Welfare, education and the future direction of the sport were prominent topics at the FEI Endurance Forum 2017, which took place this week in Vic, Barcelona (ESP). A total of 100 delegates from over 30 countries gathered together at a pivotal time for the discipline of Endurance, which is seeing massive growth year on year across the globe.
Scientific presentations on Endurance risk factors, bone fatigue and risk management set the scene, providing a data-based approach for the Forum’s further discussions on education, rules revisions and the future of the sport. Key topics including horse welfare, speed, athlete education and how the elite level of the sport could look in the future were debated in an open and honest dialogue by representatives from across the Endurance community.
“This growth of the sport is remarkable and brings great opportunities but also presents challenges to the global endurance community”, FEI Secretary General Sabrina Ibáñez said in her opening address. “Endurance is clearly appealing and has potential, but as we grow we need to secure the integrity of the sport with correct processes, and maintain the highest standards of horse welfare. We are all here because we want to ensure that Endurance continues to develop and thrive around the world. And we are also here because we want to ensure the very best for our horses, for our athletes and for the greater Endurance community.”
First presented at last month’s FEI Sports Forum 2017, Dr Euan Bennet from the University of Glasgow took delegates through the highlights and main results of the first year and a half of the FEI’s Global Endurance Injuries Study, and Professor Chris Whitton from the University of Melbourne presented data on bone fatigue. Both reiterated the message that speed and non-compliance with mandatory rest periods are the key risk factors, highlighting that an increase of seven days on the mandatory rest periods established in 2014 could potentially prevent 10% of the failed-to-qualify statistics and that small reductions in speed have large beneficial effects on bone fatigue for the fastest horses. It was unanimously agreed that key to injury reduction is a combination of rules revisions and education for athletes, trainers and all involved in the sport.
Diarmuid Byrne and Sam Watson from equestrian data science company EquiRatings, presented a potential model for an athlete index in Endurance, aimed at identifying those at higher risk of non-completion and following a similar concept to the ERQI model in Eventing. This was received with interest and generated discussions on data collection in the future to enhance this tool, possible applications to reward positive performance and good horsemanship, and potential application to trainers, and horse/athlete combinations.
EquiRatings founder Sam Watson explained: “It is about changing psychology and attitude. We need to create awareness and provide a tool that can guide the level of responsible horsemanship and help maintain a standard for the sport around the world.”
The new Endurance Education System for Endurance Officials was presented and received widespread support, with unanimous agreement on the benefit and importance of rewarding excellence and increasing experience. The introduction of job descriptions, promotional courses for top level Officials, horsemanship education for all Endurance Officials, requalification every three years and the introduction of a new 5* level of Officials were all on the agenda.
Wrapping up the first day’s proceedings, FEI Endurance Director Manuel Bandeira de Mello led delegates in discussion around potential rule revisions aimed at improving horse welfare and based on the scientific findings relating to areas such as qualifications, speeds, rest periods and weight regulations.
There was widespread support for the creation of a new 5* level of elite competition, with further consultation needed on what form it will take, and a general consensus that there should be clear and increased qualification criteria for entry to 1* level and for progression onto 4* and 5*, however further work is needed to flesh out proposals for the introduction of completion rates for Championship qualifications.
Discussions also covered the need for any potential changes to mandatory rest periods to be clearly based on welfare and not as sanctions for speed. The extensive feedback will be discussed by the FEI Endurance Committee as the next step in this rules revision process.
Inspiration for the second day’s discussions on the future of the sport covered everything from event promotion, sponsorship, innovation in promotion, and what the sport could look like in the future, with presentations from across the spectrum of the sport: athlete Valerie Kanavy, Organiser Nick Brooks-Ward from Hpower Group, athlete and trainer Stephane Chazel and Spanish Chef D’Equipe Ignasi Casas.
Athlete education was again central to the debate as discussion turned to how speed relates to the future of the sport. Delegates noted that ultimately this is a sport against the clock, but this cannot be to the detriment of the horse, however as the sport progresses then speeds will get higher with better training, breeding, feeding, riding etc. However all acknowledged that speed contributes to injury, which is not acceptable for horse welfare and has a negative effect on the perception of the sport. Minimum weights and course design were discussed as examples of how to regulate speed but ultimately conversation came back to athlete responsibility and training, a key theme throughout the Forum.
FEI Secretary General Sabrina Ibáñez closed the forum with a commitment to continue organising these types of discussion forums for Endurance on a regular basis, commending the “productive and exciting meeting of such a wide group of people, with very diverse views yet working together and allowing each other to speak, with a real community feel for open dialogue.”