SOME ENDURANCE EVENTS ARE NOT ONLY RUINING A BEAUTIFUL SPORT, THEY’RE KILLING HORSES.
Where to start? With the state of disbelief when you’re faced with the gut-wrenching photos and videos circulating freely on the internet? Or by analysing the fickle consciences of those who allow such things to happen? Whichever way you choose to look at it, what happens in Middle Eastern endurance racing is terrifying. Enthusiasts have always considered endurance marathons to be the ultimate example of cohesion between horse and rider where the rider’s ability to understand even the slightest variation in the movement of his horse is vital, where it is the trust between the two elements of the pair that makes it possible to get safely to the end of an unimaginable course without proper training. It’s seen as a sort of heroic act based on the most significant concept of equestrian sport: fighting together for a common goal. But now imagination and bucolic visions have unfortunately given way to a very different reality and the impact has been violent to say the least.
GLORIFYING HORROR We recently asked for help from English journalist Pippa Cuckson, an authority in the field who has been campaigning against this carnage for years. On the internet there are a huge number of photos showing unconceivable images: bridles with only the bit attached, nosebands that are so tight you start to wonder how the horses can breathe, people who can barely manage a rising trot: how can these ‘riders’ handle the power of their horses if they can do nothing but bounce around in the saddle? That’s before we’ve even looked at the matter from a veterinary perspective. Many horses arrive at the finish line with both proximal phalanxes bleeding, lame horses are made to continue the race and their nerves are anaesthetised to take away the pain, others have their ears pushed down to lower their heart rates in order to pass veterinary tests. Bones break and hearts rupture if you go too fast for too long. Sometimes it’s not just the racehorses that die: many people disappear without us finding out what happened to them. Apparently, it’s not unusual for horses to be left to die in the desert.
MONEY OR LIVES
But how did it come to this? The answer is simple: cold hard cash. The sport has transformed from a niche event for which you would raise an Arabian thoroughbred and keep it for your entire career to a sport in which you pay astronomical amounts for a long string of horses that you run to the ground in order to close the gap between yourself and the cash prizes. Many races have a $2/3 million jackpot which, for many riders, is hard to resist, even if it means taking out a horse. These mind-blowing millions attract riders from across the world and make those who should be in control turn a blind eye.
Sheikhs, families, friends, acolytes and sympathisers are allowing a sport that started to veer off track some time ago to continue to do so by buying sponsorships and increasing their presence in events around the world, including in Italy. Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid Al Maktoum, the main protagonist of this wonderful initiative, is also the owner of Godolphin, the most famous horseracing stable in the world. He is the husband of Princess Haya of Jordan, President of the FEI for three terms; it is difficult now to determine what awareness the Princess had of these issues, but this way of looking at endurance events is gaining more and more ground.
Over the years there has been no lack of controversy, nor riders disqualified for doping, dangerous riding, horse trading and various forms of torture to such an extent that in 2015 the FEI banned the whole of the Emirates from competing in FEI events. But the more the FEI played the role of censor, the more an alternative solution was gaining traction on the other side which involved restructuring the races ‘at home’.
A BRILLIANT SOLUTION
In 2013, the UAE found an ingenious way not to be subject to FEI regulations: transforming some of its long-standing CEI 120 km races, i.e. international races, into CEN races, i.e. national races that are therefore not subject to FEI regulations. It was as easy as that! To avoid losing popularity, it was enough to simply invite hordes of foreign riders, offering luxury packages and increasing the jackpot even more. But international competitions became national in form only and are referred to as ‘minor’ (CIM). In international endurance events there are 3 levels. However, a CEI2* event can hardly be considered a ‘minor race’ since it entails covering 120 km in a single day. The World Championship for Young Riders and the World Championship for Young Horses, as well as most of the races with the highest prize money in Arab countries and Europe, also cover this distance. These events are part of the CIM events. Today almost all races held in the desert are classified as national. The President Cup, a 160km event, was attempted to be held last February. But the FEI must have somehow intervened because, in the end, many foreign riders had their invitations withdrawn. The race was finally held with only local riders participating. The UAE then almost completely detached themselves from the FEI, not just in terms of their role as event organisers.
Most local riders and official and UAE trainers are not renewing their affiliations and memberships. What does this mean? Being able to ‘play’ by your own rules in total freedom.
If we have arrived at this point, it’s partly due to past negligence on the part of the FEI. But we can’t place all the blame on a single organisation. What about National Federations that do not object to their riders participating in these competitions? Anyone wishing to participate in national competitions abroad must obtain a “No Objection Certificate”, i.e. clearance from his or her Federation. Many Federations discourage their riders from participating in events where the safety standards of horses are called into question. But the FEI can’t do it alone: its regulations can only be amended once a year, at the General Assembly of all the National Federations. The FEI Board has tried to involve the National Federations in order to manage welfare emergencies whenever required instead of waiting for the green light from the General Assembly. But of all the Federations consulted, only five (Canada, the USA, Great Britain, Namibia, Germany) expressed a positive opinion regarding the proposal. What about the other 132, which includes Italy?
A WIDESPREAD PLAGUE
Maybe it’s because many countries like to participate in those races for the jackpot, maybe it’s because many countries sell their horses to the UAE for cash, the fact is that there currently doesn’t seem to be an international fight to stop what have become shameful habits. Having said that, not all the material states that these vile practices are taking place in the Emirates alone. They’re also held in other places, including, unfortunately, in Italy, which has been embroiled in several controversies over the years.