Victor, ridden by Tiffany Foster of Canada, was disqualified from the Olympic show jumping competition today under the Fédération Equestre Interationale’s hypersensitivity protocol.
The 10-year-old Dutch Warmblood gelding was one of 70 jumping horses tested today and was the only one deemed hypersensitive, on his left front leg around a small superficial cut on his coronet band.
“The equine Olympic athlete is of course the most closely monitored athlete at the Olympic Games,” said FEI foreign veterinary delegate Kent Allen. “That is the FEI’s mandate—welfare of the horse and well being of the horse. Horses can simply have athletic injuries—they hit themselves on a pole and become hypersensitive. It’s very regrettable in this circumstance; the horse was simply too sensitive on that limb to continue on, and so for the well being of the horse and the safety of the rules, that was the decision.”
HRH Princess Haya, president of the FEI, stressed in a press conference this afternoon that there was “absolutely no accusation whatsoever” of malpractice being made against Foster, 28.
“The FEI is here to protect the welfare of the horses, and as a former competitor I totally empathize with what Tiffany’s going through,” said Princess Haya. “We’re here to stand beside her and to offer our commiserations, and we look forward to seeing many bright performances from her in the future.”
“A Miscarriage Of Justice”
Those words of encouragement did little to salve Foster’s wounds, however. The Olympic first-timer from Vancouver, British Columbia, struggled gamely to hold back tears throughout the press conference and was only able to make a brief statement, encouraged by teammate Eric Lamaze.
“I just want to say that I would never do anything to jeopardize the welfare of my horse,” said Foster, crying. “What happened today was obviously very disappointing and devastating to me. I understand why the rules are in place. I just think it’s unfortunate that, while I understand why they look for the hypersensitivity in the horses, in a situation like this I would be unable to compete. I feel really bad for my team, and I’m really disappointed that this is the way my first Olympic Games is going to end.”
Lamaze, however, made little effort to speak diplomatically. Sitting just down the table from Princess Haya and Allen, the reigning Olympic individual gold medalist vehemently objected to how the FEI handled the hypersensitivity testing process today, and in the past.
“I think I can speak on behalf of [Foster], my chef d’equipe and my other teammates. This is a complete miscarriage of justice,” he said. “We all know why they do the tests, and we all understand. [But] within a period of perhaps six minutes, five people poked at this horse’s leg 50 times. Yes, he does have a little superficial cut… [but] this was a simple injury that would not have put this horse in danger in any way and would not have made her gain any advantage in the ring.
“In such a short period of time, without watching a horse jog, without taking him out of the stall, without assessing him in the warm-up ring—you can just come to a conclusion and say the horse is hypersensitive?” Lamaze continued. “I do not agree with that at all. We have to take a hard look at what’s happened today.”
Lamaze also noted that Victor had jumped this morning and was sound and “in perfect condition.”
Canadian Chef d’Equipe Torchy Millar launched an official protest as soon as the decision was handed down, and the FEI Appeal Committee considered it before the end of competition but denied it based on Annex XI of the FEI Veterinary Regulations: “There is no appeal against the decision of the Ground Jury to disqualify a horse for abnormal sensitivity from an Event.”
The FEI General Regulations also state there is no appeal against an elimination of a horse for veterinary reasons.
“We are very unhappy about this,” said Millar. “It is a decision that lacks any common sense. It is just blind application of a rule. It lacks judgment and horsemanship.”
Millar said the veterinary commission came to Victor’s stall to re-check the gelding (horses are checked multiple times during the competition, and Victor had previously been checked yesterday, Aug. 4) while Foster was walking her course. Riders are not required to be present during inspections, and their absence is common, according to Allen.
“They came by the stall this morning and were doing thermography on horses,” Millar said. “Naturally when you have a scratch, it’s warmer. They didn’t jog the horse. They wouldn’t take it out of the stall. [Our team] offered to take it out of the stall, and the FEI said they don’t do that. It’s not their procedure.”
“The criteria is not soundness,” Allen explained in this afternoon’s press conference. “The criteria is, ‘Is the horse fit to compete?’ “
Word of Foster’s disqualification quickly spread throughout the grounds, re-igniting concern amongst many of the riders, as it has at past competitions where horses have been deemed hypersensitive. In 2010, U.S. rider McLain Ward’s disqualification from the Rolex FEI World Cup Final with Sapphire sparked a furor of controversy.
“I think the FEI is out of control, and they’re wrong,” said show jumping veteran Katie Prudent, who was also present at the Geneva World Cup Final where Ward was disqualified. “I looked at [Victor’s] leg after I heard about everything that happened. It’s a tiny nick on his front leg, no bigger than my little pinky fingernail. It’s not a gash. It’s not anything that could hurt him. Horses have that all the time from going out in the pasture, stepping on themselves. It has nothing to do with the performance of that horse.
“What they did to Tiffany was wrong,” Prudent continued. “You have no recourse with the FEI. They can do whatever they want with no proof of anything whatsoever. It makes me wild. I think they’re wrong, and it’s frightening for riders. They can decide your life.
“It was the moment of Tiffany’s life to come ride in the Olympics,” she added. “She went beautifully yesterday with 8 faults. Clearly the horse wasn’t over-prepared or over-sensitized or over-whatever. She’s just here to get experience and have a good time. And they have dashed her hopes.”
When asked if the Canadian team, which stands sixth right now on 5 faults, had considered withdrawing from the competition as an act of protest, Lamaze said that recourse had not been discussed. Instead, he hopes to win a medal for his teammate.
“Tiffany can hold her head up high,” he said. “She did absolutely nothing wrong, and she was dealt a really raw deal today. It’s a really big loss for our Canadian team, and I’m ashamed of our sport today to have put someone like her in this position.”