We are all ricocheting between feelings of panic, numbness and resignation. It seems trite and pointless, in some ways, to write an opinion piece about a hot topic in the horse world when none of us know what we will be doing tomorrow, never mind next month or next season.
When life finally returns to a New Normal, we will no doubt be missing some shows and events who cannot afford to continue ‒ at least not on a lavish scale. Some familiar faces may no longer with us if either forced to sell up or, tragically, succumbing to COVID-19.
I cannot imagine the FEI calendar looking quite the same again ‒ for the medium if not longer term, likely constraints on international travel will see to that. The FEI’s own loss of revenues from affiliation fees and rider registrations may also mean it is forced to streamline its remit.
Nonetheless, some issues in the horse world will never stop being issues ‒ topics which rage fiercely on social media, yet don’t always figure in formal discussions.
Next month’s FEI Sports Forum ‒ now an online rather than in-person gathering ‒ is a rare chance to join in the discussion for the busy riders that are usually absent from this annual occasion.
The current agenda was due to be about “time-sensitive” anti-doping measures and preparations for the Olympics. The latter is now significantly less time-sensitive than it was yesterday, with the news that Tokyo is postponed to 2021. So here is my “fantasy” forum alternative program:
1. The Longines jumping rankings: scope for manipulation was exposed in January after a hiatus over Olympic places secured by people who won points at 2* level against almost zero opposition. One rider even got points for a 28-fault round. The FEI admitted those schedules should never have been approved in the first place, and the International Jumping Riders Club (IJRC), which owns the rankings formula, asked for an urgent meeting to address it. One of the oversights coming to light was the facility to award full points down to 16th place, even if the number of starters is six!
Since then, further schedules for Damascus 2020 have been approved which draw attention to another anomaly: that, currency for currency, Damascus does not have to meet anything like the prize-money thresholds around the world, in real terms.
It could be time to start the formula again from scratch. Relating ranking points to prize-money won is just an open invitation for fraud.
2. Doping versus contamination. Concerns about contamination were discussed in depth last year at a meeting of the IJRC during the European Championships, with the FEI’s deputy legal chief Aine Power describing the ins and outs. But contamination is an issue for all horse sports, even though jumping has shouldered the burden so far, so why not widen out the discussion?
Once you remove deliberate drug use in FEI Group 7 endurance from the equation, too large a proportion of recent anti-doping cases before the FEI Tribunal involve riders whose horses have accidentally ingested Scopolamine (naturally occurring in Caleya alfa grass), Demecolcine (autumn crocus), Ergonovine (wheat, oats, barley) and Synephrine (Teff hay.) There have also been Ractopamine cases, where feed manufacturers have accidentally enabled this pig-fattening additive to get into their equine mixes.
The FEI has a fast-track process for dealing with these cases by negotiated settlement. The riders are always exonerated BUT still face disqualification as, whether unwittingly or not, their horses created an unlevel playing field when performing with a prohibited substance in their system. Alas, a lot of FEI Legal’s time is spent on contamination when it should be concentrating on the real dopers.
The IJRC believes that shows who insist on riders buying hay direct from the organiser must be liable in the event of a positive traceable to that contaminated food. That notion alone would create ‒ and warrant ‒ a lively debate!
3. How strong is 5* eventing? In January, the FEI’s eventing risk management seminar at Aintree, UK, tackled some massively important topics and, with amazing transparency, live streamed it here. But because the seminar was largely aimed at officials, judges and stewards, there was very little current rider or owner perspective ‒ apart from Jon Holling and William Fox-Pitt, who were specially invited as guest speakers.
Course design supremo Mike Etherington-Smith gave the alarming news that the number of 5* horses had dropped to 272 last year, from the “mid-300s” the year before. Since that seminar, all the Covid-19 cancellations will result in a huge training setback for the 4* horses that should have upgraded this year. The number of active 5* horses in 2021 will surely decline again.
What does this say about the sustainability of our elite three-day events or the ability of the majority of riders to in fact aspire to this level of excellence? Do we need a new 5* “short” category to provide a stepping stone, or would it detract further from the headlining “long” format contests. And is the notion of 5* short now academic if it’s primarily the Event Riders Masters (ERM) series that seems to want it? ERM was one of the first to cancel its 2020 calendar, citing corona, though sadly it is not top secret within the sport that despite its innovative offer, ERM just isn’t generating adequate revenue.
Let’s hear what our senior riders think.
4. Dressage: are we breeding correct movement into extinction? Social media discussion about induced extravagance has almost overtaken rollkur as the bete noir of dressage. Why are some judges encouraging this by favouring the spectacular over the correct?
I have to admit that while I loved Totilas for his role in drawing a new audience to dressage, to me he always looked like his front and back belonged to two different horses. Nowadays Toto’s way of going looks quite restrained.
“Circus” might be where the Olympic format might prefer us to head, but dressage is in danger of turning into a different sport, and casting doubt on welfare standards at a time when the wider public is starting to question what we do anyway. If you want to know what happens when you decide to send your sport up a tangent, just look at what has happened to endurance.
Is it physically possible, even, for a horse with such flailing forelegs to move like this without dipping his back ‒ in itself is a fundamental training flaw? In a subjectively assessed sport, dressage judges need to be on the same page about the ultimate goals, otherwise what’s the point?
Among others, Britain’s London 2012 team gold medallist Laura Tomlinson has been writing a lot about this lately and here’s another reasoned rant from retired international judge Carel Eijkenaar about the apparently difficulty for judges in staying on the same page.
5. What is meant by the Minimum Eligibility Requirement? The “MER” tends only to make the news every four years when riders flap about achieving it in time for the Olympics, but a MER is part and parcel of everyone’s progress up the levels of equestrian sport. The trouble is, too many people infer that “Minimum” means “capable” and upgrade before they are ready. For financial reasons, there is not is not much incentive for trainers or show organisers to tell riders, frankly, to wait till they ride better.
The MER was discussed at the aforementioned Aintree eventing summit, where Britain’s Anne-Marie Taylor gave a salutary account of her unsuccessful plea to stop two former students from an emerging eventing nation from having a go at a popular 4* in Europe, after scraping through the MERs. One had a fall, the other was eliminated for three refusals.
David O’Connor, chair of the FEI eventing committee, said the time is not far off when something or someone WILL have to intervene, and stop a rider competing outside his comfort zone. Maybe there should be a hiatus of a few months between achieving the MER and tackling the next level, so that riders can consolidate experience?
Recently the FEI Tribunal upheld a protest for alleged horse abuse in endurance lodged by me. The rider, in my view, had used a severe bit for extra control and repeatedly jabbed his horse in the mouth over a prolonged period.
In agreeing with me, the FEI Tribunal then went further and told the rider his riding style was “out of line” with accepted norms, and that he should pass the exams on FEI Campus before returning to sport after his three-month suspension. Yet this rider was not a raw novice but the winner of the 2018 President’s Cup, the world’s toughest race.
Poor riding can be seen in all equestrian sports at so-called “international” level. I hope the long layoff from competition will give many the chance to improve their riding and training ‒ but of course you have to first accept that you need to do it and then, in the current circumstances, stick to low-risk activity that will not land you in hospital. An open discussion at the FEI Sports Forum would be a start.
Meanwhile, good wishes to all readers and your loved ones in these testing times. And, please, Stay at home!