By John Crandell
- The Time Is Now
- The Genesis of Modern Endurance
- Expansion Across North America
- FEI Enters the Scene
- Back in the USA
- Our Issues are More Alike Than We Realize
- A Rebirth Begins
- Building Wise Endurance Testing Programs
- Roadmap to the Future: Part 1
- Creating Healthy Goalposts and Incentives (COMING SOON)
Endurance riding was once on the vanguard of equine welfare, generating new definition in the meaning of equine welfare itself. Now that honorable position is obscured under a mountain of saddening imagery on the internet and a growing contempt from other equestrians over the level of equitation and horsemanship displayed at endurance races.
Who’s to blame? We all are, and perhaps especially those of us that have been engaged in the discipline as long as myself. I’ve been endurance racing for over forty years now; long enough to have won two Tevis and Haggin Cups, first to finish at six Old Dominion 100 mile Rides, and FEI championship medals as early as 1986 and as late as 2010. I certainly should have known better, should have spoken out more at the right time way back when. Well, no time like the present.
It’s impossible address the governance issues we’re now facing in a way that guarantees that they’ll never return if we can’t openly identify our collective mistakes that allowed this travesty to develop in the first place. So please notice that as I dissect this calamity of errors, I offend people on both sides of highly polarized positions equally. I have been party to both camps and am therefore as culpable as anyone.
I will show that the root issue here has been brooding for a long time, and goes back to a time before the involvement of the Federation Equestrian International (FEI) and well before the Persian Gulf countries participation in internationally sanctioned endurance racing.
The Time is Now
At this time the entire world, especially the equestrian community, is aware of the alarming spectacle of endurance racing activity in the United Arab Emirates. This has devastated the already fragile reputation of the Federation Equestre Internationale (FEI), which sanctions these races. The FEI has been supplying the public years of image posturing and repeated announcements that is making “sweeping changes”, but the carnage has continued with its renewed sanctioning.
Meanwhile in the United States the endurance riding disciplines national governing body is in a different kind of downward spiral. The economic demography of the U.S.A. has lured the American Endurance Ride Conference (AERC) into a dangerous trap. When businesses and organizations here listen to their constituents too democratically what they will always hear most loudly is that “we want more quantity, less cost; and we enjoy being patronized gratuitously”. Following this mandate usually creates economic growth initially, but it then leads to departure from the organizations original purpose, alienation of its original supporters, and declining standards until there is nowhere lower to go in order to acquire new members.
This is written as a warning to other regions with developing equestrian programs not to follow in our footsteps. The following is chronical of the foolish choices we’ve made that led to this mess nationally and internationally. Review this history to learn by our mistakes as the modern endurance riding discipline begins an inevitable rebirth.
There is a great spark of hope in the initiatives demonstrated at the Bouthib racecourse in Abu Dhabi. This is essentially a step back in the discipline’s history to the point in time before we began to let it go so far astray. This is the place from where we need to start again, a little wiser this time.
Our goal needs to be much more than just a tolerable amount animal suffering for the benefit of our sporting amusement. As worldwide awareness of the animal welfare sharpens, equine sports are under increasing pressure to evolve into exercises that genuinely benefit the animals. Just to “do little harm” as the general public may see it, to have image managed by skillful public relations tactics, is no longer enough. The modern world is demanding scientifically sound definitions and equitable practices of animal welfare.
Endurance riding has potential greater than any other equestrian discipline to have a positive impact in the future health and happiness of equines. The disciplines ability to closely mimic the natural challenges that forged horses as we have come to know them makes it the ideal platform for maintaining vital knowledge in genealogy, and of naturally good husbandry of the animals. This species that has carried mankind to prominence on earth desperately needs us to get this right, and we need to get this right for ourselves as well.
I’m going to point out how at time decades ago, when the world was looking to us in North America for concepts and inspiration, we had begun to make a pivotal error in the way we were allowing the distance riding discipline to be structured and governed. That fundamental flaw became embedded into the very foundation of endurance racing as it developed into an international sport with utterly dysfunctional result.
What at first seemed small and tolerable deviation from the noble philosophies that spawned the first modern endurance races here in America half century ago as has become a fundamentally dysfunctional system. In the most recent three decades it has become layered with additional distortions of best practices in order to better support the pomp and image of an international circus.
In North America that same error has had a nearly opposite effect as elsewhere, creating a loss of motivation to pursue equestrian excellence in all its aspects. This has forfeited the disciplines potential to adequately support the best breeding practices, and caused a visible decline in basic horsemanship and equitation in the distance riding community. The impact on equine welfare here has been more insidious, but it is no less tragic for horses in the end. We have simply learned how not to see it in our midst.
Once we have built on a flawed foundation, we will always have structural problems no matter how much effort we apply to patches and repairs. Now after decades of chasing unsound philosophy we have a lot of institutional undoing ahead, but this is an opportunity to rebuild from the ground up with more wisdom than ever before. The process has already begun. The only thing to be decided is who will be the significant actors.
The Genesis of Modern Endurance Racing
Early long distance racing in North America, as in many other regions of the world, was little less wasteful and cruel than events that have been attracting so much ill attention in the Persian Gulf region in recent years. We called these “Jackpot” races, as these sprung up almost any time and place there was someone willing to post a modest sum as prize. If there was any potential to be of positive influence in the guidance of equine genetics it was often lost in the disorder and high attrition of such hedonistic events. This kind of racing was becoming increasingly controversial in North America in the early 1900’s.
Also this era, the militaries of the world were shrinking down and closing their selective breeding and development programs. All of our civilian commercial incentives that supported the production of broadly athletic, vigorous, easy keeping, and durably sound horses had withered as well. Our ability to accurately evaluate and guide the breeding of horses in a continuance of their most fundamental abilities and our combined heritages was being lost.
Sure, we still had Thoroughbred racing and other sprint racing variants. We had jumping and other horse show exhibitions. There was also a growing halter showing industry expanded out of what had once been a simple necessity of evaluating young foals and brood stock by appearance, when they couldn’t be examined in performance.
All of these disciplines are popular because they compress the vast realm of the horse into an arena for convenient viewing; and because they operate within a sensationally short time frame to suit the attention span of the typical spectator. When we allow ourselves to be driven by short-range economic potential of spectacle such as this we also create equally short-sighted selective pressure, focused on just a few aspects of equines at a time. These are entertaining endeavors, but they cannot independently direct a sustainable and humane genetic guidance.
To understand the concerns many horsemen held about sustainability of the genetic vitality in horses, we might reflect on what has happened within the breeding of dogs, a more genetically plastic species than horses. Many dog breeds are now embedded with genetic traits that create proclivities for poor health and suffering. When we obsess on promoting just a few features at the expense of regard for the millions of other genes that are essential for the production of wholly healthy animals the result is always tragic.
Horses are very specifically evolved creatures in that their natural evolutionary path has taken them deeply into a survival niche that was highly dependent on exceptional locomotive efficiency and effectiveness. That’s what has historically made us value them so. That same specialization, makes them prone to suffer all the more by even the most modest genetic weakness. Horses are obligate movers. If they can’t stay very active everything about their health and happiness is in danger of collapse. While horse genetics might not be run amuck as quickly as dogs, once it happens the result is even more devastating.
Feral horses breeding in the open, sparsely developed places like the American west may seem to represent a solution for healthy genetic sustainability, but there really is no completely “natural” existence for horses in a world of fences, politically boundaries, predator control, land management and population issues are at play. This is a species born of a time when entire groups of continents were open to them. Their truly wild ancestors utilized the full expanse of what was available to them in carving out their survival niche; the temperate short grass steppes, the deserts, the lush alpine summer meadows and all the terrain in between. The world of their ancestry has been lost by our hand. At best feral horses are like whales in a lake. There is no purely native environment remaining as far as horses are concerned. Accept it or not, we have made ourselves the guardians of their genetic health. We are obligated to undertake that responsibility seriously, and embrace the opportunity to learn, for their wellbeing and our own.
Conversations around this theme were commonplace among horseman by the middle 1900’s. “Are our horses still as strong as those of our heritage?” was a common point of debate. This was just the question that spawned a series of letters containing a mix of hypothesis, boasts and challenges between Wendell Robie of Auburn California and a gentleman from New York. This conversation represented such common interest that it was all publicly and chronicled in the editorial of the Western Horseman magazine in the time proceeding Robie’s first one-day ride of the Western States heritage trail from Lake Tahoe to Auburn California in the mid 1950’s.
This ride became an annual event. An increasing number of horseman traveled from further and further seeking this opportunity to take measure of themselves and their horses in a test that is naturally referenced in our combined heritage. It attracted experienced and devoted horsemen from all corners of the equestrian spectrum. These were horsemen and horsewomen that understood the even though they had become accomplished in other disciplines or utilities of horses, such as racing, or jumping or stock work, that these skills alone were only partial examinations horsemanship. Traveling roughly a hundred miles in a day, through a broad natural spectrum of climate zones and terrain, epitomized the essence of horse and horseman. It was the real and natural application of all that was hallmark of the horse and taught of horsemanship. It was the missing feather in the cap of many devoted horsemen.
Among those that journeyed thousands of miles to participate in those early rides of the Western States trail was Alexander Mackay-Smith, already a key actor in the introduction of combined training tests (Eventing) to North America. Mr. Mackay-Smith recognized the significance of performance records in sustaining a healthy genealogy in horses, and of quality horsemanship in our culture. Keeping quality performance test data is the best way we can honor our horses; to support the welfare of future generations. The results of this hundred mile ride across the American West would prove to be uniquely valuable. This was no singular quantitative measure of simply “how fast” of “how high” but qualitative study of the functional core of the equine.
If we guide a species only by very narrowly defined tests like speed on an unnaturally “perfect” track we only get the genetic outcome we asked for, and less of everything else. We are then creating intensified selective pressure (suffering) to make the animal obsessively become something other than what it was before. The further we push into this narrowing niche; the more selective pressure (suffering and attrition) is required to make increasingly smaller gains in that direction. The genetic end result is an animal different from the one we first appreciated, enhanced in a small set of features and yet more fragile in all others; increasingly dependent on our synthetic support. This creates an environment where high attrition is the norm, where the potential for suffering is extreme. This is the genetic basis of the financial pissing contest we call a “ Sport of Kings”; an egomaniacal challenge to see who can support the highest level of consumption.
The course of the Western States Trail represented something very different. Its goal was genealogic stasis, appreciating the animal as it has been for thousands of years. It presented a broad spectrum of natural challenges, and a distance that went beyond the sporting sprint for a horses. It reached into an inherent mode of performance, definitive in the horse’s heritage, yet overlooked by other modern equestrian disciplines.
Traveling through several types of natural terrain, pushing on through the long day and beyond awakens a remarkable physiological state in horses. The horse becomes remarkably efficient, calm and focused. More communicative than ever. The “cheap sweat” is long gone. Nothing is wasted. It’s as if there has been a special “herd is on migration” mode waiting to be activated within their epigenetics; Equine and equestrian nirvana.
This test qualitatively represented the same challenges equines had been dealing with for tens of thousands of years. It highlighted the same abilities humans have valued horses for in the last six thousand years. It provided us with natural reference to guide our very philosophy about horses. To excel in other equine sports requires exceptional strength in a few aspects, to excel against the Western States trail requires no weakness in any aspect.
Emerging here was a new hybrid of concepts. One with the objectivity and excitement of race, paired with sober scientific testing. It was an evolving technical experiment where the tests themselves were to be evaluated and improved for validity as a natural reference.
This was the spirit that drove Endurance riding in those early years in North America. Of course not everyone understood it’s unique genealogical merits in such detail as I just depicted, but enough did that the sense of great purpose spread epidemically.
Concern that the flood of riders racing to Auburn would eventually paint the event with the same brush as the “Jackpot” desert races inspired development of veterinary control systems as an integral part of the race. This was a novel concept at the time, one that would become the platform for endurance racing to enter a future of growing animal welfare awareness.
Expansion Across North America
This endurance racing concept first spread across the North American continent as one day hundred mile rides. For some time 100 mile (160 K) rides were all that was available for many of us. 100 mile rides were endurance racings only skill level. Only challenges that could reach that distinctive physiological plateau, that fabled “second wind” of equines were considered Endurance Tests.
The Old Dominion One Day 100 Mile Test brought endurance riding to my region of the United States in 1973. While this technically was a race, as participants were ranked on completion time, the word “Test” was engaged to remind us of the academic objective of the endeavor. We were gathered to take a necessary measure of our horse’s ability, and our skills as equestrians, for the betterment of horses now and in the future. It was a scientifically valid test of ability, and it just happened to be a lot of fun for those who respected the serious underpinnings of the endeavor. Even with a rigorous focus on the academic and scientific value of the discipline it was growing at a healthy rate and the enthusiasm was electric.
Even without any “entry level” opportunities, the system was quite effective at yielding the valuable results we sought from the most elite athletes while protecting the welfare of all. The courses we first developed remain today among the most arduous in the world. There was plenty of opportunity to display raw speed ability in each course, but also a spectrum of other natural challenge elements that moderated the pace to a tone that facilitated the veterinary controls effectiveness. We could reliably halt any horse that was physically unprepared to continue at any time, well before the animal sustained any irreparable strain.
Peer pressure emphasized that the primary skill and responsibility of the endurance racing rider was the careful awareness of his/her mount’s individual condition and sustainable pace. In the team of horse and rider it was the rider’s role to anticipate the demands of the complex course ahead and to pace the horse strategically to the end. We understood that completing a 100 mile day wasn’t unduly difficult for a horse, but that pacing inappropriate for the individual was extremely dangerous. For riders in this new discipline, maintaining an above average completion rate was key to respectability.
Another reason we fared so well without any “entry level” or qualifying races is that we already had an effective developmental platform in competitive trail rides (CTR). At this time in America, as in many other countries, we had inherited an abundance of CTR opportunities to practice distance riding. These were more closely modeled after the kind of distance testing programs our cavalries had once employed. Participants were released in small groups to complete a course within a predetermined window of time, a standardized pace. Veterinary control was employed, but in CTR every notation of the veterinary judge was also part of a competitive score. There were lay judges as well that scored horsemanship observations throughout the day and night as well. Yes, safety and security of our overnight stabling arrangements was part of the critique. We were critiqued on our equitation as we passed through technically challenging moments of the course.
We dismissed our critiques like students in school always do, but we learned well, and we came back to be tested in increasing difficulty again and again. Well maybe not everybody came back; some people just couldn’t accept being tutored and moved on. The discipline grew stronger by their absence.
These CTRs were also more supportive environments for developing horses, even the most experienced horsemen appreciated this. There was time and opportunity to address underlying training issues properly the moment they appeared, as it is best. This applied to both behavioral and physical development. There was time to notice, and time to take corrective action or abort the test in the interest of optimum development of the horses. No one felt the need to move on until they could do it well. Pursuit of excellence at each step along the way was the only objective.
This was particularly apparent as the horse progressed into the longer distanced multi-day CTR tests. The modest daily increment of 25-40 miles (40-65 K) followed by a nights rest provided opportunity for the most careful assessment of the horses’ fitness to continue. It was clearer than ever in the morning after a ride if the horse’s best developmental interest was to continue for the remainder of the test or not. This is the kind of information skilled trainers seek, and CTRs provide the best environment to see it, and to learn HOW to see it.
Unfortunately, there was a brooding social division between our CTR and Endurance racing communities within the distance riding discipline. Many CTR participants were concerned about being associated with endurance racing, which they still perceived to be too hedonistic, a little too much like those “Jackpot” races. The CTR organizations that might have had a fleeting moment to step forward and embrace governance of this new form of distance test as it emerged let the opportunity pass. Endurance racing enthusiasts formed a new association in North America exclusively for endurance racing. Thus the distance testing community in North America became further divided with governance by separate business entities, with considerable competitive overlap for customers. This would prove to be tragically ill fated.
The American Endurance Ride Conference (AERC) sanctioned endurance races as short as 50 miles (80K). The thought was that any shorter races might be so fast paced that the veterinary control systems might not be responsive enough to protect the horses. Many of us argued that this short distance was not truly reaching that special physiological range that defined an endurance test, and thus missed our most noble objective. However, the shorter 50 mile races were popular, easier to organize, bringing in more members and revenue for the racing association. This lowering of the “endurance racing” entry level competed effectively against CTR’s for customers. 50 mile endurance races were wildly more fun by comparison, and participants weren’t pestered by judges attempting to evaluate and educate them.
By the time the FEI showed interest in Endurance riding here in the mid-1980’s most of the veterinary control procedures we now take for granted in endurance racing where already in place; hammered out over the previous decades of very progressive experimentation and refinement. We had also allowed ourselves to start down a slippery slope of eroding the rigorous educational platform that had fostered our best endurance riders in favor of “entry level racing” approach.
FEI enters the scene
I was active in the organization of that first FEI world championship hosted by the Old Dominion Ride club. The first rule book the FEI had sent to us was one of the most nonsensible documents we had ever witnessed. It was far more voluminous than the national rules we had been building for over two decades, and nothing in it had anything to do with endurance riding as we knew it then or now. It wasn’t just a bad translation from another language. The document appeared to be compiled of cut and paste phrases from other FEI disciplines such as jumping and eventing. There was plenty of verbiage about things such as penalties for taking alternate routes around obstacles, class (star) levels that had no definition in endurance yet, and other completely pointless text. There was practically nothing in the entire overstuffed document that was relevant to the race we were about to host for them.
This was a harbinger of things to come. It demonstrated a hasty compulsion to appear authoritative by creating rules, with little concern for becoming familiar with the subject matter first. Other guidance from FEI specified extraordinary new levels of pomp and circumstance in the venue and presentations, with no suggestion about how this would be honorably funded.
“Authority is not a power, it is a responsibility.”
― Amit Kalantri
There were several observers from Europe present at that first FEI world championship. The rulebook was eventual improved to reflect endurance racing as we know it today. There were now definitions behind CEI classes. FEI had adopted the convention that 50 mile races would be the lowest level (CEI*) and that the progression would be a simple matter of distance through CEI*** at 100 miles.
It was understandable why they would see it this way, because that’s what was most observable at that moment in time, but I was concerned that they were in such a hurry to structure the sport on this basis. They really seemed in a hurry to get the discipline jammed into the same kind of boxes they had packaged their other disciplines in. Such things make bureaucrats look like their actually doing something. Still, it was innocuous for a time, because the CEI classes weren’t applied in other rules or qualifications yet. So, those of us that had big concerns about this muffled our voices, a lost opportunity.
When I first heard that some qualifying systems were being considered, myself and many others had been anticipating that we would eventually need some sort of governance structure to prevent riders from advancing beyond their level of skill and experience. It had been almost universally understood that prudence, sensitivity and care for the mount beneath them was the paramount responsibility of the endurance rider, and the key to any screening systems genuinely designed to protect the horse.
Traveling a hundred miles or more is not inherently damaging or dangerous for a horse. It may seem fantastic to human, but not for a horse. If we dropped you or I into the middle of the Atlantic with instructions to swim home that would be cruel and inhumane for us, but not for a Blue Whale. Horses are the whales of the landmasses. So ability to go a great distance is innate, and not really a safety issue for the horse. Any basically conditioned and sound horse can attempt this safely over and over again.
Racing any distance with a horse is quite another thing. Horses are epigenetically pre-wire to believe they can solve all their problems by moving forward. Their ancestors were competitive with each other, racing to the best morsels of food ahead of their herd, and yet desperate not to left behind. All of their wants and needs in the wild came to them by getting over the horizon. Thirsty? Hungry? Cold? It’s always better over the horizon. The life of their ancestors was one of moving forward or death. This is also why there are so few safety checks built into their psychology and physiology; why they can shunt the last bit of energy they have away from other vital systems to keep moving forward.
So we considered it part of the art of being a distance rider to become keenly aware of our mounts status and limitations, to consider the challenge of a complex course ahead, to optimize the horse’s resources and complete the objective with a safe reserve remaining. It was the sober responsibility of a competent endurance racer to demonstrate the horse’s ability, but never overestimate what the horse safely has to offer.
The FEI surprised many of us by first adopting a “pin it on the horse” qualification paradigm instead. Suddenly it was each horses’ responsibility to prove that that it could safely race 50 miles, then 75 miles, then 100 miles; as if it should know how to pace itself properly. Strict time limits were put into place to keep slow horses from embarrassing the events and finishing late in the evening in front of a crowd that might not understand how little consequence this was to a horse. Concern over the perception of viewers that hardly knew which end of the horse to feed had become more important than that of those with decades of experience with horses.
By the mid-1990’s there was also a completely different philosophy about the riders pacing responsibilities emanating from the Persian Gulf region. Riders established a pace that was based more on previous course records than any real-time judgment of the horse’s status. Commonly, a rider there will to simply go at pace with race-winning potential until the veterinary panel finds horse unfit to continue. ALL of the responsibility for protecting the horse shifted to the veterinary panel. If a rider hasn’t been mounted on a horse that can sustain the winning pace he can just quit and go home early. There is common argument that it’s kinder to the horse to retire early after running it at a pace it couldn’t sustain. This is simply a shrewd defense of “caution to the wind”, “all or nothing” pacing philosophies.
This “qualifying” system might have been inspired by grading systems of the “Sport of Kings”. It certainly had some of the same ill effects. This has been of less consequence to well-funded large stables already patterned after Thoroughbred racing. Elsewhere it has had a very different effect.
Around the world this qualification system has artificially inflated the number of FEI races offered as participants must now squeeze resources away from other investments in the development of their horses to patronize to FEI races for qualifiers. Through their entry fees they are forced to fund the overheads of the standard FEI organizational protocol, designed to create an image of better integrity. It’s all only wastefulness since no one will race all that ambitiously in the qualifying events anyway. FEI riders often just course around with mundane conservativism, pacing only to the qualifying rule, effectively throwing the race because no one wants to be required make another attempt at each level.
It’s not just a matter of wasting financial resources. The most precious and limited resource any trainer has to manage is the time and effort any individual horse has to offer toward training. Trainers that have the skill and opportunity to develop better training techniques, and to tailor training programs to the individual horse are now constrained from doing so. The horses development path is pre-ordained by the FEI. The qualification system is just micromanagement of training practices in order to mandate support of a burgeoning bureaucratic system. This has been an attempt to increase egg production by strangling chickens. All it’s really done is suffocated the advancement of the discipline.
“The only thing that saves us from the bureaucracy is its inefficiency.” Eugene McCarthy
The requirements for speed standards (COC) in qualifying have been an additional insult to this injury. This has made it practically impossible to organize FEI endurance races anywhere but in the flattest, fastest, least technical terrain possible. Could the authors believe the whole world was a flat, dry dessert lakebed? As long as trainers are required to make an arbitrarily specified COC speed to qualify the horse they always patronize only the least difficult, fastest courses offered to them. This rule turned FEI endurance into just another form of extended flat race overnight. FEI officials publically recognized that there is need to move toward slower more arduous and technical courses in the interest of equine welfare, but then stubbornly kept this rule that guarantees the opposite in place.
This qualification system and COC speed has another effect too, now all FEI horses must be trained and prepared specifically for flat, non-technical racing worldwide. A very convenient standardization of preparation for sales to race in the deserts of FEI Group 7 countries.
Sorry mountainous countries, you’re wise to just sit this one out. So much for international equality in the FEI.
There eventually were rider qualifying rules added as well, but these have always been expressed in basic quantitative steps up the same irrelevant ladder. Never is any standard of rider performance accountability, such as minimum completion rate, that would interfere with “caution to the wind pacing” allowed to come to reality. We have never been supplied a rider “qualification” that can’t be worked through by even the most hedonistically reckless riders if they have enough money to throw at repeated attempts. These aren’t qualifications at all, they’re quantifications.
The system works something like this:
If you enter in a CEI*, the shortest and thus inherently fastest paced of all endurance races and you survive you will be allowed to enter longer distanced CEI**, which will be a little slower paced and less demanding of equestrian skill. If you survive that CEI** you will be allowed to enter for the relatively laid back pace of a CEI ***.
The system is not just ineffective, it’s backwards in terms of equitation skill required.
If this CEI scale really makes sense, then we should be able to extend it a little further. We could be more conservative and require beginning endurance riders to start a little lower yet. Why let’s make the first qualification step the successful completion of a one-mile race! Wow! I never realized that those riders in the Kentucky Derby were such rank beginners!
There is only a 49 mile (78 km) difference between the Kentucky Derby and a CEI*, and 50 miles (80 km) between a CEI* and CEI***.
My point here is that the optimal horse training approach and riding tactics for each distance or time of test duration is unique unto itself. The skill set and training preparation required to excel at a CEI* isn’t “lower” than CEI** or CEI***, just different. Each distance is its own game. Racing any distance, going as fast as possible, is inherently an ultimate development level requirement. This is not a relevant or effective skill level (CEI) definition or qualification sequence.
“Bureaucracies force us to practice nonsense. And if you rehearse nonsense, you may one day find yourself the victim of it.”
The philosophy suggested by these CEI definitions and qualifications is having tragic consequences in regions attempting to start new FEI endurance programs. I once met an enthusiastic Chinese gentleman who described how he was part of a club that was trying to develop endurance racing in his region. He described how they had planned to be very careful, taking small steps at first, even more careful with their horses than the FEI required in qualification. Accordingly, they organized a 3 mile race, then an 8 mile race, then a 15 mile race. They were hoping to do a 25 mile race and then a 35 mile race someday. I ask how that was working out, he said “Not so good, all our horses are lame”. Then with tears in his eyes he showed me a picture of his precious mare, with a tendon bow you could see from a full body photo. Sadly, not long before I had heard an almost identical story from another Asian gentleman. These people were compassionate and intelligent, just naïve and easily misled by the implication that the FEI qualification system suggests a valid training protocol. It doesn’t. It only wastes resources and interferes with best practices.
It’s time to put a stake through the heart of this diabolical CEI definition. We don’t need to tweak it or just remove the ill-conceived COC standard. We need to remove the entire concept. Racing different distances is each a different game, worthy of its own development strategy, there is very little sequential relevance. Any sound horse is inherently qualified to attempt a great distance by heritage if it is paced sensibly. Racing a horse only proves that it WAS sound. Protection of the horse in racing primarily requires demonstration of consistent good judgment on the part of the rider.
Back in the USA
Meanwhile the AERC was making another miss-step itself. The financial success of sanctioning shorter 50 mile races was clear. So why not go further? The AERC started the Limited Distance program for races as short as 20 miles. Another huge financial windfall! This successfully attracted the last potential customers they could ever extract from the wounded CTR organizations. THIS WAS LIKE A PARTY SCHOOL HAD JUST OPENNED UP NEXT DOOR TO OXFORD! The students couldn’t rush across the street any faster! No picking on novice riders with their horses bouncing around in panic here! Just get on and giggle. Go as fast as your undisciplined horse chooses for itself and as long as it passes the vet check YOU’RE A WINNER! To Finish Is To Win!
Now “winning” endurance tests in the AERC includes riding a horse no further than many Nevada mustangs travel every single day of the year looking for food and water. This was grade inflation on steroids.
AERC corporate bylaws acknowledge an academic responsibility. The ongoing practice of winning students over by offering them the curriculum and test they think is more fun isn’t academically responsible. It’s academic piracy. We were looting our own educational institutions to provide more race opportunities.
We were also beginning to rely heavily on some insidiously dangerous phrases as well.
The AERC mantra “To Finish is To Win” became an increasing popular rally call as the endurance communities of the FEI and AERC became more polarized. This started as harmless kudo to support riders who persevered to maintain an honorable completion rate. It has now been applied well beyond its original intent and used as philosophic battle cry. It’s a sign that something is terribly wrong when the best phrase we can rally behind is an oxymoron.
“To Finish Is To Win” is an expression of “EVERYBODY GETS A GOLD STAR” philosophy, a proven destructor of academic motivation. Every time someone says this it ultimately proclaims that they aren’t fully supporting the pursuit of excellence in learning.
Also among the destructive chants that have become common in the AERC is during this time of increasing polarization is “It’s a ride not a race”. I’m the biggest proponent of more rides, less races. However, there is a huge problem with promoting the idea that we should enter races knowing that we don’t intend to give the test a genuine, well prepared effort to present the horse’s best. If we aren’t prepared to race, then we shouldn’t be entering in races. Any event which ranks is competitors on their completion time is a race. The AERC only sanctions RACES. Let’s stop playing silly rhetorical arguments in defiance of Webster’s dictionary.
FEI riders of horses in the early stages of the prescribed qualifying protocol are require to throw races to meet speed limit rules. In most other sports participants get banned for displaying such a breach of integrity; the FEI requires it. This is only conditioning participants to tolerate breaches of integrity. A rule that requires us to enter a race but then demands that we ride to a speed limit is an oxymoron. Again, oxymoron is indication that we must be fundamental going about things the wrong way.
The tragedy here is that every time we enter an event as a race competitor and don’t give it our best effort, we are deliberately degrading the quality of our disciplines statistics. Those performance records are the cornerstone of this disciplines potential to benefit the health and welfare of the equines into the future. Our records are a gift into infinite time affecting all horses to come. Even the smallest positive impact on our judgment toward healthy genealogy can have more effect on the collective happiness of equines than anything that is happening only today.
The AERC has developed a fantastic online record keeping system for the races it sanctions. It’s a pity that after years of promoting the “It’s a ride not a race” philosophy its data base has been stuffed full of race records that have compromised genealogical or academic value. Did that horse really outperform 50 horses that day? Or was there really only 1 other horse honestly challenging? There is no way to sort out how many people were actually racing, and how many entered for just a training exercise or a recreational trail ride.
We need LESS endurance RACES and MORE fixed pace RIDE opportunities so participants are not forced into this ethical conflict.
Our horses’ blood, sweat and years go into the creation of these records. If we value and maintain the integrity of endurance test results they are resource that can make the contributions of past horses a precious gift to the future of their species. When we enter competitions without giving them our best effort, we desecrate this vital legacy of our horses.
When we forfeit opportunities to support a vigorous academic pursuit of excellence in horsemanship, horses now and in the future suffer. When we compromise vital performance statistics, the next generation of horses, and all the generations of horses after them suffer.
Selfish hedonism lurks in many forms.
Our Issues are More Alike Than We Realize
One quantitative statistic that the AERC has been most obsessed with trumpeting is completion mileage. It’s no small coincidence that this statistic closely correlates with the way the AERC derives some of its cash flow. Completion mileage has been heavily promoted as a harmless and safe goal, but there are serious animal welfare issues with obsession for any objective that is so narrow in its scope and so quantitatively determined. We are only fortunate that no one with extensive financial resources has taken this goal too seriously lately. We saw a glimpse of this a couple decades ago and it made a lot of endurance riders repulsed enough to lose interest in these goals.
Then in 2007-2008 when the price of diesel fuel doubled suddenly, the number of miles required to receive the typical mileage pinned annual award of the AERC dropped very nearly in half. Such a clear correlation is strong statistical evidence that the ability to finance fuel intensive trips was a larger factor in achieving awards than anything else, including horsemanship. Quantitative awards promote only “Trailer Races” and the overuse of horses.
It’s useful to record quantitative records like lifetime mileage, but to obsess in promoting such very narrow of aspects performance is unhealthy. Evidence of this obsession is the excessive proportion of AERC annual awards that are pinned to mileage. The AERC should retire some of these awards and bring other more qualitative statistics forward to balance and diversify their award portfolio.
For examples: What horse/rider/trainer entering at least 3 events had the highest ratio of First to Finish /Best Conditioned/High Vet Score points per mile attempted? This is nine more qualitative question combinations. Each recognizes pursuit of excellence in way that can’t be overwhelmed simply by being reckless, or affording more rolls of the dice. It’s that easy.
The underlying issue with the AERC’s mileage obsession is same one that is causing so much concern with fast paced races in FEI Group 7. I keep hearing that “speed” is problem there, that we need to control speed. Speed in not the issue, but it is an indicator of an issue. I can fix a glaring indicator light on the dashboard of my car with a piece of electrical tape as cover, but that doesn’t solve the underlying issue.
The underlying issue is the lack of natural diversity in the tests, and the inherent quantitative behavior of durability tests with an unnaturally narrow focus.
In any scientific form of endurance testing we are inherently seeking the limits of durability. By making the test very naturally diverse, by including many elements of challenge at one time in the course of the test, we get a more comprehensive examination of subject, and the test represents more of a qualitative assay. Tests of this nature can discriminate levels of quality between subjects without the need to exhaust any one part. In the ideal endurance race course the horses complete the test a little tired in every fiber of their body, without any single component being pressed to failure. We cut the wheat from the chaff without destroying either.
The more monotonous we design the course, the more coldly quantitative the test becomes. The strain of the test is focused on just a few components. We will need to push those components to very near or even beyond breaking point to discriminate one test sample from another. The endurance testing process rapidly approaches a consumptive exercise where the “winner” is the last one left intact.
As endurance racing has developed in the Emirates the courses have been made more and more unnaturally “perfect” with grading and other race track style “improvements”. To narrow the scope of the test even further the horses run under a continuous supply of cold water. This completely removes natural heat stress from the equation as well. The artificially cooled horse can then direct its full vascular supply, more than is natural, to production of energy through the legs.
Each gait and pace of a horse has its own unique set of stress risers; points where stress becomes focused in the horses’ body. This is not a problem when the horse is working though changing terrain because these stress risers are shifting accordingly. When the horses run the same monotonous gait and pace from start to finish, and we press for distinction among nearly equally matched horses, high attrition rates are the inevitable result.
I’m aware that a many of the actors in the Emirates have great regard for equine genealogy. What is being created in Emirates racing is only another dramatic distortion from heritage of the Arabian horse. This is an extreme pressure development into yet another new “Sport of Kings” product; a longer range version of Thoroughbred, complete with its own set of frailties and dependencies on unnatural support. It’s only a matter of more generations on this trajectory to create horses that can no longer produce their own hormones, or sweat to cool themselves.
The great Arabian horses of antiquity were not born of racing on perfectly groomed track under a bath of cool water. Already we can see that horses that excel in those conditions are less like the classic Arabian, more like other flat-track race horses. Breeders pursuing this market have been shifting their programs post haste for years now.
A Rebirth Begins
It’s fitting that Sh. Sultan, a supporter of regional heritage preservation, would come forward with the initiatives at Bouthib. The global endurance community now needs to embrace this example and act. We shouldn’t need to wait for the FEI come up with its next wave of great bureaucratic contrivances to constrain us. As always, it is seeking counsel only from those that have investment and interests tied to its current institutions and policies. This is no way to achieve truly “sweeping changes” as it has been professing to the public for years now.
We don’t need to accept that the only form of endurance testing we are allowed to share on this earth is one layered under divisions of mock political warfare. The discipline has no need for that burden. Our horses have carried that burden for us in real warfare enough. The relationship between man and horse has been around for over six thousand years and has transcended our fleeting political borders time and time again.
We have enough lessons learned from the past to see what is ahead and what must be done. Here in North America the discipline of endurance testing has been stymied by super polarization. The AERC and the FEI represent two divergent and self-conflicting paradigms, while philosophy that genuinely makes the welfare of the horse paramount has been abandoned in the middle. Each organization was drawn into a narrowing dead-end road chasing short-sighted sources of revenue. Each is now deeply mired in dependency on that revenue. Each facing severe austerity as it tries to pull out of its self-excavated pit, and slow death if it fails to try.
Horsemen developing endurance testing programs in other regions can observe the mess the AERC and the FEI have made for themselves and beware. Many regions of the world have done better; sustaining more academically sound, welfare compatible programs all along. There is still a lot to be done to coordinate this into a new global unity.
Already our classic endurance test in North America are seeing a resurgence in popularity. CTRs are slowly beginning to make a region by region comeback as well. It’s time to seize this momentum and run with it.
Regional identity is more significant than political borders in the construct of endurance racing that genuinely makes equine welfare paramount. Every region of the world has their own indigenous equestrian heritage intertwined with the culture and geography of the land. This source of diversity can be integrated and celebrated in endurance testing instead of being forced to uniformity for sake of a “one world champion”, which is of limited value to the horse. Embracing regional heritage is complementary with the maintenance of healthful genealogy. Regional governances only need enough coordination by a global entity to support each other’s efforts toward a common theme of preserving the sound and healthy horse, in all its variations.
Eventually this will grow into a healthy exchange of cross-regional testing, and comparing champions of one region to another. This will be a healthy evolution of a discipline that has grown organically from its roots. The rush to create a “one world champion” ahead of having well developed regional programs around the world is only a shortsighted promotional ploy, more politics than horsemanship. It is an illusion of little value to the equine species.
Once traveling a distance is mastered in programs of deliberate academic rigor and focus, learning to race that distance effectively is a rather easy final step. Learning on this pathway teaches important skills and habit that are never learned in the course of racing only.
Building Wise Endurance Testing Programs
The fastest way to herd cattle is slowly.
By taking the time to develop methodically in a “Master the Distance First” paradigm both horses and riders develop more thoroughly. Racing is always the final step in the program. Cutting corners and taking a more direct route into racing only wastes time and destroys the chance for real mastery altogether.
Value the complementary role trials with a specified completion time, such as CTRs, can play in program that ultimately supports endurance racing in its most honorable form. This is the root that bears the most fruit. Understand the unique role each distance testing form has to contribute to create a comprehensive program.
CTRs will always be the optimum environment for nurturing development of horses and riders. The basic formats can be adapted in a wide variety of ways to support regional needs. A little diversity and thoughtful experimentation in this area worldwide is a healthy thing. It can include varying degrees of academic rigor and controlled focus on particular abilities as desired.
CTRs are the more effective format for grading levels of competence, for determining whether or not a subject is suitable for advancement to a longer CTR test, or on to racing at a distance that has been mastered in CTR. This applies to horse or rider the same.
CTRs are not very effective at discriminating between the abilities of elite individuals, particularly in trials of less than 100 miles (160 K). A standardized course difficulty and pace that is appropriate for the development of the majority of the test group is often insufficient to discriminate elite talents.
It’s therefore wise to avoid overstating the resolution of the CTR trials. In the past we made the error of inciting expectations that all participants can be ranked in precise order in shorter distance CTRs. This only leads to discontent when judges are forced to score on trivialities in order to break ties. Participants here should not be led to expect more than academic grading. A simple “A”, “B”, “C”, ”D”, ”E” referenced to standard grading distributions of results is ideal. CTRs are valuable enough in a complete distance testing program without expecting them to split competitive hairs. They are the place of education, grading and qualification in endurance testing.
Endurance races complete the spectrum of a distance testing program. They have the potential to objectively discriminate between elite individuals even at moderate distances of 75-100 miles (120-160 K) (a truly a modest distance for equines). There is legitimate use for races in a distance testing program that dares attempt to be all that it can be for the welfare of the horse. For the horses’ sake, we need to see the very best practices and the most elite athletes compared…. Occasionally.
The most effective endurance testing programs for the welfare of the horse will have significantly more CTR type event opportunities in a region than endurance races. A ratio of 6 to 10 CTRs for every endurance race might be a healthy balance. Endurance races work best when they are reserved for just the annual or biannual pinnacle of a region, and treated with the unique reverence and honor having that type of event available not too often affords.
Programs that rush to fill a calendar with a race spectacle every week or a “one world champion” in just a few years of development have been the bane of this discipline. Perhaps someday those things can come, but we have a lot of more careful grassroots foundation building to do first. When we rush to force the image of Endurance testing to emulate that of other international sports we will only find ourselves selling our souls to the devil in order to chase an illusion. Endurance Testing is very different from other disciplines, and it needs to grow in global prominence in its own way.
A regional distance testing program that supports rich balance of CTR opportunities to endurance races can benefit the entire equine community; providing essential genealogical testing support to all types of horse. This was much more apparent in those decades of endurance testing in North America when CTRs were still a strong foundational platform. People brought horses of all types to be tested. For these horse enthusiasts it isn’t about winning a race against Arabian types, on course that favors those aerobic specialists. They came to give the test their earnest best just the same whether they were racing or doing a CTR because it was important to prove that their horse was among the best of its type.
They might be fond of supporting a particular breed or type of horse, bred for a particular ability; such as a Tennessee Walker known for its smooth riding gait, or a Morgan valued for equal ability under saddle or in light harness utility. They recognized that even if those traits were a hallmark of the breed, obsession with a few features would not lead to a healthy breeding program. Maintaining the ability to cover a long distance is universally fundamental and vital to the welfare of horses of all types. Special merit and distinction toward breeding went to horse that excelled at endurance tests AND tests of the breeds unique functionalities.
Often their respective breed associations made recognitions for the best of their type at CTRs and endurance rides. They saw that certification of their specific type at endurance tests was a healthy complement to their efforts to keep the breed everything it was originally meant to represent.
A wisely constructed endurance testing program therefore has a place for both the endemic favorite types of a region, as well as the Arabian typed aerobic specialist we see dominate endurance racing today. A thoughtfully codified global endurance testing system can provide genealogic health benefits to all horses, from the Creollo of South America to the Mongul ponies of Asia. The endurance testing community can be much richer by the diversity, and the entire world of horses can be happier for it, now and for centuries to come.
Endurance testing is much more than a sport. It is an educating discipline. It is an evolving experiment in the sustainable welfare of our domestic animals. The knowledge we gain here, of wisdom and insight in genetic guidance may benefit our own species as much as theirs someday. Mankind has been carried by the horse for thousands of years, and their greatest gift to us may be yet to come.
Continue to Roadmap to the Future: Part 1