Endurance Tragedies Draw Scrutiny

Officials plan to evaluate safety and welfare of endurance horses after two died in competition at the 2002 World Equestrian Games. By Joanne Meszoly for EQUUS magazine.
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The fatigue-related deaths of two endurance horses competing at the World Equestrian Games (WEG) last September are prompting a review of safety and monitoring procedures used in the international event.

An endurance horse jogs for the vets at the 2002 World Equestrian Games. | © Nancy Jaffer

An endurance horse jogs for the vets at the 2002 World Equestrian Games. | © Nancy Jaffer

Floyd, a 9-year-old gelding ridden by Malaysian competitor, Nik Isahak Wan Abdullah, died during the 100-mile endurance ride in Spain's Jerez de la Frontera, and another 9-year-old gelding, Sir Fire, ridden by Anna Maxenchs Serra of Spain, collapsed afterward. Necropsies found that both horses died of metabolic failure associated with fatigue.

As of late 2002, Federation Equestre Internationale (FEI), the governing body for the WEG, was gathering information, says Frits Sluyter, DVM, head of the organization's veterinary department, but the deaths were "probably [due to] a combination of several factors that were not optimal at the same time. There have been discussions about the qualifications of the horses and riders and the ride layout. We're looking at all of that."

For the WEG endurance event, the competitors had to maintain a minimum speed as they covered the 100-mile course, which traversed rolling farmland. Along the way, each horse and rider was required to stop for a predetermined period of time at four veterinary checks (called veterinary "gates" by the FEI), where the horse's pulse, respiratory rate and heart rate were monitored to determine whether he was fit to continue. A rainstorm the night before the ride turned the course into a quagmire, says Frazier, and to compensate event officials reduced the minimum speed from 13 kilometers per hour (eight miles per hour) to 10 kilometers per hour (six miles per hour) and lengthened the hold time at each of the first two gates from 30 minutes to 40 minutes.

Sheikh Ahmed bin Mohammed al Maktoum of the United Arab Emirates won last year's event aboard Bowman, finishing in about nine hours and 19 minutes, and 64 of the 150 competitors who started completed the course. However, the two deaths--the first to occur in endurance at a WEG--cast a pall over the proceedings and raised many serious questions. "The rider is ultimately responsible for the horse, however, the rider is not totally responsible," says Dane Frazier, DVM, who served as a foreign veterinary delegate for the WEG and is also a member of the FEI's endurance committee. "The organizing committee, the FEI, the ride officials and the veterinary commission all have responsibilities that have an impact on the safety and welfare of the horse." He adds that while several factors, including the tiring muddy ground and the speed set for the ride, are likely to have contributed to the deaths, the number of vet gates bears particular scrutiny. The four vet gates and a "trot-by" used at the WEG met the FEI's minimum requirements for a 160 kilometer (100-mile) ride, but, says Frazier, it is not unusual to require five to eight vet gates when competitors travel that distance.

"You have to look at every venue differently and adapt and plan accordingly to the circumstances and the physical terrain you have," says Frazier. "Most U.S. [American Endurance Ride Conference-sanctioned] rides have at least five vet gates, the Pan Am [Games] had eight... there's no magic number. Personally, with this one, I would have preferred to have more."

To learn more about the AERC's efforts to protect horses competing in long-distance rides, read Close-Up, "Knowledge is protection," in EQUUS 309, July 2003.

This article first appeared in the December 2002 issue of EQUUS magazine.

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