Splitters Creek Bundy’s death, caught on Dubai Racing TV’s live stream of the event, has also incited debates across online forums and groups. The 13-year-old gelding (Splitters Creek Fortitude—Splitters Creek Claire) was owned by Sheikh Hamdan Bin Rashid Al Maktoum’s Seeh Al Salam Endurance Stables, and his rider in the Al Reef Cup was Humaid Matar Eid Juma Alkoas Al Falasi. The Australian-bred horse had failed to complete his last three FEI-sanctioned endurance races, which require three vet gates and a final inspection for a 120-kilometer ride, because of lameness.
“Our fear is that this damages the sport of endurance riding. In this country, endurance riding is usually over much more technical trails than they have in the desert. We also have vet checks fairly frequently, and if a horse is having any kind of problems at all, he’s pulled out of the race. I think that we’re a lot more careful about that than they are over there,” said Campbell. “I think the biggest difference is in the attitude of the riders. Here, the riders tend to have a more personal relationship with their horses, and people don’t have multiple horses that they just swap interchangeably like a bicycle.”
In response to past criticism of Group VII and a call to standardize equine welfare practices in the sport of endurance, the FEI implemented new rules in August of 2014. These changes included adherence to the FEI Code of Conduct for the Welfare of the Horse, stricter penalties for abuse and rule infractions, and recommendations for conditioning and veterinary standards. The AERC says they have yet to see noticeable changes but are planning to evaluate in September.
For now, U.S. endurance enthusiasts will keep competing and hope to set a better example for the sport they love.
“Endurance riders probably know more about the anatomy and physiology of a horse than riders in almost any other equine sport,” said Campbell. “I think that kind of care for the horse and people’s general concern for the welfare of animals is going to improve our sport.”