I wrote a piece after WEG 2010 that was in part responsible for changing certain FEI rules regarding welfare and conduct of officials so forgive me for thinking we had sorted out who was who and which official was responsible for which task. Last time in this blog, I also wondered if preventing abuse had gone a bit mad and now I am certain it has.
I used to be an official dressage judge in the UK until fairly recently so I am clear on the guidelines presented to judges when they are officiating. Consequently, I was left flabbergasted, like a great many others watching, when having rung the bell and stopped the test, Sue Baxter (the president of the Ground Jury at Burghley) got out of her box and eliminated Rudolph Scherer for apparent lameness in his feisty grey mare Makara de Montiege. For lameness, despite Rudolph protesting and trotting his mare around on a long rein to demonstrate her well-being. Lameness? Surely it’s a vet who decides that? The mare was undoubtedly tense. There were a few unlevel steps in the first half pass but none in the medium or extended trot, which is usually the big give away for the genuinely lame, not just tense, horse.
Commentating on the test were Jean Mitchell, a member of championship Ground Jury’s herself and Spencer Sturmey, a dressage and event rider. Also watching and visible behind the judge box at C was three star event rider Esther Evans. None of these people saw anything amiss other than those few steps, which as the mare was swishing her tail, may well have been caused by a dislike of dressage. But don’t take my word for it, you can watch the test online here (find Rudolph Scherer in the list of All Riders, towards the bottom). Of course, now you know what they did, it is hard to be unbiased but it is still worth watching and listening to the muted but astonished comments of the experienced observers.
A subsequent statement on behalf of the Ground Jury stated that the horse was eliminated because the “Ground Jury unanimously agreed that the horse was lame.” Now there is the main difficulty. Point one, when did they all unanimously agree? It seems to me to be after Sue Baxter decided unilaterally to get out of her box and speak to the rider as he had only been in the ring a matter of seconds and had barely ridden four movements. Ms. Baxter was seen SUBSEQUENTLY discussing it on her radio as Rudolph trotted round vainly with long reins on a perfectly sound horse. So when did this original discussion take place?
Which brings us onto point two. Ms. Baxter and her fellow judges are not vets. David Lee is not a vet and neither is Anne Mette Binder. Although welfare is paramount, guidelines for judges state exactly that and that momentary unlevel steps must be penalised in the marking and then by having the horse subsequently examined and passed fit to compete before any further competitive activity is begun. This Ground Jury had seen this horse less than 24 hours previously and passed it fit to compete. Did they think they had made a mistake in the first place? Neither commentators nor spectators had seen anything like this carnival before in their lives. Unless a horse is really lame, hopping (which is hardly likely to happen at Burghley) judges are advised to let the horse finish the test and get it checked afterwards. That is the fairest way as any educated horse person knows a horse can appear slightly unlevel for any number of reasons including tension, disliking the going, clipping its own leg with the opposite foot (especially during lateral work), losing balance, getting its tongue over the bit, being bitten by a horse fly, having a bit of dirt or straw under the saddle… need I go on? None of those are true lameness. The horse, by the way, trotted round with its ears pricked and couldn’t have looked happier.
So what could be the reason for the strange decision? Well the horse did look worse because it directly followed the superlative test of the eventual winner for one thing. The mare isn’t a great mover, we would have called her a ‘sewing machine’ in my day! And the Ground Jury… wait a minute lets back track a second. Who were the members again? Anne Mette Binder is no stranger to getting out of her box. Go back to my 2010 article and its all looking a bit spookily familiar. French rider, grey horse, Anne Mette Binder taking matters into her own hands… That case was allegedly about the tiniest smear of blood in a horse’s mouth (for which there was no clear rule at the time) and involved more jumping out of boxes and into the field of play. Anne Mette wasted no time at Burghley jumping out of her box to open the arena gate for Rudolph so once again when did they have this big discussion and where was the official vet to put them all back into their boxes?
I think that going back to my column last time, it’s all about what gets seen in public that matters these days. I have been informed by a participating rider at Burghley that the Ground Jury were conspicuously diligent in asking horses to stop on cross country day. This seems to be confirmed by a couple of recorded eliminations without any sort of fall or refusal. And that is a good thing on cross country where either horse or rider or both can end up dead. But in the dressage ring, perhaps it is about time a vet was actually on the Ground Jury if they are going to make decisions which could potentially be career changing for a rider. Despite all the welfare issues, and before we create power crazy monsters, maybe we need to remember that judges are judges, vets are vets, and let’s put each back in their respective boxes before we find out that black is really white after all.