I am not much wiser about how the rider and spectator experience will shape up at international equestrian events, following the publication of the FEI’s Covid-19 return to play policy. This is an important document setting out legal and public health obligations for organisers, and the questions they need to ask themselves before going ahead.
But what will it be like to ride or – eventually – watch? The FEI document has lot of recommendations, advices and “points to consider” but little hard and fast instruction on, for instance, how far apart you should ride in the warm-up; how will vets or stewards inspect a horse’s mouth while its rider/groom is holding it; or how will a dressage judge communicate their remarks to their socially distanced writer without raising their voice and heard by all and sundry? But then again, how can such practicalities be set out when each country has its own ideas about what constitutes a safe social distance?
Return to play guidance is a work-in-progress in all sports in all jurisdictions. I would not be surprised if equestrian organisers have already lost heart. Their overwhelming concern must be how you meet the cost of all these precautions and protocols when you have virtually no revenue or sponsorship.
Moreover, eventing, driving and endurance rely on a huge number of volunteers; many experienced helpers come from the older generation who may still be shielding or are, at best, reluctant to expose themselves to mass gatherings before any reliable vaccine has been found.
The FEI guidelines are effective from July 1, but that does not mean it expects competition to resume imminently. Many of the dates still shown as “live” on the FEI calendar are those whose national federations forgot to advise the FEI they have cancelled.
Much of the world is easing lockdown to various extents, but we have nonetheless reached the stage where shows slated for the fall need to make a firm decision. Burghley (September) and Boekelo horse trials (October) and all remaining dates in the 2020 Global Champions Tour outdoor jumping series have become the latest significant casualties this side of the pond.
Cancellations have even been announced for the indoor winter World Cup season in Europe, with yesterday’s news that Helsinki, Finland (October 22-25) is off. Scandanavian countries have been complimented for their Covid management so far compared with other parts of Europe, but nonetheless the Finns felt that the chance of cancellation was far too high, should lockdown measures and border controls be reinstated in a few months’ time.
Even when a small number of paying public is allowed to return, how can horse shows be viable, especially indoors? I haven’t seen any seating proposals for horse shows so far, but here’s how a major concert hall in Vienna, Austria, will distribute the audience for its cautious return on June 5. Bearing in mind they have already ripped out many rows (no longer shown on this plan) capacity will be around 15% of the norm.
Performances will run straight through for 70 minutes, with no interval, in the hope that people can return home before they need to use the restroom or find themselves gasping for a coffee! To me, management and frequent sanitising of public toilets and hand-wash basins will be the biggest barrier to prompt resumption of any kind of indoor recreational event, sporting or cultural unless the event lasts only an hour or so – which simply isn’t compatible with horse sport.
There is, meanwhile, a new blow for riders from the less advanced nations that qualified for Tokyo. Riders relying on Minimum Eligibility Requirements (MER) achieved during 2019 must now provide a new MER result from the period January 1, 2020 to June 21, 2021. This new “confirmation” MER is correctly aimed at proving your performance level has not deteriorated during the hiatus. But the shrinking international calendar could make the new goalposts unreachable for some, a further blow for the FEI’s effort to increase the number of flags flying at Olympic equestrian events.
Here in the UK, the eventing community has been split between those desperate to compete and those who feel the 2020 domestic season should now be written off; there is nothing left this season for which anyone needs to qualify, and our natural turf footings are rock hard after an unusually prolonged hot, dry spring.
Even on a landmass as small as the UK, matters have been complicated by the autonomous national governments of Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland all adopting different social distancing policies to England’s. There is still ambiguity about the presence of emergency services throughout at UK sporting events, rather than simply being “on call.”
British Eventing (BE) has well thought-through guidance for the still-awaited resumption of spectator-less national horse trials. Incredibly, it has provoked considerable Luddism, with many aghast that they might only be allowed to bring “only” two horses and must leave their dogs at home! Those folks have been living on Mars lately, I guess.
Interesting points include a requirement for riders to volunteer as helpers in return for acceptance of entries; arrival “just-in-time” and prompt exit, so that people have no opportunity to socialise when not actually doing their ride; and printing out their own bib numbers. BE reckons 10 metres is the safe distance between parked trucks – twice the distance suggested by other UK equestrian bodies.
Recently, a three-day national jumping show ran successfully at rider Holger Hetzel’s place in Goch, Germany. He spent weeks planning it with the German national federation. The venue was awash with sanitising facilities, and officials and event support staff sat behind perspex screens. He is running another similar show next week.
One aspect causing much interest was Hetzel’s adoption of the warm-up system which I gather is normal in the US, but not over here. There were four practice jumps, each with four wings. Riders were called in with five horses to go. They could ride round the whole area but use only one jump each, to minimise the number of people handling the poles and stop groups of people clustering round a fence.
A variation of this is included in British Showjumping’s (BS) protocol for “training” shows which have been allowed to commence from this week. (The BS guidance goes as far as stipulating use of the same gas station whenever you re-fuel, to help the UK government’s fledgling track-and-trace system in the event of exposure at a show.)
Aside from social distancing and strict hygiene, this will be a big cultural change for domestic jumpers, compared with UK dressage and eventing which have used mandatory online entry for many years. For the first time, BS riders will be pre-allocated a start time. Normally, they enter on the day and tell the warm-up steward their preferred order of go. Alas, one such training show planned for today (Wednesday) has already been cancelled because the handful of advance entries rendered it unviable.
The Light family, bastions of UK jumping for decades, are doing their own thing at Pyecombe in the south of England on Friday at a non-BS event. Among other measures, they will temperature-screen everyone entering the venue.
Some British horse people are still having difficulty comprehending that competing will be This Way or No Way for a long while to come, and that if you dont’ like the sound of it you have the choice to stay away. So I am enjoying the Lights’ marketing strategy – Friday is called the Suck It & See Training Show!