You don’t need to be much of a horseman to know that if you persistently and rigorously work an unsound horse, it will break. Now, though, we have compelling scientific evidence that the intensive training techniques and the high competition speed typical of Middle East (FEI group 7) endurance have a direct impact on bone fatigue and the Catastrophic Injury (CI) – a term unique to endurance lexicon.
Distinguished veterinarians Tim Parkin (GB) and Chris Whitton (Australia) presented their long-term studies on attrition to the FEI Sports Forum in Lausanne. Whether their findings result in yet more endurance rules or change in group 7 mind-set remains to be seen.
Sadly, the conference chamber was not exactly awash with endurance practitioners – let’s hope more were watching online. Worryingly, Sheikh Khalid of Bahrain – which he flippantly described one of the “naughty” countries – said towards the end of the bone fatigue Q &A that he thought Whitton was recommending longer rest periods between LOOPS during a ride. In fact, Whitton was clearly urging an even longer mandatory rest period between RIDES.
Still the evidence that speed kills was there in print; and also in monochrome. Whitton produced disturbing visuals of “deforming” bones to illustrate that natural bone repair likes to follow its own schedule. A naturally-repairing bone adapts to the horse’s usual type of work; so galloping a horse who is just back from injury when he is more used to trotting causes more damage, and vice versa. With every stride a horse is one step closer to bone fatigue: ergo, the skilful horseman will do only the bare minimum needed to keep the horse competition-fit.
The stresses on bones were a shocker. Whitton said that the load on the fetlock joint walking at 4kph is 0.8 tonnes; trotting at 13 kph is 2.3 tonnes; cantering at 27 kph is 2.6 tonnes and galloping at 48 kph is 4 tonnes. Endurance is getting ever faster in the desert. In an end-of-season CEN in Dubai, one front-runner had a final loop average of nearly 41kph. No wonder legs are snapping right left and centre.
Parkin showed, among other topics, a relationship between very fast first loop speeds and elimination (Failure to Qualify) in later loops.
After all the years of denial, one group 7 country has been officially and publicly “disgraced” – no other sport has had to suspend a national federation, or strip it of running a world championship, or keep changing the rules due to welfare concerns in a particular region. Yet there was still reticence in Lausanne to mention by name the most problematic federations.
Nonetheless, as Parkin’s visuals flashed past on the big screen, you couldn’t fail to notice that most of bar charts and graphs relating to group 7 mostly pointed in the opposite direction to everywhere else’s. The FEI is working well with the new management at the Emirates Equestrian Federation and have told me there are they are substantially more transparent and hands-on than their predecessors. The EEF delegate also made some great points in the debate. I guess there is nothing to be gained by offending the EEF at this point.
The endurance session immediately followed the presentations about risk in eventing. Was this scheduling deliberate? I would love to know how many endurance delegates hoisted in the message from the great Mark Todd, about partnership and the rider’s overwhelming responsibility to ensure he doesn’t ask his horse to do something for which it is incapable or inadequately prepared.
This all neatly segued into a presentation by the two young Irish geniuses, Sam Watson and Diarmuid Byrne, about their company EquiRatings. I will write more about EquiRatings from its original eventing perspective on another occasion. But it is also pretty big news that the FEI recently contracted EquiRatings for four years to offer risk management tools to endurance as well as eventing.
I do not exaggerate when using the word “genius.” Sam, primarily known as a leading eventing rider, has a first in math and statistics from Ireland’s top university, Trinity College Dublin. Diarmuid, his old college buddy, gave up a position with a top firm of corporate lawyers to help Sam develop their company.
They can now accurately predict the likelihood of horses and riders under-performing on cross-country, and they monitor individuals with the EquiRatings Quality Index (ERQI.). It has already entered the Irish eventing vernacular as the “erky.” The idea is to save riders from themselves by forcing them to downgrade until they have regained their “form” and/or undergone remedial training. It has been extensively trialled at Irish national 2* events and in a single season reduced falls by 66%. Yes sirree.
FEI endurance rules have been cynically manipulated over many years to suit group 7 and thus permit many people who can barely ride to be let-loose on an over-bitted unfortunate that they have never seen before over the longest distances.
The “erky” could well succeed where the FEI has failed in keeping endurance qualification criteria so loose. Rule-makers past and present have shown a remarkable reluctance to make endurance horses and riders upgrade as a combination, when that is surely one key to making riders take more responsibility.
Such a rule would undoubtedly upset group 7, where endurance revolves round jockey riders and horses trained by professionals under huge pressure to deliver for their galactically wealthy bosses. If FEI rules don’t oblige you to advance your career with your same regular handful of horses, it matters not whether you break whatever you’ve been allotted on the day; after all, another plane-load of imports is never far away.
The likes of Toddy, Michael Jung and William Fox-Pitt are not allowed to ride a “strange” horse around a four-star CCI for welfare and safety reasons. I have been told many times that endurance is exempted from the equivalent constraint because riders should be able to borrow or rent rides around the globe, due the prohibitive expense of travelling their own horses. What utter tosh – and what breath-taking arrogance bearing in mind the very poor standard of equitation so often exhibited in endurance. Dressage, eventing and the majority of jumping riders below five-star cut their coat according to their cloth. If they can’t afford to travel their horses across an ocean, they just put up with it.
I hope, too, that no more “phantom” rides have slipped through the net beyond the 20-odd UAE rides officially investigated and then erased from the FEI database in 2015. An endurance “erky” can only work properly if based on accurate endurance data. Two former UAE federation personnel took the flak for faking those results, when other officials had to have been complicit or at least aware and thus negligent for keeping schtum, so went unpunished.
This past season or so we have also seen the not-very-believable extinction of ME-TR in UAE FEI rides – TR being the official notation for horses requiring veterinary intervention after elimination for metabolics. There were just nine TRs out of nearly 600 metabolic eliminations at the Al Wathba and Dubai venues combined in the entire 2016-2017 winter season.
This is simply not credible when read in conjunction with the increasing speeds and live data from the vet gates where some horses have exhibited high heart-rates that don’t seem to want to lower at all, never mind within presentation time. By a not very amazing coincidence, this reduction follows the FEI’s introduction of 25 penalty points for any rider incurring a ME-TR; accrue 100 points, and it’s an automatic two-month suspension.
The FEI’s CI records are not properly representative, either. The FEI is completely open about the fact ride results are not amended to show a competition-related death when a horse noted as FTC (Fail To Complete) dies shortly after it has returned home. There are two such on-the-day examples from Al Wathba in December alone. This spares all concerned another inconvenient death on the field of play itself. Are we expected to believe those horses would have dropped dead that exact same evening even if they’d never left the barn?
The FEI is also still investigating an allegation made over two weeks ago that a very public Catastrophic Injury in Bahrain is not in anyone’s results at all. Video allegedly from the King’s Cup last month has gone viral, showing the stricken horse first going down and then valiantly trying follow the rest with its broken leg billowing in the breeze. Even more sickening is that no one can be seen trying to help.
If a massively influential and well-funded group like PETA (People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals) sees that video and decides it’s finally time to insinuate itself on endurance and maybe equestrianism in general, we’ll have only ourselves to blame. I fervently hope that the landmark presentations of Parkin, Whitton, Watson and Byrne have been made in time.