Is it becoming too easy to become an ‘international’ rider?

Scores of evolving equestrian nations belong to the FEI. There are over 130 member countries, at least half without the remotest chance of ever sending a rider to the Olympic Games.

There are altruistic reasons for the FEI to oversee the expansion of horse sport globally, even in countries that are geographically horse-unfriendly. A country with a budding equestrian program is better off inside the FEI, which will provide guidance, support and expertise, than trying to do its own thing.

In those terms, I hope the FEI’s new collaboration with China has a supervisory motive as well as a promotional one, in the light of what has happened to desert endurance. The Middle East was another enormous land-mass with a newly found, whopping disposable income enabling it to develop its own abusive sporting aberration, one now proving impossible to rein-in.

Nurturing new countries is, though, a big obligation and distraction for the FEI when its prime function is regulator of the more elite end of sport.

A more cynical view is that proof of worldwide participation will convince the likes of the International Olympic Committee (IOC) that equestrianism is widely practised, non-elitist and thus wholly worthy of remaining in the Olympic program.

But when you dumb-down sporting and technical requirements to help developing countries, you simultaneously broaden the participant base for the “established” horse nations too. That also has a down-side.

When I was a pony-mad kid in the UK, to compete “internationally” was wholly aspirational, a silly pipe-dream. If you had a competitive bent you would compete in the Pony Club or on our huge “unaffiliated” circuit. When you felt more competent you might join British Eventing, British Dressage or British Showjumping. Only when you were – much, much later – placing regularly in advanced horse trials, Prix St Georges or classes around 1.40m at national level would you contemplate putting yourself forward for an international competition.

Nowadays you can start as a novice in FEI eventing. Its brand new “intro” category offers a decidedly undemanding maximum fence height of 1.05m. (In endurance, you can even pitch up on the day and ride a horse you have never seen before over 160km).

Media colleagues are meeting more and more riders who appear to have plumped on the show circuit as a lifestyle choice rather than the fulfilment of a lifelong fascination with horses; folks who might just as easily have opted for motorsport or sailing instead.

With a lot of money behind you, it’s easy-peasy these days to become an “international” rider with no requirement for self-improvement. Many seem satisfied with being a “get-rounder,” especially if they have the funds to replace the horses they’ve soured-off, or retain a good rider to tune them up on a regular basis.

I struggle to think of any of other pastime which so actively provides opportunities for mediocrity alongside the world’s best. If, for instance, you had only just scraped through Grade 5 oboe, you wouldn’t delude yourself that the Montreal Symphony or Boston Phil would want you. Are 50m sprints staged at international athletics meetings for the people who are not quick enough over 100m? Of course not. I could go on, but you’ll get the picture…

Freedom to compete “internationally” while not actually improving your own competence compromises horse welfare, whatever the discipline. Ironically, poor riding is now generating headlines of the very sort you’d rather the IOC did not to see.

Here are just four things that have dropped in my news feed since Christmas. I think they have a lot in common.

Albert Voorn’s interview with The veteran Dutch Olympian has spoken out about “angry” riders before. This latest interview was recorded during his recent jumping clinic at Samorin, Slovakia (the venue not now wanting to host the 2022 WEG.) He gave a further interview to Horse & Hound. It is not a million miles from what Katie Monahan Prudent said openly last year about the US scene.

Voorn says: “Riders want it all now…They want results but they won’t put the time in…What I have seen, especially with the young girls, is a lot of anger. They get so angry with their horses. Is the horse their partner or their friend?

“I don’t see a solution when everything revolves around money. When you have money you can buy yourself a horse, get yourself a trainer and buy your way into the Global Champions Tour.

“People who can hardly sit on a horse but want to jump a fence should be forbidden… It’s a beautiful sport and so many get enjoyment from it, but we need to do it well and we need to make sure the suffering the horses go through is as little as possible.”

By coincidence, this interview was posted the same week that USEF suspended Jazz Merton-Johnson over last fall’s horse-kicking incident at the Hampton Classic. This was a national class, but the ease with which the rider simply lost balance and plopped off after a jumping very small fence underlines Voorn’s point about riding skills, or lack thereof.

Bruce Davidson Sr.’s interview with Heelsdown magazine. This was originally published last summer but re-circulated by Heelsdown this week. The back-to-back world champion was mostly talking about 3* and 4* eventing, but still points to the growing trend away from acquiring skills and doing the groundwork.

Davidson says: “Fifteen years ago, everybody my age usually went to Ireland before the first event of the year and went on a few fox hunts – jumping the ditches, jumping out of mud, jumping walls and banks, learning how to stay on when the horse is scrambling, etc. It tightens you up. Here, people go to Palm Beach in the winter.

“Why would you go to Badminton if you can’t be better than 20th here in Kentucky? Why would you go to Burghley if you haven’t the ability to win Fair Hill? I’m not in favour of paying for people just to get experience [at foreign events]. I think that those that really want it can make it happen when it’s time.”

FEI, Time to Act, an invitation to join a lively Facebook group of 7,000-plus members campaigning against rollkur in dressage. The group was set up by some distinguished Brits, though quickly garnered global support. It must be awkward for the FEI that so many dressage professionals are now publicly stating the FEI effort is inept.

One of the group’s founders is Heather Moffett, who was campaigning for a lighter way of riding with no quick-fixes decades before Carl and Charlotte showed the world exactly how it should be done.

Heather says: “The letters FEI seem to stand for ‘Failure to Effect and Implement the federation’s own rules’. This blatant abuse of horses has to stop. The FEI Round Table meeting that discussed the use of what they term LDR clearly has been about as effective as a chocolate teapot and this abuse continues apace.

“It is also high time that the FEI made a distinction between the deep, unforced, gradual gymnastic stretching that Carl Hester and other riders use, and the hauled in, head on chest.”

Currently the group is inviting signatures (via Survey Monkey) to a letter to the FEI.

The FEI doping updateWhile it would be surprising if the latest positive samples didn’t include endurance, it was disappointing to see THREE positives to the banned steroid Boldenone from a 1* three-day event in Dehli, India in November, including the winner and the third-placed horse. Looking at the negative results published separately, four horses were sampled – so the positives represent a 75 per cent strike rate.

Boldenone has featured in very few previous FEI cases. In two, it was among a cocktail of drugs, and those riders were suspended for 30 months, with one of the horses suspended for 18 months for its own protection. Boldenone can be naturally occurring in entire male horses, but clearly this cannot apply in all the Dehli cases as two are mares.

This was a decidedly non-international international event. The entire field of 56 comprised Indian nationals. Depressingly, only 21 completed. Eight went out at the final horse inspection, which doesn’t inspire much confidence in these riders’ ability to spot unsoundness and thus decide not to present. Two of the riders have been very successful at this level (maximum fence height on cross-country: 1.10m) so their imminent sanctions won’t bode well for morale in the Indian camp.

Just to put the tin lid on it, four yellow cards were handed out for “dangerous riding” – continuing after three refusals. One of those riders now has an automatic two-month suspension having done the exact same thing at another 1* in October, a competition with identical non-completion stats.

It can certainly be argued that if India is keen to promote eventing, it is better for its steep learning curve to be plotted out under the eagle eye of FEI officials. But while still modest, the Indian FEI eventing calendar has quadrupled since 2013, so it could also be said that many horses are probably having an uncomfortable time while their fledging riders find their wings at a level they are nowhere near ready for.