Horse inspections are ulcer inducing no matter how sound your horse is. It’s a living nightmare to arrive at the three-day after spending countless dollars and hours preparing only to be eliminated or encouraged to withdraw before you head down centerline.
But that’s exactly what happened to six horses in the two-star at the Dutta Corp. Fair Hill International (Md.). The ground jury of Judy Bradwell and Robert Stevenson sent them to the holding box, and associate member veterinarian Denys Frappier advised them to withdraw after examining their horses.
Normally, that would be the end of the story. “My job, our job, is protection of the horse,” said Frappier. “My responsibility is to make sure this horse isn’t going to get hurt, and the rider isn’t going to get hurt or kill himself or injure himself.”
But did Frappier go too far in his duty? He actively flexed two horses—Debbie Foote’s Fly Me Courageous and Jessica Shull’s L.E. Font—in the holding box, something that is explicitly against Fédération Equestre Internationale rules, Article 1033, Section IV, d.
According to Frappier, the horses were sensitive to palpation, so he flexed them.
“I have to give an answer to the ground jury,” he said. “If it confirms my first palpation, is he just ticklish and he doesn’t want me to touch him, then I flex him, and he trotted very, very lame. It made me comfortable of my answer to the ground jury.”
Both riders withdrew, not knowing that an illegal flexion had just taken place. When they realized, they appealed to technical delegate Martin Plewa, but he told them once they’d withdrawn there was nothing he could do.
Would it have been better to jog the horse, against the advice of the veterinarian in the holding box, who reports his findings to the ground jury before a horse is re-presented?
“The final decision is the ground jury. If they eliminate a horse, then it is eliminated,” said Plewa. “With the rules now, there is no way to appeal the decision of the ground jury.”
The only way these riders could’ve dealt with the illegal actions of Frappier was to alert the ground jury immediately, according to Plewa. “If there is something done illegally in the holding area, then it must be recorded immediately, and the ground jury must discuss it,” he said. “If the final decision is made, then it’s too late.”
Plewa and Frappier conceded that the rules might need some tweaking. Frappier said veterinarians used to be able to palpate when the horse arrived on the grounds, giving a rider a day or two to get to the bottom of an issue before the first horse inspection.
“They come in, and we take the temperature and pulse and respiration. Make sure it’s the right horse,” said Frappier. “I’m going to send a note to the FEI asking why they don’t want us to palpate the legs.”
Plewa said that in show jumping and dressage there is more flexibility to re-inspect a horse at a later date. “The rules don’t allow any flexibility in this case,” he said. “I think it’s a good point to think about and discuss in the eventing committee and think about these sort of situations to give a second chance.”
But for the riders there is no second chance. No other two-stars are being held on the East Coast this fall.
“All these horses do an incredible amount of training to get to this level, and a lot of people spend a lot of money and effort to get here,” said rider representative Boyd Martin. “Literally, in 30 seconds that can be destroyed through someone’s opinion. I think the events have to be very careful selecting their ground jury, their technical delegate and the vet in the hold box because a split second decision by any one of those people can change riders’ lives.”
He went on to say that part of the issue may have been the inexperience of the riders who were advised to withdraw. “That’s where the riders with coaches like Clayton Fredericks and Phillip Dutton, or a vet like Brendan Furlong, if you’ve got those sort of people standing at your side, you basically can stand your ground,” he said.
“No one wants to run a crippled horse. They palpated my horse’s joint and said he was fine,” said Betsy Ball, who owns L.E. Font. “But they were holding his hoof up to his stomach like a ‘you want money off a pre-purchase’ flexion. It’s six months until the next two-star. If he weren’t sound, I wouldn’t have driven from Mississippi to Maryland.
Ball went on to point out that if a rider had broken the rules, he or she would be fined and punished. But what’s the recourse when a veterinarian does it?
“I understand the situation. I don’t know,” said Plewa.
And would Frappier flex these horses again in the same situation?
“Yes. Then my mind rests,” he said. “If I don’t do it, and this boy or girl goes cross-country and gets hurt, I’m not going to live well with that.”