Lots of people must think working in the equestrian media is very glamorous.
You certainly go to events in lovely places and meet your idols on a regular basis. The reality is also incredibly long hours sorting through acres of photos and posting stuff every few minutes on social media while trying to write considered, lengthier pieces for traditional news outlets. Often, you will not see a single horse in real life for the whole four days because, fearful of missing anything, you stick close to the TV screen in the press office, while quietly wilting under the weight of work.
Then its home on Monday to sort out the material you didn’t manage to sort during the show, wash your clothes and remind your family what you look like, before hopping on a plane or leaping into the car for another long drive to start the whole frantic cycle all over again.
This can only be why, I have always assumed, the annual FEI Sports Forum in Lausanne rarely attracts more than five or six scribblers, despite its importance for thrashing out the future of equestrianism. Sometimes I have been the only English language journalist present.
The forum is always held on a Monday and a Tuesday, hugely inconvenient for media treading the show circuit. I, on the other hand, don’t attend lots of competitions abroad these days, so the Sports Forum is easier for me.
So this is why I’m among the tiny few unsurprised by this week’s revelation that the “final four” horse-swap for jumping world championships has been scrapped. I had long since “parked” its demise in my head, because it was discussed 18 months ago at the 2015 FEI sports forum (and notified to delegates well in advance) with no one really turning a hair.
The fact it has finally happened has only come to wider attention this as a result of people having read the new rules for FEI jumping, ratified at the FEI General Assembly in Tokyo last month.
The FEI did not find it newsworthy enough to announce by press release. That is odd, given its popularity with aficionados of what a supreme horseman can do with a “strange” but equally supreme horse.
I have checked my detailed notes from 2015 and found no record of any resistance from Forum delegates, who included representatives of the International Jumping Riders Club.
It’s very clear, though, from reaction this week that, had more riders been aware, it would not have gone through without a fight. Big names have expressed profound regret, along with fans across social media. They include Jeroen Dubbledam and Jos Lansink.
I share their pain, because the final four is something I have always looked forward to. As a kid I was glued to the TV when David Broome won on Beethoven in 1970, where he also rode Mattie Brown, Warwick Rex and Fidux. I was at the first-ever WEG, Stockholm in 1990, where John Whitaker’s three experienced the scope of Milton.
You could not have wished for four more wonderful horsemen than the finale of WEG 2014. I had returned from France by then, for Burghley. Unfortunately, the TV transmission from Caen clashed with Andrew Nicholson’s third consecutive Burghley win with Avebury. In the end we hijacked two monitors and set them up side by side, our necks on swivels trying to follow both spectacles at once.
The trouble is, though, in this era you can’t guarantee that all four horsemen in the finale will be wonderful. That’s the elephant in the room, and why I reluctantly agree the format is obsolete.
One perfectly rational argument against it is welfare, because of the extra strain of jumping these extra intense rounds, not to mention each horse being worth millions; it’s tricky enough if he has an accident under his regular partner, never mind a stranger.
What riders feel uncomfortable about saying out loud goes deeper: there is now more risk of somebody nowhere near as competent as you reaching the final four, someone you really, really don’t want on your horse. Just before WEG 2014, reigning champion Philippe Le Jeune published his reflections from WEG 2010 (article is in french) on studforlife.com. In this, he sharply criticised the riding of surprise finalist and eventual silver medallist, Abdullah Al Sharbatly, and what became of his ride Seldana di Campalto.
The emergence of relatively inexperienced riders from “new” jumping countries on madly expensive imports has certainly increased the chances of a rank outsider reaching the final four. Even without the four-horse rotation, there is still chance of an unknown making the podium at future WEGs due to other format changes with all this dumbing-down.
I try to understand why the FEI wants more countries at the Olympics and championship events. But the FEI also seems unique among sports governing bodies in angling for athletes with no top level form or longevity winning a medal.
The rationale for scrapping the old formula was summarised here after the 2015 Forum (see page 6.) I particularly enjoyed its assertion that winning medals for riding strange horses was “anti-ethical” to the concept of partnership.
How come, then, that despite all the reviews and heart-searching about what has gone so horribly wrong in endurance, FEI rules still allow certain riders ride “strange” horses at a championship or, indeed, any other 160km ride? That smacks of serious double standards: no change there, then.