For decades of endurance racing, and even centuries of endurance testing by military programs and industrial interests, mankind has been examining equines unique ability to traverse distances across terrain and climate as diverse as the earth that first bore the species. In examining the horses on tests that adequately represent the full spectrum of natural challenges that formed them, we gain the most accurate insight to influence the overall health and integrity of the gene pool. The smallest errors in our concepts in this regard will have greater and more lasting impact on the welfare of the horse than anything happening in this moment in time. Examining equines in tests based on the physical abilities that afforded their species its original niche for survival is more then just humane, it is an essential element for the sustainability of a healthy gene pool as we have known.
Testing that effectively mimics this broad spectrum of natural challenges that were integral to the development of the equine species is not only humane treatment, it is an opportunity for us to develop and refine our very concepts of humane treatment for the equine species. What performs successfully in truly natural functional tests defines humane treatment of equines.
Endurance testing has the potential to afford us vital opportunity to enhance the overall level of happiness and quality of life for equines now and into the future, or it can lead us to the cruelest of unsustainable dead ends, all dependent on the wisdom of our governance of the discipline.
In endurance racing prior to FEI’s adoption of the sport, and continuing today in events outside of FEI rule, endurance riders have been proud to bear the primary responsibility of rating their willing horses according to the course ahead, and all the elements that nature-based tests present along the way. We embraced the full spectrum of terrain and weather because we understood adapting strategy to meet these flexuous challenges of nature to be a core element of the rider’s role. There are few conditions common to this earth that a horse cannot navigate safely and sustainably for long distances, it is largely a matter of guiding our mount at its own appropriate pace through the test event.
Assertions that the race of 12 September in Tryon had to be stopped due to “hot and humid” conditions are therefore deceptive. Such deflective statements only serve to distract from fundamental dysfunctions of our governance system that precipitated this tragedy. Nature is the inherent baseline of the test, and is as inherently blameless, always.
Certainly, it was a warm and humid day, and damp footing conditions on the clay loam soils added to the workload, but these were not extraordinary circumstances in the history of endurance racing. The weather parameters of the day were little more than typical of the Old Dominion 100 mile test, which has been held annually in the same region since 1973; on a significantly more arduous course as well. Furthermore, in the Tryon race several riders demonstrated their talents to be genuinely worthy of the title “elite” by navigating the course in a manner that was well within their mounts ability; a proof that there was nothing so challenging about the day that it could not be mastered with appropriate judgment.
So why then did such a large percentage of the field of competitors, all of which had completed FEI’s qualification system to the highest level, fail so distinctly that the race had to be cancelled to protect the welfare of the horses? We should be questioning the efficacy of this qualifying system, including the fundamental definitions of its levels. We should be questioning this system, and the entire supporting body of rules, for the ethos it nurtures.
During that day of mixed rain and strong sunshine, as international endurance racing fell hard on its face in mud, there was a rainbow. Perhaps this is sign that we have at long last muddied ourselves badly enough to acknowledge that we erred in the path we have taken some distance back. There are no quick shortcuts to the better road now, we’ve tried all those paths. There can be no more band-aid adjustments and augmentations of the current rules. More levels on a flawed foundation does not a create sturdy house. We have run false and incomplete philosophy to its end.
Already I am hearing encouraging realization at many levels that the restructuring of the CEI definitions and rules we need is problematic while we are locked into closely repeating cycles of qualifying for the next world championship. We may need to accept a suspension of world championships as we have known them for a period as we reconstruct our systems, more wisely and carefully this time. We first need to create an environment and a plan that allows us to take the few steps back required for us to put the discipline back on a healthier path.
A Qualification System is a form of Academic Institution
We need a thorough re-conception of international endurance’s hierarchy of performance levels. This must recognize that current definitions, based on completion of races at increasing distance, are a very incomplete and unreliable measure of genuine readiness to advance to greater challenges and responsibilities. Worst of all, advancing participants in such an overly simplistic system squanders vital opportunities to instill respect for thorough learning. It is very hard to convince a student to take skipped lessons once you have already handed him a doctorate degree.
This new set of definitions will need to support non-race qualifying events at the lower levels, such that they better serve as educational experiences for both horse and rider. This should particularly support the development of longer distance qualifiers, to ensure that horse and rider development in the future includes experience completing distances in a fixed pace environment before license to race such distances at freely chosen pace is granted.
We need to never again apply speed standards that are unreferenced to the technical difficulty of the course. There is no real possibility to re-integrate more technically challenging, natural and athletically diverse courses into international endurance racing unless we utilize performance standards that are referenced to the performance of peers on the same course. This is the primary conceptual flaw that effectively shut our most established, more technically diverse courses out of international endurance racing. This created bias toward participation in faster courses of monotonous athletic exercise; which focus physical stresses in the pattern of a single repetitive motion and cadence.
Protecting the Quality of Course Design from Ourselves
Great endurance courses seek to challenge the horses with many forms of natural challenge in the day, resulting in horses that are a little tired, all over. Lesser courses result in horses that are fresh in some respects, and yet are pressed to the breaking point in others.
We need to better shield the selection, design and certification of endurance courses from the pressure of other wants of the governing organization. It is a nuanced and challenging endeavor to create technical courses with a full spectrum of natural challenges worthy of international championships. Good organic course design requires a blend of fine art and science to create a test that provides clear resolution between skills of elite athletes while being free of unavoidable pit-falls and traps. This development process is easily foiled.
When the day of the race comes, quality of the course design is paramount to fair competition; to scientific measure of equine quality; to the measure of good equine husbandry; and ultimately to equine welfare. All other features of the event are only accessory details in comparison.
Ensuring Standards of Temperate Judgment in Pacing
We need finally, once and for all, to adopt rider completion rate standards that more effectively honor and support temperance and good judgment in pacing, genuinely recognizing that the rider is the primary one responsible for keeping a horse within its sustainable limits. For a long time in endurance racing peer pressure to perform honorably and consistently, pride in demonstrating preparedness and in completing a challenging task once started, was enough to ensure a sufficiently temperate judgment in pacing. In the high-stake environment of modern endurance racing this is no longer enough balance of incentive for temperance. A firm and effective system of demerit against consistently reckless performance by riders is required. Without this we place an excessive burden on the veterinary control system as the first and only line of the horse’s defense.
A moderate measure of restraint does not effectively reduce the pace all that much. To use myself as an example, for many decades I maintained an 82-87% completion rate in both national and FEI sanctioned endurance races, while winning a respectable number of those races and setting some course records that stand to this day. My own completion rate fell considerably as I pursued more FEI races, and particularly major championships, as there is no chance to get on the scoreboard amongst a large field of all top-level competitors unless you are willing to push the risk envelope at least nearly as far as next competitor. So, when put against a large group of riders who are accustomed to riding at a very high-risk rate, such that their personal completion rate is only 25-30%, even the most careful riders who wish to see the results of the day accurately reflect the quality of the horses, will feel pressured to push the risk envelope a little harder than they normally would.
Without setting a minimum standard for rider completion rate the performance of the race as a fair and scientific test of equine quality is compromised. Instead we have fomented a larger and larger group of reckless pacers as even those riders who might otherwise pace more conservatively get sucked into the vortex. Appreciation for fine skills in reading the mount beneath us is diminished more and more as time goes.
The skilled and temperate riders we should support the most will have no trouble maintaining a 65% or better personal completion rate. This standard would force the more reckless riders to stop the practice of mindlessly pacing to an externally determined winning rate until the veterinary control system disqualifies them. They will be forced to practice skills in pacing more independently according to the ability of their equine partner.
When all riders exercise these skills of awareness and temperance, they will appreciate the more civil character of the field of competitors and will once again be afforded the presence of honor that comes hand in hand with accountability.
The Phoenix Rises
Once we have achieved all these improvements we will be in position to begin examining the performance of our endurance events with the same statistical evaluation methods a teacher or scientist would use to score the effectiveness of the tests they design. It is difficult to conceive this today in international endurance because the results of our tests are so randomized and skewed to one extreme that such detail analysis is fruitless. There is no need to sharpen a pencil to establish that few courses are well matched to aptitude of the field of participants. Good endurance courses, when supported by better rule structure and governance, can be statistically evaluated for their suitability to the skill level of the participants, which will improve the quality of endurance courses both as a test instrument of learning, and as a competitive sport.
A highly detailed “independent” analysis focused on the catastrophe at Tryon may not produce the information we need to focus on most. Endurance racing has been near the edge of such a break-down for a long time. For an equally long time we have had abundant evidence that issues with endurance racing precipitate from conflicting policy at the highest levels of the organization. We could attempt to correct specific middle and lower level dysfunctions a thousand times over with targeted corrections of rules and event organization policy, but new dysfunctions will continue to arise instead.
Most of the ideas I have just expressed have been promulgated by myself and others for decades now. What we need most of all is not just the specific implementation of such ideas, but the awareness that the formative concept behind the rule system needs to advance in its philosophy.
We need to explore why it is that FEI has been so unresponsive and dismissive of the contributions and philosophy of those with experience in endurance that predates the FEI’s involvement by decades. We need to better explore what is preventing FEI’s most fundamental philosophies from evolving. This is a matter that is important to all equine sports. Failure to evolve is recipe for extinction, and often for just reason. The public awareness and demand for humane treatment grows every day. Well managed endurance testing could be the best instrument we have to generate naturally grounded insight to educate and defend against naïve and misguided beliefs regarding equine welfare.
The FEI needs to recognize that it has an ethical a responsibility to do more than simply act on its awareness of the public perception of equine welfare. We need the FEI to reach beyond simply defending its economics by responding to a public that has received it definitions of humane treatment from the entertainment industry, which the FEI is a part of itself. This is a vicious spiral of declining wisdom, a positive feedback loop into self-destruction.
There is no other organization with the position of FEI to champion public education in definitions of humane treatment based on natural sciences specific to equines. It is certainly much more profitable in the short term to avoid the cost and effort of public education, to play into and enable public perception wherever it drifts, but this will lead to equestrian sports eventual demise. If we want to have an environment that supports equestrian sports into the future, we need organizations like FEI to play an active role in guiding public awareness with knowledge grounded directly to natural sciences and the soundest of philosophies.
Though less evident on the surface today, other disciplines have their own growing issues of sustainability. There is an inherent conflict with laws of nature looming as horses in closely managed genetic lines, associated with highly specific athletic disciplines, exist more and more in their own isolated genetic selection bubble. They will eventually require more broadened natural references to sustain genetic soundness.
Endurance, current black sheep of international equestrian sport, will yet one day provide insight and reference that benefits the whole of equine sports, all of equines, and even mankind itself.
“Tradition is not the worship of ashes, but the preservation of fire.”
― Gustav Mahler
Summary points of this essay:
- Challenges that are sufficiently based on the natural challenges that created a species delineate and define “humane treatment”
- Testing in accordance with the above statement can provide us guidance toward a positive impact on the sustainability of health and welfare of equines
- Nature is inherently blameless for failure in such tests
- Regulations of sport inherently influence the participants direction and regard for learning
- Honorability of role of the rider only comes with accountability
- The evaluation of endurance races as scientific test of natural performance enhances their benefit to equine welfare, and the fairness of the competition
- There are limits to the quality of solutions until fundamental shortcomings of knowledge and philosophy are fully addressed
- Endurance testing could one day provide a vital reference and model for sustainability of all domestic equines
- The FEI must fundamentally evolve to play a more mindful role in the sustainability and welfare of the equines its identity depends upon