I haven’t spoken to, or read anything written by, any veterinarian that disagrees with abandoning the Tryon WEG endurance ride. Vets all seem emphatic that horses were not coping with the fast rising heat and humidity.
One told me some were even pulsing back up while being examined – including the super-horses whose heart-rates usually meet the parameters within minutes.
But it isn’t quite that black and white. The weather in isolation was not the issue – historic rides have taken place in worse conditions without everyone keeling over. Worries also stemmed from the inability of so many to ride according to the conditions; some riders were apparently not even aware their horses were in difficulty.
How can that be? This was a world championship, featuring the best and most experienced horses and riders on the planet, surely? Not necessarily. No rider can truly can say their horse is pinging along with its usual verve when they’ve hardly competed it before. In modern endurance, not knowing your horse is the New Normal.
FEI records of the 120-odd riders who started the fateful first loop show:
- 13 had never competed their Tryon horse in a FEI race of any distance before;
- 13 had only started on their Tryon horse once before (in most cases their 160km WEG qualifier, which might not have been a highly competitive race;)
- 28 had only attempted 160km with the same horse twice before;
- 24 had started their Tryon horse in FEI twice over any distance before; nine riders three times;
- 59 riders had previously attempted 160km with their Tryon horse more than twice;
- Only 37 horse and riders had progressed from 80Km to 160km level as a combination;
- Four riders had fewer than 10 career starts in FEI at any distance on any horse/s; 18 riders had just 10-20 previous FEI starts on any horse/s.
Remember too, that a start doesn’t mean a completion: a 50% rider completion rate is regarded good. Even the 2016 world champion Jaume Punti Dachs has completed only 45 of his 89 career FEI starts, because being vetted out is part-and-parcel of endurance.
Okay, you can’t do nearly as many endurance rides as you can jump rounds or ride dressage tests. But it’s difficult to square all these brief encounters with the blurb introducing endurance on the FEI website: that endurance challenges a rider’s “thorough knowledge of the horse’s capabilities” with the “emphasis on finishing in good condition rather coming in first.”
The American Endurance Ride Conference (AERC) still promotes and achieves partnership and equine longevity. No wonder it has renewed calls since the Tryon debacle for FEI qualifications to be tightened up.
In eventing, geniuses like Mark Todd no longer thrill us winning Badminton on a catch ride. Riding “strange” horses in advanced eventing lapsed years ago, for safety and horse welfare.
But at the ultimate endurance distance, rules allow the unskilled to pilot a horse he hasn’t competed before at any 160km non-championship race. For a FEI championship, all you require is one prior completion with that horse over the same distance.
With “elite” rider status you needn’t even bother with that. Get someone else to qualify the horse and on the day, just hop aboard. Heck, you needn’t ask its name. All the “elite” need to remember is completing just one 3* every 24 months to retain their status.
If you can borrow enough sound horses not to be hampered by pesky mandatory rest periods (MRPs) you can become eligible for FEI six months after your first “novice” completion. Better still, it is feasible to graduate to 160km after just two FEI outings. The FEI has even sanctioned “pop up” fixtures geared at newbies wanting to obtain their 80Km and 120km rider qualifications on consecutive days.
This was recognised by the Endurance Strategic Planning Group in 2014 but its recommendations to toughen-up qualifications were buried, like nearly everything else it came up with.
Weak qualifications are major factor in the welfare issues that evolved in the Middle East. These issues have now reached Europe and, after the catalogue of bad decisions early on 9/12, completed the ingredients for disaster. Maybe it’s time to lodge a formal protest against the FEI itself for aiding and abetting horse abuse!
My first exposure to top level endurance was the inaugural WEG, Stockholm 1990. I followed all day in the Team GB support car. I was so impressed and humbled I went home and wrote a lengthy feature: what endurance could teach other horse sports about conditioning horses. No one would write such an article now, for fear of derision.
Endurance still has many fine horsemen – but for every expert, there is also someone out there who could do all horses a favour by giving up riding in anything. Surf the web for videos of any international race and you’ll see many passengers barely able rise to the trot, or so out of control they fall off at the start, run their horses into other horses and even fixed objects.
And of course with that lack of skill comes a battery of oral hardware – FEI endurance still has no bridle and/or bitting rules, even though such a review was promised a couple of years ago.
I once asked why it is peasy-easy to upgrade in endurance, and permissible to race “strange” horses over the longest distances. The real reason, of course, is that the stables in FEI Group 7 own over half the world’s FEI registered horses, and that’s how they like to go about things. Why bother with training when you can buy the finished article and/or pay someone else to do the qualifying?
The official explanation, though, was that the “strange horse” exemption enables riders to compete abroad on borrowed horses, without the expense of travelling their own. How do riders in the other disciplines manage, then? Apparently, eventers, jumpers and dressage riders can afford to travel their horses overseas because they can win lots of prize-money. Dear me. How little one segment of the FEI knows about the other.
More questions than answers in the results
The FEI will discuss the “future” of endurance in November, whatever that means. There is a lot more to say about Tryon before then, and lots of people saying it. For now, though, this particularly sticks in my craw: the final results classification.
On the day we learned 53 horses went to the clinic. It was so full they nearly commandeered an overflow barn. All this sounded horrendous to people unfamiliar with endurance and, ergo, justified the weather-related cause for abandonment.
However, when the results were finally provided a week later, only three horses are marked ME-TR: that means failed by vets at the end of a loop for metabolics and specifically directed to receive immediate intravenous treatment. A straightforward ME means you did not meet one or more metabolic parameters but are not necessarily at death’s door.
Many of the 32 later stated by FEI head vet Goran Akerstrom as receiving fluids could easily have been taken to the clinic by their connections as a precaution – the “comfort drip” being another new norm.
More curiously, we gain no idea of the physical state of most of the horses that were still going when the race was stopped; 52 are simply marked simply DNF – did not finish. But they must have been in fine fettle, for individual records show the DNFs were allocated a mere 12-day MRP. That is the standard rest for completing a normal 80Km ride – rather shorter than the distance the DNFs traversed at Tryon. No wonder the riders who were using their heads feel unfairly punished for the follies of the reckless.
Then there is also the manner in which the owner’s decision to euthanize 20-year-old Barack Obama two days later was seized upon as justification for stopping the race.
Until Tryon, the FEI has consciously disregarded any equine fatality that doesn’t directly occur on the field of play. This might make its official figures look good, but means there is no barometer of the true attrition level.
At any other FEI race, Barack’s demise 48 hours later – from kidney problems, one of the three ME-TRs – would be deemed nothing to do with the competition. Even horses that expire the same evening are not recorded as ride-related deaths. So will we now see more transparency over fatality statistics in future? Not holding my breath…