Many of the worlds equestrian enthusiasts are heartened by the FEI’s recent withdrawal of its 2016 World Endurance Championship (WEC) from Dubai. Before we emotionally declare a victory and hurry to re-organize a WEC in another location, some objective consideration of the current state of international endurance racing is in order. There is a lot to be gained or lost for the discipline hinged on just how we proceed.
This is a moment of great opportunity. It’s a chance to do much more than simply put the discipline back on the same tracks from which it has been derailed. We have a delicate moment here to create a fundamental shift in the guidance of international endurance racing. If we act with wise conviction now, we can ensure that the dysfunctions of the recent past cannot return, and secure an enduring future for the discipline.
It’s all too convenient to assign all the depravity of international endurance racing on a single region; to vilify a governance official or two; or a few powerful actors. In doing so we errantly assume that these persons are so uniquely evil that putting them out of play somehow solves all our problems. The reality is these people are not so far from ourselves. There will always be another just like them emerging somewhere on this earth if we cannot identify such issues as a frailty of our human nature, and find the courage to take very fundamental measures to better manage our compulsions in that regard.
Consider what can really be achieved as a valid world championship if we frantically reorganized a conventional WEC within this same year. Consider the security risks, the integrity challenges, and logistic inefficiencies of a hastily assembled international equestrian championship. This can easily become little more than another kind of self-inflicted bruising for endurance racing.
Also consider the missed opportunity to institute any fundamental changes in the sports systems if we distract ourselves and exhaust resources in the production of a complete WEC as we have known. So much of our inability to thoughtfully consider significant new concepts has stemmed from the self-perpetuating nature of the qualifying processes of each championship cycle. As long as we are locked into the overlapping championship development cycles, the participants and prime decision makers in international endurance racing will be inherently biased against any significant changes in the process. There’s just too much financial and emotional investment for everyone involved. It doesn’t matter how dysfunctional the system might be, too many otherwise intelligent and conscientious people will be blind to every elephant in the conference room.
The greatest promise for significant and intelligent change in international endurance racing awaits an interruption of the conventional WEC cycles. I’m not suggesting that there are no alternatives possible. In fact, quite the opposite.
We are in a position were the prospect for a fully valid 2016 WEC as we all would like to imagine is a forgone conclusion. This is an opportunity, more than a loss. This is a chance to explore a new approach to high profile international endurance racing events. A profound and eloquent solution has been right under our noses, present but underappreciated in international endurance racing all along. We will never have a better opportunity to bring this alternative to the front and center of international endurance racing. We need a TEAM ONLY INTERNATIONAL ENDURANCE EVENT in 2016!
The first WEC in 1988 introduced to the world a new fold in endurance racing in the form of team endurance riding. Those not familiar with nuances of philosophy and strategy in endurance racing might not realize the potential the team concept has to precisely manipulate the character of endurance competitions. This may be the most constructive feature to be introduced to the distance riding discipline through the FEI, and yet it has been largely overshadowed and underutilized. There is fantastic potential here to create international endurance racing the entire world can respect if we bring this more to front and center of major international competitions.
By thoughtfully selecting ratio of team size and the number of allowed “drop” scores, we have the ability to specify a “target completion rate”, and thus directly influence the pacing judgment for an endurance race. This is an eloquent technique for selecting an appropriate balance of competitive daring and sensitivity toward the welfare of the animal. It gives us the ability to selectively reward competitors with accurate and conservative judgment.
Every competent endurance trainer and rider develops a keen sense of the relationship between pace and risk that the horse might fall below accepted “fit to continue” health criterion. It’s vitally important to the welfare of the horse that riders develop and exercise this skill. Even the most effective veterinary control system imaginable cannot fully protect the horses without this sharing of responsibility.
In many regions of the world, 160 km endurance tests have a completion rate between 50% to 70%. Of the those that do not complete the distance, consider 1/3 (10-17% of starters) might be attributed to unavoidable consequences of attempting to negotiate such an extensive test over natural terrain, and roughly 2/3 (20-34% of starters) might have completed with better preparation or more conservative pacing.
Events with this kind of completion profile are effective competitions. They yield beneficial critique about the genetic vitality of the horses and the effectiveness of our horsemanship skills with very low incidence of ill consequence to the horses. A large proportion of horses regularly competing in events with this type of completion profile live out exceptionally fit and healthy lifespans.
An endurance team competition with four team members and one “drop” score (3 best of 4 scores considered) is very effectively specifying that riders will pace consistent with a 75% or higher completion rate. This is moderately more conservative than the profile I described above.
A competition for teams of five with two drop scores specifies a completion rate target of 60% or greater. This is in the center of the completion profile illustrated above, and consistent with a pacing profile familiar to the most riders worldwide.
Any team size to drop score ratio in the 50-70% range suggested above results in pacing strategies that are consistent with 160 km events that yield results useful toward the health and welfare of equines at appropriate risk. We then have the most valid sporting contest, quality information to support the health and welfare of equines, and a naturally low incidence of suffering on the part of our equine partners.
Events with lower completion ratio targets will often have compromised results value due the random consequences of reckless “all or nothing” philosophy, as well as high risk of pointless suffering on the part of the equines.
Conversely, too high a completion ratio target, such as requiring 100% team completion to be scored is unrealistic. Even the most skilled and cautious rider cannot guide a horse through true and natural endurance tests with 100% completion certainty. The test result is again predominately random. This will compromise the validity of sporting event, as well as the scientific value of the results by not accommodating the inherent incidence of non-completion in such long range tests. The risk to the equines may be low, but so is the value of the information we seek on their behalf. No one benefits, not even the horses, when entire teams are thrown out every time one horse randomly steps on a sharp stone and gets a temporary lameness.
The appropriate application of team competition is the most effective tool we have for generating the level of sporting sensation the FEI business model requires while suitably protecting the welfare of the horses. It’s time to stop dismissing the thought of major championships with no individual competition and find a way to genuinely make the “welfare of the horse paramount” with exclusively team focused major competitions.
There’s no longer an point in being concerned about short term economic income differences when the discipline has been hemorrhaging financially for not taking such action sooner. Where there is a will there is a way. International endurance riding will continue it’s “death by a thousand cuts” until we find such resolve and leadership from the FEI. Only events with secure protection of the horse are economically sustainable in any future.
An exclusively team endurance competition may not be everything everybody wishes for in an championship level event this year, but it may the most logical thing we can attempt to do at this time. It affords us a level of control over the events risk to the welfare of horses that we absolutely need to demonstrate at this time.
A team event can be so inherently conservative in its performance specifications that there might even be little concern if this kind of event were hosted in FEI region VII (other than Dubai). This may offer the best path to keep this region appropriately engaged and included in the international endurance community.
When fully applied, this approach can be so effective at protecting the welfare of the horses that it will allow us the latitude and confidence to relax and adjust the qualification criterion and CEI definitions. These burgeoned, and over applied measures are now creating more damage to the discipline and the welfare of our horses than they help. At this time, many conscious people in international endurance racing are deeply dissatisfied with the effectiveness of the current CEI definition/qualification system and yet are fearful to suggest anything else in the current environment.
Bringing team competition to the front and center of international championships is a idea who’s time has come. It doesn’t really matter so much if the FEI chooses to call such and event a WEC or something else, such as a “test event”, at this time. A rose by any name smells as sweet. We cannot afford to miss this rare opportunity to break free of the dysfunctional patterns and philosophies that have crippled international endurance racing. It’s time for some more creative and bold leadership.