USEF President David O'Connor Responds to Article Circulated by Dressage Rider Catherine Haddad

We wish to clarify the process by which the selection procedures for naming the 2008 Olympic Games Dressage Team were developed and the rationale behind their design.  Ms. Haddad’s article implies that these procedures were developed without consideration being given to her concerns and that horse welfare was not a consideration which is wholly incorrect.  Moreover, her opinions do a disservice to the active athletes and volunteers who have spent countless hours making the process fair and compliant with the Ted Stevens Amateur Sports Act.

The USEF High Performance Dressage Active Athletes Committee made its first recommendation about the design of these selection procedures to the USEF High Performance Dressage Committee in April 2007.  All 10 members of the Active Athletes Committee are seasoned international competitors, 3 of whom have competed at the Olympic Games.  These athletes are elected to the committee by their peers and thereby represent the interests of all athletes competing at the international level.  Their recommendations regarding the selection procedures took into full account all of the factors which impact the selection of a team, including the dates and location of the final selection trials and the pre-Games training plan.

Having received the recommendations of the Active Athletes, members of the High Performance Committee also considered all of these factors and in May 2007 made many of the details of these procedures and pre-Games logistics known to the athletes who would be impacted by their decisions.  The 12 members of the High Performance Committee also have extensive international experience as Olympic athletes, Chefs d’Equipe at international Games and as FEI judges.

In June 2007 USEF received a letter from Ms. Haddad expressing her concerns about the dates and location of the selection trials where she requested that the High Performance Committee reconsider the proposed selection procedures and training plan.  During the month of July both the Active Athletes and High Performance committees were reconvened to discuss Ms. Haddad’s concerns.  When Ms. Haddad sent a letter to the United States Olympic Committee (USOC) on August 30 protesting the proposed selection procedures, USEF held a joint meeting of the Active Athletes and High Performance committees on September 4 to again address these concerns.  At this meeting the Active Athletes and High Performance committees unanimously rejected Ms. Haddad’s recommendations as not in the best interest of potential team performance and agreed that no changes to the proposed selection procedures were warranted.  USEF staff then met via teleconference on September 5 with the USOC to inform them of this decision and to finalize the draft selection procedures.  The USOC Team Selection Working Group approved these procedures on September 27.

This decision was made out of consideration for what would be the fairest way for the largest number of riders to qualify for the selection trials.  Holding the final selection trials in May, as proposed by Ms. Haddad, would have removed three qualifying events from the calendar.  This would have reduced the number of qualifying opportunities for riders who might be coming forward later in the qualifying year but who might be strong candidates for selection, thereby reducing our chances of fielding the most competitive team.

The decision to have the team named in California and then travel to Europe for training and quarantine was made after extensive consultation with USEF team veterinarians.  The welfare of the horses is, and always has been, of paramount importance in drafting selection procedures and designing pre-Games training plans.  Westward travel from California to Hong Kong requires that the horses travel by plane between 18-20 hours, depending on weather and other circumstances, and includes a fueling stop in Alaska.  With each landing of an aircraft the risk increases that the aircraft may require maintenance.  Were maintenance to an engine or other critical component of the aircraft be required, the length of the stopover in Alaska could be extensive and because established quarantine facilities are not available there, the risk is considerable that the quarantine would need to be broken and the chances of the horses being allowed into Hong Kong in time to compete at the Games would be compromised.

A non-stop 11-12 hour flight from Europe to Hong Kong, with the possibility of an emergency stop in Dubai (where extensive aircraft maintenance facilities exist and state of the art veterinary facilities greatly reduce the risk that quarantine would be broken should the aircraft be delayed), is the plan that best ensures the well being of the horses.  The "Guidelines for Horse Transport by Road and Air" published in 2000 by the US National Federation and the MSPCA in cooperation with the FEI recommends that the transport time per day for horses should not exceed 12 hours and that horses that fly in excess of 12 hours that arrive healthy may require 2 - 3 days of recovery time.  All of the USEF team veterinarians and shipping agents agree that minimizing the amount of time in planes is the most important element in planning the transport of horses.  We have planned our transport of horses to the Olympic Games to conform to these recommendations.  It should be noted that the USEF Show Jumping and Eventing High Performance and Active Athletes Committees have also decided to train and quarantine their horses in Europe prior to the 2008 Olympic Games and to ship the horses to Hong Kong via a similar route as our Dressage horses.

Readers should be reminded that the USEF Active Athletes and High Performance committees have a proven record of successfully fielding teams for international Games where the logistics of qualifying our horse/rider combinations and preparing for the Games have always required finding solutions to challenging geographic circumstances.  Their mission is to develop selection procedures that offer the fairest way to qualify for the largest number of athletes and that ensure the USA fields the strongest possible teams for these events.  Within all of the Olympic sport disciplines, athletes design their training and competition plans around the requirements of the selection procedures and must endure the challenges and hardships that result from these training programs.

Members of the Active Athletes and High Performance Dressage committees in no way ignored the concerns brought to them by Ms. Haddad and at every step of the process considered the challenges European based riders would face.  To make changes to these selection procedures in order to address circumstances that affect a smaller number of athletes than those who are based in the USA would not be in the best interest of the sport and would be unfair to the majority of athletes while simultaneously compromising the welfare of our team horses.

David O’Connor
United States Equestrian Federation

The Hong Kong Conundrum - One American High Performance Rider Speaks Out - by Catherine Haddad