The Fédération Equestre Internationale has again pointed the finger at training techniques in Middle East endurance following a spate of fatal injuries at Dubai International Endurance City, the venue owned by Dubai’s ruling Al Maktoum family in the United Arab Emirates.
Five horses have been officially recorded as “catastrophically injured” in four rides in the past three weeks. Two died yesterday, Jan. 23, in a 40-kilometer novice qualifier, even though that ride carried an average speed limit of 16 kilometers per hour.
After a cluster of three deaths in FEI rides at DIEC on Jan. 4 and 7, the FEI had “urgent meetings” in Dubai. FEI endurance director Manuel Bandeira de Mello said he believed those casualties—all in the first loop—resulted from existing fractures caused by the tough training techniques popular in the region.
He reiterated this again today, Jan. 24, after the two further deaths. DIEC also registered a sixth equine death in December, just days after it recommenced FEI competition for the winter season.
“Earlier this month the FEI President [Ingmar de Vos] had constructive meetings in Dubai with high level officials as well as with the new administration of the UAE national federation at which the current issues were all discussed in detail,” said de Mello. “The two latest equine fatalities during a national event at DIEC on Jan. 23 are very worrying, and there is an urgent need to understand from a veterinary and scientific perspective what is causing these catastrophic injuries.
“As I’ve said before, it’s clear that over-training is probably the major cause, and respect of rest periods is also crucial,” he continued. “The new senior management at the UAE federation is very much more hands-on than the previous regime, and we will continue to work closely with them to address these serious issues.”
The FEI Endurance Committee will also undertake yet another rule review. This will include the ages of riders and horses, rest periods, further possible additional sanctions for trainers, and a review of the “elite athletes” system. The latter enables riders with previous high level experience to start the longer distance and championship rides on horses they have not ridden before.
The American Endurance Ride Conference has again led calls for the FEI to take stronger action. Little seems to have changed despite the suspension of the UAE federation in 2015 and two legal agreements between the UAE and FEI.
“Once again, AERC is appalled with the unusually high number of horse fatalities in Dubai over the past few weeks,” said Michael Campbell, president of AERC. “On behalf of all AERC members, I urge FEI to investigate thoroughly the causes of these catastrophic injuries. Whether they are due to carelessness, unconcern, poor training techniques, poor trail conditions, poor riding strategies or anything else, an answer must be found.
“I am willing to believe that the endurance community in Dubai would prefer to have injury-free endurance competitions, but the inordinate number of fatalities demands close, hard scrutiny into the causes and cures of this catastrophe,” he added.
A further complication for the FEI is the growing divide between the Dubai venue and Boudhieb in Abu Dhabi over attitudes towards the movement for change. At the smaller Boudhieb, HH Sheikh Sultan al Nahyan has been acclaimed for virtually eradicating attrition at his venue over the past two seasons with local best-condition criteria, which restore the old values of “fit to continue.” His protocols have been approved for use elsewhere by the FEI in tandem with FEI rules.
In November, Sheikh Sultan was a keynote speaker at the World Horse Welfare conference in London, the first time a senior figure in the UAE sport has spoken out frankly about the severity of its problems.
DIEC, though, took issue with FEI requirements to apply speed reduction measures at what was intended to be the world championship test event on March 19 of last year. As a result, the FEI disaffiliated that ride, and the following month relocated the world endurance championship from DIEC to Slovakia saying that “horse welfare could not be guaranteed.”
At the same time the FEI announced it would decline schedules from DIEC until further notice. DIEC was readmitted to the FEI calendar on Nov. 25, 2016, after signing a new Ride Organizer’s Protocol. DIEC ran its first CEI of the winter season on Dec. 12, and the following week later recorded a fatality.
Over the years, FEI endurance rules have been amended to accommodate the way endurance has evolved into a new, high speed sport in the Middle East’s desert rides.
Almost all horses are trained in huge, Royal-owned barns and ridden by a different stable jockey every time out. Technical tracks have been replaced by flat, firm-graded pistes to encourage maximum speed. A final loop average of 40 kilometers per hour was recorded in the ladies race at DIEC on Jan. 4.
The FEI still permits on-trail crewing in the desert rides, which facilitates constant topical hydration, using water bottles handed to riders by assistants lining the route. The FEI has proven reluctant to reverse some of these concessions, even though many believe they would have an immediate impact on the restoration of the core values of classic endurance.
Two of these are highlighted by veterinarian and endurance athlete Dr. Meg Sleeper, VMD. She has said that awarding the FEI certificate of capability based on a minimum speed, instead of the original premise of rides completed, had far-reaching repercussions.
“Many of the classic technical trails have suffered because competitors tend to search out flat, fast courses where it will be easier to obtain a COC,” said Sleeper. “Even in the United States, a country where technical trails are popular, when I tried to convince the Vermont 100 to consider FEI sanctioning, competitors and organizers alike said there was no reason to because it was too technical for people to get a COC, and no one would do it.
“I believe the FEI made the rule change to try to ensure horses and riders were qualified for a championship event, and it was well intended, but it has backfired,” she added. “I think it would be preferable to use a percent of events completed rather than speed.”
Sleeper also wants to see an end to on-trail crewing.
“When crews on trail are constantly dumping water on the horse, it allows speeds that would not otherwise be possible because of the constant cooling,” she said. “If no crewing were possible on-trail, good horsemanship would become an essential part of endurance again. The successful rider would have to make appropriate decisions about on trail cooling, pacing and how best to regulate their own horse’s working body temperature. Training techniques might still lead to micro-injuries, but they would be less likely to result in catastrophic injuries at slower speeds.”
Updated Jan. 26: Another equine fatality occurred at Sheikh Mohammed’s Dubai International Endurance City on Jan. 26. El Nize Shareef, ridden by Elisabeth Hardy, died on the first loop on a 100km ride. This bring the total at this single venue to six deaths in a 21-day period.