The FEI is reviewing the blood and whip rules for eventing, as a direct result of the social media storms over Marilyn Little at Kentucky and Oliver Townend at Badminton.
The review is indeed welcome – but all FEI disciplines must surely grasp the opportunity to create a consistent approach to field-of-play horse abuse once and for all? While I am not running to the defence of either rider, there is something flawed with the current disciplinary system right across the raft of FEI sports. Ground juries also give the impression of being inherently reactive, rarely treating repeat offenders with sufficient boldness so that they get the message.
The Michael Morrissey whipping incident at the U.S. jumping team trial in 2010 belatedly earned him a three-month suspension and the ground jury a telling-off for failing to apply sufficient sanctions on the day. At the time I scrutinised FEI whip rules sport-by-sport. They came over as obtuse, and even confused about how whips should be categorised. Some disciplines put their whip rules under “Abuse,” others under “Saddlery and Tack.”
I am 99.9% certain the FEI told me they would be reviewing whips across the board because of the Morrissey incident. Eight years on, it doesn’t really look like they changed very much. Currently in FEI jumping you can use the whip no more than “three times in a row” and in eventing a maximum “three times per any one incident.” Anyone know what either of these instructions actually mean?
This side of the pond, the Townend whipping furore has subsided though not completely dispersed.
You might as well try to grab hold of fog as make sense of all the reaction. Even if you discard the serial joiners-in who rant on Facebook just for the sake of it, comment even from knowledgeable people has been naïve. How many times did we read supportive messages concluding that “Oliver will have learned his lesson – let’s let him move on.” This was, ahem, his third FEI verbal warning since 2014 for mis-use of the whip – not to mention other warnings he has received from both the FEI and British Eventing about other unacceptable behaviours.
Others meanwhile thought the pressures arising from his Rolex Grand Slam bid provided mitigating circumstances. If that really was a factor, maybe it’s time for serious thought about the compatibility of eventing with life-changing prize-pots.
I certainly had my own patience tried by the many social media commenters who think carrying a whip per se is cruel – people who don’t understand there are occasions in cross-country riding when a judicious whack is essential to get horse and rider out of very serious trouble.
But we are not living in the 1970s. Much of the 21st century equestrian community comprises first-generation, obsessively single-discipline riders who are not apprised of the eclectic demands of other horse sports. And if horse people don’t know, how is the casual observer expected to grasp when it is acceptable for a skilled and experienced rider to use a stick, or to tolerate blood, and that there is a perceived difference in way you can treat horses in the “contact” sports compared with, say, dressage? We may secretly deride these “ignorant” folks, but nowadays they influence elite sport’s social licence to exist. Look at the impact of Facebook already on sponsors who have dropped Little and Townend.
Oliver’s unacceptable whip-flailing aside, the Badminton incident was handled badly all round. Information that he had been officially warned was issued later that night, avoiding immediate inclusion in general media reports of cross-country which then somehow made it even worse next day. What exactly he had been disciplined for – “abuse” of horse through “excessive” use of the whip – only became clear a further day later when the warning was finally listed on the FEI Tribunal sanctions page.
Townend’s failure to issue any kind of immediate apology was a spectacular own-goal. One senior media colleague was reduced to working behind the scenes to persuade some of Townend’s connections that he really did need to show contrition in some shape or form.
Meanwhile, what were the ground jury up to? They had 16 TV monitors and the facility to watch Townend’s rides in their entirety. If judges felt strongly enough to warn him about both horses, not just the second one, why didn’t they speak to him after his first ride instead of waiting till the end? The delay suggested they only acted at all because, by tea-time, social media had gone berserk.
Judges in turn are also ill-served by the un-joined up disciplinary measures at their disposal. These rules must be more detailed and clear, with the judges confident that FEI HQ will back them up.
Blood – the approach to which also varies wildly from sport to sport – is always dealt with as a stand-alone offence, presumably because it is usually an accidental rather than calculated form of abuse. But this means blood not recorded as the type of incident which triggers an alert when the rider is repeatedly implicated.
As for horse abuse, endurance rules require disqualification as an absolute bare minimum. Yet in eventing the options for abuse include “verbal warning” or yellow card – entirely down to the judges’ discretion – while in show jumping you can give a yellow card but not a verbal warning. In those two sports, the offending rider can retain his place in the competition. A second yellow card in 12 months results in a two-month automatic ban. But no such totting-up applies to “verbal warnings” – you could receive these on a regular basis with no interruption to your competition schedule whatsoever!
The FEI also needs to address the widely held perception that if you are famous or the event is high profile, you will be dealt with more leniently than the get-rounder at a show staged in the middle of nowhere. That has been a common theme of the Little and Townend hiatus.
In recent FEI history, a mere four horse abuse cases have got as far FEI Tribunal as a result of protests from the public rather than from officials. Because I lodged the first of these in 2014, I keep an eye out for similar developments, and I certainly believe the hierarchical standing of the offender affects the outcome.
Currently eventing is in the spotlight, but examples of uneven-handed treatment in all disciplines pop up all the time.
In December 2016 and January 2017, a member of Dubai’s ruling Maktoum family and half a dozen other prominent riders from Dubai endurance stables with trainers having “form” for doping were suspended just two months each for controlled medications offences. A Dubai feedstuffs supplier admitted it possibly contaminated a supplement. And because discussions were taking place about the transfer of these particular caffeine-related substances to the FEI’s “Specified” list 12 months hence (January 1, 2018) the lex mitior principle was applied. The riders were treated as if they had already committed a lesser offence.
Compare this with the six-month suspension handed down a few weeks ago to a one-handed, visually impaired Hungarian para-athlete for a controlled anti-inflammatories offence at a CAI. He’d borrowed the horse (which was prepared by someone else) for this, his first attempt at FEI driving. To add insult to injury, he was only competing at the behest of his national federation, apparently to make up the numbers at an undersubscribed para-event.
Then there’s the extremely inconsistent approach to fraud. In 2015, the long-time head vet of the uber-rich Emirates national federation was suspended for just two years for faking the qualifying ride results of over 500 horse and rider pairings at multiple rides. (I was heavily involved in flushing out the “phantom rides” and think we only scratched the surface of a long-term culture of data-fakery.)
Yet last month, a jumping judge and secretary-general from a remote Central Asia federation were suspended for the exact same period, two years, for covering up the judge’s absence from a youth Olympic Games qualifier after her visitor visa fell through. One of them was also fined 1,000 Swiss francs, the equivalent of her annual salary. Yes, it was dishonest, but did it really equate to the industrial-scale forgery of the UAE which also had serious welfare implications for the hapless horses who starting 120km and 160km races with no prior experience? At least the jumping show in Kyrgyzstan actually took place.
I am not saying people get away with more lenient sanctions because they are famous, associated with royalty or are otherwise mega-wealthy. But it certainly can be said that it’s because they are privileged that certain riders secure the very best in legal representation. It goes without saying they will then cut a much better deal than a para-athlete on a disability pension who was forced to fend for himself at Tribunal with only an interpreter on side.
Justice must be done and also seen to be done. I think this is a really sensitive issue for the FEI right now.