When you refer to someone as ‘being Switzerland’, you aren’t likely to be accusing that person of being full of holes like Swiss Emmental, or delicious like Toblerone, or tall and slim like the Matterhorn. Chances are what you mean is that the person is refusing to take sides in a dispute, instead remaining neutral – much to the immense frustration of everyone on both sides. Switzerland is where the world’s great warring factions go to try and talk things out, such as the recent Syrian Peace Talks which took place in Montreux, the very same Montreux where the 2013 FEI GA was held. There is no doubt about it. The Swiss are world leaders at sitting on the fence.
So what does it take to get the Swiss riled up? I’m heartened to report a very worthy cause: the situation with FEI endurance that has completely exhausted my vocabulary for negative adjectives. Of all the national equestrian federations around the world, Switzerland is sticking to its guns more than anyone. My first exposure to Swiss backbone was at the GA in November, where I had the opportunity to meet the Swiss Fed’s Chef de Mission, Claude Nordmann. In spite of the fact that his federation played host to the 2013 GA (and ironically, hosted the cocktail party that followed the endurance presentation), Claude clearly identified much more with the shocked media than with the ecstatic majority who leapt to their feet to show their undying adoration for HRH and all that she does.
Since the GA, ground level realities continue to deteriorate at endurance races, and the Swiss federation has made no bones about its escalating disgust. On February 4th it issued a statement titled “Unsatisfactory starting point for the forthcoming endurance conference”, which you can read here. On February 12th, this piece appeared in The Guardian: “Swiss equestrian federation questions neutrality of Godolphin inquiry”. Yes indeedy. The Swiss are pissed.
I wish more of the horse world were pissed. If you haven’t yet seen the appalling video footage that whizzed a few thousand times around the world at the beginning of this week, you should go and have a look. It beggars belief. The very fact that the video was captured AND shared on line by the official media outlet of the Bahrain race is, to me, incontrovertible proof of an enormous cultural abyss between what we think is good for horses, and what Middle Eastern people think is good for horses. It’s the same evidence that can be found in this photo, which accompanied an article in a UAE newspaper trumpeting the great love affair between the people of that country and their horses:
A culture that thinks it’s normal – even playful – for a large, wolf-like dog to chase a horse is not a culture that sees horses in the same way as you or I.
I’ve discussed with other journalists the very thin ice that we are on when we criticize the treatment of horses in Middle Eastern countries. And I’ll bet you know exactly why. If these were Welshmen or Germans doing awful things with horses, the sky would be the limit with the outrage we could freely express, because Welsh and Germans come from the same racial and cultural background. Besides the fact that I occasionally wonder if I should be on the look out for large black cars with tinted windows in front of my house, I also fear the day that I might be accused of Islamophobia – or racism.
I have great admiration for Charles Trolliet, President of the Swiss federation, and all the Swiss people who are behind him. The Swiss are keeping the argument on firm ground, sticking to the horse facts and calling foul based on them – and nothing else. It’s okay to be viscerally repulsed by the video showing an exhausted horse being chased and beaten. There is no need to identify the perpetrators in any other way than by the actions that are in direct conflict with the so-called mission of the FEI, as well as a sense of horror felt by people who have empathy for any species of animal. But let’s not beat around the bush. To say that cultural differences are not at play would be disingenuous.
My comrade-in-arms Pippa Cuckson attended the FEI endurance conference in Lausanne last weekend; an event at which all was heartily agreed, in an ‘academic’ kind of way, since not one of the countries that provoked all this outrage was in attendance. Pippa has kindly written a brave, insightful guest post over on my other blog, Low-Down. I encourage, nay implore, you to read it.