An unsavoury account of power struggles and back-biting at the British Equestrian Federation [BEF] has concluded with threats of millions in funding cuts if BEF member bodies [MBs] don’t behave.

The long-awaited independent review – months overdue to the unanticipated weight of evidence – stops short of agreeing with ex BEF CEO Clare Salmon that there was corruption or mis-spending. But it does uphold allegations of bullying, elitism and self-interest.

Its findings, published here paint a tawdry picture of how one of the world leaders in equestrianism disports itself behind the scenes. At times, the conspiracy in the corridors of power make The West Wing look like boy scouts.

The review panel found a “climate of fear” and “culture of bullying” at British Dressage and British Showjumping, with a smaller number of consultees making “broadly similar” allegations about British Eventing, the British Horse Society and Endurance GB.

The BEF received about £21million for elite sport from the state via UK Sport in the run up to Rio and was expecting about £19 million for the next four-year cycle up to the Tokyo Olympics. Pulling no punches, the review warns: “UK Sport and Sport England are encouraged to remind all MBs that if they try to usurp the authority of the BEF then their funding may be suspended. Certain behaviours which manifested themselves at times during the relevant period were not appropriate for a publicly-funded sport.” This is no veiled threat, for UK Sport has already axed money for other Olympic sports whose governance displeases them.

I can hardly bear to contemplate the consequences if equestrian’s money is slashed. Many of our funded sports long ago gave the impression of taking this huge un-earned income for granted. I would be surprised if anyone has a strategy to replace it pound for pound, while commercial sponsors seem unlikely to run to the rescue following 24 hours of bad headlines.

There is hardly any coverage of horse shows and events in our national press nowadays but all the big news organisations have put their main sports writers on this juicy story, with Salmon making further allegations in interviews with the BBC and The Times.

The review panel comprised a barrister who prepared a similar report for British Cycling last year, and two former senior police officers. They received 108 written contributions and undertook 43 interviews. I don’t think their final report will completely surprise anyone who has felt fobbed off when raising matters of concern in the past with governing bodies. It is just woeful that all this has so belatedly been confronted, following a dynamite letter circulated last summer by Clare Salmon (see report, page 13).

Her departure was forced after MBs hijacked a meeting last July, and plotted her demise. Salmon today told the BBC she was “set up to fail.”

It seems that everyone was both bully and bullied. The panel says: “The then BEF chair should have ordinarily chaired the [July] meeting but there was a ‘take-over’ by the Olympic disciplines, with one of their chairs chairing the meeting instead.” Recording equipment usually employed was switched off. Five MBs then gave statements seeking Salmon either be removed or “placed on ‘garden leave.’” A BEF representative said it had ‘a gun to our head’ and was subjected to ‘blackmail.’

To me, it was always going to be difficult to replace Salmon’s long-standing predecessor Andrew Finding, whose stately demeanour complemented the British psyche so well. Salmon was an accomplished amateur horsewoman with a strong corporate background but also a much more combative personality than the BEF offices at Stoneleigh in Warwickshire were used to. Pages 30-32 of the report chart the several attempts to void Salmon’s appointment before she set foot at HQ. To some she was “a refreshing change [to a] snobbish, old boys’ club” of a “military culture”, while others viewed her as “an outsider”.

We now learn she felt sabotaged from the outset. She wanted to embrace a wider horse community beyond the remit of the BEF elite sports, and to clarify the pecking order within the administration. She was in any case under the cosh to deliver drastic governance reforms from UK Sport, which has funded British teams since 1997. The panel says “that clash was made all the more dramatic as a result of the speed in which CS tried to introduce change, arguably too fast for the relatively historical and traditional world of equestrianism.”

Equally, many found her abrasive. The atmosphere at Stoneleigh only soured with her arrival. The report says: “The MBs were apparently outraged by the contents and widespread distribution of CS’ [Salmon’s] resignation letter and then, subsequently, by a BEF public statement which thanked CS for her contribution and expressed great regret that she had left the BEF – the latter of which was not a sentiment that the MBs agreed with.”

After Salmon left and “once the troubled waters had calmed, contributors described a ‘more settled’ and ‘greatly improved’ atmosphere…. However, it remains the case that, outside of them, many still feel that the behaviour of the Founding Members, in particular the Olympic disciplines ‘requires challenging’.”

Naturally, the accompanying BEF press release is a muted precis of the full 53-page report, with an anodyne quote from interim chairman, Ed Warner: “It is now a priority for the BEF, which is under the leadership of both a new board of directors and executive management, to learn lessons from the past and ensure appropriate practices in future. We are committed to strong and transparent governance, which will be critical in ensuring the trust of all our stakeholders going forward.”

This doesn’t sound quite as robust as it might when the ink is not yet dry on the report. After all, the panel “was concerned to hear … that there was a level of opposition to this independent Review being commissioned in the first place. If that is true, the Panel sincerely hopes that its recommendations will not be given lip-service by any interested party.”

The weary phrase “lessons must be learned” is always trotted out in a crisis. I hope Stoneleigh means it this time, following the missed chance to address the dysfunctional relationships of the BEF and MBs 15 years ago.

In the early 2000s there was major audit of horse sport by Deloitte. UK Sport subsidised this. Deloitte’s 200-page epic recommended wide-ranging cultural and behavioural change at the BEF. It would, though, have led to reduced MB autonomy, and job losses with the streamlining of many duplicated and triplicated tasks.

The self-interest alleged by Salmon was endemic even back then. Stakeholder response was simply to meet at Stratford (birthplace of William Shakespeare, not far from Stoneleigh) and edit Deloitte down to 40-odd pages, the so-called Stratford Report leaving in only the recommendations folk felt comfortable with.

I was leaked both versions at the time. The Stratford version was a masterpiece worthy of the Bard himself. How UK Sport let them get away with it is anyone’s guess, even after an “expose” in Horse & Hound.

For readers across the pond, a little British history may be useful, because the review panel stuck mostly to Salmon’s tenure from April 2016-July 2017.

In post war Britain, equestrian activity was administered by scores of single-interest groups. Eventually, those wanting to be “international” had to find a way of communicating with the FEI after it recognised just one entity per country. The BEF was born in 1972 as an umbrella group for this purpose. It wielded no domestic power, and for 25 years comprised simply a director-general – notably Major-General Jack Reynolds and later Major Malcolm Wallace – and their secretaries. The natural charisma and knowledge of those two gentlemen gave the impression of the BEF having more authority than it did at FEI occasions.

Even then, there was plenty of in-fighting. Show jumping repeatedly argued it was more important than other horse sports combined, being the only one regularly on TV etc etc.

But much changed in 1997, when UK Sport launched its World Class Performance Programme (WCPP) and for the very first time equestrianism started receiving millions from public funds.

BEF was tasked with administering these new riches and creating the many new roles set out by the WCPP template, whether relevant to horse sport or not. Riders found this baffling to start with: one Badminton winner told me she really didn’t need a WCPP nutritionist in the D box, insisting she eat a banana moments before she rode cross-country.

The BEF WCPP staff list swiftly mushroomed to 30 people – and fostered an even greater power struggle with its MBs.

The review panel says: “The key relationship issue between the BEF and MBs is the lack of clarity and acceptance of the precise role for the BEF itself. On the one hand, the BEF wants to develop into a stronger, centralised body which does more than merely carry out administrative tasks with the FEI, UKS [UK Sport] and SE [Sport England]. On the other hand, certain MBs would like the BEF to remain just that; a form of ‘postbox’ for public funding and communications with the international federation only.”

Another upshot of UK Sport’s increased scrutiny is that senior BEF roles have been filled with non-horsemen in the past year or so. Overall performance boss Gordon Burton is from rowing and canoeing, Warner from athletics, and newly appointed BEF CEO Nick Fellows from clay pigeon shooting. I hardly recognise the names of anyone on the board of directors nowadays, even though I have been reporting UK equestrian for 40 years. Salmon has told The Times she was upset when Nick Skelton (in Horse & Hound) took a swipe at top jobs in equestrianism being filled by people from outside the sport, though to be honest Skelton could easily have been talking about several other people.

Bringing in outsiders is not, in essence, a bad thing, but we certainly saw how lack of horse “heritage” left Burton hopelessly outclassed when defending the decision not to send a GB jumping team to the 2017 European championships. The independent review emphasises trust and respect; but it’s a fact that riders of all ages and ability are suspicious of anyone who doesn’t know what ends the oats go in.

The review panel seems to find the labyrinthine BEF structure just as exhausting as Deloitte: “It is not for the Panel to tell the BEF or the MBs what the role of the BEF should be. Some contributors suggested that the Panel should recommend that all MBs amalgamate under the BEF umbrella. The Panel has no doubt that some, if not all, MBs would be aghast … the Panel should only make recommendations that are workable and achievable, which such a recommendation would not…”

Is that last sentence a “cop out?” Well, a bit. Though while a cop out is something the review panel is entitled to take, Stoneleigh certainly isn’t.