Bloody Eliminations Come Under Scrutiny

Mar 27, 2011 - 7:00 PM
When Adelinde Cornelissen of the Netherlands was eliminated at the Alltech FEI World Equestrian Games for bloody foam in Jerich Parzival’s mouth, she believed there was a specific rule in place regarding blood. Photo by Kat Netzler.

There’s no FEI rule that says a dressage horse must be disqualified for blood in his mouth, but there’s no protocol in place for a different outcome either.

She was ranked the No. 2 dressage rider in the world and had high hopes for an individual medal. But during the 2010 Alltech FEI World Equestrian Games, Adelinde Cornelissen of the Netherlands was rung out after blood-colored foam appeared in Jerich Parzival’s mouth early on in their test.

A veterinary examination following the elimination revealed the horse had a small nick where he accidentally bit the tip of his tongue.

On March 11 it happened again. Germany’s Anja Plönzke and Le Mont d’Or were eliminated during their freestyle performance at the World Dressage Masters in West Palm Beach, Fla., when judges observed blood mixed in saliva around the gelding’s mouth.

Few things raise immediate concern about a horse’s welfare more than the sight of blood. And for horses competing in dressage, the presence of any trace of blood results in immediate elimination.

However, in recent weeks, the Fédération Equestre Internationale rules for dressage competition have come under international scrutiny for a lack of clear language detailing how to handle a situation where appears during a test. Articles in Horse International and Horse & Hound have called into question the rule foundation upon which the decisions to eliminate these horses were made.

In The Interest Of Welfare

U.S. Equestrian Federation rules are clear as to “how” to address the issue of blood and “who” must do it, both in and out of the dressage arena. DR124n states: “Evidence of blood on a horse in the competition arena shall be cause for elimination from the class by the judge at ‘C’. Evidence of blood on a horse outside the competition arena shall be cause for elimination by competition management, after consultation with the technical delegate, from either the last class in which the horse competed or next class in which it is scheduled to compete, depending on which is closest to the time the incident occurred. Environmental causes such as insect bites shall normally not be cause for elimination.”

By comparison, the FEI Dressage Regulations in Article 430.7.6 state that a reason for elimination is if: “The performance is against the welfare of the horse.”

However, this rule does not include specific reference to blood anywhere on the horse’s body, nor does it state who has the authority to eliminate the horse at any given time.

“It is correct that blood is not specifically mentioned in the FEI Rules for Dressage Events,” said Trond Asmyr, the FEI’s Director of Dressage and Para-Equestrian Dressage Department. “However, they provide the ground jury with the authority to eliminate horses for veterinary reasons, and clearly bleeding from the mouth is a veterinary issue. In the case of Parzival, the bleeding occurred during the test when the horse and rider were under the control of the judge at C. Elimination in these circumstances is immediate and is not appealable. It is accepted that blood in the mouth renders the horse unfit to compete, just as lameness does. Even if either is only temporary, the horse will still be eliminated. It is a general rule, and this is a specific application of it.
“It is difficult to include in a rulebook provisions for every single situation that may occur in a competition,” Asmyr continued. “We have in place solid rules to protect the horse, and eliminating a horse with blood is a well-established practice.”

You Know What They Say About Assumptions

As dressage coach for the Netherlands, Sjef Janssen doesn’t remember a high-profile elimination of a horse due to blood such as what happened to Cornelissen. “For sure not on the Dutch team,” he said.

“According to our records, this is the first time that such an event has occurred at the highest level of the sport,” agreed Asmyr. “However, unfortunately, similar incidents do happen from time to time at FEI events, and all are dealt with the same way.”

A member of the FEI Dressage Committee for four years, Janssen said he assumed that a specific rule about blood was in place. “I was quite surprised by this situation. There has been an understanding that there was a rule, but there really is not. The only discipline that specifically has one for blood is eventing,” said Janssen.

He added that questions about rule enforcement for blood never even came up. “It never happened at a big show and never had an impact like this, so nobody ever worried about it,” he explained. “The dressage rules get changed every year, too many, so it’s almost impossible to keep track of what’s changing all the time anyway.”

In the period immediately following Cornelissen’s elimination at the WEG, all parties continued to believe a clear rule was in place, which left no room for an appeal by the Dutch team. “We were all too shocked,” said Janssen. “I mean, what can you do? If you get eliminated this way, you can’t just run back to the judge and appeal. It’s really time that the FEI makes a rule that is more logical.”

What Constitutes Abuse?

In the hyper-sensitive arena of public opinion, the sight of any blood on a horse evokes discussion of abuse. In the FEI General Regulations, Article 142 outlines serious instances that constitute “Abuse of Horses,” such as excessive whipping and spurring, or depriving a horse of food or water.

However, as in the dressage rules, there is no specific mention of blood. Could the circumstances of Cornelissen’s situation be interpreted as abuse?

“We have no reason to believe that in the case of Parzival the bleeding was caused by abuse, but it could have been abuse to let the horse continue the competition,” explained Asmyr. “As previously noted, the decision was taken for veterinary reasons, as it is accepted that blood in the mouth renders the horse unfit to compete. It is important to remember that Article 430.7.6 of the FEI Rules for Dressage Events specifies that horse and rider will be eliminated when the ‘performance is against the welfare of the horse,’ which could have been the case had they not been eliminated.”

Janssen now believes Parzival should’ve been allowed to continue. “Would this have been an abusive situation? For sure not. The bleeding was already gone by the time she left the arena,” he said. “We must remember there are two standards which have to be fulfilled at FEI recognized shows: the welfare of the horse, and is the horse fit to compete? Both were applicable to Parzival’s condition, as he was fit to compete and the welfare of the horse was not in any danger.”

Who Bears The Decision-Making Burden?

Under current regulations, the decision to eliminate a horse comes down on just one person’s shoulders: the judge at C. Asmyr, who was an active international judge prior to accepting his position at FEI headquarters, explained that part of the training program for FEI judges is how to handle the responsibility for this decision.

“It is not possible to cover every potential situation specifically in the rules. Therefore, various scenarios of situations that may occur at a real event and how to deal with them are part of the education of FEI judges,” said Asmyr. “It is important to note that these rules are there to protect the welfare of the horse. They have been in place for a long time and have not at any time failed to work properly. This goes on to show that FEI officials are well trained and are prepared to make difficult decisions, which may be highly unpleasant and have major consequences.”

“That’s the worst part, in my opinion,” countered Janssen. “An official [in this case, the judge at C] should never be able to eliminate a combination on his own. Just because a horse happens to accidentally bite his tongue or gets a nosebleed does not mean he’s not fit to compete. It can happen to anybody. You never know how that judge is thinking, and is he truly objective? He can eliminate anybody, and there is no opportunity for a different opinion or appeal.”

Allowing consultation with other competition officials would also relieve the judge of the burden of making such a critical decision about a horse’s welfare on his own. “A judge should be aware of the blood, stop the test and send the horse out to be examined by the FEI vet,” Janssen said. “Then they determine whether this is something major, or maybe he just nicked himself on the tongue, and therefore allow him to continue. That would be the perfect rule.”

Different Standards?

In FEI Eventing Regulations there is a clear protocol for handling evidence of blood. The rules even allow a horse to continue in competition.

Janssen expressed frustration that the dressage rules do not include such specific language. “There is too much disparity between the disciplines,” he said. “The rule for one should also be applicable for all. Each can be tailored to be specific for their discipline, but the overall standards should be the same. A horse is a horse, and the rules must be transparent and clear.”

Perhaps further adding to the perplexity of these situations is Article 141 of the FEI General Regulations, “Protection of Horses,” which states that, in the case of illness or injury, the ground jury must consult with the veterinary delegate or commission in order to determine if a horse may continue.

This procedure was not invoked during the WEG or the Masters, but Asmyr explained that these wouldn’t have been applicable situations anyway.

“The FEI General Regulations outline basic principles which are designed to be applied in conjunction with the rules for the specific discipline,” he said. “Each FEI discipline has its own competition formats and, in order to ensure that the welfare of the horse is protected at all times, these should be taken into consideration when general rules are applied.

“Some formats allow for the horse to be stopped during competition so that it could be examined thoroughly to find out the exact cause of the blood,” Asmyr continued. “As dressage formats do not allow for immediate inspection, the only way to protect the horse is to immediately prevent it from continuing the competition.”

Revisions For The Future

Is there a possibility of recourse for affected riders considering the recent scrutiny and confusion regarding FEI rules?

“The Dutch Federation is working on it and is talking to the FEI,” reported Janssen.

But Asmyr said the FEI believes the eliminations were conducted in accordance with existing rules.

“No, there has not been nor will there be any legal action in relation to this case,” he said. “The Dutch team, including the rider, team manager and team vet, accepted the ruling at the time of the incident, and on February 28, John Bierling, CEO of the Dutch National Federation, stated to a Dutch journalist that his federation fully agreed with the elimination ‘as welfare is an important issue for us too.’ ”

Cornelissen can only hope that appropriate measures will be taken to prevent a similar controversy.

“She’s very cool and looking at this situation very logically, saying, ‘OK, what’s done is done,’ ” said Janssen. “Of course she’s very aware that she was in a position for several medals, but she also realizes that, because of what happened, maybe some changes can be made now in the hope that this won’t happen in the future. The situation at the World Championships is already too bad, but imagine if this happened at the Olympics. It would be a disaster and would be seen all over the world. The FEI will be making fools of themselves if changes aren’t made before London.”

Janssen is a member of the International Dressage Trainer’s Club, and he said as a result of the controversy, the group is proposing a new concept and language regarding evidence of blood during dressage competition.

The IDTC’s suggested language includes the following:
    “Horses: evidence of blood in the competition arena; this may or may not be a welfare issue and will be reviewed case by case. If the chief Judge or Steward observes any bleeding, the test will be paused. The competitor shall leave the arena, and the Steward and FEI Veterinarian will immediately examine the athlete. In minor cases if the bleeding has stopped and it is deemed that there is not a horse welfare issue thus the horse is fit for competition; the athlete will be allowed to continue the test at the next break or at the end of the class. As with malfunctions of sound systems during the Kür, the test will be resumed at the point it was halted and all previous scores for movements will be maintained. In instances in the warm-up arena, the Steward may, at his discretion, call for the FEI Veteri-narian to examine the horse to exclude any horse welfare issue and confirm fitness for competition.”

Asmyr confirmed that the FEI is receptive to rule revisions more clearly outlining how to apply welfare regulations.

“The FEI has a rule in place which has not at any time failed to work properly and which is there to protect the welfare of the horse,” he said. “However, the FEI is continually evaluating its rules and makes annual suggestions for revision to the General Assembly in November. This represented an example where the rules could be easier to understand, and we have decided to seize that opportunity.”

If approved, any rule changes proposed this year would become effective on Jan. 1, 2012.

Category: Dressage
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