Recently-retired top riders should be on hand to advise on any decision to eliminate jumpers for “bad pictures” when a controversial new FEI rule is applied next year, according to Nick Skelton.
Prodded by public concerns about equestrianism’s social licence to operate, the FEI will allow the president of the ground jury to ring the bell if it would be “contrary to the principles of horse welfare to continue.”
The issue came to a head at the Tokyo Olympic Games, where some horses appeared over-faced, plus one well-publicised equine nosebleed. Qualifying requirements were strengthened for Paris, but the new elimination rule ‒ which applies at any show ‒ came under fire at the International Jumping Riders Club recent annual assembly during the Geneva show.
There was a long and sometimes emotive debate about the competence of judges to make this call, with Skelton proposing that a panel of three experienced ex-riders advise them. This system is used in motor sport. Skelton, who retired soon after winning the Olympic title at Rio 2016, said, “In Tokyo, and at championships, there are so many ex-riders walking about that could have been used and utilised, that have a good knowledge of riding. We all sat in the stands, and all knew what was going to happen [at Tokyo] before them lot [the judges.]”
Skelton also suggested that the wording “contrary to the principles of horse welfare” should be replaced with “for the safety of horses and riders.” This received support from the other riders, to prevent unfair trolling on social media, and to send a more positive message to the public. The IJRC will take both of Skelton’s proposals forward.
Many big names queried whether judges had enough personal riding experience and “feel” to make this subjective call. It could result in the elimination of a team or have other career-defining consequences, because as a field of play decision it is not appealable.
Kevin Staut said it would not have been needed at the Olympics if a drop score was still allowed, giving a rider in difficulty the option to retire.
Riders supported all rules relating to blood on the horse, but there was ambiguity over the assessment of “dangerous riding” which is not mentioned directly in the new wording (see below.) This heightened concerns and led to some sharp exchanges between riders and the FEI head of jumping, Marco Fuste, who objected to the inference that other stakeholders were “dumb-dumbs.” Fuste disputed the presumption that an experienced jumping judge would interpret a horse spooking, for instance, as being dangerous riding. He pointed out that FEI eventing already went further, with provision for stewards to report dangerous riding on the cross-country course directly back to the ground jury.
Skelton’s partner, Laura Kraut, played a prominent part in the debate. She agreed no one wanted to watch a dangerous round but cited a horse at Geneva the previous night that appeared scared under the lights and was retired by his rider after a few jumps. Kraut endorsed that decision, but equally said there was the possibility of continuing and the horse getting better. “We as riders know that, but somebody sitting up in a box who doesn’t ride and has never ridden and only been trained on paper by someone who doesn’t really know what’s going on ‒ that’s impossible.”
“I frankly don’t think that a judge sitting up in a box who has not ridden in the last forty years is the person to do that.” She wanted assurances that judges would not be educated on how to apply the new rule by people who also do not ride.
Rodrigo Pessoa, newly elected to the FEI athletes’ committee, directed several questions to Fuste. “Do you understand the position that you put the judge in?” Pessoa asked. “You eliminate a team, you eliminate a country, that’s a huge responsibility. That person becomes the most important person on the showground, from his air conditioned box he can eliminate if he feels it isn’t going well.”
Referring to the example mentioned by Kraut, Pessoa added: “Do you think it should be up to the guy sitting on the second floor? Do you think that the judge, whoever he is, rides better than that rider yesterday? It is very difficult to say ‘this horse is not going well, take it out.’”
Francois Mathy Jr. noted that if you made a big commitment in a jump-off and then “missed” at a fence, that could be erroneously construed as dangerous. Jumping is a dangerous sport, after all.
Fuste said he had seen rounds at all levels of shows that were potential accidents. The new elimination rule had not simply arisen from the no drop score scenario.
“At Tokyo we had the media saying, ‘what do you have to stop this?’ We had to put a measure in. Up to now we had nowhere to stand, and no rule that would allow a judge to ring the bell.
“Now judges will have to be trained and educated and updated. It is the responsibility of everybody ‒ riders, judges, everybody ‒ to be on the side of the welfare of the horse. We cannot allow there to be bad pictures.
“The impression of the public is important everywhere. Before, if you were not there, or if you did not watch it on television, you could not see it. Now it takes one phone and a recording, you put it up on the web and everyone in the horse world knows. That is why we have to be careful with those subjects.”
Regarding the increasing influence of social licence, Fuste described an alleged whipping incident in Norway, in reality a tap on the neck, and the increasing workload of the FEI communications department in fielding queries about this kind of incident.
“I have a video in my desk sent from a member of the public. They sent it to all the media in Norway. We had to reply to about fifteen media outlets that this was alright, just a tap just twice, not three times, and within our rules. But this is what is happening.”
The new jumping rule, Art 241.1, reads in full: “The President of the Ground Jury (or in the absence of the President of the Ground Jury from the Ground Jury box, the Ground Jury Member designated by the President of the Ground Jury to take over the running of the Competition in their absence) may, in their sole discretion, ring the bell (or instruct another Ground Jury member to ring the bell) to eliminate an Athlete/Horse combination while a round is ongoing if the President of the Ground Jury (or their designee) decides that it would be contrary to the principles of horse welfare to allow the combination to continue the round. The decision to eliminate is final and not subject to appeal or protest.”
The IJRC board originally opposed the elimination rule, but later decided it was important to be seen to stand up for horse well-being. The IJRC’s strong message to the FEI is that they appoint very good judges to apply the rule.