I remember virtually no controversies in 30 years of attending the wonderful Christmas party that is the London International Horse Show at Olympia. But this year we got two on the final day. Blood was noticed.
First, Victoria Gullikson of Norway was disqualified after being presented with joint first prize for the Six-Bar. She should not have entered, as she was only there for the Thursday Puissance. She managed to jump all five rounds without anyone twigging they hadn’t spotted her go in anything else on the Friday, Saturday and Sunday. Victoria thought her national federation had received permission for her to start.
But if the Olympia organisers assumed that was their glitch for this mission they were in for a shock.
Marathon jump-offs were a feature of Olympia’s headline classes. There were 17 horses in the Longines World Cup qualifier and 15 in the Grand Prix on Monday. Michael Whitaker didn’t think the tracks were easy, more a case of all riders being well prepared and saving horses for the better money classes.
In the Grand Prix, Bertram Allen was drawn fourth so had no choice than to put his foot to the floor on Quiet Easy. Nine thousand spectators cheered a display of mastery beyond his years, showing why the 20-year-old is the world number six (and even once five).
In trying to get within even two seconds of his time, some stellar partnerships looked a mess in comparison (needlessly, as it turned out, for the dynamics were already changing behind the scenes.) But only at the very end was it announced that the winner was disqualified; blood had been spotted on Quiet Easy’s offside flank during the post-round tack check.
Needless to say, an argy-bargy followed and the prize-giving delayed for half an hour.
But the decision stuck, with Michael Whitaker and Viking elevated to the winner’s podium, and Ludger Beerbaum and Chiara to second place.
Social media went red-hot. To those of us actually there, no wound was visible to the naked eye during Allen’s round. In the warm-up ring afterwards, there seemed to be three or four tiny, non-oozing nicks, one more noticeable than the rest.
Allen described himself as “utterly devastated, speechless.” He said: “I like to think I have a good name for having a good relationship with my horses. The wound is tiny, I’ve done worse shaving. It’s not even where my leg normally lies. “
Beerbaum had to put on his spectacles to see it. Whitaker felt Allen was the moral victor, and handed him his winner’s rosette. “I didn’t think it looked that bad, it wasn’t like it was a large gash,” he remarked. Whitaker felt more discretion could be applied.
More colourfully, British Nations Cup veteran Geoff Billington pasted on Facebook: “A razor blade is a very safe object until you give it to a monkey. It’s like giving a steward that knows **** all about horsemanship a badge. Bertram Allen could not kick his way out of a bag made from rice paper, he is absolute poetry in motion!”
The FEI’s blood rules, and the subsequent disputes, always end up messier than the quantity of red stuff at issue – except in Middle East endurance, needless to say. There, you can legally bat along for 20-30 kilometres before anything has to be done about it, and I daresay often hasn’t been in the past, at the next vet-gate.
Initial public reaction with the Allen case was that this was an accident, not abuse. In FEI jumping, bleeding from the mouth, body or flanks from excessive use of spurs or whip results in elimination. “Minor cases” from a bitten tongue or lip may be wiped clean, and the rider can continue, but there is elimination if bleeding persists.
If minor bleeding can be attributed to accidental biting of the tongue, the same discretion should be applied to nicking with the spur in the heat of the moment. Surely there would have been marks both sides had Allen overdone it in the warm-up?
Does the FEI need to save jumpers from themselves by setting out in more detail what they can use? Saddlery and tack is another spectacularly un-joined up area. It is easy to say riders should be aware of their spurs etc but the “use what you like” policy in jumping is not compatible with the FEI core mantra that “welfare is paramount.”
The FEI rules for bitting alone in eventing cover more pages that the entire missive for jumping as regards on tack, saddlery, bits, whips, spurs and what constitutes abuse.
I hoped the opportunity would have been taken to review all blood rules after WEG 2010, where Adelinde Cornelissen and Jerich’s Parzival, then the world number ones, were infamously eliminated. A few members of the media, myself included, immediately searched for the rule cited and couldn’t find it; it seemed that elimination resulted from historic convention in dressage rather than a written diktat. Dressage then drew up a clear, new rule.
The other ambiguity is where the field of play begins and ends, if it’s only a fair cop if the blood is spotted while the horse is doing its actual round/test/drive/ride, and how one can be 100% certain the bleed did not commence afterwards.
This fall, British dressage rider Anna Ross was eliminated from the Le Mans CDI in France after blood appeared on the mouth of Die Callas after their Grand Prix, in which they would have placed second. Die Callas has the reputation of being difficult to handle on the ground, and Ross thinks she bit her tongue or cheek during the post-test steward’s check.
Ross said: “I support the blood rule. If she was bleeding during the test, of course I accept we have to be eliminated.
“But when does the test end? We have three videos and close-up photos of our test, coming out, and afterwards, which clearly show there was no blood, and several witnesses. The steward did nothing at all wrong in handling Cassie – she is a nervous horse. But it was very obvious how it happened. I don’t think the blood rule was invented for this purpose.”
In contrast, US eventer Marilyn Little, quite legitimately under FEI eventing rules, went unpenalised when blood appeared in RF West Indie’s mouth on cross-country at Fair Hill CCI. An FEI statement said a small nick was caused by the fitting of the bridle.
I am wholly behind blood rules but they should apply consistently across the board to retain any credibility. They differ so much between disciplines (see summary below) you wonder what are really aimed at.
More latitude is given in the “contact” sports, but if cuts or nicks are deemed welfare averse, it makes no difference whatsoever whether a dressage horse is bleeding in trot or a driving horse is bleeding while charging round the marathon.
It is no coincidence that two of the disciplines taking the toughest line are arena-based jumping and dressage, i.e. where something could be more easily spotted by spectators who stick pictures on social media. In desert endurance, of course, no-one except connections and the parties involved in aiding and abetting actual rather than accidental abuse is bothering to watch.
Where the other disciplines stand on blood
Dressage. Zero tolerance for blood in the mouth on any part of the horse’s body – automatic elimination.
Eventing. Dressage, as specialist dressage. Cross-country – horse can be stopped, examined, and resume its round upon veterinary approval.
Endurance. No blood specific rule (yes, really!); all issues assessed in welfare checks at vet gates.
Driving. Investigated “case by case.” “Minor cases” from bitten tongue or lip, or minor bleeding on limbs, may continue after investigation.
Vaulting. Bleeding on the flanks, mouth or nose or – elimination. “Minor cases” from bitten tongue or lip may be wiped clean, and continue. Elimination if bleeding persists.
Reining. Pre-competition check: Presence of blood anywhere – no score. During competition, fresh blood – elimination. If the schedule permits, horse may re-run later if no further blood appears.