Is the FEI finally ready to clean up Endurance Racing?

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.

Cougar Rock Tevis Cup
The Tevis Cup is one of the most famous of the endurance riding competitions. This rider is climbing Cougar Rock, one of the most recognizable landmarks.

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

Horse breaks down in race
Reports of this horse breaking down on course with two broken legs shocked equine communities around the world.

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.

Suggested changes

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.

5 thoughts on “Is the FEI finally ready to clean up Endurance Racing?

  1. Thank you so much for starting this with the distinction between endurance riding and endurance racing. It’s so hard to be a non-FEI endurance rider in a sea of horse people who aren’t familiar with endurance and only know what is being shared because of the FEI scandals. It’s exhausting to constantly defend the sport I love and have to explain over and over that it is NOT the same as FEI racing, especially in Region 7. I sincerely hope that changes finally come. Something needs to give or I worry that endurance RIDING is going to be the sport that suffers…

    1. I’ve always had the utmost respect for the type of endurance riding I would come across in Vermont. I was shocked by what was called Endurance at WEG this year and that’s when I started learning about what is happening in that version of the sport. Horrifying.

  2. Thank you for this timely article. I massaged endurance RIDING horses for years, and scribed for my veterinarian when we was a ride vet. In fact, they and dressage riders comprised 99% of my business. There is a world of difference between endurance Riding and endurance Racing. The latter is strictly that…a race. I don’t mean to sound at all ‘biased’ but when Middle Eastern men began to get into the sport, it changed from a ride to a race. The Kanavys…anyone who is in Endurance riding knows who THEY are…wrote a book about the Tevis Cup. A rich Middle Eastern man (or men, I can’t remember) competed one year and were soundly beaten. They refused to return the next year, saying the Tevis was “”too hard”.. AND, the Kanavys were invited to race in the Dubai cup?? an endurance event and the Kanavys were, again, out in front of the pack of the other riders, all of whom were males (because women are not allowed to ride horses in certain Middle Eastern countries!). With a mile or so of the finish line, the Kanavy who was about to win was told to pull up and allow the prince to beat her. Can’t have a woman showing up a man!! I am so proud of her when I say she refused…and crossed the finish line first.
    Having lived in Saudi Arabia for a year, I can tell you that the cultural attitude towards animals (and, I am sorry to say, women) is that they are machines, due no more consideration or good treatment than you would treat your car. I saw a lot of dead animals in the desert…camels and horses, and they all looked as if they’d been worked to death.
    The distinction must be made between Endurance Riding and racing. Riding is not so much a sport as it is a test. How well do you ride? How well do your rate your partner’s (the horse) performance? To finish is to win…to hell with the time.
    And that is probably why the FEI went with racing…because it takes only a few hours to run a horse 100 miles. Endurane RIDES can sometimes take up to 24 HOURs. I well remember trying to snatch a few moments of sleep, waiting for a slow rider who was still out there on her last loop long after dark.
    While we won’t stop the racing, I think the FEI should no longer host it. The FEI…just like the Olympics…wants a clear WINNER, FIRST across the finish line. When, any endurance rider will tell you, it’s the Best Condition Horse that is the real winner, even if she crosses the line last.

  3. Interesting anecdote. Thanks for sharing. Not really a “race” if you are not supposed to beat the Prince! But to be a woman, too? Unacceptable. It is a shame that the countries which created the Arabian horse for it’s strength, endurance and toughness, now exploit it. But that’s not a new story. Unfortunately.

  4. Sea FantazyInteresting to read these articles after 20 years in retirement from endurance riding. In the UK endurance riding in the 1990’s to 2001 was a ‘happy competitive sport’ and populated mostly by ladies from horse backgrounds, needless to say not athletes. However in the mid 1990’s there was a strong group of men (me included) who fortunately had ‘wife’ horse people and felt left out so joined the endurance world. We brought a new dynamic of fitness, (me as a 20 year marathon runner) and we knew the ‘our body, and our horses body so ensured well being rules’. It was at a time of heart monitors and unfit riders (absolutely not my way) but the metrics of my riding were never studied only ridiculed if I beat certain individuals. I won the silver stirrup cup at Cirencester by a large margin riding my horse, and this was purely down to the speed through the 20 + gates. No sitting in the saddle, but dismount run to the gate open it quickly through and shut the gate then remount at the trot and gone, Each gate made 5 minutes over the chase group who sat in the saddle to open the gates and they were fussing and fiddling with ‘dropped gates’ and they never caught me up. I finished nearly 1 hour ahead of the 2nd place and passed the vetting easily with a very low heart rate. The following year the ride was ‘pegged’ to a race speed around the distance so all the horses ended up in the woods before the final gallop straight so as not to be eliminated. Fastest horse down the gallop won provided it passed the vetting, sounds like a 300 metre ‘race’ to me!
    The many Horse and Hound / Your Horse /Hilton Herbs Golden horse shoe pictures from various rides showed me dismounted and running up and down the hills to reduce any possibilities of concussion or ligament damage to my horse.When I was invited by British Endurance to educate riders for fitness at Builth Wells I understood the issues of rider ‘blindness’ to the horse well being. I proposed during the fuel crisis of the late 1990’s the 5 mile ‘loop’ endurance ride of which the last half mile of each loop saw the rider get of the horse and run into the vet gate. This was followed by a five arrow or pistol shoot or something (to look at heart rate recovery and rider fitness) before release out of the vet gate timed hold and the next circuit. No crew cars on the circuit, no diesel used and fitter riders improved.
    No this was not accepted, so the next support senior ride I was asked to help riders out the saddle at a vet gate, after 60 miles, because they were unfit even to dismount.
    The foot and mouth issue ended my endurance sport life and with sadness I retired but to this day my horse at the time, Sea Fantazy was super. There is so much more to this story that questions the words ‘ride’ and ‘race’, is the London marathon a run or a race, or both?
    Kind regards
    Chris Burden

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