“Pay cards” and the inequality of ranking points opportunities are being hotly debated as FEI jumping shows resume in northern Europe.

On one hand, some fear that horses are being put under unacceptable pressure at the lower star-level shows accepting record entries; there have been 250 starters in some classes. At the other extreme, Grimaud in the south of France, the one European venue so far staging frequent 4* and 5* shows, is admitting just 50 riders, many of them the same at each event.

Stephan Conter, who organises 5* CSIs at Brussels and Knokke in Belgium in normal times, said it is “dangerous” that only a small pool of people can currently show and thereby gather rankings points.

Now the European Equestrian Federation (EEF) has weighed in to support the CSI invitation system. EEF emphasises that merit must prevail over money; if young riders feel opportunities are unequal they will turn away from equestrian sport, disappointed by the “prevailing money-driven networks.” EEF recognizes that there are valid commercial considerations but fears the “credibility” of jumping is at risk.

The International Jumping Riders Club (IJRC) also recently criticised pandemic “profiteers” especially through the rumoured use of paycards (aka organiser’s “invitations.”) There are unconfirmed reports that some organisers have charged up to 75,000 Euros for “pay cards,” benefitting lower-ranked but wealthy riders, especially those based at a major barn.

Eric Lamaze has already spoken out about huge entries in Belgium at the two- and three-star level last month. He was shocked to see 250 starters in 1.45m pre-qualifying events for rankings classes.

Much debate has taken place on worldofjumping.com where major figures such as Emile Hendrix and Stephan Conter have expressed widely varying points of view. Conter also called out the FEI for allowing the Global Champions Tour to embed paycards in its business model when organisers like himself already had less freedom, which has become even more restrictive under the new invitation system.

The FEI applied its new online invitation system on February 4. It was aimed at ensuring CSI invitations were issued automatically in order of Longines rider ranking. In the months beforehand, existing flaws in the rankings formula enabled a handful of riders at “under the radar” shows to race up both the Olympic rankings and Longines rankings tables just before the new meritocracy was applied.

When Covid halted the majority of CSI activity around the world, the FEI had little choice but to suspend the online invitation system for 2* CSIs, before it had barely been tried. The FEI also “froze” ranking points, hoping riders unable to travel when competitions resumed in June would at least retain their status. In practice, that has not worked as planned. IJRC director Eleonora Ottaviani says there is “no perfect solution.”

Theo Ploegmakers, EEF president, said, “The interest of the sport must be at the core of all actions. The Invitation System in jumping is a regulation that will, to some extent, limit the freedom of individual actors for the sake of the entire community, nevertheless it is also a tool to live [sic] the principle “merit over money” and this is of crucial importance to our sport. “All voices were heard and considered during the process for the approval of the existing Invitation System. The operating experience with the Invitation System is constantly recorded and user feedback can be given in due course.”