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The hi-tech, high-stakes race for endurance gold

John McEwen

John McEwen

 

 

The endurance race to decide the world champion at WEG is sure to be most scrutinised event in the sport’s history. Welfare concerns arising from the Middle East drove reforms which are now in place for the Games, but will they go far enough to rein in excesses in the sport? We talk with FEI 1st vice-president John McEwen about the issues facing endurance, the fallout from Compiègne, and the prospects for WEG.

 

 

 

 

High-definition video cameras, tamper-proof GPS devices, an approved heart-rate system, and a specialist timing system. Such hi-tech gear sounds more like the domain of Q, James Bond’s famed gadgetry specialist.

Welcome, instead, to the pinnacle of world endurance, where a raft of surveillance measures and advanced monitoring protocols means little will escape officials.

There will be 24/7 video surveillance of the stables. Cameras will also monitor the cooling area and rest areas, not to mention the entire vetting area. A new FEI vet gate timing system will send horses to vet lanes in strict order of arrival time, automatically diverting horses away from their own nation’s veterinary officials.

Revamped rules are now in force for endurance. © FEI

Revamped rules are now in force for endurance. © FEI

The world’s elite endurance riders will set off at 6am on August 28 from the French town of Sartilly to compete in the six-loop 160km race around the Bay of Mont St Michel.

The picturesque bay will provide the perfect backdrop to a race over a course that has been described as demanding and somewhat technical, with many changes in footing.

The sport of endurance itself has faced a somewhat demanding and technical course itself in the last 18 months. The FEI was spurred into action by several European federations which voiced concerns about welfare issues in the sport in several Group VII nations.

The process has delivered stricter rules in time for the Alltech FEI World Equestrian Games, but in the meantime the sport endured a series of social media storms over several transgressions, culminating in a jaw-dropping account of a CEI endurance event in Compiègne, France, in May. Five veterinarians at the event penned an open letter.

Their account painted a picture that seemed to draw together every concern about the sport since the endurance controversy first blew up, the vets noting: “Our analysis of the reasons for this situation is that current practices of endurance in some Group VII countries is very far removed from the original spirit of our sport.”

So, the endurance roadshow heads for Sartilly not exactly in good heart, but with a stricter set of rules, unparalleled levels of video surveillance, and a healthy number of officials on the ground to ensure the new regulations are enforced and the race is fought on the much-vaunted level playing field.

Will it work?

FEI first vice-president John McEwen, a veterinarian, is confident it will. McEwen has been responsible for endurance since June, when the FEI Bureau assigned him the task after FEI president Princess Haya sought more formal recognition of her previously stated potential conflict of interest.

“The structure of the event at Compiègne was very different to what will be in place in Sartilly,” McEwen says. “I’m confident that the measures put in place for the Games will ensure safe and fair sport in Normandy.”

McEwen believes the rule changes will have a big impact on endurance, and improved data gathering will provide the evidence to inform any future decision-making.

So, what does McEwen make of some of the concerns voiced by the endurance community as the controversy has rolled on? For one, some are concerned that higher speeds are leading to higher rates of catastrophic injury.

“Speed is obviously one of the factors in the equation, but it is only one of many factors that may influence injury rates,” he says. “We need more evidence.”

That evidence, he says, will come through in the Global Endurance Injuries Study (GEIS), set up by Dr Tim Parkin, of Glasgow University. It will provide a much more consistent approach to statistics that the FEI has not had before.

“Very many factors are involved apart from speed, for example weather, track conditions, training regimes and levels of veterinary support, and all of these can affect injury rates.

“It is very unlikely that there will be one single cause.”

FEI first vice-president John McEwen: "The welfare of the horse is not just a veterinary issue; it’s an issue for all those who work in the sport."  © FEI

FEI first vice-president John McEwen: “The welfare of the horse is not just a veterinary issue; it’s an issue for all those who work in the sport.” © FEI

Does he think there is greater potential for injuries if race times continued to get faster? “I firmly believe that the August 1 rule changes will have a big impact, especially now that there are penalties for riders that have a history of problems with their horses getting injured.”

Social media has been awash with criticism of the more aggressive form of desert racing seemingly favoured in the Middle East. These were the very kind of races that gave rise to such fierce criticism from several European federations.

McEwen stresses that the Endurance Strategy Planning Group, appointed to drive the reforms, looked at endurance as a whole and its recommendations were aimed at ensuring a playing field that accommodates all forms of the sport.

He believes that is achievable through the enforcement of the new rules.

Criticism has also been levelled at officials and competitors in the Group VII region, with accusations some have been too relaxed in their application of the FEI’s rules.

McEwen says the FEI has always been clear in its expectation that all its officials will apply the rules in a professional and non-biased way. “And, of course, we also expect our athletes to adhere to the rules.

“The FEI will always take action against transgressors, whether they be athletes or officials, when failures are reported to us via the correct and required channels.”

He notes that endurance has some of the highest levels of veterinary supervision of any equestrian sport.

There have been ongoing discussions with many national federations, including in Group VII, as the sport has evolved, he adds.

“The performance of our officials is monitored in a bid to obtain a professional and harmonised standard across the board.”

The harshest criticism of Group VII was reserved for the level of fracture rates and doping infractions, with at least one national federation talking of a potential breakaway group until there was action. Many endurance followers considered these issues were symptomatic of a scant regard by some to horse welfare.

“The figures show that there was a higher level in this region some years ago,” says McEwen, “but there has been a reduction in the number of positive cases in Group VII compared with other groups.” He attributes the drop to the FEI’s Clean Sport campaign, introduced in 2010.

“Group VII sampling levels have traditionally been some of the highest levels in our sport,” he notes.

“In the past, the real facts have been lost amongst the rumours in terms of the number of fractures being reported.”

It is now mandatory that accurate and complete information on injuries come back to the FEI via GEIS – Dr Parkin’s study – which he says is providing a far clearer picture. In the future, it will allow a scientific assessment of risk factors.

He says the FEI Veterinary Committee and Department have been working for some time with Professor Yves Rossier, from the University of Montreal, and Dr Parkin to produce an all-encompassing Injury Reporting system for all disciplines. This was successfully rolled out with the GEIS.

“There will always be those who put competitive success ahead of the welfare of the horse,” he acknowledges, “but clearly this is never acceptable.

“The first principle in the FEI Code of Conduct for the Welfare of the Horse is that ‘welfare of the horse must never be subordinated to competitive or commercial influences’.”

He does not agree with criticism that the pace of change in bringing in endurance reforms has been too slow.

Hi-tech monitoring, including tamper-proof GPS devices, will be in place for the WEG endurance race. © FEI

Hi-tech monitoring, including tamper-proof GPS devices, will be in place for the WEG endurance race. © FEI

“While I can see that may be the perception externally, I don’t feel this is a fair comment. It must be remembered that wide-ranging rule changes in this discipline have been made in 2005, 2009, 2013, 2014, and further changes will be introduced as required in the future.

“Some of the ground-breaking rule changes that have been introduced into endurance over the years include mandatory rest periods, multi-veterinary exams throughout a competition – more than any other discipline – and, most recently, the introduction of athlete penalty points directly linked to injuries.

“We have increased sampling levels for prohibited substances very substantially over the last few years and the past veterinary support systems and regulations have been continually upgraded year on year, so there has been continual reform, not just in endurance but across all our disciplines.”

So, is there not a risk that tougher rules will mean the Middle East may simply choose to run more races outside the auspices of the FEI?

“This, of course, is their choice. However, the events will still be run under the auspices of the relevant national federation, and that national federation, being a member of the FEI and a signatory to our regulations, has the responsibility to maintain the FEI’s declared stance on welfare.”

He acknowledges some concern was voiced during the reform process that rule changes would add a burden to nations that did not have a welfare issue in the first place.

McEwen said he was gratified by the overwhelming support from national federations at the 2014 Sports Forum when the proposed rule changes were presented.

“Clearly, federations were aware that some of these new regulations would impact the sport in their own country, but this did not affect their support for the changes.

“There is a recognition that the sport has evolved and will continue to evolve over the years to come, and that all national federations need to endorse the approach that is needed to ensure a safe and fair sport.

“I feel that the changes will benefit the sport worldwide and set up an excellent platform for all for the future.”

But surely the risk remains that the Middle East will be unable to reconcile the new rules, with its pretty clear preference for a more aggressive style of desert racing?

McEwen recounts how ESPG chairman Andrew Finding spoke of the “vision and set of values that we expect everyone to adhere to if they genuinely want to be an active part of our family”. Finding, he notes, was uncompromising, adding: “Those who do not should be asked to leave us.”

“I fully support that viewpoint. It is the responsibility of all national federations to support the most recent rule changes, which are clearly designed to address the issues that the sport has been facing.”

What of the trend toward “jockey-style” riders in endurance? Is it simply a natural progression in the sport, or is it against the fundamental principles of endurance?

The present rules, he says, allow athletes and horses to come together to compete in individual competitions, provided the athlete and the horse are individually qualified to participate through the star-rating system.

“It is only at championship level where combination qualification is required, unless the athlete has elite status, which requires the successful completion of 10 CEI 160km competitions, and of course the horse must still meet championship qualification criteria.”

Extended rest periods are part of the endurance reforms. © FEI

Extended rest periods are part of the endurance reforms. © FEI

One of the major attractions of the discipline is that it is a family sport, he says, and several members of one family could compete at different events on the one horse.

“I believe the present star-rating requirement for athletes and horses works well.”

So, how does he feel the new rules of endurance would have coped with the situation described by the Compiègne veterinarians?

McEwen says the new rules make it clear to all involved – athletes, grooms, trainers or officials – that sanctions will be applied if the sport’s rules are not strictly respected.

He says he saw the picture of the “thin horse” that caused major controversy in the weeks following Compiègne.

“I did find the images of the horse concerning, as they appeared to show an extremely thin horse,” he says.

“But the horse was checked on three separate occasions by senior 4* veterinarians and further, blood samples taken after the horse was removed from the competition due to lameness indicated that, metabolically, the horse was in good shape.

“However … we are reviewing how assessments of what is ‘too thin’ are made.

“From a metabolic point of view, being overweight is probably more of a welfare issue than being underweight. It’s a complex issue.”

Ironically, the “thin horse” was about the only issue not raised by the five veterinarian who spelt out their concerns.

McEwen says concerns arising from Compiègne had been flagged before the vets penned their open letter. The FEI’s low profile as the fuss around the thin horse and the vet’s letter reached a crescendo amounted to FEI policy.

“Immediately following Compiègne, and before the open letter was issued by the vets, the FEI had put in place a detailed review process of the event to identify the problem areas that arose in Compiègne,” he explains.

“The FEI’s established policy is to await the conclusion of such a review process to ensure we are in possession of clear facts and details before we take any position.”

So what issues were flagged? There were, he said, several shortcomings, but these should be corrected by officials in future.

“The event went ahead despite the large number of additional late entries being accepted by the organiser without a corresponding increase in the number of officials and treating vets as required by the FEI Regulations.

“The findings in the review also highlighted that treatment facilities must be close to the vet gate itself and fully prepared for use at all times.”

The FEI, in light of these findings, will now look at the regulations in terms of a strict limitation on overall entry numbers at events. He says it will also look at restricting the number of competitions individual FEI officials are allowed to work on at any one event.

The FEI is also reviewing its reporting procedures at events to ensure the information it requires is handled correctly and through the correct channels in a timely manner.

Lessons learnt at Compiègne will be introduced into the courses for all endurance officials, he says.

Concerns aired by the Compiègne vets followed two fundamental threads, related to either welfare or issues of sportsmanship.

Welfare issues included horses being ridden at high speeds on difficult and fast trails, and too many metabolic eliminations – horses presenting with high heart rates and advanced dehydration.

“It should be remembered that Compiègne took place prior to the new rules coming into effect,” McEwen says. For one thing, the new rules have extended the rest periods for metabolic horses.

“The combination of the new rules, together with the learnings from the Compiègne review, will mean that future events will be better placed to deal with such issues.”

The vets asserted that the safety of competing horses cannot be guaranteed any more under the circumstances they described.

“There has never been a guarantee of safety,” McEwen says, “and as a vet I am all too aware that equine sport always carries a risk of injury.”

He says it is perfectly possible to keep that risk to acceptably low levels with a high standard of veterinary assessment and monitoring.

Endurance has enjoyed strong growth in recent years.

Endurance has enjoyed strong growth globally in recent years.

“However, the new penalty point system and extended rest periods for horses will underline the need for athletes to take better care.

“But, as I have said previously and will continue to say, the welfare of the horse is not just a veterinary issue; it’s an issue for all those who work in the sport.”

The FEI, he says, has consistently stressed the absolute necessity for athletes to take responsibility for the management of their horses during competition, and the new rules ensure there are consequences for a possible failure of that management.

The vets described horses being put in grave danger by what they considered to be unethical and unsportsmanlike practices. McEwen says the FEI deals with any reported unethical practices through its judicial system.

The Compiègne vets’ concerns around sportsmanship related to “constant intense pressure” from some competitors, whom they accused of constantly aiming to appeal against judgments and trying to cheat systematically.

“All our officials should be able to cope with the pressures of the sport and there are clear systems in place to deal with this type of pressure which occurs in any competitive sport,” McEwen says. “These systems should be, and are, used.”

Regulations confirm that the athlete is the person responsible at all times. “The new endurance rules reconfirm this and sanction those who do not manage their horse correctly.”

This applies equally to the “jockey” riders, some of whom were, in the opinion of the vets, no longer following the principle of making the most of the horse’s performance on the day by listening to their mount. Some, they said, pushed their horse beyond its capacity.

McEwen expresses the firm view that the new endurance rules would have coped with the situation described by the Compiègne veterinarians.

” … the new rules make it clear to all those involved, be they athletes, grooms, trainers or officials, that sanctions will be applied if the sports rules are not strictly respected.”

Should the endurance reforms fail, does he see any scope for a different FEI-administered form of the sport to cover desert racing?

McEwen says he is confident that the new rules and the ongoing assessment of them will address the sport’s issues.

“On the question of potentially having separate rules for ‘Classical’ and ‘Racing’ endurance, that has been under consideration now for some years, with different rules applying whilst the two types of competition remain under one FEI discipline.

“It has to be said that whenever this has been proposed to national federations there has been little support in the past.”

McEwen believes the universal support for the rule reforms means any prospect of a split in world endurance are remote.

He accepts that the wider endurance controversy has affected the sport’s reputation.

“It has overshadowed so many of the good aspects of the discipline.” Endurance, he says, is one of the fastest growing horse sports in the world, in terms of numbers taking part and in geographical spread.

Since 2004, the number of nations participating has risen by 50 percent, from 37 to 53, and there has been a 100 percent increase in FEI competitions to more than 900 per year.

“There are a lot of really encouraging statistics. I do believe that the recent rules changes, and the reinforcement of the individual and collective responsibility for horse welfare will address these issues and that FEI endurance can continue to flourish.”

John McEwen says the endurance controversy has overshadowed so many of the good aspects of the discipline.

John McEwen says the endurance controversy has overshadowed so many of the good aspects of the discipline.

He does not accept that the advent of aggressive riding that gave rise to the controversy in the first place puts the sport on a knife edge, with riders attempting to balance the need to win (or perform well) against the welfare of the horse.

It should not happen, he says, if appropriate rules are in place and improved education ensures they are adhered to by the athletes.

“Everyone at the FEI and within the FEI family has a commitment to horse welfare, and we must never forget that we also have a collective responsibility for the regulation and reputation of the sport.”

The FEI now faces the task of monitoring the rule changes and assessing whether they have made a difference.

He says he is confident that information that comes into the FEI from the ongoing Global Endurance Injuries Study, the independent governance advisers, and the revised standard reports from FEI officials, will provide a clear indication of the effectiveness of the new rules.

The introduction of electronic reports will also make follow-up work much more efficient than with the paper reports, with the Veterinary Department handling about 3800 vet reports annually.

He does not rule out further rule changes around welfare as more work is done and more information is obtained as part of the ongoing monitoring. “We will not shy away from making whatever changes are necessary,” he says.

Any such changes will be evidence-based, in much the same way as data was used to justify the introduction of the extended rest periods which came into force August 1. That decision was based on initial findings that clearly indicated longer rest periods were necessary for full recovery.

Indeed, it was work by Dr Parkin, who analysed vet gate information from 2010-2012, that helped identify risk factors.

“This evidence-based approach will be applied to other disciplines in the manner to which it is being applied to endurance by the end of 2015,” he says.

McEwen says the Endurance Strategy Planning Group, which drove the reforms, was set up as an independent body and worked separately from the FEI, basing its recommendations on consultation with national federations, other stakeholders, as well as the wide experience of its membership. The FEI Veterinary and Endurance Departments also provided input, but the group was very much left to reach its own conclusions.

While controversy in the Middle East sparked the entire reform process, McEwen says regions will not be singled out in judging the effectiveness of the new rules.

“We will assess the impact on all regions. A level playing field is the objective.

“We want a fair and safe sport for all involved.”

The FEI website content for endurance has been substantially enhanced to give much greater information to interested members of the public.

 

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