A notice about the 25th successful season of the Sunshine Tour in Spain recently plopped into my mailbox. Twenty five years! I remember when these post-Christmas jumping shows began at Vejer de la Frontera, and how we were sceptical they would catch on.
In the same way that north Americans who can afford it relocate to the warmer climes of Florida in the winter, sun-loving Brits have always spent their colder months in Spain or Portugal. Thousands have second homes or time-shares in these Mediterranean paradises.
We not were not sure, though, that when horse shows became a further attraction, jumpers would truck their horses all the way down there. But they have, every year, in droves.
The Sunshine Tour now spans six weeks, and the world and his wife goes variously for a couple of weekends or the whole shebang. If you don’t mind the travel and stabling costs, it’s more appealing in every way than bouncing off the walls on the northern European indoor circuit and hanging about in our wind and rain, chilling you to the marrow.
In 2012, Team GB’s then jumping chef d’equipe Rob Hoekstra attached considerable importance to our winning London Olympics team all having spent the winter jumping outdoors rather than indoors – Nick Skelton, Ben Maher and Scott Brash at Wellington, Peter Charles at Vejer de la Frontera.
But how popular will the Sunshine Tour be next season when the Brits become European Union aliens? How popular/feasible will it be to compete in any equestrian event over the English Channel when we have left the EU, whenever that may be? March 29th, the long-planned Brexit day, came and went last Friday, and we are still in.
The editor has asked me previously to write about equestrian implications of UK leaving the EU. But where to start? Everyone is still clueless – worst of all, our government. Do we even want to leave at all, now? Do we want a no-Deal, a soft Brexit (which means we still want as many liaisons with the EU as possible while un-obliged to pay our dues or follow EU laws) a hard Brexit, or a squishy Brexit (okay, I made that last one up.)
And behind the scenes, our government agencies are spending billions working up new possible laws and hand-over measures for multiple as-yet undecided scenarios. That’s billions that could have been spent on education or public transportation, or our National Health Service, once the envy of the world but now on its knees.
It is ironic yet entirely fitting that the first working day the UK found itself still in, when we expected to be out, was April Fool’s Day.
The British Equestrian Federation and British Horseracing Authority have regular briefings with our agricultural ministry DEFRA (the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs) and imparts information when there is anything new, but they are all in limbo too.
It may turn out that trucks and horse transporters continue to be waved through customs without delay. But it may not. John Whitaker recently shared memories of the pre-EU days, and being stuck at border crossings for an eternity. Before we joined the EU (in 1973) John recalled riders could spend two hours at the channel port of Dover before you were even allowed to take a horse out of your own country, never mind enter France.
If there are any problems at borders, it will impact on the UK competition scene in quite different ways. Our FEI eventing calendar is the envy of the world – though how many will now make the pilgrimage from Europe, apart from maybe to fulfil a lifetime ambition to ride at Burghley or Badminton – if bringing a horse into the UK proves a pain in the ass?
For British jumpers and dressage riders, the traffic tends to go the other way. These riders at the moment think nothing of hopping across to France, Holland or Belgium for a 1* or 2** CDI or CSI.
The only positive is that a Brexit could boost our beleaguered domestic equestrian venue providers. Currently, they might as well not bother to run any shows after December, when so many migrate south. The Sunshine Tour offers classes for everyone from very bottom level amateurs up to world ranking.
Many indoor show centres in Britain have made huge efforts (at their own expense) to upgrade facilities. Brexit at least could change perceptions that a 2-star jumping show in Europe is better than anything we have here. The prize-money is rarely better than the domestic British Showjumping “winter classic” series – the only difference being you don’t, obviously, get FEI points. Much less travel stress too, for nice six-and seven-year-olds just learning the craft. Thanks to livestream and social media, those in the producing-dealing game can sell a horse from anywhere nowadays.
Hassle at borders could also affect North American friends. It’s the norm for American and Canadian team jumpers and eventers to make a summer mini-tour of Europe, maybe taking in several jumping Nations Cups and/or CICs. But if moving horses between UK and the continent proves troublesome, will Hickstead or Blenheim lose their allure for transatlantic visitors? How much easier to find a temporary base in, say, Belgium, and just stay that side of the English Channel?
Aside from the implications for the sports horse industry, most heart-breaking of all is this: Britain was the loudest voice behind all the EU welfare regulations about shipping live horses across the continent for slaughter. These regulations are tougher than anywhere else in the world, but not tough enough yet. Who will speak for these invisible horses once Britain is gone?
Spare a big thought, too, for our Irish cousins. Horses are that island’s way of life and major part of the national economy.
For those across the pond whose geography is a bit sketchy, the larger land parcel of Ireland is a Republic which was not, of course, part of the 2016 leave-stay referendum. It remains firmly in the EU. Ireland comprises 32 counties and at the very northern tip are six counties which form Northern Ireland – part of the UK.
That separation caused much bloodshed during the 20th century. It’s been peaceful and harmonious for decades, but now we face a hard border between the two – a major sticking point of the EU withdrawal agreement.
Ireland takes a very sporting stance on sport. The UK bit counts as Irish when it comes to entering sports teams for anything. If there is a hard border, it’s going to be nightmare for Northern Ireland’s equestrians.
I am indebted to eventer Georgia Stubington from Antrim (one of the six counties) for making sense of the briefing she recently attended by the Irish agricultural agency, DAERA.
Georgia reckons that if the UK Withdrawal Agreement goes through, the Irish should see very little difference.
But if there is “No Deal” the UK becomes a “third” country and is “unlisted” [a sort of de-recognition] and there can be NO horse movements to and from the Irish Republic.
If the UK becomes a third country but is given the highest possible “listing” in “Group A,” this very paperwork-heavy scenario kicks in:
Northern Ireland equestrian organisers each apply for a premises number and fill out a registration form; they take on (at their own expense) a veterinarian who is registered with DAERA and willing to act for them (we don’t know yet how many vets can even spare the time to do this); they designate separate parking/stabling (if applicable) for horses travelling from the Republic; before departure, horses from the Republic require a certificate which must accompany them.
Meanwhile, Northern Irish horses travelling to the Republic must be blood tested and health certified; the blood validation will last 90 days but the certificate has to be renewed each trip. Blood tests will have to go to England, as there is no approved lab in the north, and will take a seven-day turn-round. All at the owners cost.
Georgia says: “All the 32 county equestrian sports find themselves in a situation where, through no fault of their own, they face expense, hassle and, in some cases, the end of their business and equestrian events.”
Brex-hausting! Brex-cruciating! Brex-traordinary! Please allow our feeble puns. If we could not make light of it, we’d all be in tears from dawn to dusk.