There was an awkward moment at the FEI’s General Assembly in Moscow last month when the rights of new countries to join were challenged by Norway, a FEI founder member in 1921.

President of the Norwegian federation, Tore Sannum, spoke out as Mongolia, Ivory Coast and the Bahamas were being welcomed to the FEI family. The addition brings FEI membership to 137 national federations (NFs). In future, he asked the FEI to insist upon a minimum level of domestic participation, as other sports governing bodies do; without this, the FEI has “credibility” issues, he warned.

Mr. Sannum’s suggestion that countries should not be allowed to join unless they have riders at world championship level slightly backfired, because world championships cannot be entered UNTIL a country belongs to the FEI. The day’s business moved swiftly on – but nonetheless, Mr. Sannum was articulating what delegates from leading NFs often discuss in the bars and lobbies away from the conference hall.

It has always been one-country, one-vote at the FEI, whether you are as established and well medalled as the US (another FEI founder member), Canada (joined 1950), Germany (1927), Great Britain (1925), or as new as Mongolia, Ivory Coast and the Bahamas. That’s democracy – but is it common sense?

For around half of the NFs, sending someone to the Olympics can only be a dream. Twenty-one of the NFs that joined the FEI in the previous 30 years still have just 45 FEI registered riders between them (yes – an average of two-and-a-bit riders each) and, not surprisingly, stage no FEI events. Some provide a handful or officials and maybe a horse or three. Four NFs ticked none of these boxes at all this year. Quite a few more only just scrape into double figures.

Frustration that voting can be swung by nations of zero international presence is always bubbling, coming to the surface every few years when there is an issue of history-changing magnitude. We saw this from the show jumpers in the build-up to approval of Olympic format changes for Tokyo 2020. The International Jumping Riders Club (IJRC) did a lot of number-crunching to show how many voting rights were held by NFs with no jumping riders at all, never mind realistic expectations of sending somebody to a Games one day. The IJRC was still discussing this perceived injustice this time last year, even when the Olympic decision was long gone.

Now it is the turn of the endurance riders. The rigorous new rules passed in Moscow on November 19 have upset “traditional” endurance countries just as much as they annoy the desert racing culture whose serial doping, fatality and cheating scandals were been the catalyst for reform.

Social media is angrily debating how unpopular rules about qualifications and weights were waggoned-through by countries who don’t do endurance. I can’t think of any other occasion when the current chairman of a FEI committee has taken to Facebook to try to calm a storm.

The national endurance association in Namibia has been at odds with its NF over governance and the cost of running FEI rides for several years, and last week voted to walk away, new FEI rules being the final straw.

Not all assumptions about NF bias in Moscow are correct. During 2019, 57 NFs had endurance riders registered with the FEI. Only 19 NFs voted against the new rules package in its entirety – 94 were in favour, in a non-secret ballot in Moscow. But before that landmark vote took place, controversial amendments were decided by slim margins indeed.

I don’t think NFs should be allowed to vote on a particular discipline’s rules only if they have a direct involvement. You need the counter-balance of impartial input, especially when horse welfare is the central plank of any rule-change, because it’s human nature to assess any change from the prism of one’s own interests.

But impartial input must also be well informed. Joining the FEI doesn’t give a NF expertise in global equestrianism overnight. One notorious example of NFs losing the plot occurred in 2009 at the FEI General Assembly in Copenhagen, Denmark, which voted to reinstate a threshold tolerance of bute; bute was banned outright 20 years before.

The motion had been belatedly plopped into the agenda by Princess Haya, despite her standing for the FEI presidency just a few years earlier on a “clean sport” platform, and the vote was widely assumed to be have swung by the “third nations.”

Even if the delegates back in 2009 could not remember the tumultuous bute debates of the 1970s and ‘80s, or didn’t have time to read up on the subject, how could they have disregarded the beseeching of leading equestrian nations that this would trigger a welfare and public relations catastrophe? FEI vice-president Sven Holmberg voiced his shock and exasperation – and later resigned. Soon afterwards, the FEI bureau applied rarely-used special powers to reverse the NFs’ bonkers decision.

I get it that the FEI wants to tick the universality box, because universality is an International Olympic Committee “thing.” It is also a fact that fledgling NFs benefit considerably from FEI aid and advice which of course helps them develop horse sport at home, even if few of their riders progress to international standards. In time, accumulated knowledge and experience helps the newer NFs to make reasoned decisions at FEI General Assemblies.

But domestic development goals could have been achieved by giving “new” countries a kind of associate FEI membership with limited voting rights until they have served some kind of apprenticeship. That can never happen now; any such reinvention would require a two-thirds majority vote of the 137 NFs, and those holding the balance of power are hardly going to vote for their own disenfranchisement!

Norway certainly has the gravitas to comment on eligibility. Its NF was founded in 1915, and along with the US, Belgium, France, Italy, Denmark, Japan and Sweden, it joined the FEI at inception. This year Norway had 837 registered FEI riders and staged 52 FEI events. Membership of affiliated national organisations numbers 35,000. That is something for a country with a total population of just 5.5 million.

FEI president Ingmar de Vos mentioned that criteria for joining were revised a few years ago. They certainly needed to be. I remember raised eyebrows in 1989 when San Marino joined the FEI. San Marino is a mountainous micro-state covering only 24 square miles in the middle of Italy. It turned out that the horse-mad, operatic legend Luciano Pavarotti wanted to stage a Nations Cup at his new jumping show in Modena, Italy, but of course Italy already had a Nations Cup. San Marino joined the FEI; hey presto, Pavarotti generously “hosted” San Marino’s Nations Cup in 1990.

I went to the Pavarotti International in 1993, and a very splendid occasion it was, though I don’t remember a Sammarinese team taking part. I looked up San Marino on the FEI database just now, to see what progress had been made 30 years on. In 2019 it had five FEI-registered riders, five horses, no officials, and last staged a FEI show (a 3* Nations Cup, also “hosted” for it on Italian soil at Arezzo) in 2015. Just sayin’…..