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  • Writer's pictureJulie Taylor

A certain lack of feeling

There are many opinions about the practice of bringing chronically lame horses back to competition by cutting the sensory nerves to their feet so they can't feel their injuries. In the past few weeks, anwers to our questions about de-nerving have started coming in. Here is an update on what people had to say.

We started out by asking the FEI why the federation has chosen to change its rules from a complete ban on nerve cut horses to a partial ban where these horses remain ineligible to compete for as long as the feeling in their leg or legs is affected.

To us, the new rule seems questionable as long as no scientifically validated method exists which can objectively rule out abnormal sensitivity. It seems even more questionable – as the Danish Equestrian Federation has done in the case of Thomas Dresler's Never Say Never – to allow a skin sensitivity test as evidence of restored sensitivity inside the foot.

We asked Head of Clinical Orthopaedics at the Animal Health Trust in Newmarket, Dr. Sue Dyson, about the relationship between skin sensitivity and altered sensitivity in the caudal foot. Could sensitivity to the skin return after a neurectomy while the deeper tissues remained numb?

Dr. Dyson: Sometimes, yes. If yes, how would one go about ruling this out?

Dr. Dyson: Impossible with certainty

We have asked the FEI repeatedly over the course of four weeks how exactly the new rule regarding neurectomy is enforced. How does the FEI make sure that horses who have undergone neurectomy have one hundred per cent normal limb sensitivity before they are allowed to compete. We are still waiting for an answer. All the FEI will tell us on the subject is this:

“If a horse has undergone neurectomy we would need to evaluate it objectively.”

And, confusingly, this:

“The FEI is currently working with veterinary specialists to develop a method to objectively measure sensitivity in horses”

So, before a horse can compete post-neurectomy, the case will have to be evaluated objectively. But the FEI is still working on developing a method to do so.

If there is no way to enforce the new rule, why get rid of the old, binary ban on post-neurectomy competing? The FEI either doesn't know or doesn't want to tell us. We have asked this question over and over and we have received no reply. They do tell us it is on its way, though, so fingers crossed.

At least the FEI intends to be more rigorous in how it processes these cases than was the Danish Equestrian Federation. In the case of Never Say Never, the vets who testified in favour of allowing the horse to compete were all implicated in his surgery. The FEI would not have allowed this. “A statement from the horses own vet/surgeon for instance is not valid due to an obvious conflict of interest” said Ruth Grundy of the FEI press office.

This leads to another question. Was Never Say Never eligible to compete at FEI events in Odense (2016), Arezzo (2017) and Linz-Ebelsberg (2017) after having at least one neurectomy in 2015? And if he were, by which process did this happen, given that there is no way to perform the necessary, objective evaluation?

Those are a couple more questions which the FEI is either struggling or refusing to answer. If you happen to know how to contact someone important – a sponsor, high level official or even someone at the International Olympic Committee or the World Anti-Doping Agency, perhaps you could ask them for us. They can contact us on - on or off the record.

Update: Shortly after publishing this article, we received the following statement from the FEI:

"If the FEI is provided with credible evidence that a horse has been de-nerved, we will initiate an investigation. We have requested full documentation from the Danish National Federation on the horse Never Say Never as well as the decision of the national disciplinary hearing."

We also want to know what the consequences, if any, will be for Mr. Dresler, should he turn out to have competed Never Say Never in violation of the FEI rules. Is neurectomy a banned or controlled method? If it is, Never Say Never was doped in Odense, Arezzo and Linz-Ebelsberg. If it's not, what exactly is it?

Finally, we want to know if anyone is going to do anything about the case of the chronically lame horse, Anton, who was made to jump in international competitions in 2013 after being de-nerved in both front legs. Anton was eventually put to sleep due to his injuries. But not before his owner had competed him for a few extra months, helped by the fact that Anton's neurectomy surgery had rendered him unable to feel his smashed up flexor tendon and navicular bone.

We asked former Danish team vet and current FEI treating vet, Jonas Rasmussen, about Anton, since Anton was de-nerved and subsequently treated at Højgaard Hestehospital, where Rasmussen works. We have to ask you about a horse named Anton who was de-nerved at Højgaard Hestehospital in 2012 due to chronic injuries.

Mr. Rasmussen: I can't comment on the specific horse but I can give my general opinion. What do you think about the horse jumping in a 1.20 m class three months after leaving Højgaard with both front legs de-nerved?

Mr. Rasmussen: That is in violation of the doping rules and should not take place. When the horse returned to Højgaard in 2013 after having gone lame during a horse show, what did you think about the owner's decision to compete, taking into account that the horse was suffering from chronic injuries to the deep digital flexor tendon and the navicular region?

Mr. Rasmussen: If a horse has a serious injury to the deep digital flexor tendon, it is not realistic to jump that horse again. As team vet, did you feel obligated to notify the Danish Equestrian Federation and FEI that the horse had been competing both nationally and internationally in violation of the rules?

Mr. Rasmussen: I was not aware of these circumstances Apart from recommending wedge shoes, what did you do to make sure that Danish law regarding horse husbandry and animal protection would be obeyed in relation to Anton?

Mr. Rasmussen: I cannot comment on the actual treatment of the horse in question.

End of interview.

So that seems like a fairly fruitless interview, were it not for Mr. Rasmussen's clear assertion that competing a horse post-neurectomy would, in his opinion, be “in violation of the doping rules.”

If you recall, the Danish Equestrian Federation used to share that view, but now it doesn't. At least not according to its head of communications, Rikke Højgård, who told us it was downright "incorrect" to connect neurectomy to doping.

It seems the Danish Equestrian Federation has been rapidly changing its definition of doping since the case of Never Say Never became public. It is doing a rollkuresque re-branding job on the term.

“Oh that thing we do to horses because it's the only way we can get them to perform? The thing we can't ban because so many people are doing it that the sport would implode if we policed the ban? Yes, that thing has a new name now and as long as you call it by that - as yet - untarnished name, it's okay to keep doing it.”

Make no mistake. That is what is happening to neurectomy now. It is being re-branded as “not doping”. That is, unless doing so becomes such an embarrassment to the federations that they have to revert to the old rules and actually deal with riders who smash up their horses' legs, de-nerve them and keep riding to squeeze the last of the money and glory out of them.

So far, our focus on Never Say Never's de-nerving has resulted in the horse being pulled from the Danish team shortly before the Nations Cup round hosted by Denmark a couple of weeks ago. Officially, the rider chose to keep his horse at home “to avoid negative media attention for the sport”. This narrative made us LOL, because if that's what Mr. Dresler wanted, he probably wouldn't have dragged his federation through a disciplinary case in order to win the right to keep riding his once chronically lame, now suddenly jumping like a gazelle, de-nerved horse in competitions. We're hoping someone at the Danish federation or even the FEI actually had the good sense to tell Mr. Dresler to keep his horse at home.

And here is the crux of the matter. When Never Say Never was pulled from the Nations Cup round, he was not just replaced by another horse. Mr. Dresler was replaced as well. Without Never Say Never, he could not be considered for the team. The horse was his ticket – his only ticket – to the ball. We should keep that in mind when the ever recurrent, rhetorical question is asked in response to criticism of certain methods: “why would a rider risk the health of a horse worth millions?”

The answer is that the horse is only “worth millions” as long as he performs. Never Say Never may be “part of the family” and “our best friend” to the Dreslers, but you can't pay the bills with love, whether that love is real or fake. That – right there - is the unsolvable paradox of professional equestrian sport. “Welfare of the horse must never be subordinated to competitive or commercial influences.” Those aren't our words. The sentence was taken from the FEI's own Code of Conduct. It should be clear as day to everyone by now that this simply isn't realistic. It's not about a few bad apples. It's about the shattering contradictions embedded in the very foundations of the sport.

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