It’s logical that the most difficult rules to enforce are the ones frequently broken. But how many people realise they have broken this one: use of “paycards,” the vastly inflated entry fee that gets the wealthy into an international show?

Paycards are prohibited under Article 115.1 of FEI General Regulations, yet their prevalence has been jumping’s open secret for years. No one will admit to “buying” or offering paycards ‒ yet everyone knows someone that does.

Industry bodies openly talk about paycards. In written submissions to the FEI a few years ago, several national federations including USEF remarked that Europe “relied” on paycards. There was an open debate at the FEI sports forum in 2017, too.

Paycards are why people you’ve hardly heard of pop up in the opening classes at 4* and 5* shows ‒ some, if not all of those serial get-rounders that never break into the top 500.

Jumping has evolved to support a global horse production economy which only indirectly funds the shows providing its sales platform. It must now be impossible for organisers to meet prize-money expectations without the cash injection of paycards. True commercial sponsorship and genuine sale of TV rights to mainstream broadcasters is on the wane. Even in a non-Covid year, few fans would buy tickets to watch a stand-alone 2*. Spectator footfall as a key revenue component has long gone for all but the Aachens and Spruce Meadows of this world.

But when you bolt on a 2* or 3* and admit a bunch of paycarders to a top-tier event, it works for everyone ‒ for the star riders, for their stable jockeys producing the next crop of youngsters, for their clients and pupils who want to jump something smaller, and for the wealthy hobbyists who like to have a go, having been actively encouraged by so many including the FEI to view elite equestrianism more as a lifestyle than as the ultimate athletic endeavor.

The FEI did not exactly help when, faced with a court case, it privately settled with the Global Champions Tour over its commercial teams league, in which “patrons” pay millions to “own” a squad of four. The Global league teams may not bear the label “paycard,” but they facilitate big-money opportunities for low-ranked riders alongside the world’s best. It’s inequitable, however you dress it up. Big names have called it out in articles like this.

But this season, paycards became a searingly hot topic in Europe.

In a normal year, Europe hosts about 360 outdoor FEI jumping shows from March through October. Because of the pandemic, there have been 160, meaning drastically reduced opportunities for riders outside the top 30, even the top 15, unless they stump up for a covert invitation.

The FEI froze rankings points for riders unable to compete because of the pandemic, hoping they could maintain their position, more or less, until things return to normal.

But inevitably some very successful riders have been excluded from certain venues in favor of the overtly lower-ranked who, it is assumed, bought paycards. It also now makes a ginormous difference if you are ranked 130 rather than 140. The new automated CSI entry system for 2020 – which hardly bedded-in before Covid struck – issues invitations in ranking order.

A paycard is not a piece of plastic, of course. It’s just jumping-speak for any gratuity ‒ often tens of thousands ‒ paid for an “Organisers Invitation,” that category of riders who come at the organiser’s discretion, rather than dictated by the rankings or selected by the host country’s national federation. Some invitations are genuine, of course, but the suspicion that most are paycards once led the FEI to consider reducing ranking points pro rata.

Purchase of the ubiquitous “VIP table” as a condition of entry is also counted as a paycard, and so forbidden. But you’d never know it from the thousands of square metres they occupy in Europe, where large-scale ringside hospitality is still relatively new.

It’s probably quicker to list the shows that don’t offer paycards than those that do. But first folks have to admit it, and there’s the rub. I asked the FEI about paycards recently. It urges people to report paycard requests while recognising that no-one wants to be a snitch.

Not surprisingly, the FEI has only once disciplined an organiser over paycards, in 2011. It involved four prominent dressage shows in Germany, not jumping, and not all allegations were proved. The organiser Escon Marketing was fined 25,000 Euros (CAN$ 39,000) – a sum easily recoverable through selling a few paycards at their next shows, had they risked it again.

The only other published mention of covert negotiations to enter a show ‒ not all of which necessarily involved inflated payment ‒ appears in the FEI Tribunal decision into the Villeneuve Loubet Olympic rankings fiasco this year. Those allegations are denied by the organiser, and have not resulted in further proceedings.

The European Equestrian Federation (EEF) and International Jumping Riders Club (IJRC) have issued statements about paycards, saying they jeopardise jumping’s credibility.

The IJRC did not use the word “paycard” but raised concerns about young riders without the large financial reserves to enrol in events; bearing in mind the standard cost of 400 euros per show, if not paycards, I can’t imagine what else the IJRC was talking about. IJRC added: “Tennis does not allow anyone who feels like it to play with Federer just because they have paid.” I asked for more specific details, but didn’t get far.

Similarly, when I invited the EEF to elaborate about paycards ‒ which word they did use ‒ they “didn’t have evidence directly, but have been following the discussions that are going on since quite some time and that are commented by all involved stakeholders.” I then received messages from interested parties anxious to curb the practice – though naturally, none would go “on the record.”

I tried to explain that the FEI cannot merely act on hearsay. First, the burden of proof required by any sport’s legal system is very high. I say that with certainty. I have written about it for decades, and now have first-hand experience, being the only non-lawyer to have successfully prosecuted a case at a FEI Tribunal hearing (for alleged horse abuse in FEI endurance.)

Most people have surely watched TV police procedurals like Law & Order? Well, the FEI Tribunal and CAS (Court of Arbitration for Sport) are just like that. The horse community seems to have a mental block about suspecting something not being the same as proving it. But FEI disciplinary process is not like criminal justice when it comes to the rights of investigators.

The staff of the FEI’s Equine Community Integrity Unit (ECIU) includes former senior British police officers. But as civilians, ECIU can’t submit an organiser to a body search, in the hope of finding wads of undeclared cash. And how do you prove a rider didn’t buy a VIP table for the genuine entertainment of friends and owners weeks after securing an entry through conventional means? It’s the ECIU, not their persons of interest, that are handcuffed!

I posted on Facebook, asking anyone with actual evidence ‒ not hearsay ‒ of paycard use to contact me in confidence. One Dutch news outlet found this sufficiently interesting to feature my project, which explains the glut of replies from Holland! But as expected, I received little of use.

One rider thought they had an email trail from organisers offering paycards years ago, but couldn’t find it ‒ 10,000 euros just to pop a horse round a 2* when their partner got into the same show through a “free” invitation. I’d have been amazed if anyone committed paycard discussions to writing ‒ it must be one of the few things still discussed by phone call.

Another well-ranked rider contacted me via an intermediary, apparently willing to discuss the current difficulty getting into upper level shows. I called back at the appointed hour, only for the rider to say something had cropped up ‒ could they call back? They didn’t. Another ex-rider offered to facilitate interviews with people he was sure would speak out. That didn’t eventuate. No surprise there, either.

I’m afraid that if people want change, it really is a case of “put up or shut up.” Yet I totally understand why no-one wants to be the whistleblower, risking alienation from shows and their friends.

Why It’s So Hard for the FEI to Act

The FEI sent me these answers. It urges people to report paycards ‒ but can you keep your name out of it? Read on and you’ll see a recurring theme….

Q: Since the 2011 case, has the FEI investigated other complaints about paycards?
A: The FEI has been made aware of allegations in the past about high charges at events and there is always a follow-up process. However, if a complainant is not prepared to provide proof and is not willing to either give a statement or appear as a witness, unfortunately it is not possible to proceed with a legal case.

Q: Have any other OCs (Organising Committees) been fined for breach of Art 115.1 which have not been publicised because the OC did not appeal?
A: Apart from the Escon Marketing GmBH case in 2010/2011, no other OCs have been sanctioned for breaches of Article 115.1 because of the constraints referenced above. If the FEI had brought forward a case, this would have been decided by the FEI Tribunal and the FEI always publishes details of FEI Tribunal cases. Even if an OC had accepted the sanctions, information regarding that settlement would also have been published on the website.

Q: Have any OCs ever been spoken to “informally” by the FEI about alleged breach of Art 115.1 without being fined?
A: Yes, but as you are aware, the FEI cannot open disciplinary proceedings against an OC purely on the basis of an informal report. We must have clear evidence, such as a written statement and documented proof, before a case can be opened. The FEI repeatedly reminds NFs and stakeholders about the fact that paycards are not allowed.

Q: Does the FEI have to wait to receive a complaint from athletes or other stakeholders before it investigates?
A: In a usual (non-Covid) year, there are between 700 and 800 CSIs at which thousands of athletes compete, so on a practical level, in the absence of a formal report or complaint, it would be very difficult for the FEI to identify whether paycards were in use at an event.

In addition to direct contact with FEI HQ, the FEI has a whistleblower mechanism through the ECIU, and complaints on all issues will be followed up, but the same still applies, as the FEI needs substantiated evidence before disciplinary proceedings can be opened.

Q: Have you discussed any ways of further discouraging the practice – for instance, further reducing the % of organiser’s invitations?
A: The current invitation system that came into effect in February 2020 had already reduced the percentage of invitations available to OCs and was the product of long discussions and consultation with the relevant stakeholders. The FEI Jumping Committee is currently reviewing the CSI2* Invitation System, which is temporarily suspended due to Covid-19 and for procedural reasons.

Q: Is the plain truth that neither the FEI or any NFs cannot police paycards or any other covert ways people find of “buying” an entry?
A: As stated above, the FEI will always follow up on any complaints, but it is very difficult to proceed with a case unless the complainant is willing to provide the FEI with evidence. Additionally, the complainant would need to agree to allow the FEI to use that evidence as part of a case and appear as a witness or provide a written statement supporting the complaint and verifying the evidence. Unfortunately our experience has been that complainants are unwilling to do so. The FEI needs to respect due process. We cannot bring cases without sufficient evidence, and the accused OC has the right to know what evidence has been submitted in support of the charge.

The FEI encourages any athlete who has been asked to buy a VIP table or any other form of pay card to report this to the FEI Jumping or Legal Departments or the ECIU for follow up. We also urge National Federations to report OCs to the FEI if they are aware that they are engaging in this practice. National Federations should also advise their athletes to do so and to support their athletes if they do want to come forward.