The sheer incongruity of a sporting body relaxing its policy on certain drugs is bound to attract headlines, but there  was always a strange inevitability about the way the International Equestrian Federation (FEI) torpedoed  its  own clean sport campaign.

The FEI has just spent Euros 1.8 million (£1.6 million) and a year on formulating  measures to kick doping into touch after excruciating positive cases at the Olympic Games and crass revelations by German riders that damaged  the sport’s already dwindling stock with the International Olympic Committee (IOC). 

The FEI’s Royal Rresident has made herself available for media briefings to an unprecedented  degree. 


No-one would dispute that the adoption of hard-hitting changes to medication control at this week’s General Assembly in Copenhagen deserved congratulatory coverage befitting "the most important decision the FEI will ever make."

So how come, I and countless others are still trying to fathom why the FEI bounced into the agenda a last-minute "option" to sanction the controlled use of phenylbutazone – a particularly contentious  anti-inflammatory? The notion was delivered with the same matter-of-factness you might ask if someone wanted sugar in their tea.

Two other pain-killers have also been approved but  only people born since 1989 can be excused for not knowing World War Three would break out over bute. Still a staple in many at-home medicine chests, a small amount can magically make a lame horse look sound - the working life non-competitive veterans is often prolonged by the "powders".


But it has no place in sport, which is why it was banned outright 20 years ago. Apart from cheating, the safety and welfare issues associated with jumping fences at speed on a horse that is essentially crocked are too awful to contemplate.

Significant global players - Germany, Ireland, Britain, Australia, New Zealand, Sweden and the United States - made impassioned pleas for zero tolerance. But it's one nation, one vote. Although it may be too sweeping a generalisation, the newer federations that are still learning about competition horse management were never going to reject bute. With the equally high-risk application of a secret ballot - some other matters were decided by a show of hands - it was almost a done deal.

Equally baffling is why the FEI had no prepared justification or recommendation for bute. The top table had to confer when entirely predictable questions came from the floor. Perhaps most telling was an executive suggestion that  the request for anti-inflammatories came "from the industry" - FEI-speak for riders, owners, trainers and vets.

This is not the first time in recent months that the FEI has been led off-piste by parties with vested interests. In August, it was discovered there was no mechanism to decide whether or Britain or Belgium should be relegated from the Nations Cup superleague after tieing at the bottom  in Dublin. On the day it was announced Britain would remain. By 10pm, both were relegated. Two weeks later the FEI Bureau ruled they were back in. But then Princess Haya (pictured) invited the views of the International Jumping Riders Club - at a meeting not attended by the British - and suddenly Belgium and Britain were relegated again.

You need very strong mental reserves to work for the FEI. They have all the commercial and political pressures associated with any major sport, never mind one burdened with popular perceptions of elitism and animal abuse. No other sport has to police an overwhelming set of welfare obligations to an athlete who cannot speak for himself.


Neither can welfare be ring-fenced. At the one end, medication control has always struggled to stay a hoofprint ahead of the pharmacists whose impossible-to-detect new potions can help a horse with aches and pains through the vet check on the eve of a major contest, adding maybe hundreds of thousands to his value.  At the other end is the challenge of educating third nations whose equines have metamorphorsised from beasts of burden to sporting commodities in barely two generations.

Until the 1980s the FEI was stuck in a backwater in Berne, though it has reinvented itself since relocating in Lausanne and in bringing in commercial and management expertise from a range of other sports and even the arts. Its designer-suited marketeers are probably impressing fledging sponsors. The FEI’s use of new media is both imaginative and exceptional.

In similar vein, one can only admire Princess Haya's stoicism and dignity when her own husband - Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid Al Maktoum, the ruler of Duabi - was "done" for doping just weeks after she stepped-up her clean sport campaign, and her determination to leave no stone unturned by inviting big-hitters  from outside the sport to lead her anti-doping commissions.

But  you can go too far:  however many smart agencies and focus groups you "engage" in the "consultation" process it never hurts to take all necessary time to run radical notions past your own people - those with heritage in and understanding of  the numerous idiosyncracies of this sport. Anti-inflammatories were not the only matter perceived to be railroaded through the Assembly by delegates. Many must have wondered why they had troubled to make the trip and, having left early, they unwittingly provided a practical excuse not to stage a re-vote for which by then a case was emerging.  There is, after all, ample precedent for the FEI to re-visit hasty decisions.  

Even if the current regime cannot remember the tumultuous debates about bute in the 1970s and 80s, the mood in the room should have sent up a flare that a public relations catastrophe was already underway.  The communications team's cheerful review of the year, presented several hours after the  sensational vote was already big news around the horse world, had all the resonance of Nero fiddling while Rome burned. It required the FEI’s veteran vice-president, Sven Holmberg, not a PR professional, to point out the reality. "If you thought media reaction to rollkur [a controversial training technique] was tough, just wait till you see what happens with this," he said.

Earlier, Swedish delegate Bo Helander, himself a former FEI chief executive, had asked: “I have been in the FEI for 30 years and have never heard of this mysterious body, 'The industry'.  What is it and what place does it have in the FEI?"

Let's hope his irony was not lost.  Before the FEI dreams up any other grand plans it needs to take a very good look at exactly who is wielding both the carrot and the stick.


Pippa Cuckson is the equestrian correspondent of The Daily Telegraph and one of the most respected commentators on equestrian sport. She was the deputy editor of Horse & Hound for many years and now regularly contributes to Chronicle of the Horse, Horse International and Country Life.