On October 20, AERC member Ed Hauser wrote the AERC board (and copied to Ridecamp at endurance.net) the following recommendation: “The AERC-I should be spun off as a completely independent entity with absolutely no connection with AERC.” This suggestion literally cracked the flood gates with the volume of AERC members writing directly to the entire Board or Board members they knew personally with comments both pro and con on this recommendation. This was an unprecedented outpouring of thoughtful, well-reasoned, heart-felt comments, eclipsing any other issue previously facing the AERC in our experience as Board members.
Since spring, the Board has been deeply troubled by documented doping and horse welfare abuses in some elite international FEI endurance rides, particularly in FEI Zone VII. On June 15, the AERC released a very specific and powerful letter to USEF (and thus FEI) recognizing the gravity of these issues and encouraging specific and forceful action to address a profoundly unacceptable circumstance; that letter is archived both on the AERC website and endurance.net. Indeed, because of this letter and similar letters from other countries, the Endurance Strategic Planning Group at the FEI Generally Assembly in Montreux last week called for “Immediate and sustainable action to safeguard the welfare of horses and reinforce the FEI’s anti-doping and fair play policies at Endurance events globally.” But words alone are not sufficient.
Given the growing toxic nature of the FEI controversy and the obvious controversy within AERC about the future of AERC-International (AERC-I), the Board has prepared a more detailed, more explicit letter addressing the FEI controversy that will be sent directly to FEI. We are hopeful that this letter will be ratified by the AERC Board of Directors and distributed as soon as possible.
Unlike other previous AERC issues, we are taking unprecedented steps to comment publicly and in detail about an issue that is currently before the board. We are doing this because we are both deeply and profoundly disturbed by the doping and on-going welfare abuses. Also, we are doing this publicly since we are Directors-at-Large. You as our constituents deserve to know our opinions about issues that obviously move a great number of AERC members to express such strong positive and negative feelings.
It is important to realize that this is our personal analysis of the situation and only that. It does NOT necessarily reflect an official AERC Board opinion or the opinion of any other AERC Board members.
1) Number of positive medication and doping cases is much higher in FEI endurance than other FEI disciplines (www.fei.org, Tables 1 – 4). Most of the horses suspended originate from FEI Zone VII (specifically United Arab Emirates, Saudi Arabia, Bahrain, Qatar, and Jordan), and most of the suspended riders are endurance riders.
2) Orthopedic injuries in FEI horses competing in the 2007-2008 season were similar in nature and frequency to those in flat-track racing horses (Misheff et al, 2010; Nagy et al, 2012, Coombs, 2012). During that season, treating veterinarians recorded one fracture per 236 starts. To provide a perspective on these numbers, consider the following: If a similar frequency of orthopedic injuries occurred in the roughly 140,000 AERC endurance starts (50 miles or greater) from 2002 through 2012, we would see nearly 600 AERC horses with such crippling orthropedic injuries to require either surgical repair or euthanasia.
3) FEI is entirely nontransparent about the number of injuries and deaths occurring in their sport events. The orthopedic injuries in endurance horses were compiled and reported in European scientific papers by treating veterinarians and surgeons. While there are many anecdotal reports of multiple horse fatalities at FEI endurance rides abroad, FEI refuses to release fatality statistics.
4) AERC-I is a relatively small subset of the AERC membership. Its formal membership over the last four years ranged from a high of 352 in 2010 to a low of 328 in 2011 and 2012, representing roughly 6% of AERC members. Not all these AERC members participate in FEI rides that in the United States are, for the most part, dual sanctioned with AERC, but these are AERC members who made a monetary contribution to AERC-I. (Full disclosure: we are not AERC-I members.) Based on the results of last year’s survey, the general AERC membership ranked “International/FEI” as the lowest priority of all activities surveyed, even below Breed awards.
5) Over the past four years, the AERC has dual sanctioned with FEI between 8 -11 rides annually. There is good evidence that the FEI co-sponsored events robustly supports concurrent AERC events and synergistically generates a higher total rider attendance than would be possible without FEI involvement.
6) To the best of our knowledge, the FEI rides dual sanctioned with the AERC over the last ten years have a history of no drug violations. Frequency of fatalities is unknown as FEI is not forthcoming with those statistics describing equine deaths in North American FEI endurance events.
1) There are profoundly unacceptable doping and welfare issues occurring in elite FEI overseas endurance rides, and these abuses originate largely from FEI Zone VII countries. But these abuses are not occurring in AERC-dual sanctioned rides in the US and Canada (and likely not in various other countries such as Australia and Japan).
2) While we are not FEI veterinarians, we have vetted roughly 20 rides that have had concurrent FEI events. Also while vetting strictly AERC rides, we have directly observed AERC members who on occasion will participate as FEI riders. Whether they are riding FEI or riding AERC, these AERC members, as a group, are as committed to horse welfare and a level-playing field as any other group of AERC members. As one FEI/AERC member wrote colorfully to the board: “There is only one butt in each saddle, and only one person ultimately responsible for the horse. Attached to that butt is a code of ethics, which is completely up to the rider.”
What are our fundamental guidelines that we use to make decisions as AERC board members?
1) The AERC’s first job is to promote diverse, quality endurance riding opportunities in North America and elsewhere for AERC members. These endurance riding opportunities are truly the AERC’s “big tent” ranging from limited distance rides to 100-mile rides to multi-day endurance rides that might be better called endurance expeditions. This “big tent” philosophy also embraces very competitive events where horses are allowed to work at speed on challenging courses but under very strict veterinary control. Whatever level our AERC members aspire to in endurance, we want to personally support them and believe the AERC Board should enthusiastically support them as well.
2) Here’s the only caveat on the above statement: We use the AERC mission statement as our primary guideline to identify which AERC initiatives to support and which other international endurance groups to liaison with. We emphatically believe that “Part of AERC's mission is to attract and reward members who act to insure the highest priority for their horses' immediate and long-term physical and emotional health and well-being.” It is worthwhile for every AERC member to review the four sentences in our mission statement.
So what should the AERC do in view of the current FEI endurance debacle?
1) There are significant rumblings in Europe about the formation of a new international equestrian association to promote endurance riding worldwide that will truly make horse welfare paramount. AERC should monitor and even participate in these discussions. If FEI does not act, then AERC should consider severing current ties and developing new ties with a new international association. We think this course of action is entirely appropriate, unless FEI can demonstrate extraordinary efforts to enforce their rules and show positive results in horse welfare issues. As veterinarians and scientists, this mandates transparency of fatality data, at least at a level that mirrors AERC’s own policies.
2) Rather than cutting the umbilical cord between AERC-I and AERC, we would rather see the AERC-I committee become much less FEI-centric. AERC-I should also promote AERC members riding in overseas events that are not-FEI sanctioned and frequently more in sync with the AERC philosophy “To finish is to win” and celebrating horse longevity (miles and years) in this endurance sport. Exemplifying this positive synergy is the interchange between two of the most premiere 100-mile endurance rides in the world - The Tevis Cup in California and The Tom Quilty Ride in Australia. Organized at the ride level, there is a regular exchange of veterinarians between these two rides to encourage worldwide appreciation of cutting edge veterinary control and treatment. Whether formally organized or not, there is a surprising number of AERC members who have already taken great pride and pleasure in riding the Quilty. We are also pleasantly surprised by the number of Australians that have ridden the Tevis. (Full disclosure: we are riding on the coat tails of another AERC Board member who suggested this idea on the board forum.)
3) In summary, we cannot support severing AERC-I from the AERC as we believe that would reduce riding opportunities for AERC members who respect horse welfare. However, we will advocate that AERC officially sever ties with FEI unless: 1) the FEI can expeditiously and convincingly address the above abuses and, 2) becomes transparent with fatality and injury data to provide independent confirmation of the success of their reforms. Additionally, we advocate that AERC-I be restructured to support non-FEI international riding as well as FEI-riding overseas for AERC members, but predicated on the condition that FEI genuinely and permanently reforms itself. Least we forget, our AERC Vision Statement is “To be the preeminent authority and leader in developing and promoting the sport and pastime of endurance riding in the United States, Canada, and throughout the world.”
Olin Balch, DVM, MS, PhD
Susan Garlinghouse, DVM, MS
Co-signers: Bruce Weary, DC, AERC, Director-at-Large; Maryben Stover, Regional Director - West; Steph Teeter, Regional Director