The rider of an Arabian horse whose leg broke during an endurance race in France has been relieved of a 20-year sanction for doping and horse abuse, following the decision of an international appeals court.
In June 2020, the Fédération Equestre Internationale (FEI) penalized the rider, Shaik Abdul Aziz Bin Faisal Mohamed Al Qasimi, of the United Arab Emirates (UAE), following the October 2016 death of 10-year-old Castlebar Contraband during a 90-kilometer 1* race in Fontainebleau, France. The sanctions included a two-year suspension for the alleged use of xylazine, a prohibited substance that can lower heart rates, and an 18-year suspension for other alleged acts of horse abuse, including repeated nerve blocking in the affected leg—which could mask pain that would otherwise red-flag a pending catastrophic injury—and sores from poorly fitting tack. The FEI also required Al Qasimi to pay 17,500 Swiss francs ($19,300US) in fines and 15,000 Swiss francs ($16,500US) in legal fees.
However, the Court of Arbitration for Sport (CAS), an independent arbitral institution based in Lausanne, Switzerland, overturned the decision on April 14. Allowing Al Qasimi’s assertion that the gray gelding’s leg broke accidentally, possibly after stumbling on a stone, and that the treating veterinarian might have mistakenly given xylazine instead of diazepam (Valium) after the fracture, the CAS dismissed the FEI’s sanctions as “ill-founded.”
“The CAS Panel determined that (Al Qasimi) had established, on the balance of probabilities, how the xylazine had entered Contraband’s system and that, in the scenario deemed most likely, (he) did not bear any fault or negligence,” a CAS representative told The Horse. “Accordingly, the Panel concluded that no period of ineligibility should be imposed and that the findings of the FEI Tribunal in the Challenged Decision must be set aside.”
Notably, Al Qasimi’s legal team argued that the timing of the administration of xylazine, as determined by veterinary experts, suggests that the horse received the prohibited substance after sustaining the fracture, according to the CAS decision.
The CAS also determined that there was “insufficient evidence for it to be comfortably satisfied” that Al Qasimi had abused his horse, the representative said.
“In view of the above conclusions, the Panel found that the appeal had to be upheld and that all sanctions, including the disqualification of all results and fines imposed on (Al Qasimi) by the FEI Tribunal in its decision of 3 June 2020 must be set aside.”
The FEI’s legal team contested the claims, however: Castlebar Contraband suffered an open comminuted and displaced fracture of the metacarpal bone, along with a lateral condylar fracture and a transverse fracture of the remaining portion (medial) of the third, second, and fourth metacarpal (cannon and splint) bones, according to post-mortem reports. Osteoarthritic lesions surrounded the fracture area. Such a fracture “does not just happen,” the FEI’s team stated, as reported in the CAS decision. “Even if (tripping on a stone) was the triggering factor, there were many other additional and accumulating factors in this case that (led) to the fracture.”
Reports indicate Castlebar Contraband continued to bear weight on the broken leg and tried to lie down on the side of the injury, suggesting he had received nerve blocks during the race and possibly before the vet check a half kilometer earlier, FEI experts stated. The broken bones had rounded ends, suggesting the horse might have been so anesthetized that he continued to run briefly after the break.
Additionally, the FEI experts said the treating veterinarian would have been very unlikely to confuse the drugs, because they have different packaging and require different methods of drawing them into a syringe. The horse’s post-mortem examinations revealed evidence of repetitive nerve block injections, including recent ones possibly occurring during the race itself. The horse also had multiple lesions from the saddle, girth, and breast collar, they said.
Even so, the CAS concluded that the FEI had failed in its burden of proof for such accusations. “While it is true that circumstantial evidence may have some probative value, the fact remains that, in a case such as the present, which concerns severe allegations of abuse of horse that may, if established, entail heavy sanctions for the Appellant, there must be cogent evidence establishing the commission of the alleged rule violation,” the CAS panel stated in its decision.
The CAS ordered the FEI to pay Al Qasimi 8000 Swiss francs ($8,800US) as a contribution to his legal expenses for the appeal.
For the FEI and its partner charity, World Horse Welfare (WHW), the decision is a “bitter disappointment,” said WHW CEO Roly Owers.
“It beggars belief that a case underpinned by such strong evidence of ongoing systematic horse abuse could be overturned in this way,” Owers said. “This creates real challenges about the enforcement of animal welfare in the sport of endurance and, more widely, calls into question just what needs to be proven before action can be taken. To take away evidence of injury by using nerve blocks to hide pain is grotesque horse abuse resulting in horses that are simply not fit to compete.”
FEI Veterinary Director Goran Åkerström, who served as an expert witness in both the FEI Tribunal and CAS proceedings, agreed. “We are incredibly frustrated to have lost this CAS appeal, especially as the catastrophic injury to this horse involved a combination of risk factors that ultimately led to its death,” he said.
“The one positive that has evolved since this case is the development of better methods of detecting physical evidence of nerve-blocking, which will hopefully help to deter this dreadful practice and benefit horses in the future by preventing similar tragic and unacceptable losses,” Owers said.
Neither the United Arab Emirates Equestrian and Racing Federation nor its endurance team president responded to requests for comment by the time of publication.