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  • Writer's pictureJulie Taylor

Flogging a sick horse

What would you do if you had a big event coming up and your horse fell ill? Imagine that he needed medication to deal with a respiratory issue but the drug was on the doping list, so you were forced to choose between the medals and the meds? Hopefully, most people would choose to leave the horse at home, continue the treatment and get him sorted out. Then there are those who would just keep using the drug, go to the event and hope they didn't get caught. And then there are those - it seems - who discontinue the treatment and just ride their sick horse at the European Championships with all the symptoms hanging out.

We took a trip to Herning this week to see what was going on at the ECCO FEI European Championships.

As usual, we thought Andreas Helgstrand's riding in the warm up seemed at odds with the FEI's mission statement: To promote "humane and sportsmanlike international competition in the traditional equestrian disciplines."

We took some pictures and also some video, just in case anybody accused us of manipulating with moments in time.

Then we went on to film a bunch of other riders, but we can tell you about that later. Because what we didn't know when we were watching Andreas Helgstrand warm up Akeem Foldager, was that the horse was actually ill. Struggling with mysterious respiratory problems. It was only when we got home that we heard on the news how Andreas Helgstrand blamed his failure to qualify for Sunday's finals on his horse being ill.

"My own performance was what it was, but the horse did not feel okay. It was blowing an awful lot. We have struggled quite a bit before the championships to find out what was wrong with it and we have found out it's a bit allergic" said Andreas Helgstrand to Danish broadcaster Danmarks Radio.

He did mention that they had tried to treat Akeem for the illness which makes the horse oxygen deprived during exercise: "We tried to give it some medicine through an inhaler to see if it helped. But the problem before this show is that you can't medicate the horse because of doping rules. That's no excuse but with the weather being warmer and all, the horse just felt deflated."

So Akeem felt deflated on Friday. It was through no fault of Andreas Helgstrand that the pair won't get to shine today, he stated:

"I don't think my own performance was bad as such. I don't feel as if I could have done a whole lot any differently. But the horse just wasn't with me. Unfortunately."

What does that mean? "The horse just wasn't with me"?

Does it mean the horse was against you? Is that why it was necessary to repeatedly kick him with the spurs and pull on his mouth when his legs buckled in the piaffe?

In another interview, Andreas Helgstrand blamed his failure on birch pollen. Akeem is allergic to birch, he said to Danish newspaper Politiken. A real bummer if you're trying to ride an international championship in April or May when it's birch pollen season. Not so much in August when there is no birch pollen in the air at all. Perhaps what Andreas Helgstrand tried to tell the paper was that Akeem is allergic to mugwart pollen. There's that in the air now, but there wasn't earlier in the season when Akeem had allegedly also been struggling with his respiratory problems.

Perhaps what Andreas Helgstrand was really trying to say, but couldn't say because it just sounds too callous, is that Akeem suffers from the same lifestyle induced respiratory problems of which every other caged horse is also at risk. We can only speculate. But we can at least be sure that Andreas Helgstrand took the medication away from his sick horse so that he could ride in the European Championships.

When we shot the footage of Akeem Foldager getting it with the spurs and the bits, we thought the riding was pretty crass. We wondered why Andreas Helgstrand would ride like that in front of a whole bunch of cameras. But when we discovered that the horse we had seen was actually oxygen deprived and that the rider knew about it - as did the team veterinarian who was watching by the fence - it all fell into place.

The European Championships sponsor Hanni Kasprzak was there (she co-owns Akeem Foldager). The national Danish dressage coach Rudolph Zeilinger was there.

The people in charge of Akeem Foldager must simply not care about this horse. They must simply be interested only in his potential and not in the slightest about his welfare. Otherwise, how could someone knowingly compete a sick horse? How could he repeatedly kick the horse with his spurs and restrict its breathing with his harsh hands, knowing that these are exactly the interventions which are proven to exacerbate respiratory problems? When he felt the horse's fatigue and lack of coordination beneath him, how could he react by pulling more and kicking harder? How could he do anything but jump off, loosen the girth and noseband and put his horse back in the stable? How could anyone there with authority to stop the horse's ordeal do anything but act on its behalf? Unless none of them feel the tiniest bit for the horse?

It must be that the horse is nothing and the performance is everything? What other explanation can there be? We finally get how they can do this.

Around the warm up arena, Andreas Helgstrand's entourage was watching his training. They all had grave looks of concern on their faces and were whispering between themselves. Clearly, they were upset by something and you might think it was the treatment of the horse in front of them. It wasn't though. The whispers were about the number of cameras on the wrong side of the fence. The concerned mumbling from Danish team vet and international dressage judge Hans Christian Matthiesen to the steward was not about his patient turning blue in front of the world. It was about the cameras capturing the awkward evidence.

We'll see in time what the FEI has to say about this footage. Is this riding in accordance with the Code of Conduct? Is this harmonious? Is the horse's welfare being placed above all else?

It may be that we receive a notice that the organisers feel as if we have violated their broadcasting rights by showing you this video. As if they were going to include this in the DVD set anyway. If they are seriously going to try that again, we will do as we did last year when the IOC attempted the same strategy and the story will blow up into the national and international media. Perhaps the organisers will try even harder this time and take us to court. We look forward to all the press this issue will then receive. We look forward to the chance to explain to the world why all its eyes should be turned on equestrian sport.

Among the photographers at the warm up arena was British-Norwegian fine art photographer, Crispin Parelius Johannessen. He captured these moments in time with his camera on the day.

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