My ‘Road to Rio’!

 

Sophie W and JM

Sophie Wells MBE at her base in Harby, Notts with JM.

This is of course meant in a vicarious sense because there is more chance of finding rocking horse poo than there is of me qualifying for dressage at the Rio 2016 Games…maybe 2024, ‘if your dreams don’t scare you they’re not big enough’!!  No, I’m actually referring to our ‘local’ dressage superstar, Sophie Wells MBE from Harby, Nottinghamshire.  Sophie, after Team Gold medal success at London 2012 and 2014 World Equestrian Games, has qualified for Team GB Paralympic Dressage in the Summer and she’s only 26. In Nottinghamshire as well as in the wider horse community we’re all behind her of course as well as all the GB Olympic and Paralympic equestrians in their quest for 2016 participation.

I am lucky enough though to have lessons with Sophie on my TB, Mojo or ‘Rhythm is a Dancer’ (should have been ‘[s]He Moves in Mysterious Ways’ if we were going for song lyrics…..) as does my wife, Dawn on her coloured, Miller. I first met Sophie in March and have to say that for someone of relatively tender years yet with so much success already she is very grounded and is also very intuitive as a trainer. She noticed straight away that I wasn’t helping Mojo on 20 metre circles with where I was putting my weight.  In 45 minutes Sophie had helped me to see that it was perfectly possible to guide Mojo in circles and spirals using just my weight and the reins being used only for ‘bend’ getting a much better outline than I had before. Mojo can be a handful so I was glad to be in expert hands.

wells2_2328250b

Sophie at London 2012

One other thing that helped is Sophie’s voice projection, I’m a bit deaf but I had no trouble even though it was a really windy day. After a spell competing in France and coaching in Belgium Sophie is back now and I’m ready for my next lesson on 21st May.  I had plenty of homework last time, let’s see if it’s paid off.

me n moj

In ‘competition mode’.

One of the factors that made me pick equine sports regulation as a research interest and indeed for a PhD thesis topic was the fact that I am active in the sport, albeit very much at grass roots level. This gives me a useful perspective and means I don’t have to have too many ‘head-space’ compartments as work, research and pleasure overlap in a useful, stress-reducing way, so far anyway…

Good luck Sophie, and all the Team GB Olympic and Paralympic hopefuls.

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What does horse sport, tennis, ice skating and cycling have in common?

A strange definition of ‘cheating’ you might say. I do understand that the world of sport has a fair number of competitors at the elite level that have little or no regard for the ‘Corinthian Ideals’ and are desperate enough to win to take banned substances in an organised fashion. It does the fight against this attitude no good however to ‘throw the book’ at the unwary and the naive.

This week Maria Sharapova revealed she failed a drug test with Meldonium in her system but this news follows hard on the indexheels of revelations that figure skater, Ekaterina Bobrova, and cyclist Eduard Vorganov also tested positive for the same drug.  Most of the reporting on this latest disclosure rather misses the point though.  The drug is on the World Anti Doping Agency (WADA) banned list but only since the 1st January 2016.  Prior to this it was being monitored but allowed as it was also taken for therapeutic benefits and this was the reason Sharapova had been taking the drug since 2006.  It may be that athletes have been taking Meldonium for its performance enhancing benefits all along but this isn’t the central issue, whilst the drug is ‘legal’ this is not cheating.  Once it became a banned substance there is of course a potential problem.  ‘Strict liability’ means that once the ban is in place there is really no way under the regulations as currently drafted that Sharapova, or any athlete, can escape a ban.  Sponsors have been quick to distance themselves from the athlete as if she is morally at fault and they do lynchnot want their products to be tainted, they will have provided for this with a ‘morality clause’ in her sponsorship contract.  But what did she do wrong?  She didn’t read an email attachment with the new list of banned substances on it.  Does this make a a cheat and morally suspect?  I don’t personally think so and I didn’t think so when I read in my PhD research about the equestrians, such as Ireland’s Dennis Lynch, who faced sanctions after the 2008 Olympics because their horses tested positive for Capsaicin, a substance derived from chilli peppers.  This substance was in a horse liniment called Equiblock designed to ease muscle fatigue.  It had been but recently banned by the FEI but Lynch hadn’t checked carefully enough.  He had opprobrium heaped on his head by Horse Sport Ireland as if he had set out to cheat which seems to me highly unlikely given the likelihood of testing and the inescapable prospect of a consequent punishment.

The problem I have with the regulations for both human and non-human athletes is that the question which ought to be central – ‘was the action a deliberate attempt to cheat’ is all but absent from the discussion in ‘court’.  The substance is there so there will be a guilty verdict no matter what.  There is then some debate about the ‘sentence’ based on whether the accused was acting deliberately or negligently.  To me this refusal to consider moral fault before establishing a verdict is just for the convenience of the ‘prosecutors’.  It is considered too difficult to prove doping infractions if deliberate moral fault must be proved, ‘we cannot, without blinding reason and cause, move one millimetre from strict liability – if Tiger woodswe do, the battle to save sport is lost’ says Lord Coe, virtually no one disagrees and careless athletes become ‘collateral damage’ in the war on dopers.  Coe’s assertion does not apply to all sport anyway.  USGA Golf has a ‘discretion rule’ which allows the USGA to waive a strict liability offence which would otherwise mean disqualification.  Tiger Woods benefited from such in the Masters Tournament in Georgia in 2013 when he inadvertently signed for an incorrect score.  Furthermore in criminal law many strict liability offences have a defence built into them which means that if the accused did everything reasonably necessary to avoid the commission of the offence they escape liability.  Not so in doping and no proposals to bring one in either.  The offensive thing is that whilst such as Sharapova and Lynch have their reputations tarnished for being unwary the real cheats are getting away with it by being more technologically sophisticated than WADA are.  Even the former DG of WADA , David Howman admitted to the Sydney Morning Herald in 2011 that only ‘dopey dopers’ were being caught under the current procedures.

Ironically it is horse sport that potentially has the game changer here, although it has barely been noticed.  It was hrace horsesorse racing that was the first sport to have any form of doping control.  This was at the turn of the 20th Century in response to American trainers using cocaine to jazz up the performance of their horses in British races.  Now, tucked away in a paragraph of a report by Dame Elizabeth Neville into integrity issues in horse racing there is the suggestion that rules, such as those regulating doping, should be written around a series of principles rather than in detailed and rigid paragraphs which must be read literally.  One would hope the principles would be written around the concept of cheating and not penalise the lack of currency of an athletes pharmacological knowledge.

One thing is sure, what we have now, in relation to anti-doping for human and non-human athletes isn’t working, we need a change of tack.  After all as has been attributed to Albert Einstein, Mark Twain and Ben Franklin at one time or another ‘the definition of insanity is doing something over and over again and expecting a different result’.

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Some thoughts on ‘Brexit’ for the horse community

Yes I know it’s been a while! Getting my thesis to the point of submission has been all consuming, plus the worst flu I have ever had knocked out most of March.  However on the theme of the impending referendum I haven’t seen very much on what effect either result would have for those of us who work with, write about or own horses. I thought I would pen some musings for what they’re worth.eu horse

In the course of my research I discovered that the British Horse Industry Confederation (BHIC) published a report which amongst other things stated that in 2008 the annual turnover of the whole industry was over £7 billion. This was an estimate as many figures relating to leisure and sport horses are. It is not even possible to know with any certainty how many horses there are in any European country, research up to now has standard deviations in the region of 60% (!).  This BHIC figure of £7 billion though is about the same size as farming in the United Kingdom and there are 70,000 jobs dependent on it.

The same survey estimated that there are 1m horses in these islands which are the responsibility of about 0.5m people.  About 4.3m people are classified as riders in the UK with just under 50% riding on a monthly basis.  In terms of participation (as opposed to spectator numbers) that is a greater number than those regularly partaking in fishing, cricket and even rugby.

Deloitte accountants alsHorse passporto did some work on behalf of Ladbrokes in 2010 on the gambling industry. The whole sector employs around 100,000 people in this country and that it contributes £6 billion to the economy. The relevance for us is that every year 15% of horseracing’s income is derived from this industry.

These figures are not be sniffed at but one thing I have noticed is that the horse industry is particularly bad at throwing its weight around. With those numbers politicians should be alive to what concerns horse people, many of us are or shortly will be of voting age.  We should be more vocal, even more radical and we definitely should be using our votes, each and every time there is an opportunity. Voter apathy is what will leave horse related issues ignored not active opposition.

So what if we leave the EU or stay in? I wouldn’t seek to sway the blogosphere either way but I would say this.  The arguments from the ‘Leave’ and ‘Stay’ camps are staggeringly poor.  So far all the breathless brexiters can come up with is some sort of call to return to a golden era prior to our membership when apparently we managed our own affairs without interference and perfectly competently.  Presumably the same golden times that produced the economic criteria that lead to our joining the EU in the first place.  There is also a deliberate attempt to confuse the EU with the European human rights apparatus which actually is a completely separate organisation which we wouldn’t be leaving in the same breath anyway.  That seems to be all they have.

In turn the europhiles don’t appear to be able to do more than scare us with talk of migrant camps in Kent instead of Calais and dire warnings about major manufacturers and employers pulling out of the UK if we leave.  There are no concrete figures and no clear indication of how the nation would ever really settle as part of the EU post a winning ‘stay’ vote given the amount of ardent eurosceptics there are in seemingly every walk of life.  How are we ever going to be other than the ‘grumpy grandad at the wedding’ in future dealings with the EU with so many ‘antis’ at home, stoked up by a right wing press and represented by politicians in Brussels whose avowed intention is to wreck the EU?

One thing is for sure neither path is going to be easy.  An exit would be painful and new trade deals will take years to negotiate and may or may not be more to our liking than the current subservient relationships the Swiss, Icelanders and Norwegians have to put up with.  Staying in means years more tension in Brussels and Strasbourg between us and our trading partners.  One other thing is for sure, this is all going to affect the horse industry and associated sectors just as much as it does everyone else.  The only answer is listen to what they all have to say with due skepticism, do your own homework, talk it over with friends and family and cast a vote.  Ignore the whole process and…well…you’ll have to put with whatever happens without complaint….won’t you?

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The Queen is a cheat!

race horses

Horse racing, like equestrianism relies on ‘strict liability’ in the fight against doping.

Of course she is no such thing and you do not have to be a staunch monarchist to say so.  However the way that doping rules are written in sports where one of the athletes is non-human, horse racing for instance, mean that even she can be treated as one, even without proof of moral culpability.  This is because there is no consideration of whether the person in the ‘dock’ has deliberately or in legal terms, intentionally, given the prohibited substance to the animal.  Proof of completely innocent cross contamination might affect the length of any ban but the ‘conviction’ remains as does the stain on the sportsperson’s character.  I am not alone in thinking this is wrong, it is the way of things in human only sports, modelled on criminal offences like speeding and contravening a red stop light.  After all there is no point in saying to the magistrates that you just did not realise you were travelling over the speed limit, you will be convicted anyway, based on strict liability which takes no account of your thought process at all.  Human athletes have lost their livelihoods over taking Ibuprofen and a Vicks Inhaler product, both taken completely innocently.  This is bad enough, some academic commentators go as far as to say ‘repugnant’ but to take the same approach with non-autonomous animals means somewhere in pursuing the Corinthian Ideals we took a wrong turn and it is time we turned back.  This is why  I decided to focus much of my doctoral study on the construction of these kinds of rules in disputes involving sport horses, particularly over prohibited substances.

 

Last  year I was asked to do a short piece for ‘The Conversation’ about the Queen’s horse Estimate who in a post race test was found to have traces of morphine, probably from feed contaminated by accident during the manufacturing process.  Her Majesty the Queen is not a cheat but the rules as they are currently written take no account of that and punish anyway.  If that is the case for the Monarch, what hope do ordinary folk just starting out in equine -based sport have?…

The British Horse Racing Authority has revealed a total of seven racehorses have now tested positive for morphine in post-race samples. Unremarkable perhaps to a public jaded by reports of human athletes failing drugs tests, or even seeing drug abuse as a way of sporting life…. (Read the whole article at http://theconversation.com/oh-neigh-doping-rules-designed-for-humans-are-not-fit-for-horses-29687 )

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Attack of the clones….

…well everyone else was getting in on the Star Wars act this week so why not?  The legality of and ethical issues around horse cloning is likely to be one of the themes I want to explore in my post-doctoral research.

Halflinger clone

A Halflinger mare gave birth to the first cloned foal in 2003

When I began to explore these issues as a sub-theme in my (unfortunately still at draft stage) PhD thesis I had thought that this was one for the far distant future.  I included them because in the rarified atmosphere of doctoral study you are still allowed to ‘crystal ball gaze’ a little bit, not everything has to be applicable here and now.  However I was unaware that the pace in this area was moving quite fast and I was only barely ahead of the game.  I was recently asked to do a piece for a technology website re-launching in  January 2016:

 

Whilst cloned humans, never mind cloned human athletes may be some way off, equine sport is already there.  In November 2015 it was announced that a Chinese and South Korean biotech consortium plan to open the world’s largest cloning ‘factory’ costing an estimated £20.6m in Tianjin, China.  As well as animals for food, the operation is expected to ‘mass produce’ animals like police sniffer dogs and also racehorses.  This is the latest step in developments that have been taking place for over a decade…..(read the whole article at http://www.21stcentury.co.uk/science/horse-cloning-equine-sports/)

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Only fools and horses….

…work as the saying went long before the TV series did.  The way that horses contribute to the economy and society more generally has changed dramatically from the days of horse-drawn ploughs and open landaus carrying the well heeled to and fro.  Nevertheless the horse is much more than an a remnant of a pre-industrial past.  The present day contribution of the horse to sport, sales and marketing, art and culture, rehabilitation and therapy and the leisure industry is real and measured in billions of dollars worldwide.

Completion Of The World's Largest Of Equine Sculptures

FALKIRK, SCOTLAND – NOVEMBER 27: Donna Auchinvole with Duke and Lorraine Clark with Barron, Clydesdale Horses, attend a topping out ceremony at The Kelpies on November 27, 2013 in Falkirk, Scotland. Construction work has been completed on Andy Scott’s Kelpies, the world’s largest pair of equine sculptures and one of the UKs tallest pieces of public art. The 30 metre tall Kelpies have cost £5million to complete and play a central role in the £43 million, 350-hectare Helix land transformational project between Falkirk and Grangemouth. (Photo by Jeff J Mitchell/Getty Images) ORG XMIT: 452717073

The articles and posts in this online publication are to promote discussion of the issues which matter for people who work or play with horses, own them, ride them or just love them.  Horse sport is regulated, mostly by sports governing bodies, but the state is responsible for legislation and policy which governs many other aspects from veterinary treatment to ownership records.  In short horses still work and there is plenty to talk about…..

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