The initials CSI can apply to both the official FEI abbreviation for an international jumping show, and the name of a global TV crime franchise. I am wondering how soon before the two worlds collide. I am applying a bit of licence, of course, because its actually a CCI that may need to resemble a crime scene investigation, but you will soon get the picture.
One would hope, and be entitled to think, that safety technology is by now in widespread use on cross-country courses around the world. The only limiting factor, inexcusable as it may seem, might be funding in some of the poorer, still emerging eventing countries, because frangible pins are not cheap, coming in at around $150 a pop.
But you’d be wrong, for there is still a reticence to use pins in proliferation. Where and when has always been up to the course designer’s discretion, because there are some types of jump where frangible devices just don’t function with consistency or reliability. There are other situations where location, as well as type, of fence, has a bearing on what will happen. A seasoned eventer will often deliberately put his hindlegs down on a big rail into water, so as to give himself a push off, and course designers are very conscious that such good horses should not be fooled.
But now FEI officials are tearing their hair out about the recent re-tweaking of the 21-penalty rule for breaking a pin. FEI officials fear that disputes about whose fault it is the pin has broken will hold up the posting of results into the early hours. To avoid such a hiatus, will there simply be a tendency to pin fewer fences?
Having had his or her life saved by deformable technology, the rider is still perceived to have made a mistake that must be penalised. Nowhere near as much as for an actual fall, but marginally more than a refusal. The last couple of seasons, 21 penalties for breaking a deformable device have been automatic, the rider then having the opportunity to appeal to the ground jury, who used to consider whether the horse would have fallen had the fence been fixed. That process in itself has been full of angst, especially as the majority of competitions aren’t televised and the chances of the ground jury witnessing the incident in person are very small.
Even at four-stars, availability of video doesn’t necessarily help. At Burghley 2014, four riders protested against broken pin penalties, only two of whom were successful. Those that weren’t included Marilyn Little, who would otherwise have finished 10th. She queried whether the pin broken by Demeter had been correctly set. Two horses earlier, fellow American Meghan O’Donoghue and Pirate broke the same fence. Little told me at the time: “My horse left the ground well at an appropriate pace and distance, held her line accurately through the air and only hit the back part with the lower part of her hindleg. I do believe we answered the question the course-designer meant to ask. I did not feel at any point that Demeter was in trouble. There is always the possibility human error may have played a role when the pins were replaced in a hurry, immediately prior to my ride. Who can say?
“I am sure that in the grand scheme of life, those 21 penalties will be relatively inconsequential, though their effect on the outcome of a weekend in which my wonderful horse put in such a fantastic effort is certainly felt in the present by myself.”
Now, no doubt with the best of intentions, the original interpretation of the FEI rule has been reinstated. The onus is to show that “simply if a clear mechanical failure has produced an unexpected activation of the mechanism through a light tap similar to the behaviour of a show- jumping fence.” Protests will only be upheld if the technical delegate and course designer can assure the ground jury that the pin malfunctioned. But how is anyone equipped to do this at all, never mind on the spot, unless FEI training courses now include advanced study of physics and engineering?
The problem may apply to a lesser extent at events in north America where the pin and clip made commercially by Swedish company MIMSafe are popularly used. They have a visible metal tag which starts to warp if the device has been weakened by a clout from a non-falling earlier horse. It can then be replaced as soon as spotted by a fence judge, reducing the likelihood of controversy – never mind, of course, the fresh pin doing the job for which it is intended. But the other brand of pin in widespread use, produced and supplied by British Eventing, our national governing body over here, does not have a similar early-warning appendage.
I feel sorry for the FEI eventing committee, who must feel trapped between a rock and a hard place. But there is now the chance that one day the robustness of the 21-penalty rule will be tested through the courts. The decision-making process has moved away from subjectivity, relying on objective assessment for which no infallible yardstick is uniformly available.
Very Wealthy Rider of moderate ability takes up eventing in his late 30s and, after a couple of years, realises he happens to represent a country in a region that has a favourable allocation of places at the Olympic Games. He splashes out $700,000 on a three-star horse, and enters a cash-strapped CCI where two or three relatively inexperienced officials have not yet twigged the significance of this year’s changes. Wealthy Rider thinks he’s gone clear, though he did feel his horse trip on landing and heard a clunk, but somehow they kept going. He goes back to the stables, and hangs around for a while having a chat and a drink. He only later checks the scoreboard to find he has been given 21 penalties, having taken out a pinned rail with his horse’s hindlegs.
This was his best opportunity to get a qualifying result, so he lodges a protest. Meanwhile, its been a drama-filled day, and the fence repair party has been frantic. In the heat of the moment no-one is sure which of several used pins came from the fence broken by Wealthy Rider. Hence the ground jury cannot even attempt a decision. Furious and vengeful, Wealthy Rider hires a hot shot lawyer who in due course persuades a different sort of jury that his client has suffered distress from a once-in-a-lifetime Olympic Opportunity that was denied him by incompetence/absence of process/failure to treat any fence breakage like a crime scene. He’s awarded damages of a sum which is small change to Wealthy Rider but substantial enough to bankrupt an organising committee or even a small national equestrian federation.
This ruling gives other budget conscious eventing organisers sleepless nights. What do you think they’ll decide, to avoid the same fate?