I was unexpectedly in the news myself this week when the FEI Tribunal upheld the protest I lodged with fellow journalist Lucy Higginson over the Bahrain endurance “video nasty” that caused such public anger back in February.
Horse-Canada and others posted the clip, showing the closing stages of the 120k King’s Cup in Sakhir, where several grooms jumped out of an accompanying vehicle and one of them beat a tiring horse called Tarabic Carl three times with an unidentified object. Another then chased it. Tarabic Carl showed a spurt of energy and went on to win.
After a few days of social media outcry, the FEI announced that the rider, Sheikh Mohammed bin Mubarak Al Khalifa of Bahrain, had in fact been handed a yellow card for horse abuse, fined 500 Swiss francs and suspended for the remaining few weeks of the winter season by his national federation (NB: not by the FEI). That is not the designated punishment for an acknowledged offence of abuse; it’s disqualification, as a bare minimum. Hence the Tribunal was asked to rule on whether the offence had been dealt with properly by the Sakhir ground jury – and the Tribunal agreed it had not, disqualifying the Sheikh. It also dismissed the claim that under “double jeopardy” the original punishment could not be re-assessed.
Several people have since asked if I think disqualification is enough for something so odious. Probably it isn’t, but that’s not the point. The sport has to work within its agreed rules, however inadequate they are. We persisted with the protest because we believe the FEI must be seen to enforce existing rules correctly and stop procrastinating when something goes wrong that involves a wealthy rider rather than a nobody.
If you are interested in the background (heavy reading alert!) and in particular our rebuttal of June 19th that includes other detail not needed by the Tribunal to reach its clear decision, click here.
Of interest too, in these documents, is the casual nature of the process. Although the beating groom was said to have been suspended, no-one has ever named him (or more accurately them, as the defence case failed to notice there was more than one) or asked him/them for a statement. Incredibly, the FEI legal department addressed one letter simply to “the groom.”
The impotence of the FEI in such matters was never better illustrated that the circumstances leading up to this case. The CEI Sakhir took place on February 8. The next day the FEI endurance conference – discussing the clean-up of the sport – took place at Lausanne, where rumour grew that something nasty at Sakhir was already somewhere online. One delegate looked for it and found the Tarabic Carl clip – not necessarily the rumoured incident but one which in itself caused alarm to the many delegates who viewed it during the course of the day.
Ian Williams, head of FEI non-Olympic sports, saw it. At the end of the conference I asked him what would happen if the ground jury had not dealt with the matter – at that stage (tea time on February 9th), no-one knew about the yellow card. To my astonishment, Ian said he could not act on it himself and that a protest needed to be lodged by a third party. I could so if I wanted.
So, there we have it: the world’s movers and shakers had gathered to nod sagely about the importance of enforcing endurance rules, and here was a flagrant, current example, with actual video evidence posted by the ride’s own broadcaster, yet in the event nothing had been done by the ground jury, the FEI was reliant on a member of the public thousands of miles away to ensure the rules were correctly applied. It was like an out-of-body experience, though that’s not unusual with the FEI.
Of course, it may be coincidence but the only Middle Eastern delegate who deigned to attend the Lausanne conference was the Group VII chair – Sheikh Khalid Bin Abdulla Al Khalifa of Bahrain – which might have made some executives feel awkward about kicking up a fuss on the spot.
The yellow card was widely regarded as a belated, knee-jerk reaction to the public mood. It was dated February 11th, i.e. not the date of the ride, the explanation being that Sheikh Mohammed was aware he was going to be handed it on the day, but had to consult the horse’s owner first.
There was much debate in the Tribunal process about whether this was a “lesser extent” of abuse, but the Tribunal agreed that FEI rules don’t set out degrees of abuse, so irrelevant.
There was no doubt the offence had been committed. The FEI ground jury had ticked the horse-abuse box on the yellow card. Dr. Brian Sheahan, chairman of the FEI endurance committee and acting as expert veterinary witness, said horse abuse had occurred, further volunteering that the rider himself had simultaneously hit the horse along with the groom, also against the rules. That further offence we had not, in fact, mentioned as part of our protest! Sheikh Mohammed admitted abuse in his personal statement.
The Tribunal commented: “The Tribunal holds that the ground jury had therefore acted arbitrarily in not imposing any disqualification. The Tribunal does therefore not accept the double jeopardy claim by the FEI and the rider, and follows the protestors’ argument of applying the correct penalty for the offence in hindsight.”
The FEI could appeal this to the Court of Arbitration for Sport, of course, but that seriously risks undermining its commitment to rule enforcement.
I think the Tribunal ruling is important because it allows the correcting of sanctions in hindsight; and this is the first time a protest not witnessed in person by an official but prompted by video evidence has been determined at this level. These precedents are both critical to the clean-up of endurance, where the “field of play” is up to 160k miles long with minimal chance of judges (or any other impartial witnesses) being on the scene as an offence is committed.
You can protest about abuse at any time. Numerous other rule-breaches were shown in the clip – following vehicles, unauthorised assistance, hitting a horse and carrying things that could be used in a whip-like fashion – but we were not allowed to protest about those, because they are “field of play” incidents and the dinosaur rules insist protests about these matters be lodged within 30 minutes of the results being confirmed. That process may work for the arena-based sports but is well overdue for overhaul in endurance. I may be inferring too much from the closing remarks of the Tribunal’s decison notice but they appeared frustrated by that, too.
Like a lot of people, Sheikh Mohammed himself did not seem to understand that our protest was against the FEI, not him personally even though there is a clear residual effect on him.
He did accept he was responsible for the actions of the groom/s, though he claims they were the unsolicited actions of an over-excitable hanger-on who was not officially part of the crew. Regrettably he made no undertaking to brief aides about the rules before next season – something the Tribunal has often liked to see in other cases.
The Tribunal also referred to the negligible deterrent of the weeny fine on a wealthy Sheikh. This became blindingly obvious when he received another yellow card for horse abuse at Compiegne in France on May 23rd, his first FEI competition since Sakhir. (Arguably, he should now be disqualified from that too, even though he didn’t complete, as should the seven other endurance riders receiving a yellow card for abuse/maltreatment in the past 12 months). He was then automatically suspended for two months under the FEI’s yellow card totting-up procedure. I hope the penny has now dropped and he can come back to enjoy a successful and trouble-free winter season.
I haven’t much room left to discuss the WEG race at Sartilly. The new rules and much high-tech integrity equipment were in place. Participants tell me there was a gratifying new air of transparency at vet gates, and that horses were eliminated before they got into real trouble. The “only” horse death was the Costa Rica horse that mysteriously ran himself into a tree and we were zealously told that accident was not connected to the fact he was doing endurance.
The grooming area was well managed, with the new rules preventing horses being surrounded by a human wall being respected.
Sheikh Hamdan (who is still as of last Friday, the last time I asked the FEI for a progress report, being investigated for allegedly riding a ringer at the worlds in 2012) won on the exceptional Yamamah (on whom his brother Rashid won the European Open in 2013, so why not let someone else in the family have a go?)
He rode in a nice light way compared with the rest of the UAE who had all burned-out their horses by gate 3, and seemed very hands-on with care of the mare at all vetgates, which I hope was not just for the benefit of the enormous media contingent.
But all this doesn’t mean the sport is finally on an up-turn. Quite the reverse. The completion rate of 22% was shocking, with 44 starters having a ME-TR after their name which means they needed extra veterinary treatment to recover. Conditions were horrendous, for sure, but the point of this sport, I thought, is to slow down and conserve.
Because of weak qualification rules (still designed to suit the way endurance is conducted in the Middle East, rather than the owner-rider culture of everywhere else) poor riding skills are perpetuated. At the mass start lots of not-very-good people were towed along, out of control, by the fast-riding Middle Eastern teams, cooking their horses early on.
In his blog, Leonard Liesens (former Belgian international, now chef to the Norweigians) makes the unsavoury revelation that some had lobbied for the minimum speed to be reduced in early loops but were over-ruled. So much for welfare.
I don’t think the FEI executives spent nearly enough time in the media tent, either. Even allowing for the fact most media had been watching Charlotte Dujardin the day before, many endurance first-timers were appalled by the sight of exhausted, dead-eyed horses and riders who can barely do steering at a world championship. One PR person was in tears. Two other senior journalists sought out a FEI executive to remonstrate about the justification of endurance as sport at all, never mind an FEI sport, which is not something even we core campaigners for change have dared to float.
A while ago I asked the FEI why rules still allow an unskilled rider to tackle such a high stakes challenge on a strange horse, and that it suits the Middle East to keep it this way. The gist of their reply was that all countries could take advantage of it equally. Well, exactly.