By Jo Hamilton-Branigan BVSc (Endurance Vet/Rider)
In Australia the sport of endurance riding has always been under the microscope (and very accountable) as far as horse welfare issues have been concerned. In the beginning welfare authorities (RSPCA) were not convinced that this sort of riding/event could be achieved without compromising the horse. In order for the sport to be accepted and continue into the 21st century an incredibly comprehensive horse welfare system has been devised and it has continued to evolve in parallel with the nature of the sport. Australia has long been a world leader in this regard.
The Australian Endurance Riders Association (AERA) works in close association with a panel of highly experienced veterinarians (AERA Veterinary Panel – which consists of an experienced endurance veterinarian from each State). An event cannot take place without a veterinary team in control with an Accredited Endurance Veterinarian at the helm (as Head Veterinarian). Strict monitoring by veterinarians (of a number of parameters, including heart rate, respiration, temperature, demeanor, metabolic factors – particularly relating to the gastrointestinal tract and hydration, as well as gait evaluation) creates a safe environment for the horses. The Veterinary Team is in control of the ride and can disqualify a horse/rider combination at any time in the event. The Head Veterinarian oversees all decisions made by the veterinary team.
Each event generally consists of a series of phases (“legs” or “loops”). The ride base may stay stationary or it may move (“travelling" check points). A typical phase will range from about 10km to 45km – depending on the length and nature of the event. Longer events have multiple legs/phases. Generally longer phases at the start of the event and shorter as the event proceeds. At longer events horses may be checked seven or eight times during the course of an event. The horse is checked by the veterinary team between phases and judged as fit to continue or eliminated on veterinary grounds. There is a mandatory rest period between phases after the veterinary check. A horse can be eliminated at any time, even on track during the event if the track veterinarian deems it necessary. Consider also that it is not uncommon for horses to be asked to “represent” and be checked twice at the one check. These days it is usual for there to be a “compulsory represent” (double check) at a designated check.
There is a comprehensive National Logbook system now in place. Every endurance horse must be identified & registered with its State Association/AERA. They are then issued with a Logbook which must be used at endurance events. This official Logbook contains a myriad of information pertaining to the health and welfare of each horse at each event. This is a work in progress and details the ongoing successes and failures of each horse at each event – it is an historical record which can be referred to by connections, veterinarians and officials over time.
The “Novice Horse” system evolved in conjunction with the inception of Logbooks in the early nineties. This involves introducing horses into the sport gradually as regards speed and distance. A horse starts with a Novice (Blue) Logbook and if and when the horse qualifies it is upgraded to Endurance Horse (Yellow) Open status. There are also age restrictions on horses at different levels. A horse also cannot compete at the highest level until it is fully mature – i.e. 6 years of age - an age at which most racing thoroughbreds are retired.
The Early Warning System (EWS) is a further failsafe to protect horses (and riders) suffering consistently poor performance. If a horse is eliminated from a competition for a veterinary reason it is allocated points according to the severity of the problem. Once these points reach a certain level – letters are issued by the State Horse Welfare Officer and if the combination continues to be a problem they are demoted to Novice Status for a certain number of events. There are provisions for particularly recalcitrant horse/rider combinations to be suspended/retired. This has never happened in my time on State Committees.
Additionally if a horse is eliminated for a veterinary reason from an event the Head Veterinarian (in conjunction with the Treatment Veterinarian) has the ability to issue a Rest Order for a specific time period. This will be commensurate with the severity of the problem. A horse cannot compete until this time has elapsed.
The AERA & State Associations have an allocated portfolio for horse welfare. The State Horse Welfare Officer keeps track of the EWS, Rest Orders, Drug Testing (horses may be drug tested at any event – endurance is considered to be a drug free sport) and any veterinary intervention (treatment) as a result of events. Any treatments are recorded meticulously and followed up as appropriate. The AERA Horse Welfare Officer liaises with the State Officers and is in charge of record keeping on a National level.
Education of the connections/riders is taken seriously at all levels with many Seminars organized annually nationwide. Finally there are comprehensive requirements for event organizers as regards water availability and quality at events, as well as extensive risk management of controllable factors that may affect the welfare of the horses.
The Federation Equestre Internationale (FEI) Endurance has recently (in 2008) adopted a much tighter protocol as regards horse welfare and their system now incorporates much of that described above. No other horse sport has such a comprehensive welfare and risk management system.
It is expected that every Australian endurance rider participates with the phrase “Horse welfare is paramount” at the forefront of their mind.
AERA Handbook (Revised Jan 2008), p25
H2 Horse Welfare
a) The needs of the horse are paramount.
b) The well-being of the horse is above the demands of riders, owners, sponsors, breeders, ride organizers and officials.
c) All veterinary inspections and treatments must ensure the health and the welfare of the horse.
d) The highest standards of nutrition, health, sanitation, and safety shall be encouraged and maintained at all times.
e) Adequate provision must be made for ventilation, feeding, watering and the maintenance of a healthy environment during transportation.
f) Emphasis should be placed on education in equestrian practice and health.
g) In the interest of the horse, the fitness and competence of the rider shall be regarded as essential.
h) All horse training and riding methods must take into account the horse as a living entity and will not include any technique considered by the AERA Inc. to be abusive.
i) The AERA Inc. will maintain adequate controls in order that all persons and bodies under the jurisdiction of the AERA Inc. respect the health and the welfare of the horse.
j) National and international rules regarding the health and welfare of the horse must be adhered to.
k) The rules of the AERA Inc. will be continually reviewed to ensure such horse welfare ensues.
From the FEI “Code of Conduct – the welfare of the Horse.”