The Bungling FEI’s Next Election Will Affect Our Horse Sports’ Future

Olympic gold medalist Pierre Durand is one of the two candidates for FEI president I’d support.

The Federation Equestre Internationale (FEI) has stumbled into a potentially important moment in its corporate life, a moment that I believe could very likely have large and small influences on those of us who compete our horses in the seven disciplines the FEI looms over.

During the last two years, the FEI has muddled its way through three serious issues without resolution. The latest is the mostly disastrous Alltech FEI World Equestrian Games, the shortfalls of which I wrote about in my last blog.

Second, they’ve been deflecting a long list of rules and ethical violations in endurance riding by the husband and other family members of FEI president Princess Haya, including serious drug violations and allegedly changing the identity of two horses ridden by her stepson Sheikh Hamdan bin Mohammed Al Maktoum, the heir apparent of the Untied Arab Emirates throne who just won the WEG individual gold medal. No one at the FEI, nor Sheikh Hamdan or his father Sheikh Mohammed, will discuss these charges. (Sheikh Hamdan even left France immediately after the medal ceremony and skipped the press conference that’s mandatory for every other medalist.)

And almost two years ago the FEI unceremoniously kicked out Rolex, one of their biggest and most loyal sponsors for the last three decades, in favor of competitor Longines. But Rolex remains the title sponsor or numerous international competitions (including, of course, the Rolex Kentucky Three-Day Event).

The ramifications of just these three debacles are symptomatic of the organization’s incompetence. In fact, I believe that this sponsorship conflict is the reason why the FEI inconceivably chose Bromont, Quebec, over the KHP to host the 2018 WEG. The KHP’s main stadium is the Rolex Arena, not the Longines Arena. Rolex is also the major sponsor of the great Aachen (Germany) show, and you should notice that Aachen, which hosted the mostly successful 2006 WEG, didn’t apply for 2018.

As my friend Jimmy Wofford often intones: “The FEI—rarely right, but never in doubt.”

Why do these issues affect us, especially those of us who compete horses here at home and only occasionally venture into a CCI, a CDI or a CSI? Mainly because the leaders of our federation, the USEF, are committed to following, or at least mirroring, the FEI’s rules so that those of us who do ride in international competitions aren’t completely blindsided when we do. (The exception, thank goodness, is that USEF’s leaders’ commitment is even stronger to maintain our therapeutic drug rules, to not blindly accept the FEI’s head-in-the-sand, nothing-at-all, ever, rules.) So the moment is critical because almost every rule or policy the FEI makes trickles down to our national events.

Consequently, in the wake of these three screw-ups, the FEI presidential election in December is looming as rather important, probably for the first time ever. Six men have thrown their hats into the arena, which I believe is the most ever/ And, for the first time in 60 years, none of them is from a royal family. Unfortunately, they’re all European, but I guess it would be too much to ask to have a non-royal, non-European in charge, finally.

This election is potentially important because the FEI needs a dramatic shake-up. It needs to be hurled into the 21st century in terms of technology, public and media relations and, above all, horse care.

Here’s an example of one technological improvement the FEI refuses to adopt, a change that would make life so much easier and more efficient for riders, owners and veterinarians.

Every horse who competes in an FEI-sanctioned event needs a passport, and the most difficult part of getting the passport is that it requires an FEI-approved veterinarian (a small cadre of practitioners) to draw, by hand, views of the horse from both sides, front and back, showing in perfect detail all of its markings, whorls and scars. Can you imagine how hard it is to do that on a horse with lots of white or on a pinto? (I can tell you—I have both.) Why can’t we use digital photos instead of a veterinarian’s drawings, which are subject to errors and are incredibly time-consuming, for the vet and for federation staff members? This is an indefensible 19th-century remnant.

Far more generally, the FEI’s leaders and its Swiss-based staff need to develop an entirely different outlook on what their job is and on how they do it. The FEI’s outlook for a century has been that of a benevolent dictator—“We’ll tell you what’s good for you and how you’ll do it. And when we want your opinion, we’ll give it to you. In the meantime, we simply don’t want to hear about your problems or concerns.”

No, the FEI should be working for our federations. The fact that they don’t—and generally won’t even listen to most of their member federations, barring some scandal or major catastrophe—is why riders and show organizers around the world have formed at least a dozen of their own associations, to do what the FEI is incapable of or unwilling to even try.

Which candidate would I suggest that the USEF back and lobby for? The usual pattern for groups like the FEI or USEF is to develop officers from within its administrative ranks, promoting them to higher offices as their connection with and knowledge about the organization increases. But I think that now is the time to bring in someone who’s had basically only tangential experience with the FEI—someone who’s had to deal with the FEI but not been involved with its machinations and politics over the last few decades.

That leaves only two candidates: Javier Revuelta del Peral of Spain and Pierre Durand of France. Each is a former international competitor—Durand won the show jumping gold medal at the 1988 Olympics and was the 1987 European Champion—and each has been president of his country’s national federation. Each has also been successful as an entrepreneur in other businesses—Revuelta in finance, media and food; Durand as a winemaker and lawyer.

I interviewed Durand when he won the Olympic gold medal and thought he seemed a pretty sharp guy, but that’s not enough to suggest one over another. I hope, though, that someone at the USEF does know more about them and can lead a promotional effort on behalf of one, to take advantage of this potentially pivotal election and actually lead us into the future. 

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