By Karen Robinson

Interview with Akaash Maharaj, CEO of Equine Canada

Akaash Maharaj has brought to his position at EC an extensive and varied background which includes working as a consultant for KPMG and as a senior resident of Massey College at the University of Toronto. As CEO of Concordis (2001-2007), he worked with populations at strife to resolve armed conflicts. Just five months into his job as the CEO of Equine Canada, Maharaj attended his first FEI General Assembly in Buenos Aires. For Canada it meant a fresh set of eyes and ears taking in the issues, dynamics and interaction between the FEI and its member nations. In this interview, Maharaj shares the frank observations he brought home from this year’s meetings.

Q: This was a particularly dramatic FEI General Assembly, though I expect you have attended major conferences in the political realm where far more was at stake. Was there anything about this assembly that struck you as unique compared to non-equestrian (or non-sport) related global meetings?

A: At all international conferences, far more tends to be achieved through informal words exchanged in the in hallways than through grand speeches uttered in plenary sessions.  However, I found the FEI General Assembly remarkable for how little genuine deliberation occurred in its official meetings.  My sense was that when the stakes are highest, the FEI’s interest in open debate is lowest, and the federation reverts to an instinct to make its decisions behind closed doors. I can understand the FEI’s desire to shield itself from unnecessary public embarrassment.  However, an institution can not claim to be democratic, yet fear the scrutiny of its members.

Q: What seems to be the role that WADA will take in the FEI’s newly formed anti-doping commission, and what do you think it means for the future with this important issue?

A: The new Anti-Doping and Medication Commission will seek to “harmonise” the FEI’s equine anti-doping policies with WADA’s broader framework.  However, behind this simple term lurks a fiendishly complex debate.  Many delegates felt that the FEI must do more to root out the use of performance-enhancing equine drugs; these delegates believed that “harmonisation” should mean more aggressive enforcement of existing rules and harsher punishments for transgressions.  Other delegates felt that the strict liability standards emanating from rules for human athletes are unreasonable when applied to horses, since the sharing of competition stalls and the less than hermetic commercial processes involved in the manufacturing of horse products means that it may be impossible to guarantee the absence of trivial traces of contaminants; these delegates believed that harmonisation” should mean a controlled relaxation of zero-tolerance policies.  It was not at all clear which side of this debate, if either, the FEI favours.

(Malina Gueorguiev, Communications Manager for the FEI, responded to Horse Sport’s questions regarding the FEI’s position: “At this stage it is too early to answer them since this is precisely the mandate of the new commission. The Commission will be tasked with furnishing its first findings in an initial report to the FEI Bureau on 31 March, 2009.”)

Q: What does all this mean for Canada? Our jumpers have clean records so far – does our National federation have a role in making sure it stays that way? Do you envision more frequent testing of horses at Canadian competitions as a deterrent?

A: Equine Canada has a drug-testing programme that extends across the full breadth of sanctioned equestrian competition.  I am aware that some participants at small local bronze-level shows have been unhappy when their horses were selected for random testing.  However, we can not expect anyone to abide by a system unless everyone is subject to that system.

Q: Were there any other issues that arose during the General Assembly that you believe were of particular importance to the sport in Canada?

A: In recent years, the FEI has made significant strides in understanding that it must become a truly international institution, which governs equestrianism with an eye towards all regions of the globe. Nevertheless, there remains a vulgar odour of Eurocentrism hanging over the federation. Countries from beyond Western Europe are only “developing” equestrian nations when viewed through the eyes of the FEI.  Indeed, Eastern and Central Europe and Asia are the true progenitors of the equestrian traditions to which Western Europe is heir and of which the FEI should be the guardian.  The FEI seems unable or unwilling to understand that national federations from “the rest of the world” come to them not as supplicants, but as the representatives of a majority of the world’s population, geography, and equestrian heritage.

Interview with Cara Whitham: Recent Developments in the FEI Dressage

Cara Whitham – FEI ‘O’ judge, chef d’equipe, CDI organizer, TV commentator, coach and past Chair of Dressage Canada – was not at the FEI General Assembly. However, recent and ongoing changes in the FEI are nothing if not common knowledge after some very public communication between the Bureau and the Dressage Committee. In the following interview, Whitham shares her reflections on a turbulent year, an uncertain future, and the recently released 2009 FEI dressage tests.

Q: Now that the dust has settled, at least for now, on the dissolution of the FEI Dressage Committee, what do you think the potential for change is over the next year, and what is at risk now that the democratic process has been temporarily interrupted?

A: This will depend on the Task Force members. There is always potential for change under any governance group. The democracy concerns were well articulated by some of the FEI Groups and national federations prior to and during the FEI Assembly. I would hope that the FEI Bureau takes the stated concerns and recommended solutions seriously and incorporates rules to manage better and follow due process in the future should a similar situation occur. A clear effort has been made by the FEI to try and include a broad representation of different expertise from the world of Dressage. I await with great interest the unfolding of discussion, plans and recommendations that no doubt will be forthcoming from the Task Force. I trust that each Task Force member, although identified by the FEI Bureau to represent a part of the discipline, will also realize the benefits and necessity to consult with the representative bodies and community as opposed to retain a singular and internal decision/discussion process. The other area that needs addressing is for these representative bodies (IDRC, IDTC, IDJC, AIEDO) to communicate with each other more frequently in an effort to close the rifts that have arisen recently (although they may have been festering for some time before this). We are all passionate about this amazing sport and should have the same goals for developing, improving and promoting it. What is needed is more respect and trust of one another and fewer personal agendas. We are all human and we all make mistakes; this is a normal human trait. By recognizing this and learning from mistakes, as opposed to pouncing on them like vultures, we can better serve the sport in the manner it deserves.

Q: One of the major changes to the new FEI tests is the dropping of the coefficients for the first two collective marks – paces and impulsion. National federations were invited to vote on the proposal for the change before it was accepted. Did Canada take a position on this and cast a vote?

A: Canada voted to accept the option where there are only coefficients for the submission and rider’s aids. They attached a condition that this system be implemented for a one year trial and then be reviewed with feedback from national federations, etc, before a final decision would be made. When Equine Canada followed up to inquire if the one year trial had been considered, the reply from the FEI was that no trial period had been implemented.

Q: Now that the changes are in place, do you think that the right choice was made?

A: The result must have meant the majority voted in favour of the option that was implemented. I do feel that perhaps the intent behind this change was an effort to try and remove the possibility that awarding collective marks on the higher side or vice versa, on the lower side, might have influenced the end result unduly. During the FEI Assembly some national federations asked to return to the four coefficients. This point was referred to the Task Force, who responded in support of the change to only two coefficients, as did the majority of federations and the Working Group for Dressage Tests. It was felt that with this change there is now a better mathematical balance to the influence of the Collective Marks against the overall test marks.  I believe that we must try to keep an open mind where changes are concerned, which does not mean agree to all changes without first carefully considering the impact it would have. This was why Canada recommended the change be tried for a one year period with re-evaluation at the end of the year. I am pleased to see the FEI will monitor the effect of the change during 2009, as well as the new tests.