It’s four years since I began following the endurance scandals in detail, and during that time I have encountered several frustrations for legal reasons: sometimes when I have heard about something truly shocking, the FEI statute of limitations, or need for any protest to be brought by an official, has saved the perpetrator from censure.
The FEI has changed some legal processes as a result of some of these scandals. However, the 30-minute deadline for field-of-play protests still does the cause of fair-play no favours in the disciplines that are staged in the middle of nowhere.
The FEI has always been crystal clear, though, that protests over alleged horse abuse can be made at any time and by any party.
The FEI once told me, though, that it rarely receives any such complaints from members of the public. I can well believe that. It’s easy to rant on Facebook amid the relative safety of one’s like-minded cyber community, or under a pseudonym on a chatroom. But it’s far less appealing to go on the record to the media, or to make a sworn statement and produce evidence, and then be obliged to participate in months of legal tit-for-tat.
In 2014, myself and former Horse & Hound editor Lucy Higginson made a small piece of history when the FEI Tribunal upheld our protest over the running-groom/horse-beating incident at the CEI Sakhir, Bahrain. This was the first time any such complaint triggered by members of the public had reached Tribunal.
We showed that you did not even have to be directly involved, for we relied on video evidence posted by Sakhir’s own broadcaster. (Quite why the dozens of stakeholders who saw the same incriminating video – during the FEI Endurance Conference in Lausanne, in February 2014 – left it to me remains anyone’s guess).
I hoped our win would encourage witnesses of other violations to have a go. As journalists, Lucy and I are used to assembling written material in an orderly way, which arguably gave us a small advantage in submitting our case. But at the end of the day, the Tribunal decides purely on facts, irrespective of who submits them or how coherently they do so.
Disappointingly, no one else seems to have come forward publicly since then – until this decision notice landed quietly in the FEI Tribunal archive recently.
The protestors, Italians Maria Saracino and her daughter Giorgia Ladisa, did not see this alleged act of abuse actually take place and it occurred on private premises, not during a FEI competition. Their determination to root out the truth is therefore all the more remarkable.
This case ended with Dutch rider-dealer Peter Bulthuis being fined 2,000 Swiss francs for abuse after the protestors’ show jumping stallion VF Corrado allegedly left his care with a raw, inflamed belly wound comprising multiple lesions and spanning an area 30 cm by 10 cm.
Mrs Saracino and Miss Ladisa argued that Corrado had suffered “violent and brutal measures” at Mr Bulthuis’s barn and had probably been beaten using a dressage whip with a worn end.
They also lodged a protest against Piet Raijmakers snr, the multiple Olympic medallist. Tribunal ruled that inadmissible because Mr Raijmakers retired from competing seven years ago, is no longer registered with the FEI or Dutch federation and thus not subject to FEI jurisdiction. However, the FEI argued that Mr Bulthuis had competed as recently as April 2016, so was subject to FEI discipline at the time of the alleged offence.
In summary, the protestors were competing Corrado on the Dutch CSI circuit (according to his FEI record, with little success) and sent him to Mr Raijmakers’ barn for training in December 2015. t was then decided to try selling him in Holland and, if unsuccessful, take him home to Italy. He was a docile horse and Miss Ladisa often rode him bareback.
In January Mr Raijmakers advised that Corrado should be sent elsewhere for sale. The protestors alleged he moved Corrado to Bulthuis’s yard from January 24-26 without notice and that Mr Raijmakers was thus jointly responsible for what then occurred.
On the evening of the 26th, the protestors say Mr Raijmakers called them to advise Corrado had a “small sign” of whiplash. The owners requested his whereabouts and learned he had gone from Bulthuis’s barn to the premises of the Dutch transport company Gelissen for onward shipping to Italy. They visited the horse at Gelissens, found the large wound and took photographs. It appeared the wound was untreated, so the owners arranged for veterinary attention themselves.
Mr Raijmakers said Corrado exhibited alarming behaviour while at his barn, and had reared over when ridden. It was the owners’ idea to send Corrado to Mr Bulthuis, and he was healthy upon departure.
Mr Bulthuis did not dispute that Corrado was injured but said this resulted from an “unfortunate accident inflicted by the horse its own behaviour” [sic].
He claimed Corrado was being ridden in a paddock where Mr Bulthuis’s son was riding a pony and a groom was lunging another horse. Corrado allegedly attacked the pony by leaping on it and had to be beaten for five minutes by three people before he dismounted. He then ran loose, jumped out of the paddock, and it took half an hour to catch him.
Mr Bulthuis said he acted in a way absolutely necessary to ensure the safety of his child and other people; therefore, there was no proof of horse abuse. He deeply regretted the situation, since horse welfare was of the highest standard in his barn.
The FEI veterinary department noted there was no evidence of injury to the pony, queried the location of the whip marks, and remarked that five minutes was long time for professionals to remove the stallion from the pony. The Tribunal also flagged this up in coming to their decision, expecting whip marks to be apparent on Carrado’s sides and hindquarters as well if Mr Bulthuis’s version was correct. However, these aspects did not seem critical to Tribunal in view of other admissions made by Mr Bulthuis.
The Tribunal added: “The whipping of the horse – which has been strong and intentional, and resulted in the injury/wounds, as stated by Mr. Bulthuis himself – has to be considered as ‘excessive’ in the meaning of Article 142.1 (i) of the GRs (General Regulations).
“In this regard, the Tribunal considers that professional riders and horse dealers, such as Mr Bulthuis in the case at hand, are expected to know how to handle all kinds of horses, including those with a difficult temper.
“The Tribunal finds that a horse can therefore not take the blame for its injury/wounds, even if it behaved aggressively, as it might have been the case with the horse in the case at hand.
“As a result the actions taken by Mr Bulthuis, his staff and business partner, ie, the whipping of the horse resulting in the injury/wound of that severity, are to be considered as an ‘abuse’ under the GRs.
“Secondly, the Tribunal finds that Mr Bulthuis has further omitted to treat/or have the injury/wounds of the horse treated in a way that would have been necessary in the case at hand; and as a result might have endangered the horse’s welfare.”
If you read the full transcript, you will see that whatever the FEI’s oft-perceived shortcomings, its legal department and Tribunal are thorough and even-handed. Some may also feel the 2,000 Swiss franc fine is just a token: the FEI allows for a fine of 15,000 Swiss francs and a life ban for the offence of horse abuse. Nonetheless there are several lessons to be learned from this case if you are a horse professional.
However, my main point in recounting this sorry tale is that if ordinary people do complain and produce verifiable evidence of abuse, they should have no worries at all about being taken seriously. I wonder, though, if we will wait another two years for any such action to be offered to Tribunal?