I have a lot of hope about the potential of the ERQI – the EquiRatings Quality Index – to save eventing riders from themselves. It may also save Group 7 endurance horses from their riders if the FEI is bold enough to take full advantage of Irish computer geniuses Sam Watson and Diarmuid Byrne, who have found an infallible way to rate rider competence and “form.”
But an ERQI in show jumping is also long overdue. The furore over the footage of Austrian rider Bernhard Maier making an absolute pig’s ear of his ride on Paddy’s Darco at Wiener Neustadt raises a number of issues. One of these is providing a snapshot of the all-too-frequent passing around of “difficult” horses between the riders of mediocre ability in the lower levels of our so-called international sport.
This clip was posted on Facebook on Monday morning (June 13) and within 36 hours had been viewed over one million times.
It shows Maier rough-housing Paddy’s Darco before starting his round in the one-star, then getting horribly left behind and juddering to a halt three times. Spectators can be heard jeering.
Even before the video had chalked up 400,000 views the Austrian national equestrian federation announced on its website that this was a “black day” for the sport, that it was initiating sanctions against Maier and that it would provide an update once other authorities had been consulted. Other “media” reported on Monday that Maier had already been banned, a whole day before the federation confirmed this afternoon he was suspended for three months.
Banned for what exactly, though? Abuse? Dangerous riding? Or for simply being unlucky enough to cause the sort of social media storm that prods a governing body to act more out of fear of public opinion than an overt concern for the horse? Maier’s riding in the video is certainly diabolical, but I have seen just as bad elsewhere over the years. The difference is that no one who caught those rounds on camera did anything with it.
To me it’s just as worrying that the ground jury did not stop Maier mid-round. The pairing had already been eliminated in their previous class at the same show; presumably one of the judges had spotted they weren’t up to it?
It reminds me of the Michael Morrissey whipping incident at Wellington in 2010, though this time the national federation took two minutes rather than two months to announce they would act after social media went wild. I hope sanctions will spread to the judges: in the Wellington case they were reprimanded months later by the FEI for not reacting on the day.
Mr Maier has responded with a statement and a video of himself riding rather better on another horse.
The gist of what Maier says is that he is old (57) with heart-problems, which is why he didn’t cope so well. He has only recently taken on the horse from an Italian. Maier’s FEI record shows he only started jumping in FEI competition relatively late in life – in fact, he has only had 130 FEI starts in 11 years.
He also says that envious people are campaigning against him and his daughter, because they cannot accept he comes from a poor family and struggled on his own merits to become an instructor whose students are doing well.
That’s certainly feasible. The video was posted by “Turnierkiebitz” – which loosely translates as “tournament sneak” according to a German colleague – whose Facebook page was only set up a few hours beforehand.
But even if Turnierkiebitz has dubious motives, he or she is still doing horses a favour by focussing attention on the mass of get-rounders who provide “competition” for the professional producers and the genuinely talented young riders at one-star.
Is there any other Olympic sport apart from equestrian that provides opportunities to compete “internationally” at a not-very-advanced level? Thirty years ago you used to see some really hot contests at national shows, when progressing to FEI was still aspirational. Nowadays you can be almost hopeless but legitimately allowed to boast to non-horsey friends who don’t know any better that you represent your country. And no one is going to want to curb that as long as it keeps the horse trade buoyant and lots of horse registration and show affiliation fees flooding into the FEI.
Paddy’s Darco is a 10-year-old with a lovely pedigree, by Darco out of a Cruising mare. He started his FEI career with Ireland’s Stephen Moore exactly 24 months ago and has had five different riders from five different nations in that short time.
He may look a bit difficult on the Maier video, but glance at his FEI record and the half-dozen You Tube clips charting his career since a five-year-old, and I think he’s been a saint to keep trying as he has, with all the chopping and changing.
Here’s some footage of him going sweetly over 1.30m for his original producer Mark Duffy – son of revered Irish course designer Paul Duffy – at their home show in 2013, long before he was shunted from one jockey to the next
Maier says he took him on very recently, after an Italian lady failed to complete three of their four starts at Arezzo at April, that particular pairing’s only ever FEI show. Maier says the horse has a lot of promise, but my guess it will take someone of much more skill and to whom time is no object to win his confidence back now.
At the recent FEI sports forum David O’Connor opined that FEI horse and rider qualifications are all very well, but the time might come when certain riders must be told they aren’t good enough and are barred from starting the next level up. O’Connor was talking in the specific context of safety in four-star eventing, but in truth it applies all round.
The ERQI is very, very welcome indeed. But it would not be needed had the system not already enabled, nay encouraged, hundreds of riders to compete way outside their comfort zone. And as usual it’s horses like Paddy’s Darco that lose out.