I promised myself I would not enter the Marilyn Little blood-in-mouth debate. But the fall-out on social media about her Fair Hill ride set me thinking about the un-joined-up approach by the different FEI sports to many things, not just blood. The FEI heads of sports meet regularly, but do they actually pool ideas? You’d never think so when comparing their sports’ respective rules.
The only mass, multi-sport exchange of views occurs over two days in April at the annual FEI Sports Forum in Lausanne. This year, an entire day of the forum was devoted to the training, retention and possible introduction of payment of officials. Debate on this important, but yes, boring, topic was nearly a cure for insomnia, though occasional comedy moments illustrated how little the horse sports know about one another.
I particularly enjoyed it when Eleonora Ottaviani of the International Jumping Riders Club said her athletes would happily forego 20,000-odd euros from the prize fund at every show to pay and train officials. Wayne Channon, her opposite number in dressage, retorted that if judges’ remuneration was to be related to the prize fund, his officials must brace themselves for a “pay decrease!”
The reining representative sat quietly, only belatedly describing how his sport routinely pays its judges several hundred dollars a day, funded by a levy on entries. Reining has been in the FEI since 2000, but the fact one FEI sport does already pay officials and has worked out how to self-fund it was news to everyone including, it seemed, the FEI itself.
I have written a fair bit about blood over the years. Ante-post favourite Jerich’s Parzival was eliminated from the WEG 2010 dressage Grand Prix, where there is zero tolerance. During that controversy, I was the pedant who spotted that a blood-specific rule did not actually exist in FEI dressage rules; for years, horses had been eliminated through received wisdom alone.
Dressage then went off and wrote itself a clear blood rule. The FEI hinted at a multi-sport review, though if changes were made they were too subtle to discern.
In general, judge and vet discretion applies in the “contact sports” – cross-country, endurance, and carriage driving marathon. The higher the profile of the sports held in a small arena, the more likely zero tolerance will apply. It’s a fact the contact elements are mostly staged out in the sticks where there is a greatly reduced chance of spectators noticing blood as a horse flashes past and then posting damaging clips all over Instagram.
But if oozing blood is primarily a welfare issue rather than a public relations concern to the FEI, methinks it matters not one jot to the afflicted horse whether he was doing dressage or crashing round the desert at the moment he was socked in the chops.
Even if one accepts that the odd bash or nick is a necessary evil in cross-country, and thus discretion must apply, multiple incidents involving the same person can’t be easily dismissed. The vast majority of riders can have a senior career spanning 15-30 years without being pulled over once for blood. So how do we ensure they are not punished by default for any radical rule changes aimed at the cack-handed handful?
Some have suggested the introduction of an automatic yellow card for blood, others a new “demerit” system that enables serial offenders to accrue penalty points.
It worried me, though, when trawling through the many well-argued strands on social media, that many believe a demerit system can’t work because historic offences cannot be taken into account under FEI rules. Well, again, we need to look at a sister FEI sport for precedent, and believe it or not, there is one in endurance.
Their totting-up procedure runs parallel to the yellow card warning system. It could easily provide a template, merely substituting the issues more relevant to other sports.
Better than the yellow card, the demerit system has the facility to weight rule-breaches according to their severity. Aside from the blood issue, a yellow card review is also way overdue in eventing, in which the minor faux pas of failing to fasten your chinstrap properly is slammed as heavily as dangerous riding.
The endurance demerit system automatically suspends a rider for two months when he accrues 100 penalty points over a 12-month rolling period through all or any of these means:
- Metabolic elimination – 10 penalty points
- Elimination for a metabolics needing immediate invasive treatment [fluids etc] – 25
- Catastrophic Injury [horse fatality, usually stress fracture] – 80
- Competing horse during mandatory rest period – 100
- Two Catastrophic Injuries within 12 months – automatic rider suspension for six months
From January 2017, two new offences are added:
- Failing to present at final vet check – 100
- Incorrect behaviour to officials – 100
Also of interest are the current blood rules in the other FEI disciplines:
- Dressage and eventing dressage – zero tolerance.
- Jumping – “Minor cases” from bitten tongue or lip may be wiped clean, and the horse continues. Elimination if bleeding persists; elimination for bleeding from mouth, body or flanks from excessive use of spurs or whip.
- Endurance – No blood specific rule – veterinary officials’ discretion at the vet gates.
- Driving – “Minor cases” from bitten tongue or lip, or minor bleeding on limbs must be investigated and the horse may be allowed to continue; Ground Jury able to consider each incident “case by case.”
- Vaulting – “Minor cases” from bitten tongue or lip – may be wiped clean, and the horse continue; elimination if bleeding persists. Bleeding on the flanks, mouth or nose – elimination.
- Reining – Presence of blood at pre-competition check – no score. Fresh blood during competition – elimination. Horse may re-start later if bleeding has stopped and time permits.
I don’t, of course, wish anyone to conclude I am likening eventing to endurance in the FEI Group 7 countries! Alas, some rule changes aimed at controlling atrocities in Group 7 have had unintended consequences, and seem under revision yet again.
But the endurance concept of penalty points is something eventing should look at, or its own bloody mess will dribble on and on.