It’s a pity equestrians are largely relieved that riding is being dropped from modern pentathlon, because otherwise they have good reason to compare notes. Elite equestrians and pentathletes are at the end of their tethers over the same thing: the ability of countries with no discernible riders or athletes to swing major policy decisions.

Samantha Murray, the 2014 world pentathlon champion, recently coined the phrase “ghost” votes.  She claims the UIPM decision to axe riding was largely endorsed by countries whose athletes have never been seen. The UIPM website lists 127 member countries; just 28 sent pentathletes to the Tokyo Games. Yet 81% of UIPM member countries last month supported the removal of riding, as per the UIPM board’s demand, rather than first trying to improve riding skills, which was the clear preference of pentathletes from the leading nations, notwithstanding the Saint Boy controversy.

Sounds familiar? It should. A vote at the FEI General Assembly, also last month, in Antwerp decided to continue with three-member teams for jumping, eventing and dressage at the Paris 2024 Olympics by 70-30 votes, despite the new format’s obvious adverse impacts on horse welfare. It was a secret ballot (I’ve no idea why.) But it is widely thought that many of the 70 national federations (NFs) who voted to continue with three/no drop score have not/will never produce a single Olympic rider.

The FEI has 136 member countries but despite a marked increase in opportunities to secure a berth at Tokyo, just 48 managed to qualify a rider (compared with 41 at London 2012 and 43 at Rio 2016.) After a year’s postponement because of Covid, the 48 flags increased to 54, though on the day there were four no-shows ‒ so 50 flags at Tokyo in the end, ostensibly thanks to reducing team sizes to three riders each.

The FEI’s smaller NFs all exist in some shape or form, but the proliferation of zeros, ones and twos in this country-by-country statistical table make salutary reading. Some are “ghosts” in practice if not theory yet enjoy equal voting rights at the FEI general assembly to Canada, the US, Britain, Germany, France, Australia, et al.

When I last did a detailed count in 2019, 21 of the national federations (NFs) that had joined the FEI in the previous 30 years still had only 45 registered riders between them, which does not exactly suggest FEI involvement boosts participation. Most of those riders are based elsewhere. Some may never have set foot in their adopted country.

One country, one vote has caused rumblings for many years. The disastrous ‘bute decision of 2009 (see below) could never have happened if voting had been limited to the NFs who know what end the oats go in.

If you remarked upon this in the past you’d be accused of disrespect towards developing equestrian nations. But many respectful, respectable people are now shouting it from the rooftops. There is exasperation and anger that the views of expert, practising horsemen continue to be quashed by newbies who don’t know enough yet to evaluate the pros and cons for themselves. It may be how other sports do it, but only equestrianism has the welfare of an animal to consider.

The latest outburst came on Friday (December 10) at the annual assembly of the International Jumping Riders Club (IJRC,) during the CHI Geneva show. IJRC has long lobbied to retain the drop score at the Olympic Games, along with associates the North American Riders Group (NARG.)

IJRC tried to be discreet. So did the European Equestrian Federation (EEF), the largest bloc of NFs in the FEI, which promised it would not run to the media. All hoped the old dropscore format might be reinstated through diplomatic means. Even now, the IJRC’s latest press release understates the strength of feeling.

But at the Friday meeting itself, show jumping’s biggest names did not hold back (see below). Are they saying it’s not worth remaining an Olympic sport if we cannot uphold standards of horse welfare and equitation? It is starting to look that way.

The replay of the meeting is here.

What the riders said in Geneva

Daniel Bluman: “There are some very serious, delicate issues that need to be addressed in order to change the dynamics between the FEI and the riders. It doesn’t feel like we are working together, quite the opposite.

“The FEI is using all the mechanisms they have in their position as the governing body…. The voting system is a disgrace, not logical and not democratic by any means. The FEI has contact and power over those small NFs; they lobby towards those NFs so they support the FEI’s agenda. We as riders don’t have the chance to lobby those small NFs and we don’t have the time. That’s not democracy, that’s anarchy.

“Seeing an Olympic champion, former world number 1, and one of the most influential riders of the sport [Steve Guerdat] plead to be heard is nothing sort of a tragedy.”

Laura Kraut: “This [the one country, one vote system] has been a topic for some time. I don’t think this is something new….I think it is well worth whatever it takes for the FEI to get this changed.

“Our sport is different from any other sport, because we have to take care of our animals. I am really disappointed. I feel like the FEI should represent us in the best way they possibly can.

“If tennis can do it [introduce a weighted voting system] and other types of sports such as swimming, then why have we not done this?”

Steve Guerdat: “It is actually useless what we [the riders] do, because the situation is that the FEI is always working in the same way ‒ they give us something with the right hand and take back with the left.

“The FEI should ask Tobago, Cayman Islands, Haiti, Congo what is best for our sport since they are the ones deciding on the future of our sport. I believe you don’t need to consult us [the riders] but the 70 federations that voted for it [teams of three.] As long as the [FEI] president doesn’t change, or the voting system ‒ as Laura said ‒ is not changed, everything we are doing is useless, just losing time.”

Rodrigo Pessoa: “The number one preoccupation of the FEI should be to represent our sport and the welfare of the horse.

“This [no drop score format] goes against the welfare of the horse. Our owners, the people that are involved in this, the real people that are involved, are telling you [FEI] it is the wrong thing to do. Is there too much pride in the FEI to say: ‘we tried something, it didn’t really work, but let’s try to find a better way going forward, so our sport can grow and be better, and for the welfare of the horse?’

“The majority of people who understand the sport ‒ not the majority of people [national federations] that vote because they do not understand what is going on, they don’t even have horses ‒ these are the people you should be listening to…. The people who are there day in and day out, you [FEI] ignore them.”

Ludger Beerbaum (via videolink): “I have a little bit of déjà vu from the last 25 years. We continue to try to make the best of it and tell each other ‘we are family, we have to go on’ but honestly I am getting to the point with my age and experience where I cannot stand up for this any more.

“Isn’t it time to press the stop button and say ‘listen, what do we have to do to change this?’”

Why teams of three from now on?

Equestrian has faced ejection from the Olympic format and adapted the formats several times to tick the International Olympic Committee’s (IOC) boxes. That is not easy, because the IOC wants sports to be cool, hip, inexpensive and oozing with universality (which means lots of countries taking part.)

The IOC will not increase the overall number of equine starters above 200 (jumping 75, eventing 65, dressage 60.) So the only way to admit more countries at Tokyo was by reducing team sizes from four riders to three ‒ hence no dropscore. It was simple math, combined with the faint hope that newer countries might at least be able to scrape together three riders rather than four. We were told the IOC had instructed the FEI to “change or be changed.”

Knowledgeable people warned that no drop score would oblige riders to keep going when their horses were in difficulty for the sake of the team, and that “new” countries would be greatly overfaced by Olympic jumping and eventing tracks, especially those allowed to qualify at a significantly lower-level event. This all came to pass in Tokyo, though the impacts were most apparent in jumping, less so in dressage and eventing. This has resulted, so far, in the jumpers alone continuing the fight.

Tokyo debrief: were the riders misled?

Riders at the Geneva meeting say the FEI seriously misled them over an expected Tokyo debrief. They had understood there would be a full discussion about how the new format had panned out, including at the spring 2022 FEI Sports Forum, before any Paris 2024 decision was made.

But instead, just a month before the FEI assembly in Antwerp, the FEI circulated the new qualification procedures for Paris 2024 (also passed by a large majority in Antwerp.) FEI jumping director Marco Fuste said it was self-evident that the qualification procedure would be based on teams of three, and so both votes had to be taken at the same time, especially as an IOC deadline was imminent.

George Dimaras, long time secretary-general of Greece’s national federation, first vice president of the EEF and chair of the EEF jumping working group, criticised the rushed process at FEI HQ in Lausanne. The Paris 2024 qualification system was in fact approved by the FEI board in June ‒ “even before checking what was going to happen in Tokyo.” He described how various stakeholder groups quickly mustered after becoming aware in September that key votes would be fast-tracked. But at such short notice they could do little, other than fielding Steve Guerdat ‒ the rider who has shouldered the burden of making public statements ‒ to make a direct plea to delegates in Antwerp.

Why is there one country, one vote?

The FEI’s constitution and statutes, like many other sports, was originally based on Swiss law, which allowed for one vote per member nation, irrespective of experience or participation. In fact, about 20 other sports, such as tennis and swimming, have moved towards a weighted voting system in recent years, or by requiring countries to serve an “associate” spell of membership before they earn full voting rights.

The FEI recently brought in such an associate tier, though it won’t be applied retroactively, so is pretty well meaningless.

Could the FEI “demote” inactive NFs or alter the voting rights of existing members by statute? Yes, but a statute change requires a two-thirds majority vote and of course no-one is going to vote in their own disenfranchisement!

Marco Fuste said riders could do more to ensure their NFs understood their views. Naturally, he had no reply when IJRC director Eleonora Ottaviani asked Fuste to explain how NFs could assess their riders’ point of view when they had no riders…

I have wondered, over the decades, why the FEI has encouraged the membership of quite so many nations from horse-unfriendly climates, war-torn territories or countries that had no apparent urge to attempt high level horse sport until so courted.

Of course, there may have been a sincere desire to spread the joy of horsemanship to remote corners of the world; or to show the IOC that equestrian is global; or simply to guarantee enough votes to pass rule changes or policy decisions that the leading nations are likely to oppose. It’s probably a combination of all three. But having such a large bloc of unsophisticated voters also brings the serious risk they will lose the plot. Let’s recall….

…. What happened over bute in 2009

Princess Haya was elected FEI president in 2006 on a clean sport platform. So the equestrian world was rocked when she parachuted tolerance of bute into the agenda of the 2009 FEI general assembly in Copenhagen.

There was no chance for proper debate or even to challenge the legality of the process. It was passed by 53-48, with most opponents certain that inexperienced NFs had swung the majority vote, either because they didn’t know enough about welfare/medication control/past headlining bute controversies, or because they were simply keen to please Haya.

Sven Holmberg was then FEI vice-president and voiced his anger and exasperation. “What you have just done has cut the legs off the clean sport campaign,” he said. “ If you thought the recent media reaction against rollkur has been tough, just wait to see what happens with this.” He was not wrong.

Some delegates wondered out loud if all the 53 NFs actually understood what they had voted for. Others unsuccessfully demanded an immediate re-vote.

In the tumultuous months that followed, there were suggestions of a 2010 WEG boycott. Vets and other senior equestrians wrote protest letters en masse. Some NFs threatened to introduce their own rules banning bute at FEI shows.

Votes at the general assembly are meant to be final, but under pressure, early in 2010 the FEI used special powers to delay implementation, open an in-hindsight consultation, and organised a two-day conference in August 2010. The vote was put again at the 2010 assembly in Taipei. By then the 53 pro-bute voters had either been educated or told firmly what to do. It was unanimous against bute second time round!

In February 2011, Holmberg resigned as vice-president of the FEI and chair of the FEI jumping committee, citing misgivings over the way the FEI ran itself.