The endurance juggernaut grinds on, with only optimists still believing a solution is within reach at this month’s FEI Sports Forum in Switzerland.
The much-publicised issues centre on several Middle Eastern nations within the FEI’s Group VII.
The wider endurance community has grown increasingly vocal over the number of doping infractions, excessive fracture rates, wider horse welfare issues, and what many consider to be some Middle Eastern competitors’ cavalier attitude to the rules.
Race officials have also come in for criticism over what would seem to be a lack of enforcement of the rules.
The problem is delicate. It is hard to argue against the premise that retaining Middle Eastern endurance within the FEI family is the preferred solution, both for the sake of the horse and for the wider global image of not just endurance, but all equestrian sport.
But it must also be acknowledged that many nations have no tolerance for a series of problems in Middle Eastern endurance that have generated damaging headlines.
The FEI launched a process last year aimed at reining in the excesses. There have been talks and a consultation process, culminating in a set of reforms being developed by the Endurance Strategy Planning Group.
Member nations will consider the latest incarnation of these rule changes late in April on the second day of the annual Sports Forum in Lausanne.
The process has not moved nearly fast enough for many in the endurance world, but the programme was started with the best of intentions and has without doubt been thorough.
Unfortunately, all the evidence would suggest its success may be limited, with the Group VII nations failing to show up at the last major round of consultation in Lausanne early in February.
One suspects there has been a good deal of work in the background in a bid to find a diplomatic solution to this impasse, but the chances of global unity through following this path would seem to considerably slimmer than they were a few months ago.
So what next?
There are clearly sensitivities. Middle Eastern interests and the Gulf nations provide millions of dollars in sponsorship across many equestrian disciplines, and we would be naive to think that the FEI does not tread carefully – some would say too cautiously – as a result.
There is a growing belief that the more aggressive form of endurance racing favoured in the Middle East is not a comfortable fit with the so-called classic form of endurance practiced in most of the world.
The FEI has talked of its desire to keep endurance as one global sport, but what if this simply isn’t possible?
Ironically, the reform process may ultimately deliver a workable solution for the FEI, but not necessarily for horse welfare. The end result may well be that Group VII nations simply choose to run fewer FEI-sanctioned events.
There was already strong evidence of this in the season just ended, and the late-season flurry of yellow cards in the Middle East may well result in more events moving outside of the FEI’s jurisdiction.
This will not reduce fracture rates or improve horse welfare, of course, but the FEI cannot be held responsible for events outside its sphere of influence. Hence, it is a solution of sorts, although a thoroughly unpalatable one for the horse.
The recent increased use of yellows cards in Middle Eastern endurance will be applauded by many, and is clear evidence of an earnest attempt to ensure compliance. It also is an encouraging sign for many smaller nations concerned that any rule changes that add to the cost and bureaucracy of running races will be to the detriment of the sport.
Long endurance races are already costly ventures to organise and nations that do not have a welfare issue in the sport will understandably be concerned should they shoulder the cost for what they rightly consider is a Middle East problem, even though the Endurance Strategy Planning Group process has tried to frame it as a global one.
Adding new layers of cost to the running of endurance races will cause headaches for dozens of these smaller FEI member nations, but almost certainly none in the Middle East.
Many nations hold the view that the rules of endurance are generally sound, and the issues presented in the Middle East centre around compliance and enforcement, not the rules themselves.
One has only to watch videos of how these races unfold to see how some in the Middle East have been running fast and loose in their interpretation of the rules.
There is a school of thought that the Middle Eastern form is, in effect, a different sport. There is some strength to this contention, and it is entirely possible the two versions simply will not be able to exist under the same set of rules.
Let’s consider some of the key differences. Firstly, the prepared desert courses in the Middle East hardly constitute the wide and varied terrain required under the rules of endurance.
The Middle Eastern form sees trainers and jockeys, as opposed to the classic form where riders tend to have trained their own mounts.
Endurance rules place strict guidelines around the level of assistance available to horses and riders, and dictate clearly when and where this may occur. The Middle Eastern version invariably sees a support crew driving alongside each combination, apparently ready to render assistance.
Often, there is a track alongside the race course for spectators and support crew. The rules of endurance do not permit support vehicles, though the Gulf nations tend to stress that the vehicles carry water in case the horse needs it during a loop.
In the Middle Eastern form, effectively only the time counts, provided the horse is not injured.
In all of that lies the fundamental, inescapable difference: One is a form of horse racing, with the inherent risks that go with that sport. The other is riding and a much more rounded test of horsemanship in which completions are as important as competition.
While some nations, riders and commentators have been vocal on the length of time taken so far to find a solution, I don’t think anyone can accuse the FEI of not trying. Its process has been thorough and nations have been given every opportunity for input.
It would seem that nations on either side of the endurance divide are largely entrenched in their views. The classic endurance brigade wants the Middle Eastern nations to toe the line, pure and simple.
The Middle Eastern nations obviously love their endurance racing and, on the evidence to date, appear determined to stick with it.
It is too early to concede defeat just yet, in my view.
Member nations will consider the latest endurance reform proposals in just over four weeks in Switzerland. They are not likely to be formally ratified until the General Assembly in Dubai in early December, a couple of months after the start of the next Middle East endurance season.
The changes are unlikely to take effect until January 1, meaning roughly half of the Middle Eastern season will be over.
What endurance can ill afford is another round of blood-letting, which has been of considerable detriment to the sport. As long as both sides in the debate think they will prevail, the ugliness will inevitably roll on. The differences are ingrained at a philosophical and cultural level on both sides of the endurance debate.
So, at this stage anyway, we remain clearly on the path toward rule reforms, in the hope that race officials – armed with their yellow cards and an updated rule book – will be diligently enforcing them.
What if it doesn’t work?
Some might view a separate Middle Eastern series or even a separate discipline within the FEI as potential solutions.
Most member-nations would be sceptical, I suspect. And should the welfare issues continue unabated, the FEI has the same problem on its hands in a different set of clothes. The welfare debate would roll on, and the whole concept has the potential to be divisive and alienate Middle Eastern countries, whose importance and influence in global equestrian sport should not be underestimated.
Having the Middle Eastern form as a separate discipline within the FEI is similarly unlikely to sit comfortably with many member nations. And how, precisely, would that address the infractions which caused all the trouble in the first place, short of relaxing the rules?
The third option would be a breakaway endurance body. Nations that favour the racing form could form their own international body, which could be formally recognised by the FEI in much the same the way as track racing. Its rules, of course, would be outside the domain of the FEI.
Such an arrangement would not stand in the way of any of the Middle Eastern players competing overseas in FEI events for world titles and the World Equestrian Games. Even sponsorship arrangements might survive.
It fails to directly address the concerns around horse welfare, but the FEI, in offering to formally recognise the body, would have the right to insist on the highest standards of horse welfare. It would always have the option of no longer recognising such a body should its rules prove egregious, or there is evidence of poor enforcement, or its equine safety record falls short.
In any case, it would be hard to imagine that any new body would insist on anything other than the highest standards of horse welfare.
If the process was well managed, the FEI could provide valuable input on this new body’s creation. That is surely better than none at all.
As a solution, it is not entirely palatable, but if unity is not possible, then surely an amicable divorce is better than an ugly one.
Some will inevitably view such an approach as a cop-out, but it is a preferable route to an unholy bust-up and having no influence whatsoever. The other obvious benefit is that the classic form of endurance stays within the FEI fold.
There has now been noise on both sides of the Atlantic on the prospects of a breakaway endurance body, with the North American Trail Ride Conference the latest to air the idea. This is no easy task. Governance and management structures would need to be developed, along with a host of other requirements, to get a viable body going.
FEI member countries would effectively be asked to make a choice, with the potential fracturing of largely like-minded endurance nations.
I think, on balance, this fracturing would ultimately prove more damaging long-term than anything else proposed here. It poses a potential raft of problems for FEI member nations, whose national equestrian bodies are geared toward dealings with one world governing body. After all, endurance is not the only equestrian game in town.
On balance, if it came to the crunch, it would make far more sense for the Middle East to break away.
I do not doubt for one minute that the option to remain unified, as being promoted by the FEI, is the right approach - at least for now. And I think that the Middle Eastern nations and their equestrian communities are not indifferent to events. There will undoubtedly be many appalled at how their horse reputation is being sullied by some.
We should not underestimate the potential for some of the nations to genuinely push towards improving the situation, come next season.
In pondering solutions – and any potential split – it is worthwhile looking at the numbers involved at the higher levels of the sport.
Currently, there are 3788 athletes in the FEI database registered for this discipline. Of these, 142 are registered as being from the United States. Great Britain has 76, France has 350 and Germany has 90.
By way of comparison, when we look at Group VII, the United Arab Emirates has 928, Saudi Arabia 301, and Bahrain 155. Even Oman, at 106, has more FEI-registered riders than Britain.
In total, Group VII has 1734 riders registered in the FEI database, meaning they make up nearly 48 percent of the total number of FEI-registered endurance riders.
Perhaps there are other solutions to the endurance problem. Perhaps there will eventually be global unity but, ultimately, Middle Eastern nations may prove to be too attached to their version of the sport to yield much ground.
It is hardly fair to criticise anyone who is vocal on issues of horse welfare, including those who demand immediate action and talk of breakaway groups. But now is still the time to keep trying to resolve the problem in a way that keeps the FEI nations together.
Are solutions that involve breakaway groups workable? Probably. Are they preferable? No.
Should the reform process ultimately fail, there is no shame in returning to the drawing board.