If It Bleeds, It Leads. Or Does It?

Oct 29, 2015 - 5:00 AM
Marilyn Little and RF West Indie at the Dutta Corp. Fair Hill CCI***. Photo by Lindsay Berreth

There’s a saying in the newspaper business that “if it bleeds, it leads,” meaning that if a story has a gruesome or violent subject, it will attract readers. It’s a sad reality of life that the adage rings true. 

There’s been a lot of “bleeding” in the eventing world recently, as a Facebook post by a German eventing fan drew attention to a photo of Marilyn Little competing at the Boekelo CCI*** (the Netherlands) on RF Scandalous. The original post seemed to decry Little’s bitting choices, but the comments soon turned to what some posters saw as blood in RF Scandalous’ mouth. A thread started on the Chronicle’s discussion forums took up the debate about not only Little’s choice of equipment for that mare—bit and noseband—but also the question of possible blood in the mouth.

That discussion thread continued when photos of Little and RF West Indie competing in the Fair Hill CCI*** the next week surfaced, with signs of possible blood in the corner of the horse’s mouth. The conversation about Little’s bitting choices also continued, as both of Little’s mounts, RF West Indie and RF Overdressed, wore a long-shanked pelham-type bit. Posters were outraged and vociferously critical.

We at the Chronicle started an email chain within the editorial staff. “Is this truly news? And if so, what’s the most responsible way for us to report on it?” we asked ourselves. Our reporter on the scene at Fair Hill, Lindsay Berreth, did not personally witness blood in the mouths of either of Little’s horses while she was on course. 

We started making phone calls to officials. We got emailed a statement that officials had been aware of RF West Indie—who eventually finished ninth in the CCI***—bleeding, but had checked the mare at the finish line and determined that she was fit to continue in the competition.

“It is possible for a horse to bite its tongue without affecting its performance or being painful, just as this can happen with a human athlete,” the statement from the Fédération Equestre Internationale read. “When Marilyn Little’s horse RF West Indie crossed the finish line, it was evaluated by the President of the Ground Jury and the FEI Veterinary Delegate. The examination determined that a small cut had been caused by the bit and noseband combination pinching the horse’s lip. The cut was treated and the bleeding resolved quickly.”

The FEI rule on visible blood reads:

526.4 Blood on Horses

Blood on horses may be an indication of abuse of the horse and must be reviewed case by case by the Ground Jury. In minor cases of blood in the mouth, such as where a horse appears to have bitten its tongue or lip, or minor bleeding on limbs, after investigation the Ground Jury may authorize the athlete to continue. 

We asked U.S. judge Gretchen Butts, who served on the ground jury at Fair Hill along with Christina Klingspor of Sweden and president Nick Burton of Great Britain, to weigh in.

Butts said she was stationed at Fence 8 on cross-country day and did not see any visible blood on Little’s horses, but that there were varying reports over the radio that blood had been spotted on both sides of RF West Indie’s mouth. 

“I know protocol-wise, everything was done as it should have been, but I can factually say that when she came by me, I did not witness anything,” Butts said. “Was I very close to her? No. I believe it wasn’t consistently reported around the course. Some people saw it, some people didn’t, or thought they did. It wasn’t like it was bright red blood dripping from this horse that any half-blind person would see. It was never that apparent. But I can’t say anything firsthand as far as witnessing anything because I didn’t from my position.”

Butts likened the situation to that of the dangerous riding penalty, which can be applied after the fact in the form of an FEI yellow card, as an added 25 penalties to a rider’s score, or when the ground jury decides to pull up a rider who is consistently riding dangerously. If there isn’t a consistent consensus about blood on the horse, she said, the ground jury might allow the rider to continue and check the horse upon completion. If it’s determined as abuse, they may apply a penalty or eliminate the combination.

We were torn. If officials had seen fit to penalize Little for the blood, we would 100 percent have reported on the incident. But in this case, we’d be reporting on an online conversation about an incident that event officials had deemed a non-event. As such, it didn’t totally meet our “sniff test” for reportable news about that particular incident.

We’d also need to investigate further, because we do make every effort to be thorough. Were there other horses at Fair Hill that had been seen with blood and inspected by officials? What was Little’s side of the story? Why does the blood rule for eventing differ than that for dressage? There were more phone calls to be made and research to be done if we would move forward.

But, people were enraged. There were letters being written to governing bodies. A blog post circulated condemning Little’s bitting choices and the alleged bleeding episodes. Eventually, Little released a statement on her Facebook page responding to the criticism.

The well being of my horses has always been and continues to be my top priority and concern. My team and I are aware of…

Posted by Marilyn Little on Wednesday, October 28, 2015

Social media in all its forms has sped up and intensified what we see as reporting. It often seems as if there’s no time anymore for careful, thorough investigation, with gathering of sources’ quotes and multiple points of view. The conversation rages on as those pieces fall into place. As one posted on the Chronicle foums said, these days, anyone can be a “journalist” if they have a keyboard and internet access.

Asking questions of what we see is of course how wrongs get noticed and changes get made to correct those wrongs. Depending on how you look at it, the conversation about these photos of Little can be categorized as a witch hunt against an individual who has always been a lightning rod for criticism or as the voice of a concerned community questioning an incident and searching for recourse to protect horses in the future. Personally, I see a little bit of both as I read it.  

But the virulence of the response to the photos of Little’s horses’ mouths and heads also proves the adage of bleeding and leading. Are there newsworthy issues that need to be discussed and researched in light of this discussion? Probably so. 

Is the FEI’s blood rule effective and/or appropriate? Should bitting be more tightly regulated? Were Fair Hill officials justified in their decisions? These are questions that can be used in productive conversation moving forward. And they can only be explored with thoughtful, methodical research. And that doesn’t happen quickly, or in a hastily written blog attacking one individual.

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