Wednesday, Dec. 6, 2023

Rules, Rules, And More Rules

Would you believe that USA Equestrian's Rule Book is now approximately 700 pages? And rule-change proposals for the annual convention on Jan. 10-13 numbered more than 1,000!

Why in the world do we need all these rules? We might simply write it off as another case of bureaucracy run amuck. But let's take a moment to think about the whole issue of rules and what they mean to our sport.


Would you believe that USA Equestrian’s Rule Book is now approximately 700 pages? And rule-change proposals for the annual convention on Jan. 10-13 numbered more than 1,000!

Why in the world do we need all these rules? We might simply write it off as another case of bureaucracy run amuck. But let’s take a moment to think about the whole issue of rules and what they mean to our sport.

Rules for a sport/industry such as ours are analogous to laws in our society. Just as laws don’t prevent the existence of crime, rules can’t guarantee everyone will play by them. So, the more cynical among us might say, why have laws and rules at all if they simply don’t work? Just what would be the consequences if we simply eliminated them?

Try to name a sport that does not have rules. I can’t. After all, aren’t the “rules of
the game” what transform the simple act of hitting a ball with a stick into a whole array of sports’like baseball or golf? Within the structure provided by a body of rules, these two sports have become lucrative endeavors for individuals with a special knack for applying the right kind of stick to the right kind of ball. Plus, the appeal of the structured game draws in fans as well as amateur players. Huge industries revolve around sports that only exist by virtue of the rules that define them.

OK, it takes rules to define a sport, but who bothers to think about rules once they know how to play the game? And, after the rules have been written, why tinker with them anymore?

The answer is simple: If no one cares about who wins, no one needs to spend much time thinking about the rules. If you’re just hitting a ball around a public course with a friend, you and your friend can laugh about your skill in “getting away with” things. Who cares? But, if your casual behavior interferes with someone else’s day on the course, that might be another story!

It’s when the stakes are higher that suddenly every nuance of the rule book has the potential literally to turn into a “federal case.” I doubt many casual fans ever think about professional golf’s rule requiring players to walk from hole to hole. But deciding this point proved no easy task when a disabled player’s request for a waiver of the no-carts rule led to legal debate over its potential to affect the ultimate results. Whenever it truly matters who wins, rules can suddenly become very, very important.

We have an assortment of rules that most people know but few worry about. One that’s frequently good for some spirited debate (although very rarely an official protest) is the subject of eligibility for certain
“restricted” sections. Whether it’s green hunters or preliminary jumpers, the intent of the rule has always been to provide a section just for horses that have only a
limited amount of that all-important competitive experience.

I imagine that the original drafters of these rules believed they were creating a place where the difficulty of the course would better suit these less experienced horses, as well as an opportunity for this subset of competitors to compete against their peers while they gained the experience to compete against the proven campaigners. Not a bad idea’as long as everyone plays by the same rules.


But what happens when a few people think that their results can improve when they show a horse that “isn’t quite eligible” in one of these sections? Who’s going to know that the first year horse that goes so well at 3’6″ showed six or eight times last year, over 1.10 meter or 1.15 meter (3’7″ or 3’9″) jumps in Germany’s young horse classes? What’s the harm? That championship ribbon does look mighty good on the front of the tack room.

But harm does befall the other competitors, the ones who didn’t win that class or that championship, because that horse that wasn’t eligible under the rules. And the worst harm of all comes to the sport as a whole’as competitors realize that following the rules can be a real handicap to achieving competitive success.

When the winners are routinely the ones who circumvent the rules, those that do follow the rules become the losers’not just in the color of a ribbon but in terms of the value of their horses or their ability to impress a potential new client. When enough competitors believe that cheating is essential to being a winner, the sport itself is in deep trouble.

Cheating isn’t a very complimentary term; we tend to shy away from using it. Webster’s defines it as “violating rules dishonestly.” Is there any other description for knowingly showing an ineligible horse because it has a better chance of beating the competition? Or, for breaking some other rule to gain an advantage over the competition?

Many rules in sports are intended to make it harder to win’that’s the way the “best” stand out from the “rest.” Most rules are also designed to serve the higher, and more pretentious sounding, purpose of “leveling the playing field.”

What’s so special about a level playing field? The answer is simple: It’s the only way to allow the sport to determine who the real winners are. If the point of the competition is to see who’s best at the sport’as that sport is defined by its rules’the result won’t mean much if each player gets to choose which rules they’ll follow and which ones they’ll ignore.

To have a result that matters, everyone must be held to the same set of rules. If not, then it isn’t sport’a performance perhaps, but not sport where winning has real meaning.

Rules that aren’t ever enforced are worse than useless since they make a mockery of the whole game. Yet perfectly consistent enforcement is seldom if ever achievable.

Let’s use another example. Personal fouls in football are considered a serious offense’the penalty is high (15 yards) because the illegal actions involved have the potential to cause serious injury to other players. Not every player fouled gets hurt, and not every personal foul committed in a game results in a penalty, but those that are called are very costly to the team.


Games are sometimes lost as a result of penalties, and players who incur too many of them might not get the contracts that they’d like. But the NFL’s leaders know that if fans believe that officials are inclined to tilt the playing field toward one team or another, it wouldn’t be long before everyone in the sport would suffer.

In many respects the rules of USA Equestrian remind me a lot of traffic laws. Many times they seem just plain stupid. I must admit to being occasionally guilty of speeding, yet I hate getting a traffic ticket. Whenever I’ve gotten them, I’ve reacted with, “Why me, I’m a very good driver? Besides, I wasn’t going as fast as most of the other drivers that didn’t get stopped.”

I also know that I’ll be spending the next couple of years thinking about points or else risk suffering through the real hardship that a temporary loss of my driver’s license would mean to me. When I’m feeling like the unlucky victim of the traffic cop, nothing about speed limits makes sense to me.

Does any of this remind you of our drugs and medications rules, or perhaps the rules about jumping only properly set fences in the schooling area? Why bother when it seems like enforcement is just too random, or that sometimes it turns out to be the “less guilty” offenders who get “caught?”

But as imperfect as these rules or laws may be, the alternatives aren’t great either. Speed limits don’t slow everyone down, but how many more innocent people would be killed if drivers were free to get where they’re going just as fast as they wanted?

Our drug rules are there to protect our horses; take them away and the competitive advantage quickly goes to those who value their welfare the least. Like speed limits, they’re far from a perfect solution, but eliminate them (or stop any kind of enforcement) and the result wouldn’t please us either.

It’s so easy to blame the “traffic cop,” but it makes no sense. The best police officer, or show steward, is not the lenient one that looks the other way to avoid the sometimes less than pleasant parts of the job. It’s the ones with the guts and integrity to enforce the rules’strongly and consistently in every situation’that serve us best.

When we expect favors or special dispensation, we might be making our lives easier in the short run, but not in the long run. The “value” of a victory will always be directly related to the “quality” of the rules, and the rule enforcement, that are maintained.

As our sport continues to grow in size and complexity, and as the stakes get higher and higher, the rules and the rule process will become ever more important. Having the kind of sport that we can all enjoy, and in which we can take pride in our accomplishments, will always be easiest to achieve if we take the time to know “all those rules” and endeavor to play within them. We must also be willing both to expect and accept their enforcement as we compete throughout the year.




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