The Danish equestrian world is in a turmoil and in the last few days the chess board is being repositioned following an open letter by the former Danish Equestrian Federation's elite sport chef and team captain Kimi Nielsen.
She publicly questioned the ethics and moral standards of the Danish equestrian federation in regards to Andereas Helgstrand's European Championship team selection in the face of the Operation X documentary which alleges horse abuse at his barn.
Icarus and Jante Law
In Denmark and Scandinavian countries a social attitude of disapproval, named the Law of Jante, exists towards expressions of individuality and personal success. It represents the egalitarian nature of Nordic countries. Denmark does not frown upon personal wealth and success, but when it comes at the cost of alleged fraud and animal abuse, the societal hammer strikes hard.
In fifteen years time Danish entrepreneur and team rider Andreas Helgstrand has become a billionaire with his horse dealing and ventures. He set up his independent business in 2008 and sold half his company to the Dutch Private Equity Group Waterland for a multi-million euro deal. Since then he bought and co-invested in numerous companies (Kingsland, Zibrasport, The Chronicle of the Horse, Patrik Kittel, etc), merged with Ludger Beerbaum to become Global Equestrian Group, bought the Wellington show jumping grounds and an adjacent 17 million euro farm.
Flying high like Icarus, the wax began to melt when the Danish newspaper Nordjyske began exposing multiple, allegedly fraudulent practises in his horse deals in which owners and breeders were apparently cheated. On a weekly base, Nordjyske posted case after case (article 1 - 2 - 3 - 4 - 5 - 6) and more prominent figures were getting named as duped in horse deals: Jan Pedersen (WBFSH president), Kirstin Andresen (Norwegian billionaire and stallion owner), Canadian horse investor Vicky Lavoie, and even Danish team mate Daniel Bachmann Andersen. Nordjyske had to admit that one witness retracted her statement and they issued an apology.
In June 2022 Waterland hired a law firm to do an internal investigation into contracts and invoices. On 22 June 2023 a press release was posted that a greater commitment to more transparency and better contracts would be made in the future.
In August 2023 Kasper Kristiansen, the Danish head of the Waterland Private Equity Group and the ceo who signed the contract with Helgstrand in 2018, resigned from his position after six years on the job.
While Nordjyske's investigative articles quieted down, Helgstrand had a bigger bone to chew in the matter of Operation X.
On 20 June 2023, Helgstrand revealed in a press release that a groom has been working in his stable undercover for the TV2 documentary "Operation X" and has taken video footage with a hidden camera. Helgstrand condemned this way of working and questioned the legality of it. Operation X is made by Danish Morten Spiegelhauer for Danish television station TV2 . Helgstrand pressed charges with the police and filed an injunction against the airing of the documentary. In court it was disclosed the footage contains images of alleged horse abuse. On 4 September the court denied Helgstrand's request for injunction. He immediately appealed that decision.
Disqualified from Danish Championships
While all this was going on, Andreas rode his stallion Jovian at the 2023 Danish Dressage Championships on 2 - 4 June 2023. These championships were the first team selection trial for the European Championships, followed by the CDIO Aachen. Andreas was selected on the team and Denmark won team bronze at the 2023 European Championships in Riesenbeck, hosted at Global Equestrian Group's show grounds and sponsored by Helgstrand's companies.
On 19 September 2023, the Danish Equestrian Federation's appeal committee decided that Andreas Helgstrand violated point 23 of the DRF's General Regulations. At the Danish Championships on 3 June, Jovian was treated by veterinarian Jonas Rasmussen for mild colic signs without previous approval of a DRF Veterinary Consultant. The horse was tubed and treated with Traumeel and Duphalyte. The colic signs disappeared fast, Jovian was competed on Sunday and the rider won bronze. Andreas was only made aware of the treatment on Tuesday, according to his statement.
They disqualified Helgstrand from the Danish Championship Freestyle class on Sunday 4 June 2023, and the rider has to return received prizes, as well as pay a fine of DKK 5,000.
Abuse and Neglect at Viegaard Stutteri
In the backdrop of all these developments on the Danish dressage scene and totally unrelated to Helgstrand, one of the biggest scandals in Denmark has taken place at the same time. It has also deeply affected the current climate and has sharpened emotions as the image of animal keeping .
At the once renowned and respected Danish warmblood stallion station and dressage training and sales farm Viegaard Stutteri in Skals, the worst case of horse neglect and abuse was laid bare. More than 10 years of neglect has been reported at this yard, yet Danish authorities (police, Danish Equestrian Federation (DRF), Danish warmblood society, Danish animal welfare group) did little to nothing to stop owner John Byrialsen.
After a social media uproar and streets protests, the Danish authorities finally took action and on 23 August 2023 a raid was held at the yard and the cadavers of 50 illegally buried horses were dug up.
27 September - Kimi Nielsen: "Are Helgstrand and the Danish Equestrian Federation pulling the rug out from under equestrian sports?"
On 27 September 2023 Danish equestrian website Ridehesten published the open letter that Kimi Nielsen wrote, questioning the ethics of the national equestrian federation.
"There is a need for new thinking within equestrian sports, if it is to continue to be an accepted sport here at home, and if it is to live up to the ethical ideals for the welfare of the horses, as described by the Danish Equestrian Association itself," Nielsen wrote.
In 2023, the Danish Animal Ethics Council published a statement on the use of horses for sports. One can read about a lack of confidence in the sport's ability to comply with animal ethical guidelines, especially when it comes to elite sport, where there is a high level of ambition and a lot of money involved. The statement posts this conclusion: "Some of the council's recommendations already point to the need for legislative initiatives. In the other recommendations, the Council has suggested that the industry itself follow up, provided that this happens immediately. If the follow-up does not take place as soon as possible and otherwise within a year, the council recommends that specific legislation be drawn up in Denmark for the use of horses for sport."
Kimi argues, "So we are under both scrutiny and pressure. We must show the world around us that we can live up to our own ethical guidelines. That is why it has never been more important than right now what signals we send both internally in the sport and to the entire world around us."
Nielsen points out that especially Helgstrand gives the sport a bad image with Operation X as well as his recent disqualifcation from the Danish Championships. The fact that Andreas only knew his horse had "colic" on Tuesday is sufficient evidence for Nielsen of "a cold and cynical relationship with the horse, which has now been reduced to a mere sporting prop."
Nielsen writes: "Against the background of these factual cases, one can be left wondering how DRF can choose Helgstrand to represent Denmark at the EC in September, knowing that there are video recordings from Helgstrand Dressage, which several experts in a courtroom have described as animal abuse and violence against the horse, just as the DRF has known about the doping case since the DM in June."
Danish team and squad members have to abide by the DRF's Code of conduct, not dope their horses, be a role model for other athletes, and comply with the sport's fairplay principles and general animal welfare rules. Nielsen wonders, "I would like to ask DRF if just one of the above important points has been observed by Andreas Helgstrand? Would any other rider – e.g. Little Lise - could act in the same way as Helgstrand and still get on a national team? Does consideration for the horse's welfare come before the interests and wishes of the trainer, the rider and the owner, when in a doping case you can pay off the wrongdoing? Does DRF send out the right signals about the interest in the horse's welfare and does DRF seem credible in relation to its own ethical rules, norms and values?"
She continues, "If we are to continue using horses in sport, it is absolutely crucial that we all behave properly and that not least the organization (DRF), which has been set up for e.g. to set out rules and guidelines, behave in a trustworthy manner and send out signals that give both us who are in the sport and all the many who stand outside, an image that the use of horses in sport is handled with great respect and responsibility for the welfare of the horses."
She concludes with, "Am I the only one with a desperate concern for the future of equestrian sports? Will DRF soon come into its own and at least start living up to its own written ethical guidelines? Has DRF's main board become too fed up, so that everyone is no longer treated the same?"
28 September: Sophus Bøgeskov Christensen Resigns
Lawyer Sophus Bøgeskov Christensen has resigned from the board of directors of Hestens Værn, Denmark's Horse Animal Welfare Society which was founded in 1909 and which is the world's oldest animal welfare association for horses.
Christensen is also the personal lawyer of Andreas Helgstrand and an alleged conflict of interest seems to have arisen.
On 22 September the society announced that Christensen has resigned with a statement on its website, but the news only became publicly known yesterday.
"Due to the unrest caused by the case, members of the association have left Hestens Værn or criticized the association's priorities with reference to Sophus Bøgeskov Christensen's representation of Helgstrand Dressage, despite the fact that the trial has nothing to do with Hestens Værn. Chairman Julie Fjeldborg emphasizes that it is important to distinguish between the theme of the case, which is the limits of a media's use of agents with hidden cameras, and the association's focus on animal welfare. "We want to secure the trust of our members and maintain focus on our primary goal of improving conditions for horses in Denmark." says Julie Fjeldborg. Hestens Værn has had a good collaboration with Sophus Bøgeskov Christensen, who has been on the board since 2003, both as a board member and as an individual. Julie Fjeldborg points out that there is no doubt about his values and commitment."
29 September: Ulf Helgstrand Takes Leave
Today, effective immediately Ulf Helgstrand (father of Andreas Helgstrand) has taken leave as chairman of DRF.
Helgstrand has been chair since 2003 and at the board meeting in April 2023 was re-elected for another two years.
DRF posted: "Since then it has turned out that in some of the most important and heaviest themes in the board's work, for the time being, disqualification often arises due to family relationships. Ulf Helgstrand has therefore offered to resign as chairman, but has, after consultation with the board, chosen to take leave as chairman of DRF to give the board peace of mind in the important matters. DRF's current deputy chairman, Jakob Blicher Ravnsbo, will temporarily take over as chairman."
29 September: DR Sport: Andreas Helgstrand Responds
Andreas Helgstrand has given a first public reaction to his disqualification from the Danish Championships today to DR Sport. Helgstrand replied to DR in writing (google translate from Danish).
Concerning Rasmussen tubing Jovian at the show, Andreas said, "It is really a shame for me that Jonas Rasmussen did not pull the tube out (from his nose, ed. ) and subsequently gave Jovian the mentioned preparations in a syringe in his mouth. But I may well understand that Jonas did not consider it a violation of the regulations to give it through a tube, when he was in a pressured situation with a tube in the nose of a 700-kilogram, non-anesthetized, stallion at a show venue."
When asked why only knew of the matter on the Tuesday after the Championship, he replied he "is a busy man" who "must take care of business and riding".
Helgstrand stated: "Since I don't have time to be the one who takes my horses to pasture, takes care of the individual horse's well-being 24 hours a day and gives them endless love, I have my groom Mik (Mikkala Krog , ed. ). She gives my horses all the love and care that I cannot achieve. I know that many will judge me for not even looking after and kissing my horse myself, for leaving everything other than riding to someone else. But I can say with a clear conscience that my horses have someone who loves them and looks after them 24 hours a day."
Photos © Astrid Appels - Ridehesten
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