We can throw stones, complain about them, stumble on them, climb over them, or build with them.—William Arthur Ward
By John Crandell
We’re high in the middle of yet another attention-grabbing season of endurance racing in U.A.E, and once again inflamed rhetoric is singeing the digital highways. I’d like to offer some perspective that might help keep these exchanges as genuinely constructive as possible, and in doing so will point out some specific reasons why some addresses have been counterproductive to the best interest of equestrian sports, and the respect our horses deserve.
Many stones are being cast from afar with little awareness of their actual effect at the point of impact, or the full perception of the recipients. There is an old Arabian proverb that translates something like: “I against my brother, my brother and I against my cousins, my cousins and I against the world”. In this is a reminder of the necessity of respecting social proximities when attempting to settle disputes and share challenging ideas. There are always a few in every large group of people that will have an open mind to our own perspectives. Those people are always the essential element of any lasting change. Change brought by force from the outside is never heartfully and durably absorbed. It’s nearly impossible to have an effective diplomatic discussion with someone while your associates are glaring through a pipe, overlooking their own vices, and throwing stones at his brother every time something offends them.
Those of us in the United States of America have the most to lose by continuing to act in this narrow field of vision. Our minds been bombarded with a century of hyper-anthropomorphism, amplified and fed back to us by a commercial entertainment media all too willing to capitalize on the allure of animations and illusions of animals that have exactly the perceptions and values humans have. Our own naivety and arrogance is fed back to us in volume, and our animals suffer for it as we cloud our ability to objectively learn their perceptions, their ethos, their needs for happiness. Stan Eichelberger DVM, once pointed out to me in the lobbies of an American Endurance Ride Conference convention that “Walt Disney has been the cruelest thing that ever happened to animals.”
My neighbor here in Florida has kept a horse he loved as “his son” for over 35 years. For most of the last 15 years the horse has been foundered in all four feet with extraordinary severity, to the point of gradual extreme degradation of the bones of his feet. His feet don’t need to carry as much as most horses though, because in the same extended time the horse lost most of his teeth and can only eat small quantities of wet slop, bringing him to a state of extreme emaciation. Don’t say “should have called the authorities”, that was done. Without the resolve and enlightened consensus of the public, government authorities will do nothing. Here in the U.S.A., an individual’s caring intent and the distorted perception of the collective always trumps the realities of suffering. Most sadly, this sort of tragedy repeats itself all over the United States of America in varying degrees, by the tens of thousands. It fills our pastures and stables with chronically depressed animals, who’s potential for happiness is ever declining, and taking with it the net balance of happiness vs. suffering in their overall lifetimes, and impacting the same balance in the population as a whole. Horses in any natural environment, particularly a wild ecosystem complete with predators, would never have to endure the excruciatingly protracted end of life we put them through in the process of shielding our own selfish emotions just a day longer.
In the United States of America, our feral horse populations are now doomed for an even larger tragedy. Living semi-wild but without significant natural predation, the populations expand at a rate that doubles every four years. Even if the competition from the more regulatable cattle grazing were completely removed from the open ranges, the population would then just expand until it over-whelmed the range, crowded its borders into farmlands, and was ultimately check by only starvation and plague. This only after displacing other native species in a discrete but suffering battle for place to exist. By the fundamentally and knowingly unsustainable management plan currently in operation there are now over 45,000 horses in government concentration camps, and the number grows by almost 10,000 per year.
Organizations like the American Endurance Ride Conference exchange sponsorships and alliances with the Bureau of Land Management in programs of mutual support. Thus, the focus groups that should be at the vanguard of objective, critical analysis and public education have been also drawn into the feedback loop of propagating support for one unsustainable plan after another. If our equestrian organizations cannot lead the public in reasoning and education toward a genuinely sustainable plan, one that achieves long term minimization of suffering, our feral horses are trapped into ongoing cycles of repeating mass tragedy. We need equestrian organizations to post a detailed statement of plans they would support, with well defined, logical, and practical projections of how their proposals can be implemented expediently to end this burgeoning crisis. We need brave public positions from equestrian organizations toward lasting sustainability.
At the same time, our misguided or directionless breeding selection processes have domestically bred horses spiraling into the same types of perverse genetic dysfunction and disarray as other pets of privileged societies. Ultimately this is the most insidious and exponential issue, and thus the most looming of all aspects of equine suffering.
There is no cruelty more profuse, no torture more insidious, than that born of naive empathy.
To those looking back on us in U.S.A., this epidemic duplicity that emanates from here and effects the world is plainly evident, yet they have not returned as many stones. Hypocrisy only undermines the credibility of any logic in the rhetorical exchanges needed to make progress. Excuses and criticisms always look smaller from a distance looking either direction, while effective progress here or there eventually propagates. If we really care to create change toward good, there are plenty of places within our own reach to resolve hypocrisies, however real or simply apparent. We should at least endeavor to allocate objectively proportional attentions.
Elsewhere in the world, there has been a much better cultural retention of awareness that some degree of testing, some maintenance of performance pressure, and thus unavoidably a small measure of suffering, is an integral part of healthfully sustaining any developed life form in its place. Without accepting this essential relationship, we begin a long-suffering path toward de-differentiation, the devils of entropy take hold. Minimal suffering is not found by pretending that we can avoid the existence of death and suffering, but by wisely being efficient in gathering the most useful information possible from every ordeal of life. In this case, that efficiency is achieved by the precision of standards in measurement and recording (including rule enforcement), and useful accuracy is achieved by the relevance of those constructs to natural heritage. We all will find ourselves on one side or the other of optimum from time to time.
In the background of all the tragic incidences being broadcast out of the U.A.E are many stables that are making of fine art and science out of the health and happiness of equines. After all, unhappy creatures cannot flourish, and thus do not perform well in any test. Many of the stables in the United States could benefit immensely by sharing a little of the technical knowledge and general ethos of day to day horse husbandry there.
Of course, there is obviously also a miss-alignment of performance incentives that has many attempting to short-cut nature to ill effect. There is way too much relative value placed on the chances within a single test event. This is imbedded in the FEI concepts, and inflamed by the specific nature of the purse distributions. If there was as much to be gained by successfully completing the same horse and rider through an extended series of tests, or of the healthy completion rate of a trainers stable, that’s what would happen more. This issue is not lost on that community, and there are already many wise thinkers there building a new consensus in the population. These things always take time, we have no better example of the time is takes to enlighten cultural perceptions than right in our own homeland.
Our failure to focus our energy on related elements of the issues in our own more effective proximity leads to frustration. Our rhetoric then repeats the same ineffective statements that have been written many times before. This achieves little more than to illuminate the lack of effective authority in the authors and the entities they address. The opponents of change only get a sharper understanding of just how weak those channels of action really are. It is counter-productive to the welfare results we seek to spend our time and attention barking at the same empty tree.
We need little more than the facts of the last many years to realize the FEI has very little independent power or creative insight to bring about change. It logically must have a lot of deeply embedded encumbrances on its ability to act effectively, or we would have seen much more result by now.
The nature of the developing awareness in animal welfare is a general issue that will increasing challenge FEI’s traditional approach to horse sports in the years ahead. Our activities with horses will come under ever increasing scrutiny toward welfare, not just of the immediate animals engaged, but of its ability to sustain welfare for the species by enhancing our understanding of healthy genetic management.
All that is happening in endurance is just the vanguard of a profound change in horse sports that will eventual force the FEI to completely change is traditional concepts if it is to survive. Eventually the rules of its tests, as well as the interrelationship of different disciplines, will need to adapt significantly. If the FEI is not able to begin immediate and comprehensive evolution of even its most traditional constructs it will soon be too little too late, and its death by a thousand cuts will not be contained to just endurance. If horse sports are not supportive of our very best practices in genetic health, then they will become recognized as against the welfare of the species. Of course, supporting the genetic health of equines will be essential to the long-term interest of FEI anyway, but it will have huge short and medium term economic dependency conflicts with its current business model to overcome. There is little sign of significant action on this awareness in place now.
Within endurance racing, the CEI definitions, qualification system, and rules FEI once created specifically to steer international racing away from the naturally grounded challenges of the previous half century, and into the simple speed fest it has become, have been little changed. Instead of acknowledging that fundamental constructs of FEI system create inherent incentive in the wrong direction, the FEI continues to attempt to solve its issues with more layers of micro-management of training practices. FEI has never been able to competently enforce the rules it has made in the past, adding more will not improve this. Going further in this manner is only going to result in an impossible unwieldy system long before we achieve the results we seek. No wait, it IS impossibly unwieldy, and thus insidiously supportive of corruption already, that’s the problem. The foundational constructs of FEI endurance are a design of an era of compromised wisdom.
To make matters worse for FEI’s ability to genuinely demonstrate integrity and unbiased logic in its guidance, the FEI is now a Swiss based entity, as is its most notable corporate sponsors. The Swiss banking law keeps this business environment listed at the top of Tax Justice Network Secrecy Index. The few mechanisms to break through vails of accounting are particularly weak without the tax centric agreements between nations of the recent decade being applicable. Swiss based corporations are afforded the fullest measure of this protection of secrecy. Thus, funds flowing through and between entities in this environment can enjoy considerable protection from disclosure of their true intent and influence. This environment of discretion is a double-edged sword; there may be limited ability to discover and prove unethical intent of transactions, but there is also no ability to unequivocally prove that there was no unethical intent anywhere in a twisted and layered financial chain. No matter how much money FEI spends to project an aura of integrity, without verifiable transparency through every tentacle of its financial underpinnings there is none to be trusted.
The FEI’s purported largest source for finance, the Olympics, doesn’t support long range, fundamental aspects of equine welfare either. Most of our equestrian disciplines were born of the noble desire to make a meaningful examination of what was originally understood to be just one facet of the horse and horsemanship spectrum. In chasing Olympic style attention, there has been a powerful and short-sighted financial pressure to make each discipline more distinct, and more sensationally entertaining, to a general audience with ever decreasing background in the intricacies and connected nuances of animal nature. This has resulted in the severe degradation in the effectiveness of equine sports in supporting the long-term health and welfare of equines. Each discipline develops in isolation, with minimal interchange of insight and grounding to natural application. Each discipline operates in its own financial and genetic bubble, breeding in an ever more intense obsession toward the functionalities of only one artificially narrow test, forsaking all natural breadth and balance.
The FEI has a lot of heavy battles ahead. Cleaning up endurance is just the initial fight, and we have watched FEI pinned down in the sands of that beach-head for more than a decade now. Even if there were to be a successful release from the tangles and compromises that tilted the game table awry years ago, even if there are ethical persons in charge at this moment, the most fundamental factors that allowed this debacle to develop are still there. Not only do we have little of a long-range plan for change, we don’t even see much recognition of a need for a long range plan for such comprehensive change.
We desperately need global coordination, and I still genuinely believe it would be much more efficient to adapt organizations that currently exist rather than start anew. The concern here is that the most influential existing organizations are now cocooned Mammoths, insular and too big to move quickly. Those that don’t wake a to a full realization of the scope of change required of them will be too late very soon, perhaps within the next year. It just may be too late for some already.
What can we do then?
There is much those feeling detached and frustrated can do with that energy to lay new foundation for a better system. As I have written before, the more academically rigorous distance riding formats, those that provided the fertile soil of endurance racings emergence as an acceptable equestrian discipline, were in a state of neglect and decline by the time FEI came on the scene. They had been supplanted by a populist movement toward a more sensational “all racing” development pathway in endurance testing. Thus, in the era FEI was exposed to as it began developing concepts for its CEI systems, the very best formats for developing skills and appreciation for more naturally diverse overland courses had all but disappeared. They were practically out of limelight and seemingly irrelevant to endurance racing to all but the most tenured endurance enthusiasts at that time.
This is just the kind of philosophy that is being reborn at Boudhieb today. We shouldn’t be just sitting by watching from a distance as the evolution of global endurance standards goes on without us. If we care so much about what is going on in U.A.E., we should be doing our part to create more robust and academically rigorous programs in our own governing bodies, or entirely new organizations if need be. We cannot be so arrogant as to think we are faultless, beyond improvement. If we do not actively engage in development of new ideas, toward more academically effective systems that are the foundation of any pinnacle, we will have no one else to blame when the new ideas that emerge had little of our own regions individual perspective.
What’s happening at Boudhieb is commendable, but we need to realize that their perspective, and the solutions that develop there will understandably be constrained by the specific local conditions. Boudhieb is in an area geographically like the other currently active courses in the United Arab Emirates. There are only two subtle variations of natural terrain and footing available; packable, mineralized dry lakebed sand; and deep, loose dune sand. The attempt so far to re-engage even the modest natural range of footings they have available is already challenging the trainers and riders ability to adapt. It takes time to re-acquire lost skills, and then some time to re-develop the equine athletes accordingly. We should be prepared to accept ongoing imperfections in any results there at Boudhieb as necessary measures of progress.
Eventually, as the concept emerging at Boudhieb continues to develop, the need for integration of additional natural elements will become more evident. This may be addressed by design and construction of artificial simulations of other terrains, or by expanding the areas in which tests are located. The United Arab Emirates region has much more natural diversity of terrain than is available near any of the currently active venues. There is potential there to develop courses that reflect much more of the full athletic heritage of equines. Boudhieb is making progress that direction as fast as the human elements can safely adapt.
For the rest of us, let’s not just wait for FEI to send down directives and plans for change from its temple. By the time that happens in truly adequate measure it may be way too late for many reasons. We must not wait for FEI to wake up from its nostalgic slumber. We must not remain shackled by FEI’s insistence on clinging to its ill-conceived institutions, with no offering of a plan for replacement or vision of where equine sports in general will evolve. Be a part of the great experiment. Try new concepts, and resurrect the best of the old. Follow the Boudhieb example, start with your own backyard, but communicate your successes and failures far and wide. For the sustainable welfare of our horses, and wisdom of mankind, be a part of a new global endurance testing standard!