“A Model in Terms of Equine Welfare”: The French Government’s 46 Suggestions to Paris 2024

The Chateau des Versailles. Photo: Panoramas/flickr/CC.

A study group from the French National Assembly, part of the French parliamentary system, has released a 72 page report outlining 46 recommendations to the Paris Olympics organising committee on how to improve equine welfare standards at next year’s Olympic Games.

The report, it states, “is the result of 18 hearings carried out from October 2021 to January 2022”, among a significant number of equine professionals, including veterinarians, lawyers, representatives from governing bodies, riders, trainers, and more.

Thank you to Australia’s Horses and People for their efforts in translating the report to English. Their full translation can be read here.

“The equestrian events of the Tokyo Olympics saw incidents in several disciplines,” begins the report. “These incidents triggered some very strong reactions from the media and spectators, with a section of the population asking for a ban of all equestrian competitions from the Olympic Games, considering them to be practices harmful to the well-being of horses. It therefore seems essential to us to think about possible improvements, for the horses on the one hand, but also to ensure a serene future for these equestrian sports. The equestrian events of the Paris 2024 Olympic Games, which will take place in Versailles, must be a model in terms of equine welfare.”

The report begins with Part One, a round-up of the three major issues of the 2020 Tokyo Olympics: the euthanasia of Robin Godel’s Jet Set, who sustained a serious soft tissue injury on cross-country; the highly publicised incident in the Modern Pentathlon competition in which Germany’s Annika Schleu and trainer Kim Raisner both appeared to use excessive force upon the horse Saint Boy, which has ultimately led to the removal of the riding phase from Modern Pentathlon; and the significant nosebleed of Cian O’Connor’s Kilkenny in the showjumping competition. It then goes on to round up both the media response and the public reaction to these incidents, including an open letter, sent to all members of the International Olympic Committee, penned by equestrian journalist Julie Taylor and titled “I Can’t Watch Anymore: The Case for Dropping Equestrian Sport from the Olympic Games”. Finally, it goes on to report on the official response to each incident, in order to establish the importance of avoiding similar issues at next year’s Paris Games.

Part Two commences the 46 suggestions for the improvement of welfare, beginning with the facilities provided for horses. It recommends sufficient relaxation areas, including lunging areas, exercise areas, and grazing areas, all of which are currently provided at FEI competitions, but also advises the addition of small paddocks, allowing horses free movement while also respecting biosecurity measures.

It also highlights the need for attentive officials on the ground who are prepared, and willing, to step in when a welfare transgression is taking place.

“In an interview with the magazine “L’Éperon” on January 20, 2022, Jean-Maurice Bonneau, ex-trainer of ‘Bleus’, explains that the major authorities must question themselves following the incidents in Tokyo as well as the recent scandal following the leak of video footage from the stable of Ludger Beerbaum rapping horses or using jump poles covered with nails,” the report states. “He admits that he himself has not always respected the rules of good treatment and that this concerns everyone in equestrian sport. He adds that ‘sometimes, some stewards in the arenas do not set clear boundaries and I have already gone to see such and such a rider to point out his bad behavior… We have to regain credibility and for that, we need new rules…’Professionals also point out that ‘at the high level, event stewards do not dare report abuse, for fear of reprisals from the sports stars who threaten them when they try to intervene to protect the horses.”

In order to counteract these issues, the report suggests that the IOC establish a “‘Welfare Committee’, made up of independent experts authorised to move freely throughout the Olympic site of the equestrian events, as part of a special ‘Equine Welfare at the Olympic Games’ mission.”

It also recommends 24/7 video surveillance, observed by veterinarians and stewards, with footage delivered by a completely independent company.

A significant segment of the report focuses its attention on tack, with overtightened nosebands at the forefront. Recommendation #7 suggest: “Improve the controls against the excessive tightening of nosebands and curb chains: Provide a more calibrated check, preformed randomly during training sessions and systematically when entering or leaving each event, using a 1.5 cm ISES taper gauge placed on the nasal bones (which allow one adult finger to slide between the noseband strap and the hard nasal bone) and apply a penalty in the event of an infringement.”

The report also recommends prohibiting the use of elevator or gag bits on cross-country, particularly when used in conjunction with flash or grackle nosebands, and recommends scrapping the use of combination bits and bits with twisted or double mouthpieces across the board.

The use of hind tendon boots on jumpers is also questioned by the report, which recommends using video to record a “tabletop check of the tack” before each competition. As concerns spurs, the report advises allowing riders to opt out of wearing them, and to ban the use of bellybands, which can hide the ill effects of overuse. Where the whip is concerned, it suggests limiting whip use to once per event and twice per warm-up.

Doping is also covered in the report, as well as neurectomy — better know as de-nerving. This means of artificially masking limb pain cannot necessarily be reliably tested for — “It should be noted, however,” says the report, “that the FEI has taken this problem into account: for the first time, the horses of the AlUla endurance race in Saudi Arabia on January 29 were the subject of sensitivity tests carried out by veterinary doctor Morgane Schambourg, who has been working for a long time on the development of a neurectomy detection system. It would therefore require a veterinary certificate to certify that these horses have not undergone this intervention, or take the risk that they do not respond to sensitivity tests which would lead to disqualification.

“Mainly used in endurance for the moment, the hyposensitivity test consists of screening horses which have undergone treatment intended to reduce their sensitivity to pain in their limbs by truncal anaesthesia (either definitive by surgical section or temporary with anaesthetic blocks of nerve trunks) so that horses do not stop or slow down due to being in pain.

“Thermography is also a valuable tool, as it allows assessment of the differences in surface temperatures of the horse’s skin, by highlighting hot and cold thermal signatures on body areas. Thermal variations as well as asymmetries are all clues that will help identify possible pathologies or traumas. Cold signatures may be related to possible vascularization defects related to the presence of oedema, hematoma, or abscess (existing or in formation). The hot thermal signatures specify areas of inflammation (e.g. back pain, tendinitis, etc.). They also allows the detection of fraudulent use of rubefacient products.”

Where ‘traditional’ doping is concerned, it recommends a more robust approach to recording any medications that enter the facility, limiting doses of allowable substances — for example, joint injections — to no sooner than two weeks prior to the event, and maintaining an FEI Medication Logbook for each horse. In light of the recent equine herpesvirus outbreaks at major competition centres, it also recommends mandating the rhinopneumonitis vaccine.

One of the bolder suggestions made by in the report is that of recommendation #27, which suggests that organisers “remove from competition any horses with a medical history that is not compatible with an optimal state of health (e.g. a history of bone, ligament or muscle injury resulting in long periods of inactivity), which is necessary for participation in the Olympic Games. This optimal state of health will have to be verified in advance by the FEI Veterinarians.”

It also suggests that any sign of blood – regardless of where it appears on the body, and why – should result in horse and rider being immediately stopped, in order to avoid another incident such as the Kilkenny one.

Each discipline also features in its own section: the dressage section focuses largely on the recurring issue of hyperflexion, while showjumping’s section cites riders’ pleas for a return to the four-per-team format used prior to Tokyo as indicative of a wider welfare issue. In the eventing section, it advises that the use of safety devices must be the topmost priority, and recommends that 100% of the obstacles on course be deformable. It also makes recommendations for scientific tests of ground suitability.

The FEI has confirmed that many of the suggestions are already covered within its own rulebook, and national governing bodies, too, have been reviewing the contents of the report to see if there are any positive changes that can be pulled from it.


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