Fierce debate has ignited over dressage judges’ conduct both in and out of the competition arena since the Fédération Equestre Internationale’s suspension of five-star multi-Olympic judge Leif Törnblad on Nov. 8.
In an interview with Australian journalist Chris Hector, the Dane expressed critical views of some top riders’ training methods, including Anky van Grunsven and her husband Sjef Janssen, as well as Edward Gal and Hans Peter Minderhoud.
His comments prompted Janssen and the Dutch Equestrian Federation (KNHS) to file complaints with the FEI, and the organization responded by suspending Törnblad for the remainder of 2017 “due to his breach of article two of the codex for FEI dressage judges.”
Dutch team trainer Rien van der Schaft believes it is “very inappropriate that a member of the jury discusses riders in this way. It seems very difficult for him to remain unbiased next time he sees Edward Gal or Hans Peter Minderhoud in the ring.”
KNHS’ director of high performance Maarten van der Heijden said: “We expect very high ethical standards of the five-star judges. How can a judge who is expressing subjective aspects be objective and independent to Dutch riders without bias? That’s why we complained to the FEI.”
The FEI cited Törnblad’s “inappropriate comments to media about current trainers and athletes, which called his neutrality into question” as grounds for the suspension.
The codex he is deemed to have violated states that “a judge must avoid any actual or perceived conflict of interest. A judge must have a neutral, independent and fair position towards riders, owners, trainers, organizers and other officials and integrate well into a team.”
Some have branded the punishment overly harsh, but Janssen’s lawyer, Luc Schelstraete, considers Törnblad’s suspension too lenient. He and his client have requested that the FEI Ethical Committee review the matter. If they are not satisfied with the outcome, they may yet escalate to the Court of Arbitration for Sport.
But how prescriptive can the FEI really be in matters of personal opinion outside the judging environment? The FEI’s decisive response calls into question the extent to which horse sport’s governing body can reasonably compel judges to suppress their own opinions—particularly as many are also active riders and trainers with their own methods.
In the wide-ranging interview, Hector asked Törnblad: “What went wrong in the Salinero era, why was a horse that was so tense able to win so much?”
From there, the robust exchange—which The Horse Magazine appeared to publish verbatim and in full online—goes on to negatively reference specific riders, with van Grunsven’s horses receiving particular mention, as well as Janssen’s training methods.
“[Anky] presents the horses well, but there are problems with the whole Sjef Janssen way of training,” said Törnblad.
Hector then went on to describe it as “awful.”
The pair both condemned the use of the extreme training method rollkur, where horses are ridden in a hyperflexed position, usually well behind the vertical. They also criticized Gal and Minderhoud by name.
Is it feasible to expect judges to wield so much power and knowledge, yet to express no personal opinions? Was the FEI right to suspend Törnblad for expressing an opinion about methods he disagrees with?
Anne Gribbons, one of only four five-star FEI judges in the United States, said she was “completely torn” in her reaction.
“I read the interview once, and my impression was that the journalist asked long and pointed questions, which drove the answers the way he wanted them,” she said.
“I felt the interviewer wanted Leif to say certain things, and in certain instances he was trapped into saying things, making it seem like he agreed.”
Hector stated he had no pre-set agenda for the conversation.
“As a professional, it’s poison to go into an interview with a whole set of preconceived ideas about where it should go,” he said. “I’ve been doing this gig for 30 years and have found that if you treat it as a conversation and not some artificial Q&A then you get a better yarn, but that means you have to be upfront with your views if you expect the interviewee to be upfront with theirs.
“When we started talking the topic soon moved to the judging situation, which is not all that remarkable since it is a conversation dressage fans have all the time,” he added.
Gribbons said Törnblad’s only real mistake was to name names.
“Us judges are very careful about making comments about specific riders, and our personal opinion should not matter; we have judging guidelines, and that should be what we use to judge, not the rider’s training methods,” she said. “When a horse and rider come in, you don’t know how they train, and it doesn’t matter because your concern is what you see in the ring.”
British Olympic rider Richard Davison, a former member of the FEI dressage committee, called the whole affair a very unfortunate situation.
“The FEI have an obligation to consider each grievance on facts and evidence, Davison said. “There are a number of negative references to named riders and trainers, and these were mostly Dutch, and so I can understand why the KNHS successfully argued that these statements breached the FEI judges code of conduct.”
The FEI stated that despite the punishment meted out to Törnblad, “the FEI does not question either his integrity or his performance as a five-star FEI dressage judge.”
He can still judge at non-FEI shows and plans to do so during his suspension.
Public reaction was wide-ranging online, but many comments supported Törnblad and condemned the FEI’s decision to suspend him for speaking out about training methods he deems problematic.
Davison added: “I feel sorry for Leif, as he clearly holds very passionate and sincere views, and it is a hard lesson to learn, but the regulations seem clear to me, and it is the FEI’s obligation to uphold them when requested by a national federation.”
Törnblad confirmed that he is not appealing the FEI’s decision and will therefore accept his suspension until midnight on Dec. 31.
But, if Janssen and his lawyer get their way, that may not be the end of it.