Browsing recently for high-visibility leg protectors for my horse, I was struck how many UK online retailers had specialist jumper “performance boots” on discounted sale.
“Performance boot” is the politically acceptable term for “pinch” boots and the larger “flick” boots, designed to encourage a more careful hind action over a jump. The lining has a thickened section and at a critical point during the jump, the slight leverage of the straps causes the boot to give the lower joints a squeeze. I can’t imagine anyone jumping seriously hasn’t at least experimented with them at some point.
The sales are probably merely the retailers’ post-Christmas clear-out, but I can’t help wondering if some have already made a commercial judgement to shift stock well ahead of 2021 when this type of legwear is completely banned by the FEI? It is certainly the norm for British Showjumping, the body which runs our domestic sport, to adopt new FEI rules.
There is already a ban on their use in FEI young horse classes though a total ban could change global jumping beyond recognition, though has prodded surprisingly little public debate. It will surely separate the super-skilled rider-producers from everyone else, and make the selling price of the genuinely ultra-careful 5* jumper even more mind-boggling than it already is.
It does, though, seem a very drastic change, especially when you look at the numerous torments in regulated sports that the FEI does nothing about: over-ridden endurance horses in the Middle East, and dressage horses worked for prolonged periods in rollkur (or whatever we are meant to call it now) right under the officials’ noses at shows.
Some feel it would have been more circumspect to ban two-strap pinch boots initially but allow the presumably milder one-strap version and re-assess after a year. Alas, the FEI has a track record of bringing in new rules with unfortunate consequences, though the consequences are not difficult to foresee in this case: some horses will be trained in the privacy of their own home to snap up their hinds using much more welfare-averse measures than the pinch boots that stewards can at least inspect in the collecting ring.
There is a debate to be had about the performance enhancement of tack in general. After all, when ancient man discovered a horse was a whole bunch easier to steer if you stuck a metal bar in its mouth, performance was undeniably enhanced. But the moment has already passed for pinch boots. The ban is happening, with phasing as follows: 2019, boots allowed for “protective purposes” only in Pony Riders, Children, Amateur Owners and Veterans; 2020, ban on pinch boots extended to Juniors, Young Riders and under 25s; 2021, ban extended to all FEI competition.
Where things get really fuzzy is the reason for doing it and why the ban is not immediate. The FEI is always reminding us that “horse welfare is paramount,” but one gets the impression this particular discussion is not primarily about welfare. It has been driven by the course-builders who say they are getting “too many” clear rounds and can’t make the jumps bigger or tighten the time any further. Is this the first time in equestrian history we have a rule directly aimed at performance impairment?
Not surprisingly, leading jumping nations were markedly split on the topic, as can be seen in responses which sadly never progressed from consultation documents into the public domain.
Canada was firmly against any pinch boot ban “though we agree with the current level of oversight as to their use.” Yet the US felt there was “strong support” for a level playing field and for “not rewarding performances that are enhanced by artificial aides.”
Britain noted the original pinch boots had elasticised straps “but there have been alterations which are now more severe – for instance ones which have Velcro pull-straps to cause the hindleg to over-react.” Peter Charles, our London 2012 team gold medallist, unsuccessfully proposed that stretchy straps fastened to a designated popper on the side still be allowed.
Austria was firmly against any ban. The Dutch were only prepared to see them outlawed for young horses as at present.
But change couldn’t come fast enough for Belgium, Switzerland and Norway. Belgium observed: “It is a wrong message to do this in different stages because if we think things need to change, we need to do it for everybody at once.” In fact, Belgium wanted the FEI to go even further, and start officially approving a limited number of protective-only boots.
Ireland was somewhere in the middle, supporting the new rule in principle but wishing the FEI had first defined what performance enhancement means.
Italy favoured a ban in ALL categories from 2019 “to enable the industry to adjust their products catalogues accordingly.” Germany agreed to phased introduction, partly because its national young horse “style” classes allow hind ankle boots with “broad Velcro straps…because certain strap techniques can influence the movements.”
Hanfried Haring, former secretary-general of the German federation and now president of the European Equestrian Federation, hit the nail on the head for me as regards the phasing in of the ban: “I am not able to explain this to anyone – not even to myself!” he said. “The prohibition is correctly justified by the argument that the use of [pinch boots] as an aid is, for various reasons, wrong…. Then, however, the proposed rule-changes suggest different timeframes. This means, in short, using hind boots as an aid, which we consider as being unacceptable today, will be prohibited only in three and a half years’ time!”
I suspect implementation might have come sooner but for the 2020 Olympic Games being more politically sensitive for equestrianism than previous Olympic Games. It would indeed be a big ask for the premier jumping nations to go pinch-free before the 2018 World Equestrian Games, the first major championship qualifying nations for Tokyo. But they are up to the challenge and let’s face it, the countries going through from Tryon and the 2019 Pan Ams and Europeans are the ones most likely to win the 2020 jumping medals. With an immediate pinch boot ban all are in the exact same boat, from qualifying through to Tokyo itself.
But 2020 will also accommodate many new nations, already likely to be over-faced whatever their horses are wearing. It took the FEI two years to sell the horse world the idea of “universality,” three to a team and more flags at the Olympics. What would it say to the wider audience about our sport if so many artificially-unaided newbies kicked out every other rail?