A temporary committee charged with an urgent review of the FEI’s endurance rules has had its first in-person meeting at FEI Headquarters in Lausanne, Switzerland, on Wednesday. Of course, this has been a long time in the making. Since 2014 there have been scandals in endurance racing revolving around catastrophic injuries and doping that have persisted. After kicking out Reining with the FEI finally crack down?
Note: some of the video and images in this article are upsetting. Stop here if you don’t want to see what happens to some of the endurance racing horses.
First, let me make a distinction between “endurance riding” like the Tevis Cup, and “endurance racing” events. Endurance riding was first developed in the early 1900s as a military test for cavalry mounts. Horses were required to go on a 5-day, 300 mile ride carrying at least 200 lbs. The cavalry test became a civilian sport in the early 1950s.
Endurance riding is a sport that revolves around horsemanship and the strategic use of pace and fitness to finish a race over varied terrain. Rides are typically 25, 50 or 100 miles and riders choose their pace, sometimes walking or running beside their horses to keep them fresh.
Horses must pass a pre-ride vet check for soundness and there are mandatory holds during the ride where the horse’s heart rate must not exceed a specific parameter (usually between 60-68 bpm) and the horse is again checked for soundness. Horses that do not pass the vet check are pulled from the competition. While technically a “race” the emphasis is more on completion within a given time, than on finishing first.
Endurance racing is a completely different sport. Like any horse race, the emphasis is on speed but instead of crossing 75 miles of undulating and difficult territory, horses compete by completing laps on a “track” of approximately 18 miles, at speeds that average 17- 20 mph for about eight hours. In some races, the horses are flanked by cars. In the early morning the vehicles provide light, but trainers and owners also coach riders as they run alongside. Completion rates for these races is typically less than 25% (some as low as 15%) — shockingly low when even the Tevis Cup competitors average a 54.6% completion rate.
Scandals plague endurance racing
The scandals that plague racing style endurance center around the high number of catastrophic injuries and doping. Low completion rates are more than just a factor of the horses dropping out from fatigue: the high average speeds too frequently cause fractures. Last year a horse was shown breaking down on course with two broken legs.
Experts attribute the high number of fractures to the combination of high speeds and long distances. So many endurance racing horses are nerve blocked during competition (to reduce sensitivity to injuries) that the FEI developed its own Hyposensitivity Control System.
In addition, the sport has an unusually high number of positive dope tests for powerful painkillers or other injury-masking agents, plus body-building steroids. The FEI’s Equine Anti-Doping and Controlled Medication Program revealed an average 11.9% positives from horses sampled during UAE rides – 10 times the level returned by all horse sport in the rest of the world.
The FEI committee has been tasked with bringing the discipline back to its original roots of endurance riding and for more oversight. Suggestions included more testing of horses for prohibited substances and increased sanctions for horse abuse, a review of speeds, a redefinition of elimination codes (particularly Catastrophic Injury), hyposensitivity screening, definition of and registration of trainers, mandatory medication logbooks and out of competition testing, and course design and crewing numbers.
Tack and equipment in use in the sport was also under review as many riders use extremely severe bits (in contrast, many endurance riding horses compete in bitless/hackamore arrangements, which allows the horses to eat more easily during the competition). This is in stark contrast to other FEI disciplines, where there are rules over what kinds of bits can be used. In fact, many of the riders show an appalling lack of horsemanship skills, leading to abuse. There are recommendations that a minimum level of competency be established — for example, only horse and rider combinations with at least a 66% completion rate would be able to progress to the next ride distance and star rating.
The FEI endurance technical committee also formulated a rule that would extend the mandatory rest period for horses whose speeds have exceeded 20kmh. That, and a cap on speed, would have been a major step forward. However, these, and other welfare measures intended for 2018 were deferred to 2019.
In 2014, the code CI (Catastrophic Injury) was introduced so that fatalities would be specified in ride results. However, many horses that break down are not reported, but are, instead, transported off site and euthanized to avoid inclusion in statistics and the application of 80 rider penalty points.
The video below shows a horse breaking down in 2017 at the Bahrain’s King Cup — a race that reported no catastrophic injuries.
Enough is enough. After more than four years of scrutiny, hardly any progress has been made to protect these beautiful animals. Endurance racing is no longer a discipline of horsemanship and should be radically overhauled or discontinued.