I have been to all but one of the FEI Sports Forums in Lausanne, Switzerland every April since its launch in 2012. The format has changed from the first year, when it spanned three days often with simultaneous debates in different halls. The jam-packed forum was quite an assault on the brain cells, and it became a two-day event thereafter.
The forum is usually a “news fest” so I felt a modicum of disappointment when this year’s itinerary (April 11-12) plopped into my mailbox. I guess the media corps was spoiled in 2015 and 2016 by the emotive debates about future Olympic and World games formats.
This time the first day is devoted to jumping. The Nations Cup discussion looks the most interesting; two forums ago, it was hinted Nations Cups become the main route to qualifying for the Olympics and World Equestrian Games, to mitigate the growing rival demands of the Global Champions Tour. If so, that could be lively.
On the second day, there are sessions of 90 minutes each on risk management in eventing, and the long-awaited injury and bones study for endurance. But aside from the morning session about officials in general and a report from a dressage judging working group, there isn’t anything here for para, driving, reining and vaulting. The education, recruitment, retention and possible payment of officials in general occupied the entire first day in 2016; do we really need a whole morning on it again? Or is there a looming drought in competent officials that is as yet unappreciated by the rest of the competition world?
Officialdom falls into the very-important-but-boring category, though was fascinating last year for revealing how little the disciplines know about each other. It was news to everyone, including the FEI it seemed, that reining does already pay its judges. There was also a comedy moment when a jumper opined he would happily forsake 20,000 euros from every 5-star prize pot so as to pay high calibre officials. International Dressage Riders Club secretary general Wayne Channon retorted that if his sport had to do that, judges could expect a pay decrease!
So, the 2017 forum will not be an occasion when the whole FEI family truly gets together and has maybe jinked away from the original notion. Attendance is surely cost-prohibitive for single-discipline interests that are not National Federation employees with a company credit card. This may be why the FEI has decided to live-stream the forum for the first time here with a facility for viewers to ask questions.
Meanwhile, are we in danger of conference fatigue? Getting experts to debate things makes you feel you are doing something when in reality nothing changes.
At the inaugural FEI Sports Forum five years ago, there were clashing sessions on eventing safety and endurance. I had planned to attend the eventing debate, but just as I was about to go in myself and International Alliance of Equestrian Journalists’ president Pamela Young were approached by a distinguished vet who urged us to attend the endurance instead.
I sat in on the eventing to start with, where people were going on about frangible pins and riding standards in the same way as probably debated at the recent closed “summit” at Tattersalls, Ireland. When it gets to the afternoon of April 12, 2017, no doubt the eventing lobby will discuss that even more research is required into why cross-country horses fall over before there is any firm diktat about pinning or not pinning.
I then entered the endurance chamber and realised why a media presence was desired. Vets and other senior officials began to speak out about abuse, doping and attrition in the desert sport, in the certain knowledge we would write it all down, some openly looking in our direction as they said it.
That is what piqued my interest in the UAE, where endurance seems depressingly worse this season than five years ago. I recently chanced, too, on this report from a world endurance forum TEN years ago, which also flagged up sick and doped horses and broken legs. Nothing much has happened since the FEI “crisis” endurance forum of February 2014. Another one is planned for May this year, in Barcelona: more talk and no “do?”
There is another conference, too, on March 8 at Boudhieb in Abu Dhabi, independently organised by HH Sheikh Sultan who continues to make quiet but solid progress with his own protocols to restore “classic” values. Even Endurance GB, with all its UAE baggage, is now looking at adopting similar elements at trial rides this spring.
I have, by the way, been bemused by comments now doing the rounds on social media from supporters of testing-horses-to-destruction. These hint that the “outing” of endurance violations in Dubai in particular by the “clean endurance” community is funded on the quiet by Boudhieb. I have noticed before that desert endurance-lovers don’t seem very diligent about reading around the subject or noticing in what order the clean community and HH’s initiatives appeared on the scene.
Not to worry: that disgraceful slur on both Sheikh Sultan and horse welfare campaigners says more about those who utter it than those they utter it about. I guess if you have for many years been paid over the odds by the major desert stables for your horses, goods and services you tend to forget why decent people regularly volunteer their time to work tirelessly for what is right.
Here is a link to Boudhieb’s Facebook page, which I have supplied for people who might like to read more about their upcoming festival and their new youth education program. The editor of Horse-Canada.com can delete it if she likes, but I doubt she will because bona fide media sure don’t do what a secret-somebody pays them to publish, either.
One interesting speaker at Boudhieb on March 8 is John Crandell, the only rider ever to win the US endurance “Triple Crown.” John too has been writing for years about the insidious influence of desert racing. I recently re-read his long but thought-provoking blog.
It charts the evolution of desert racing in tandem with the (relatively recent) involvement of the FEI in endurance. John examines how shoe-horning the sport into a FEI “structure” actively encouraged flat fast courses; so that you can “qualify,” the career path for horse and rider is hurried along in a single, rigid direction.
Sounds familiar, followers of other horse sports? Maybe the distortion of horsemanship through the governing bodies’ one-size-fits-all fixation should be a solid two-day debate at Lausanne 2018.