Opinion: Arguments Against 3-Rider Teams Don't Convince

Dec 21, 2021 - 7:59 AM

From the time it was floated, the three-rider/no drop score format for the Olympics has been the subject of intense debate. The latest report we saw was from a Dec. 10 meeting of the International Jumping Riders Club where top competitive riders took turns agreeing with each other in panning the format. The headline on the resulting IJRC statement read “We can no longer remain silent…” which shows, if nothing else, that someone at the IJRC has a sense of humor because the top riders and the IJRC have been the exact opposite of “silent” for many months, if not years.

As horse owners and a past Olympian, we don’t really have a dog in this hunt, but we are trying to understand the riders’ concerns. As reported to date, they don’t make a lot of sense to us, which may well be because something is getting lost in the reporting. However, if there is to be any hope of getting traction, we suggest that they better articulate and explain the substance behind their discontent.

Distilling what the riders quoted from the IJRC meeting said, we summarize the complaints as follows:

  1. The format of the competition, with the individual rounds held before the team rounds, affected the team results.
  2. The FEI is being undemocratic in the sense that nations that aren’t, at present, top drawer in the sport get the same one vote as the current powerhouses.
  3. The riders don’t believe this is really an International Olympic Committee-driven issue, and the FEI isn’t listening to them as the experts.
  4. Horse sport is different because of the involvement of an animal that adds unpredictability.
  5. This format is antithetical to horse welfare.
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Authors Leslie and Peter Howard say arguments made by the International Jumper Riders Club and nations in favor of returning to four-rider Olympic team, including the United States, do not hold water as currently stated. FEI Photo

The Best Won In Tokyo

We will look at each of these points in sequence but start from the proposition that if you asked objective observers to predict the Tokyo Olympic individual and team winners, the eventual gold and silver medalists would have been high on any horseperson’s list. The bronze medalist perhaps would have been lower on a list of favorites, but given the quality of the riders and the lead-up, surely the result is not so unsettling as to engender a criticism of the format.

Would the same result have occurred if the winner had to jump two big rounds before the individual final to support a team that was unlikely to medal in any event? Is part of the criticism that the individual now occurs before the team competition? Although the comparison is obviously not exact, in track and field individual events are held before the relays so that the best individuals in the world get to show that before the team events occur. Also, in track and swimming, nations get to use different individuals in the heats, analogous to the substitutions allowed in this show jumping format.

Coaches and riders are free to change competitors after the individual competition, and the first round of the team competition determines the top 10. So a horse that was substandard in the first round of the team could be substituted, which seems to us to enhance horse welfare. The chef d’equipe can choose what he/she thinks are the best three out of four for the individual, for the first round of the team competition and then again after the first round, so presumably they would pick the horse-and-rider combinations in the best form (i.e. soundest, condition etc.). The powerhouse nations could use one rider to get into the top 10 and then substitute for the final round.

It was perhaps unfamiliarity with the new format, but it did not appear to us that all the chefs strategized as they could have to utilize the format, but a few certainly did. Query, for example, whether McLain Ward and Contagious would have been the same in the team competition if the horse had jumped two big individual rounds? No one can say definitively that they wouldn’t have, but for sure one can say that the team had a strategy that was pursued successfully to a silver medal.

Equally, with respect to the team results, it would be impossible to seriously suggest that the best team in the world in that week did not win the gold medal or that the other two medalists, USA and Belgium, would not have been high in the pre-post time picks if show jumping had a Daily Racing Form.

So if the medal results were not out of line, what is generating the current sturm und drang? To us the important concern would be horse welfare, which we will come to at the end, because no one to date has put forward an argument we think backs that up credibly. In fact it seems to us that there are arguments the reverse may be true, but let’s deal with the other points first.

One Member, One Vote Isn’t ‘Undemocratic’

In the reported comments from the IJRC meeting, a rider is quoted as saying the FEI is behaving “undemocratically.” Others have said the same before. As the FEI provides one vote for each member, and the battle for one person-one vote has been a mainstay of democratic principles for a considerable time (for a more entertaining delivery, listen to the South African group Johnny Clegg & Savuku sing “One Man One Vote”) this starts out as an uphill argument. It effectively claims the current powerhouse nations should have more say in the Olympic format. Quite frankly, it isn’t a position that is likely to rally support.

What this argument really morphs into is that the FEI executive controls the proxy mechanism and thus the votes of the other 70 nations. Those nations, it is said, vote as the executive directs them—and for some reason the executive isn’t listening to the top riders. This argument quickly becomes even less attractive than the first one. The pro-change back (“P-CB”) nations have had the full opportunity to put their case for returning to four-rider teams to all members and have done so (or could have done so). It smacks of sour grapes or worse for these nations to say, in effect, if you don’t accept our arguments for changing back and vote as we say you should, you’re dumb and your vote shouldn’t count.

FEI Is Protecting Olympic Equestrian

But, even assuming the FEI executive is making the decision through proxy control, what is the argument that they don’t have legitimate reasons or aren’t acting in good faith by refusing to accede to the P-CB nations? Put another way, what axe does the FEI executive, some of whom come from the P-CB nations, have to grind? It can’t be pleasant for them to listen to what has become a border-line shrill cacophony of insults from the P-CB nations. If they thought they could do so responsibly, it would surely be a lot easier for them to just agree and go back. Why are they not doing so?

In considering this, it is instructive to look at the roster of summer Olympic sports from 1896 onward: Golf was out from 1904 to 2016. Baseball got dropped for a couple of Olympics in 2012. There are 33 sports, and the events come and go. By all accounts, the IOC review of the number of countries, worldwide participation and cost is getting more rigorous. Olympic participation is not assured going forward for all current sports. Equestrian, including three-day eventing, has to be one of the most expensive sports to present. Flights, stabling, exercise and competition areas, grooms etc.—the logistics and costs per competitor probably don’t track all that well against archery or badminton. The IOC is reviewing events within disciplines now, and each event has to make its case for continued inclusion.

If the FEI executive contends that the changes were part of their efforts to ensure show jumping remains in the Olympics, what is the argument that their view isn’t legitimately and sincerely held? Yes, administrators can become bureaucratic and jealous of protecting turf, but it isn’t appropriate to insult them because you disagree when they are closest to the situation and have no identifiable axe to grind.

‘Unpredictable’ Horses A Dangerous Argument

That horses are unpredictable is a dangerous argument to make. In most Olympic sports the equipment is standardized. The competitors throw roughly the same javelin or shotput, weigh roughly the same in boxing or wrestling, and golf, of course, is infamous for its equipment regulation if one recalls the tedious long  putter controversy.

In equestrian sports, a person can go out and spend, to use a technical term, “oodles” of money to buy a horse that someone else developed and then go to the Olympics. Again, not to put too fine a point on it as a large portion of the owners of the horses reside firmly in the uppermost echelons of the 1%: The fact that an expensive horse behaves badly on the day is unlikely to engender a lot of sympathy or stand as a reason to say, “OK, that score won’t count, and you can be saved for a medal by three others.” Again, although the analogy is not exact, if a runner for the heavily favored Jamaican team cramped up in a 4 X 100 heat, Jamaica doesn’t get a do-over.

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The current Olympic format, with teams of three and horse substitutions allowed, could improve horse welfare, Olympic show jumper Leslie Howard and her husband, attorney Peter Howard, argue. Chronicle Staff Photo

No-Drop Could Improve Horse Welfare

The only argument, so far as we can see, that ought to get any traction is horse welfare. However, it is not enough just to say it. While nobody will be against “horse welfare” as a concept, what exactly the horse welfare concern is has to be cogently explained.

The complaint cannot be that the horses will have to jump more under this format, because even a horse that does both the individual and team competitions will jump fewer rounds than under the prior format. The new ability to substitute also seems to us to protect the horses.

We have heard the argument that, because all scores count, some of the riders may have felt they had to keep going when their horse was having an off day. However, in every Nations Cup we have ever seen, the first three riders were always told to persevere to finish, so that argument only would apply to the fourth or anchor rider—the person typically least likely to need to pull up. Under this format, the horse welfare decision remains with the rider, which is as it should be because any alternative seems far worse to us.

As with every Olympics there were combinations that did not perform well on the day, and there has been unkind speculation about them over-preparing. It is to be expected that at the Olympics, riders will attempt to prepare their horses to be ready on the day for the biggest test in the sport. Having a drop score might well incentivize a chef or rider to take a chance on over-preparation. For that matter, they could gamble and use a great but borderline unsound horse, knowing that if it didn’t perform well, it could be the drop score. That is not exactly enhancing horse welfare.

Adding to this, in the past if a horse was subpar in the first round—for any reason, including soundness—it could not be substituted and was “forced” to jump the second round, at times with predictably unfortunate results. It seems to be a real benefit to horse welfare that that horse/rider combination now can be replaced.

Not having a drop score ought to make the chef and riders more concerned about soundness and over-preparation to enhance the likelihood of finishing the team.

The team format with the top 10 advancing to the finals and starting afresh also helps ensure the finals include the strongest teams, much like relay heats eliminate weaker teams before the medal finals in track or swimming. This format helps increase the number of flags—a goal of the IOC—but also preserves the quality of the medal winners. It certainly seems to have worked out that way in Tokyo. To put it differently, next time the chef will pick the very sound horse who is likely to go with 4 or 8 rather than the horse who might well go clean if it stays sound and/or isn’t honed to the very edge. A 10-team, 30-horse final round is also of a duration that is optimally watchable for the general public.

Olympics A ‘Carrot’ For Weaker Nations

Some have also argued that the courses need to get dumbed down, and the spectacle of the weaker nations struggling will be unedifying. But in other sports, the Olympic goal has incentivized those nations to improve. Look, for example, at women’s hockey: For a number of quadrennials it was borderline embarrassing as the U.S. and Canadian women were so obviously the best, and the games they had with developing nations were so lopsided that a mercy rule could have been used to stop them. However, with the Olympics as a goal, those other countries now are catching up rapidly to the two behemoths.

In show jumping, as the rapid rise of the Saudi team to win a bronze in the 2012 London Games exemplifies, the catch-up time can be quite short (perhaps because it is possible to buy great horses, as mentioned above).

Also, the argument that weaker riders will struggle only has merit as a reason to more strongly police the qualifying standard so that clearly unqualified combinations don’t get to the Games. Those who do qualify have a number of safety measures in place to protect them, including breakaway jump cups and no in-ground water fences or ditches,  not to mention the likelihood that weak teams will not be in the final round. For all these reasons, this doesn’t appear to us to be a really telling argument.

Indeed, with a taste of the Olympics after a poor performance, teams and individuals are likely to buy more and better (for which read more expensive) horses. The catch-up time for the weaker nations is not likely to very long, and it certainly is likely to be shortened by the Olympic carrot being dangled. In fact, given that most teams will ship four horses anyway, horse dealers who do the actual economic analysis ought to be in favor of this format.  Increasing the number of teams means more sale opportunities.

As already noted, the best horses and teams won on the day, and they don’t seem harmed by the experience: Anecdotally, the two horses who were amongst the best and did the most jumping at the Olympics, Explosion and King Edward, recently finished first and second in the Rolex IJRC Top 10 Final (Geneva), and King Edward also prevailed at the Longines Global Champions League Playoffs (Prague), so clearly not the worse for wear.

Riders: Make A Better Case

All of this is a roundabout way of saying that the horse welfare argument doesn’t appear to be compelling the way it has been put so far. It may well be that there are better arguments than we have heard to date; if so, it is important to frame them convincingly. We don’t discount that possibility at all. However, if the P-CB nations really want to affect change, they need to make their case better to convince the other FEI members that this concern is real and unanswerable. It won’t happen by continuing to erect straw men that can be easily knocked down.

Pending a more convincing horse welfare case, we think it would be constructive and fair to ask the FEI executive to explain what they think worked well and what, if anything, they think could be improved. Assuming that it is exceptionally likely such an analysis of the pros and cons and room for improvement exists, it would advance this discussion if the FEI made it public.


Leslie Howard is one of the United States’ iconic show jumping riders, having won team gold at the 1984 Olympic Games and team silver at the 1996 Atlanta Olympic Games. She won the FEI World Cup Final in 1986 and topped the du Maurier International at Spruce Meadows (Alberta) in 1997. Her husband, Peter, is a successful lawyer and won team silver for Canada in eventing at the 1975 Pan American Games. 

 

 

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