The FEI has been the butt of a lot of criticism in the past week, accused of being a ‘killjoy’ during the Covid-19 shutdown by ‘banning’ FEI judges from helping out with informal online initiatives.

It is true the FEI has strict existing rules to prohibit participation in unsanctioned international real-life events, drawn up long before the impacts of a global pandemic could ever have been imagined.

But contrary to popular belief, the FEI is not actively kiboshing the many virtual events currently popping up around the world. These online offerings are one-off novelties mostly pitched at boosting the horse community’s morale and raising money for good causes in these challenging times. No one is suggesting they threaten the integrity of the real thing. Indeed, virtual equestrianism may alas have a lifespan much shorter that this wicked coronavirus itself.

The past week’s angst on social media seems to have been triggered by a memo issued by Hans-Christian Matthiesen, chairman of the International Dressage Officials Club (IDOC). It was a briefing tailored for his own members after queries about virtual dressage activities arising in Europe. It was Matthiesen’s own initiative to write it, having obtained FEI board permission as he confirmed to me yesterday.

Unfortunately, the IDOC memo has been incorrectly interpreted by others as a FEI diktat to all sports deemed a direct and churlish response to the current crisis.

I am sure that if the FEI had decided to take such a draconian stand, it would have issued a very robust press release of its own by now, applied to all disciplines and all types of participants. Not just judges, but riders and horses face a six-month period of eligibility from FEI sports in real as well as virtual life if they break the unsanctioned events rule.

The wider misunderstanding shows how little the rule has actually needed to be applied in the past, and hence why so few of us seem to know what it is.

Unsanctioned events are dealt with in Articles 113 and 155 of FEI General Regulations. They are aimed at curtailing participation in rogue international events activities the FEI declines to recognize because their rules or processes do not comply with FEI regulations, particularly in anti-doping and welfare.

The extent to which the unsanctioned event rules exploit the FEI’s dominant position in the equestrian marketplace has never been fully tested in open court. It came close to public scrutiny in 2015 when Jan Tops launched the Global Champions League commercial teams concept, which the FEI originally refused to approve. At the time the FEI said the League rules were inadequate, spanning barely a page and a half. Other people reckoned the League was perceived as a threat to the FEI Nations Cup. The FEI reacted by ousting two of the Global’s regular course-builders from the FEI family.

But we will never know exactly what happened next, for eventually the FEI and Tops came to a private settlement. The course designers were reinstated, and the Global League became FEI approved. It is now, of course, the holy grail for many top jumpers while side-stepped by others – notably Steve Guerdat who has publicly aired his misgivings over ‘paying to play.’

The FEI might also be mindful that the Italian equestrian federation (FISE) was recently fined a whopping $687,000 (CAD) by anti-trust regulators, but that action resulted from a sustained attempt by FISE to wrest control of low level amateur competition from a number of small regional groups.

There are, of course, risks attached to involvement in remote or online competitions of any sort. The integrity of judging is more of a worry in dressage because of the likelihood of inconsistent camera angles, wifi going down at a wrong moment, or the possibility that the ‘winning’ horse has been doped in the privacy of its own backyard. The online result will, though, have no impact on anyone’s official FEI standings, and how likely is it that a horses’ remote performance really would alter a judge’s perception of it, good or bad, when normal shows resume?

There may be liability issues in the riskier sport if a rider or horse has an accident and ventures to suggest the virtual organiser is at fault. That is a potential hornet’s nest for insurers, for sure, but also something that should already have been taken into account with the surge in online coaching of all types during global lockdown.

I am told the FEI board discussed issues raised by online judging a couple of years ago, and did so again at its recent monthly meeting. The consensus was that as long as the activity is primarily for education and training and there is no merit-based ‘ranking’ at the end, the unsanctioned events rule need not apply. To me, this gives virtual event organisers plenty of scope NOT to break FEI rules during the coronavirus lockdown, while delivering participants harmless and much needed enjoyment.

Moreover, there is no sign of the FEI advising anyone to back off. Indeed, one of the FEI’s own high profile personnel, William Fox-Pitt no less (a member of the FEI eventing and athletes committees since 2018) is openly taking part in Virtual Eventing in two weeks’ time, along with other big names from either side of the pond Staged over the usual Badminton weekend, this enterprise has been painstakingly organized by international horse-finder Rachel Wakefield-Wynne. It has already raised CAN $90,000 for frontline medical and caring agencies around the world.

I would be amazed if the FEI, even at its most draconian, would try to stop initiatives of this type or be remotely fearful of setting any kind of precedent. More likely Lausanne will steer virtual organizers onto a path that ensures all the right boxes have been ticked, and will wish them well.