what happened at the 2018 weg endurance championship

Medals in each of the Fédération Equestre Internationale’s (FEI) eight disciplines are awarded at the 2018 World Equestrian Games (WEG), which wrapped up at the Tryon International Equestrian Center, in Mill Spring, North Carolina, over the weekend.

Make that seven disciplines.

The very first competition to get underway at the FEI WEG Tryon 2018 on Sept. 12, endurance, suffered delays and chaos at the start, was hastily revamped into a shortened version of the race, and, within hours, was canceled altogether.

Officials with the FEI cited three primary reasons for the cancellation:

  • A sudden brief downpour that made the Blue Ridge Mountain foothills of North Carolina feel like a torrid jungle after Mother Nature turned off the spigot and the late-summer sun emerged with a vengeance;
  • An unusually high number of horses exhibiting signs of metabolic issues; and
  • Deteriorated footing conditions on the trail following the rainstorm that required even more exertion from the endurance horses.

The FEI works with British researcher David Marlin, PhD, who has conducted studies for the organization regarding heat and humidity’s effects on horse welfare since the 1996 Atlanta Olympic Games.

During the WEG endurance ride, Marlin “provided the Ground Jury with data from the Wet Bulb Globe Temperature (WBGT) index which showed a reading of 31. Anything over 25 is monitored very closely, and the officials agreed unanimously that 31 presented an unacceptable risk to horse welfare,” an FEI statement said.

The WBGT index is different from the heat index your local meteorologist might refer to in forecasts. The heat index assesses the combined effects of temperature and humidity in shady areas, while the WBGT index is a measure of heat stress in direct sunlight and also takes into account wind speed, cloud cover, and sun angle, according to the U.S. National Weather Service. The WBGT index temperatures in the FEI statement are expressed in degrees Celsius; a temperature of 25 degrees Celsius equals 77 degrees Fahrenheit, while a reading of 31 degrees Celsius equates to 87.8 degrees Fahrenheit.

The morning of September 12, weather and conditions for the endurance competition “looked good, it looked [like] what we expected; it followed the prognosis,” FEI Veterinary Director Göran Akerström, DVM, said during a Sept. 14 press conference. “But then we had the heavy rainfall, and suddenly we were without the cloud cover. Without the cloud cover in combination with the heavy rain, we had an extremely rapid development of the wet bulb global temperature, from 26, 27, up to 31. You could really feel it when you were standing there; it was extremely humid. This was also something we saw on the horses. If you have such conditions, there is no way that the horse can cool down.”

The extreme heat, said Akerström, took everyone by surprise.

“We did a climate study in advance; we looked back three years,” he said. “That was the basis of moving the Games two weeks into September (from the August dates set when the 2018 WEG was originally awarded to Bromont, Canada).”

Continual climatic monitoring before and during the 2018 WEG, unfortunately, failed to predict the weather this summer.

what happened at the 2018 weg endurance championship

“If you look at the last five years of wet bulb global temperature [indexes], this year has been 10 percent higher than normal, and that’s a lot,” Akerström said. “We spoke to a lot of locals, and this is not normal for this area. It’s warmer than normal, and we also had that in combination with the humidity.”

Another contributing factor, said Thomas R. Timmons, DVM, president of the FEI Endurance Veterinary Commission, was the lack of wind. The still air further hindered any evaporation of sweat that might have helped to cool the endurance horses.

Timmons, who is based at Rogue Equine Hospital, in Eagle Point, Oregon, said the conditions combined to endanger the horses’ welfare.

“At the vet gate where the stop was to be put in place, there were 53 horses at that time that basically were sent to (the endurance treatment clinic for) metabolic (issues),” he said. “That’s an unprecedented number.”

After the competition, Timmons elaborated on the numbers.

In an endurance competition, “the first phase will usually have a mix of eliminations for lameness and metabolic (issues),” he said. “To have such a high metabolic elimination rate by the second phase is unusual. More than 30 horses had been sent to the clinic by the Veterinary Commission before the race was stopped, and the others went to the clinic after the cancellation. A typical elimination rate on a tough course can easily be 50 percent and more, but after the final loop. We were seeing these horses after the second phase of five.”

Of the 53 horses that were treated during the WEG endurance competition, only one had been admitted for a lameness issue. The other 52 had metabolic issues, all suffering from dehydration from excessive sweating and fluid loss, Akerström said. Thirty-two horses were treated with intravenous fluids.

Some of these horses also had myopathy (essentially, muscle cramping or tying up), “which could have shown as lameness to spectators, but when you check the blood values you see that it is also a metabolic problem,” Akerström continued. “There were two mild colics that recovered quite quickly, and then we had a horse with kidney problems, and actually one that came back the following day with kidney problems.”

During the Sept. 14 press conference the endurance officials received word that one of the endurance horses with kidney problems had been euthanized at Tryon Equine Hospital in nearby Columbus, North Carolina, one of the official WEG veterinary clinics. The FEI later confirmed that owner Mark Round had elected to euthanize his 20-year-old Anglo-Arabian gelding, Barack Obama, ridden by New Zealand team member Jenny Champion. Barack Obama had been transported to the on-site treatment clinic from the second loop of the shortened 120-kilometer ride before being transferred to Tryon Equine Hospital. The horse had made 16 FEI event starts and had won six FEI competitions since Champion took over the ride in 2014, the FEI statement said.

Akerström noted that 15 horses did not start in the endurance competition because they did not pass the first horse inspection. An additional four horses passed the inspection but were withdrawn prior to the start. That left a total of 95 horses to start the 120-kilometer ride. None finished prior to the competition’s being called off.

The final nail in the competition’s coffin, officials said, was the footing. Following the rain, “the track was becoming very slippery,” Akerström said. “The horses had to compensate. They had to use much more energy than they should use”—which, of course, overheated them even more.

Some endurance reporters challenged the FEI officials, arguing that some horses on course were still fit and healthy and should have been allowed to finish the race.

Timmons disagreed: “Regardless, conditions were extreme enough that you have to consider the risk. The risk was not worth it.”

FEI to Investigate False Start

The ride, of course, got off to a rocky start even before weather issues arose. After some riders were misdirected at the pre-dawn start of the endurance competition, officials stopped the race at the first vet gate and later restarted it as a 120-kilometer race (about 75 miles, a shortened version of the planned 160 kilometer, or 100-mile, race).

Could the cancellation have been avoided had it not been for the delays and the restart? Timmons says no.

“With the full 160-kilometer trail, the expected finish time for the lead horses was between 5:00 and 5:15 p.m., with the last finishers expected at 10:45 p.m.,” he said. “Even without the delay, there was no possibility that the ride would have been completed before the elevation of the WBGT index.”

The FEI announced that it has asked the independent Equestrian Community Integrity Unit (ECIU) to investigate the false start, including interviewing riders, officials, and volunteers “to provide a full picture of what happened,” according to a statement. The ECIU’s findings will be presented to the FEI Bureau and eventually made public.

In light of the race’s cancellation, the WEG endurance ground jury announced that no medals will be awarded. Ingmar De Vos, FEI president, said the Spanish endurance team lodged an appeal, requesting that the FEI award medals based on the standings at the time that the race was called off; but the FEI Appeals Committee upheld the no-medals decision.

“I can understand the frustration of the athletes, but I think the officials have saved our sport,” De Vos said. “They have really placed the welfare of the horses on the first place. This is, as you know, our priority. We (FEI endurance) have been criticized a lot in the past, and I think during the ride it was proven that horse welfare is our priority.”