If you spend all day riding, you won’t have the time or inclination to read weighty tomes about FEI rule changes. But procedural know-how would reduce so much angst and wasted effort for competition riders. For a start, elite dressage athletes would learn why their 11th-hour bid to save the top hat was always doomed.

Their 151-signature petition, involving the sport’s biggest names, garnered much media attention last week and triggered intelligent debate on dressage forums about safety and freedom of choice.

A pro-helmet, US-based group called Physician Women Equestrians (PWE) then scrambled to send the FEI a counter-petition. But they were urging the FEI not to do something the FEI already had no intention of doing, for last Tuesday (October 27) the FEI confirmed there can be no vote to reinstate top hats at the FEI General Assembly (GA) on November 23.

At last year’s GA, the FEI’s 137 member nation federations (NFs) agreed to compulsory helmets. That principle is confirmed; just its implementation for senior dressage riders was deferred until January 1, 2021, after intervention from European NFs. Even then, the FEI recommended the helmet be worn by all. Delayed implementation is not unusual for clothing and saddlery rules; types of pinch-boots were phased out of jumping over an agreed time-table.

Helmet-wise, the 2020 GA agenda will vote on a few details ‒ for instance, each sport may decide separately whether helmets can be removed during the prize-giving. But that’s all.

The top hat is not the most burning issue for equestrianism (or humanity), but is a good example of last-minute commotions over rule changes and why ‒ exhaustingly ‒ they keep happening.

I haven’t found out why the PWE was panicked into believing the FEI would disregard its own pro-helmet vote. I suspect it is unawareness of the rule-making processes ‒ a boring topic, but so important. Much work went into those petitions, time better spent reading how the process actually works here.

The all-sport deadline for new FEI rule submissions ‒ ask your NF or stakeholder group to take up your cause ‒ has always been March 1, a full ten months before they take effect (if agreed by the GA) the following January. After March 1, only “tweaks” to those proposals can be fed back until the end of August.

Major policy u-turns do not count as a “tweak.” Even if they did, an 11th-hour celebrity petition won’t cut it at the GA, a slave to due process.

The FEI Board has powers to reverse a GA decision or bring in new emergency rules, but it really does have to involve an emergency. In the past decade, they have only been applied over the controversial vote to tolerate bute, and more recently over immediate horse welfare measures in endurance.

Some dressage riders were caught on the hop by the 2019 helmet vote. It fell under FEI General Regulations (see page 26 here ) which supercede each discipline’s own rules, as do FEI Veterinary Rules, though not everyone seems to know that. There was, though, ample coverage in specialist dressage media, and two active Grand Prix riders sit on the FEI dressage committee, so it’s odd there was no furor at the time.

The issue reignited this summer when Portuguese Olympian Daniel Pinto wrote about mandatory helmets giving the idea dressage could be dangerous. Isabell Werth and other big names took it up, and the International Dressage Riders Club submitted their 151-signature petition to the FEI a couple of weeks ago.

Yet no-one following the FEI’s official consultation process could have had an inkling of rider discontent. The FEI publishes all stakeholder responses to upcoming rule changes ‒ even the extreme or plain daft ‒ and just one country, Sweden, suggested small tweaks to the approved helmet rule. The FEI says it heard nothing from any dressage stakeholder group during this time.

Alas, I don’t suppose lessons will be learned from this latest non-event. Unfortunately, riders in general don’t engage in consultation. There was a startling reminder of this disinterest earlier this year, when just one of a potential 40,000 FEI riders responded to a consultation invitation over the new anti-doping rules. One. And even that person wanted to remain incognito!

We journalists try to distill tedious documents into palatable news. I realise that this kind of “duty” article tends to be skipped over; quite likely this one will be too.

Everyone likes to fire off comments on Twitter, but the complex matters tweeted about first have to be explained on a more spacious platform. Before the internet, profitable equestrian print magazines were packed with 2,000-3,000 word features. How have attention spans deteriorated so fast? Nowadays 600 words is considered long; this article is 886. If it’s been a struggle to read thus far, no wonder FEI processes remain a mystery to so many.