FEI: Sapphire's Disqualification for Protection, Not Punishment

The disqualification of Sapphire at the FEI World Cup Final in Geneva based on findings of hypersensitivity is not intended to punish but to protect, according to officials of the Fédération Equestre Internationale (FEI).

The 14-year-old Belgian warmblood mare, equine partner to two-time Olympic gold medalist McLain Ward (USA), is perfectly sound, has no pain, and requires no treatment, U.S. Equestrian Federation (USEF) team veterinarian Tim Ober, DVM, reported.

"She's naturally sensitive, and that's the type of horse we look for in a show jumper," Ober said April 20 from Zurich. Horses vary greatly in their levels of sensitivity to touch, even in extremely similar circumstances, he said.

Video recordings of the clinical exam show that Sapphire reacted by withdrawing her limb seven out of 57 times that pressure was applied to a one-centimeter diameter area of her front legs, said Ober. This occurred four times on the left and three on the right during the second examination by Paul Farrington, DVM, FEI-appointed veterinarian and member of the event's thermography team. The FEI decision focused on the left leg only, Ober said.

"I felt like her responses were within the range of what a normal horse might do," said Ober, who witnessed the exams and was able to repeat the same sensitivity reaction in Sapphire. "I wouldn't call it hypersensitivity." Veterinarians from the Swiss and French teams also examined Sapphire, at Ober’s request, during the Geneva event and found her to be sound and pain-free, he said.

"What really draws the line for me is that at no point during any of the examinations did she remove her leg in anticipation of being touched, even after multiple palpations," Ober said, adding that this would be much more indicative of hypersensitivity.

Thermographic exams of both legs were normal, with no signs of pain or heat, Ober reported. The FEI declined to comment specifically on this point, consistent with FEI protocol for pending legal cases, said Malina Gueorguiev, spokesperson for the FEI in Lausanne. However, she stated that thermography is considered "just an additional tool" in addition to clinical examination, as described in the 12th edition protocol for clinical and thermographical examination at international jumping events, in effect since April 5.

Sapphire's reactions indicated "substantial and concrete evidence" that the mare was unfit for competition, said Sven Holmberg, first vice president of FEI and chairman of the jumping committee, during a press conference in Geneva.

"The evidence we have on this horse is clearly different from what we have seen from the 35 horses that were examined before Sapphire and the 30 horses afterwards," Holmberg said.

"The numbers (of horses) tested ... show that there is a comparison made between sensitivity in a careful horse and pain," said HRH Princess Haya Bint Al Hussein, president of the FEI, during the conference. "And that's what we're here to deal with: protecting horses."

FEI officials reiterated that there was no question of mistreatment and that hypersensitivity can have other causes than intentional soring. "We are not talking about a doping case, and we are not talking hypersensitization, which means a deliberate attempt to hypersensitize," Farrington said. He cited stall injuries or bee stings as examples of how hypersensitivity could occur.

Sapphire's apparent hypersensitivity previously attracted the attention of FEI-appointed veterinarians, including Farrington, according to Ober. "She was tested in Aachen last year, and he (Farrington) spent a good bit of extra time questioning the forelegs," Ober said. "He kept going back to that left leg, and I kept wondering why." That exam did not lead to disqualification.

Sapphire's natural sensitivity in her forelegs could continue to present disqualification risks at future FEI events unless policies are changed, Ober said.

"The FEI needs to figure out a way to bring in some objectivity, both qualitative and quantitative, to these tests," Ober said. "I do appreciate the need for the questions they're asking. But it's well known in science that when you increase the sensitivity of tests, you increase the potential for false positives."

A Medication Control Programme (MCP) swab had been collected per request by Ober and Ward. Results are pending.

About the Author

Christa Lesté-Lasserre, MA

Christa Lesté-Lasserre is a freelance writer based in France. A native of Dallas, Texas, Lesté-Lasserre grew up riding Quarter Horses, Appaloosas, and Shetland Ponies. She holds a master’s degree in English, specializing in creative writing, from the University of Mississippi in Oxford and earned a bachelor's in journalism and creative writing with a minor in sciences from Baylor University in Waco, Texas. She currently keeps her two Trakehners at home near Paris. Follow Lesté-Lasserre on Twitter @christalestelas.

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