I didn’t want to write again about horse abuse in the competitive arena, I really didn’t, but it seems unavoidable.
After the Oliver Townend fiasco at Badminton, and the decision of the FEI to review whip (and blood) rules for eventing, Horse & Hound asked me to examine the huge variations in rules and sanctions applied to whip mis-use in equestrianism. I’ve previously discussed the inconsistent approach to abuse here and lamented the FEI’s reluctance to adopt a more joined-up approach.
Incredibly, the second the ink dried on my H&H article there was another International Incident with a Brit! This was Ben Talbot, a fairly well-funded jumping rider of the making-up-the-numbers variety who lives in the Netherlands. In a 4-star CSI at Gros Viegeln in Germany on June 15th, he beat his horse six times after it refused.
The maximum strikes allowed in FEI jumping are “three in a row.” Talbot was called to the judge’s box and expelled from the venue. Cue social media furore. On the one hand, commenters applauded Gros Viegeln for its swift action. On the other hand, many couldn’t understand why Talbot wasn’t yellow-carded at the very least, and suspended for his thuggish behaviour.
Oh, but it turned it he was yellow carded, though this was not confirmed by the FEI till the evening of June 20th – i.e. five days later, with advice that because this was Talbot’s second yellow card in 12 months, an automatic two-month ban now applied.
So he was also suspended then? Well yes, though not directly because of the abuse, but because of the totting-up of yellow cards.
The same two-month ban is triggered if anyone receives two yellow cards in 12 months for anything – being rude to officials, wearing the wrong kind of boot, removing his horse from the stables after hours etc. ad infinitum. If Talbot hadn’t already been yellow-carded at Arezzo, Italy in April for “incorrect behaviour” – towards whom is unknown – he would still be free to compete. The FEI wasn’t actually declaring that Talbot’s horse abuse in itself warranted a ban.
Also, too often, we see warning cards handed out in hindsight, only because of the social media reaction. The FEI says Talbot’s card was issued on the day – so why not announce it and the suspension immediately? This was a more serious punishment than simply being sent home. Part of the point of the disciplinary process is making an example of the offender, to deter others.
Knowledge of the yellow card would certainly have saved a torrent of social media angst. In his brief apology on Facebook (which he later disabled), and in an interview with Horse & Hound, Talbot himself didn’t seem to know he’d been yellow carded. Indeed, he said he’d be taking a voluntary sabbatical from jumping, as if an enforced break wasn’t imminent. Confused? You should be.
It’s worth noting that while Townend caused a social media earthquake, he didn’t break FEI eventing rules while receiving a “recorded verbal warning.” This is one step down from a yellow card. In contrast, Talbot most certainly broke FEI jumping rules which are differently expressed.
I feel sorry for judges. Equestrian competitions take a lot of overseeing without the burden of disciplinary matters which usually have to be dealt with while the contest is ongoing.
Under FEI rules, if a suspected breach isn’t notified within 30 minutes of the competition results being confirmed, it’s too late – the offending rider gets away with it. (This is why rule-breaking in endurance largely goes unpunished; judges are often 20km away from dubious incidents at any time.) Only horse abuse is exempt from this time-limit. But in practice abuse not dealt with on the day is rarely followed up unless a member of the public lodges a formal objection with the FEI.
Not many judges seem to have confidence in their own decision-making ability over horse abuse – or faith in FEI HQ to back them up if they sanction too boldly. What advice is given about assessing field-of-play rule breaches to officials’ on training courses? Not much, I reckon.
I asked the FEI about that, and they declined to respond. Either a) there are guidelines on how to decide between elimination, fine, yellow card or anything else, but its none of my business; b) the guidelines are so obtuse it’s embarrassing to publish them; or c) there are no guidelines.
Often too, when asked why X or Y’s alleged rule breach was not re-evaluated with the benefit of hindsight, the FEI refers you to the sanctity of field-of-play decisions, and how this core principle is upheld by the Court of Arbitration for Sport, however daft the decision at stake.
But it is possible to impose well-considered and proportionate punishments without eschewing that principle. For sure, let the ground jury determine if a serious offence appears to have been committed – but then refer sanctions to a dedicated, well qualified FEI appointee who isn’t forced to knee-jerk against the clock.
England Rugby, for instance, has a template for every conceivable offence (my favourites are biting your opponent – minimum suspension 12 weeks; grabbing him by the balls – 12 weeks; “incidental” physical contact with match officials – 6 weeks). This extends to six pages – horse sport doesn’t even have six sentences. (Equestrian could also follow rugby’s policy of ensuring suspensions are meaningful by not conveniently fall in the “closed” season.)
Secondly, rugby has a Citing Commissioner to whom offences of potential red card seriousness can be referred up to eight hours after the match has finished. The CC then has 24-48 hours – depending on the match’s status – to decide whether to bring a charge, which will be heard at a later date.
I daresay other sports apply something similar. OK, we don’t have red cards in horse sport, but surely it is not beyond the wit of man to adapt rugby’s pragmatic approach? Where there’s a will there’s a way. Though maybe FEI is juggling so many balls (no pun intended!) it hasn’t time to muster up the will.