This article was originally published in the Sept. 26 & Oct. 3, 2016, Olympic Analysis issue, after the Olympic Games in Rio de Janeiro. The Fédération Equestre Internationale has confirmed that the Eventing Committee is looking to clarify the blood and whip rules. This comes in the wake of a social media outcry after incidents involving Marilyn Little at the Land Rover Kentucky CCI**** on April 28, and Oliver Townend at the Mitsubishi Motors Badminton CCI**** on May 5.
In the days leading up to the opening ceremonies of this summer’s Olympic Games in Rio de Janeiro, competitors could probably have ticked off a litany of potential concerns: the Zika virus, security issues, political instability and so on.
Would any show jumpers have put body clippers on the list of possible villains waiting to derail their Olympic experience? Unlikely. But a too-fresh clip job on sensitive horses was considered a possible explanation for the four show jumping disqualifications under the Fédération Equestre Internationale’s so-called “blood rule.”
Nicola Philippaerts of Belgium on Zilverstar T, Stephan de Freitas Barcha of Brazil on Landpeter do Feroleto and Cassio Rivetti of the Ukraine on Fine Fleur du Marais were disqualified for excessive use of the spurs, and Jur Vrieling of the Netherlands was disqualified for excessive use of the whip on Zirocco Blue. All four horses had marks showing small amounts of blood, which, when occurring in the mouth or area of the spurs, is an automatic disqualification under article 242.3.1 of the FEI Jumping Rules.
“Horse welfare is the most important element of equestrian sport. Disqualification under this rule does not imply that there was intent to injure the horse, but it is essential that the rules are enforced in order to ensure that horse welfare is protected,” said Stephan Ellenbruch, president of the ground jury in Rio. “The FEI’s rules are very specific—if any blood is found on a flank of a horse, the athlete/horse combination is automatically disqualified from the competition.”
In the last few years, FEI rules regarding horse welfare have become more explicit, and stewards have been instructed to focus on them more intently. Yet despite a number of high-profile disqualifications at international competitions, officials are quick to stress that the injury is almost always minor and inadvertent, rather than a deliberate attempt by a rider to harm a horse.
It should come as no surprise that the FEI has moved in this direction, in this viral Internet age when a photo of something that merely looks bad (regardless of whether or not it actually is bad) can spread all over the world in a matter of hours. Equestrian sports are also under continual pressure to justify their logistically challenging and expensive inclusion in the Olympic Games.
As usual, though, the devil is in the thorny details. Although riders and officials agree that the welfare of the horse is paramount, how does one draw up objective rules to ensure that? Does it improve welfare to disqualify a horse that experiences a nosebleed from a broken blood vessel during a show jumping round? Should the same standards be applied to a horse galloping around a cross-country course at 570 meters per minute as are applied to a horse being ridden in a meticulously groomed 20-by-60-meter dressage arena?
A Clear Line
The FEI sports have slightly different ways of addressing blood on a horse in their individual rule books. In some, it’s specifically mentioned in a dedicated rule, while in others, it would fall under a more general “abuse of the horse” rule.
In dressage, stewards look at a horse’s flanks and mouth during the bit check, and if blood is found, the chief steward would be called, who would then take it to the judge at C, according to Elisabeth Williams, FEI steward general for dressage. “If [blood] is discovered in the ring by the judge, they can be eliminated right then and there,” she said.
Williams, who was officiating at Rio, said there weren’t issues with blood for the dressage competitors. The stewards also watched the schooling areas, and Williams said they have no qualms about warning riders if they see potential issues brewing. If she saw a horse with older spur rubs, “I’ll say [to the rider], ‘I would change my spur, because if you break this open it’s going to bleed in the ring, and then you’re toast!’ ”
Williams characterized the issue as infrequent; she could only recall three or four instances during this past winter’s Adequan Global Dressage Festival (Florida), which includes seven CDIs. But she supports the idea of disqualifying riders for even an inadvertent spur mark, if it draws blood.
“To me, it’s abuse,” she said.
Riders accept it and understand that this is for the common good,” she continued. “You don’t do anything in schooling that you wouldn’t want on YouTube tomorrow morning. We are in the public eye.”
“I am a huge advocate for any rule whose priority is horse welfare,”said Olympic dressage team bronze medalist Laura Graves. “I do think the blood rule is working effectively. Unfortunately, anyone can make mistakes. Sometimes I bite my tongue while I’m eating, and it is just by mistake. But the horses can’t talk.”
Show jumping also employs an automatic disqualification for any marks on a horse’s flank that show blood, and the FEI issued a detailed new procedure for stewards to check and document any instances of blood just prior to the Rio Olympics. (Although it was issued as an annex to the FEI Manual for Jumping Stewards, the process is being used by officials in other sports as well.) Show jumpers are checked for blood when their boots are examined after leaving the ring.
“It’s a tough thing. You don’t want to eliminate anybody, especially at the Games,” said David Distler, who was a steward in Rio. “For the most part, when somebody cuts their horse with their spurs, it usually is not intentional. But the hard part is, the rule is very cut and dry: Any blood [means disqualification]. Intent really has very little to do with it. Because where do you draw the line?”
Distler noted that the rule, and the surprising number of disqualifications in the early rounds, had a big effect in Rio. “Many of [the riders] changed their spurs after the first two days, and you saw riders actually dropping their whips going into the arena, which I’ve never seen before,” he said. “I’m not talking about one of two people; I’m talking about a lot of people dropping their whips before they went into the arena.”
Distler agreed that the horses being freshly clipped to help them handle the hot, humid weather in Rio likely had a lot to do with the disqualifications, but he stressed that the onus is on the riders and their grooms to take steps to prevent a sensitive horse from being injured.
“I think the majority of the riders are smart enough to realize that the world is changing, and they need to change with it. They understand why the rules in place are there,” he said.
“It’s one thing for [Usain] Bolt, before his 100-meter dash, to come up with a cut on his leg, and he slaps a Band-Aid on it, and nobody thinks twice about it,” Distler added. “But if a horse comes into the ring, and he’s got a cut on his leg? The world reacts.”
Canadian Olympian Eric Lamaze, however, isn’t sure the blood rule is benefiting the sport. “The public don’t see anything wrong [during the round],” he said. “They see great competition and then are told after the fact that the rider has been disqualified for abusing their horse. It’s not good for our sport.
“One point I would like to make is this: You are disqualified for an unintentional little scratch from a spur that the public will never see, yet you are allowed to whip your horse in the ring in front of the public?” he added. “What is worse for our sport from the public’s point of view? The [blood] rule has no place in our sport.”
A Different Approach In Eventing
The eventing rules approach the issue slightly differently, addressing it in the “horse welfare” section. (Combined driving and endurance do the same.)
In eventing dressage, if the judge sees blood on the horse, he or she can ring the bell and have the veterinary delegate check the horse.
“It could be, obviously, an incident of abuse,” explained Janis Linnan, the FEI steward general for eventing. “But if perhaps the horse has just bitten their tongue, the judge and the veterinary delegate have the right—it’s discretionary—to allow them to continue or to go ahead and eliminate them, depending on the situation. Blood on the sides with the spurs, it’s handled the same [as in straight dressage]: It’s automatic elimination.”
Cross-country presents its own set of challenges because multiple riders are competing over several miles of track, and officials can’t watch every horse all the time. So the jump judges act as the eyes on the ground for the rest of the officials and can radio in to let them know there’s a potential issue.
“If blood is seen on a horse on cross-country [by an official], the ground jury would make the decision if the horse needs to be stopped, or if it’s something that can be picked up in the vet box,” said Cindy DePorter, an FEI eventing steward and technical delegate.
“If there’s some blood in the mouth, if the horse has just accidentally bitten its tongue, and [the bleeding] stops, it’s a discretionary elimination,” Linnan explained. “It’s up to the ground jury. Of course the steward would report it, and it would be investigated when they came across the finish line.
“But if it’s blood from a spur—or, God forbid, a whip—they will be eliminated. Because that’s rider-induced, it is considered abuse,” Linnan said.
Other minor injuries sustained on course that could cause bleeding, like a scrape on a leg or a heel grab, could also result in a horse being stopped, and the ground jury would have the authority to investigate, either eliminating the horse or allowing him to continue. If the horse wasn’t stopped on course, such injuries would be checked in the vet box at the end of the course. And the veterinarians take any such instances very seriously.
“[The veterinarians] are adamant about protecting horses, they really are,” said Sheila Strickler, an FEI eventing steward. “They won’t tolerate any kind of monkey business. When it comes to good horsemanship, they’re very much on the horse’s side.”
In the show jumping phase, stewards will be watching all the horses as they exit the arena and may also be performing boot checks, depending on the competition. “If there’s evidence of blood, it’s handled exactly the same way as it would be in the show jumping arena,” Linnan said. Blood from use of the spurs or whip would lead to elimination, and other issues would be examined by the ground jury and veterinary delegate on a case-by-case basis.
Although the structure and wording of the eventing rules are different from dressage and show jumping, Linnan stressed that the welfare of the horse is everyone’s primary goal across all the FEI sports.
“It’s not like, ‘Oh, he’s an event horse, he can have blood, and this one’s a jumper, and he can’t.’ It’s not that at all,” she said. “Even though the rules in the different disciplines do have directions on how the blood is handled slightly differently, the end-all goal is to protect the welfare of the horse.
“We [in eventing] just have a different path to get to the same resoution,” she added. “I have no idea if the FEI Eventing Committee is going to review this after the Olympics to maybe make us all a little more going down the same path if there’s blood. The different discipline committees make these decisions.”
Should Officials Have Discretion?
As one might expect, opinions about the blood rule vary widely. For some, it’s been a bit hard to reconcile stand-out performances that should have been ribbon or medal contenders being wiped out because of an inadvertent spur mark. One example: the elimination of Irish show jumper Bertram Allen at the Olympia Grand Prix (England) in December 2015. He’d turned in a jump-off round that would have won the class, but a small spur nick on Quiet Easy’s flank disqualified them.
“I totally understand the rules in relation to the treatment of horses in competition,” said Allen, “but I’m disappointed that the officials didn’t use any discretion on this occasion.”
Ah, discretion. Riders are clamoring for it, but it’s a tricky thing.
“The way it is now, there is no room for subjectivity; it’s either black or white,” said Lamaze. “The rule really has no place in our sport unless there is going to be a discretionary element applied to it.
“I would compare it to someone scratching their skin,” he added. “A horse and rider are disqualified for the smallest of nicks, yet you can have a big spur rub where the hair has actually been rubbed off the side of the horse from aggressive spurring over time and still be able to compete. If you are allowed to go into the ring, then your result should count. Your horse has been deemed fit to compete, and unless there is some sort of actual abuse occurring during the round, your result should count. You should not be disqualified after the fact.”
“Every situation is different,” said Edwina Tops-Alexander, who competes internationally for Australia. “A horse can easily cross its legs; its shoes can clip a horse behind by accident. It’s not to say that someone intentionally punished the horse. Every circumstance is different, and you have to take it as it is. It’s a delicate topic.”
Canada’s Tiffany Foster pointed out that sometimes use of the spur is in the best interest of horse and rider safety: “It’s too bad that there isn’t a way to keep it more subjective and say, ‘The horse is fine.’ If you’re whaling on your horse, it’s one thing. But if you accidentally graze them, and there’s a little red showing, it’s better than to not kick and tangle yourself up in one of these oxers!”
Yet the officials who would have to wield the discretion seem much less excited by the idea.
When asked if giving dressage officials more discretion would be helpful, Williams said simply: “I’m happy that dressage has very clear guidelines.”
Distler was likewise skeptical.
“Discretion is a very difficult thing,” he said. “Then you’re opening up a huge can of worms because what I do isn’t going to be the same thing that the next guy does, and what I think is minor, to somebody else is not. And what I think is major, to somebody else, they think it’s minor.
“I wish we could. I just don’t see it,” he added. “There are far smarter people than me working on this. I hope they can find something that’s a little more palatable, something that may be a little kinder.”
“To be honest, I think it’s ridiculous,” said Foster. “The benefit of the horse is for sure what they’re trying to get at. But sometimes I think that they just lose sight of the objective here. For example, you come out of the ring, and your horse just made a huge effort, with all of this exertion, and they make you stop and wait there for everyone to inspect and see if they can see something, not letting you walk the horse or do anything to take care of him. You wonder, ‘Are you really worried about the welfare of the horse, or are you just looking for something to do here today to make some sort of point?’
“They’re for sure trying to do the best thing,” she added, “but they need to look at it and make sure they’re not getting a little too crazy.”
Linnan expressed sympathy for the affected competitors and acknowledged that it can seem unfair to see a well-respected horseman who turns in a winning performance eliminated for something minor and accidental. “They’re mortified. It’s embarrassing,” she said.
“[You want to] give them the benefit of the doubt that they really did not intend to do it, but still the rules have to apply, and that’s a tough thing for an FEI official to say, ‘Yes, we understand, but we are here, and this is our job, and that’s what we do,’ ” Linnan said.
“We all love the horses, and we all love the sport, and we want it to be shown in the best light that we can. But the horses are going to be uppermost in our minds,” she said.
The Blood Rule Applied: Five Case Stories
- Steffen Peters and Legolas 92, Reem Acra FEI World Cup Final, April 2015
Steffen Peters acknowledged that head of the ground jury Lilo Fore had no alternative but to eliminate him for blood in the spur area. “At the end of the day, I rode the horse, and I am responsible for the welfare of this horse,” said Peters, of San Diego. “I am very embarrassed about it. I’m the one who feels guilty.
“Legolas is a sensitive horse,” he added. “Because of this I ride with a dull, rounded end spur without rowels. I cannot explain when it happened, and I feel terrible for Legolas.”
- Michael Barisone and Ellegria, Adequan Global Dressage Festival 5 CDI***, February 2014
Shana Chase, DVM, the FEI veterinarian who checked Ellegria immediately after she left the ring, said the horse must have drawn blood by interfering with her front legs during the class. Since the blood was not coming from her mouth or the spurs, she was eligible to continue competing after being inspected.
“There was no sensitivity around the area, and she seemed quite comfortable,” said Chase. “When the horse just hits herself, and it’s nothing anyone did to be over-aggressive or anything like that, it’s a shame they’d be eliminated.”
“She’s a chestnut mare with sensitive skin, and she had a little spot where she’d had scratches on that leg. We all love horses, and that’s why we do this,” said Barisone, of Loxahatchee, Florida, and Long Valley, New Jersey “I think this rule was properly applied for the welfare of the animal. I think everyone handled it perfectly.”
- Marilyn Little and RF West Indie, Dutta Corp Fair Hill International CCI***, October 2015
Blood was seen while Marilyn Little was on course, and veterinarians and officials examined the horse when she completed the course.
“After examination, the veterinarians and officials on hand determined the source of blood had resulted from my horse’s cheek being pinched, creating a small cut,” said Little, of Frederick, Maryland, on Facebook. “The bleeding quickly resolved, and the vets concluded no further treatment was necessary. I strongly support the FEI and the carefully constructed protocol they have put in place for times such as this to assure the well being and safety of our equine partners.”
- Jur Vrieling and Zirocco Blue, Rio de Janeiro Olympic Games show jumping, August 2016
Dutch rider Jur Vrieling had already been eliminated for two stops. He was subsequently disqualified for whip marks on his horse’s side.
“I did not disagree [with the disqualification],” Vrieling said. “After he stopped, I hit him in reaction. I regret it. It’s easy to say that, but I really do. I did wrong [when I hit him], and I will never do it in my life again. That I can promise.”
- Adelinde Cornelissen and Parzival, Alltech FEI World Equestrian Games, September 2010
Adelinde Cornelissen was rung out of her Grand Prix test and disqualified when the ground jury spotted blood in her horse’s mouth.
“When we looked at it, it was just a tiny spot on the tip of his tongue. He bit the tip of his tongue. It actually stopped bleeding on the way back,” said Cornelissen, who had been favored for individual as well as team medals. “He was in really good shape. He was really going well in the warm-up, and he was doing amazing in the ring. So it’s really shitty that we can’t show that. But on the other hand I’m quite happy that he’s OK, and I can start the training tomorrow again. It’s nothing really serious with the horse.”
This article appeared in the Sept. 26 & Oct. 3, 2016 issue of The Chronicle of the Horse.
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