German Olympic double gold medalist Jessica von Bredow-Werndl is taking aim at the Fédération Equestre Internationale over the lack of flexibility in its maternity leave policy after it ruled that she may not return to competition before her six-month leave ends.
The FEI adopted a maternity leave policy in 2010 for show jumping riders and in 2019 for dressage riders that allows them to retain 50 percent of their world ranking points if they choose to take FEI maternity leave. However, riders who opt to take the official maternity leave must take it for a minimum of six months and may not return to international competition earlier. Riders also can chose to forgo an official maternity leave, which allows them to return to competition at any time but retain no ranking points.
The reigning Olympic, European and World Cup Finals champion, who won the FEI World Cup Finals (Germany) in April just before starting her maternity leave, is pushing for better flexibility in the FEI policy. She wants to see the FEI allow riders who take maternity leave the option of returning to competition in less than six months if they are ready. The issue came to a head after von Bredow-Werndl, who gave birth to her daughter on Aug. 11, was denied permission by the FEI to return to competition at the CDI Ludwigsburg (Germany) in September. According to the FEI, her maternity leave will not end until Oct. 18.
On social media, von Bredow-Werndl announced that she and the German Equestrian Federation decided against taking the issue to the FEI Tribunal for a decision, knowing it would not be made in time for the September show.
“So, I unfortunately have to withdraw my participation (also nationally) and am very sad not to be allowed to get my horses to the start. I hope for the future (for my colleagues) that the rules will be adjusted,” she said.
In a statement, the FEI said that von Bredow-Werndl was apprised of the two maternity leave options prior to giving birth and cannot change her mind after the fact.
“The FEI Dressage Department explained these two options to Ms. von Bredow-Werndl. The FEI also informed the German Equestrian Federation at the time that, further to Ms. von Bredow-Werndl’s decision, a note had been added to her profile confirming that she would not be competing during the six-month period of her maternity leave,” the statement read. “Ms. von Bredow-Werndl clearly expressed her decision to follow the first option in writing and submitted a doctor’s certificate as per the regulations.”
In response to the FEI, von Bredow-Werndl pointed out that if she had not selected the maternity leave, and then had complications during or after her daughter’s birth that required a longer absence from competing, she wouldn’t have been able to retain any points. She also said she was willing to forfeit the ranking-point benefit offered under the FEI’s policy in exchange for being allowed to return to play sooner.
“You don’t know beforehand how the birth will go,” she said. “And according to Article 2.3, I was sure I could get back to competition if I didn’t insist on the 50 percent world ranking points.”
In her post on social media, von Bredow-Werndl said she has consulted with the German Equestrian Federation. “And we do not share the FEI’s point of view. Our interpretation of the regulation is that if female athletes apply for maternity leave, the FEI must grant at least six months. But it is not a rule that an athlete must take six months’ break. So, the female athletes should be allowed to end their maternity leave earlier.”
She said she knew the rules and assumed that if she started competition again in Ludwigsburg, she would lose her relevant ranking points.
“Not even allowed to start now, I find it simply unfair and cannot understand the decision, given the wording of the FEI regulation,” she wrote. “It says if the maternity/medical leave lasts less than six months, no points will be retained from the corresponding month of the preceding year. This has led to the assumption that by deliberately waiving the calculation of the world ranking points, I can also start again.”
FEI representatives said the federation will review the medical and maternity leave rules for the future and will work with the International Dressage Riders Club and the International Jumping Riders Club and wider equestrian stakeholders, but that the current policies stand for now: “The procedures currently in place for athletes applying for medical/maternity leave are in place to protect the fairness and integrity of the sport. Any recalculation of the FEI Dressage World Rankings could have a significant impact on other athletes.”
The issue of equality in the FEI’s maternity leave policy for riders has led to the formation of Equal Equest, a new organization that says its goal is to enable a temporary but flexible break for pregnant women and maternity leave by changing the FEI rules. The organization was co-founded by German show jumper Janne Friederike Meyer-Zimmermann, who took maternity leave around the January 2022 birth of her son, not competing at FEI shows from mid-September 2021 to mid-March 2022.
Correction: This story has been updated to reflect when Equal Equest co-founder Janne Friederike Meyer-Zimmermann returned to competition.