Horse sport’s blood rules: Still a bloody mess?

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US rider Becky Holder and Can't Fire Me were stopped on the course at Kentucky.
US rider Becky Holder and Can’t Fire Me were stopped on the course at Kentucky. © Samantha Clark

After the World Equestrians Games in 2010, the FEI was forced to clarify and revise its rules on the appearance of blood during competition.

This was in part due to an article on Horsetalk and then a subsequent one in European magazine Horse International by Pippa Cuckson, who discovered there was not actually a specific rule at all!

With the London Olympics less than six weeks away, it appears that the blood issue is not being satisfactorily and fairly dealt with. At the Rolex International Three Day Event in Lexington this year, Becky Holder was stopped two fences from home on her (white) grey horse , Can’t Fire Me, when a small amount of blood was spotted on the horse’s knee from what can only be described as a tiny scratch.

Enhanced detail from the above image.
Enhanced detail from the above image.

They were clear at the time but not allowed to continue. As the pair were on the USEF Olympic short list for London, it could be that this failure to complete was responsible for their relegation to a reserve slot on the team announced earlier this week.

The blood stain was so minute that television and internet viewers could scarcely see it, and on inspection of photographs (the one above was taken two fences before the stoppage) it is hard to discern, even against the white coat.

At the Bramham CCI/CIC*** many of the officials, fence judges and riders will be among those who are taking part in the London Olympics. The British team for that competition was announced following this event, which is an indication of Bramham’s status.

Equestrian journalist and observer Samantha Clark, in Britain on behalf of the popular US-based website Eventing Nation, was on course all day and sent many tweets from there on a minute-by-minute basis. She noticed the blood in the mouth of Carl Bouckaert’s ride Cyrano Z as the pair approached the eighth fence and took the pictures below.
Carl Bouckaert and Cyrano Z approach the eighth fence on the cross-country at Bramham.
Carl Bouckaert (Belgium) and Cyrano Z approach the eighth fence on the cross-country at Bramham. © Samantha Clark

There was no thought in Samantha’s mind that this was anything but a bitten tongue (the horse looked relaxed and completed the course without penalty) but less informed observers nearby were heard to gasp with shock and comment on the sight. William Fox-Pitt was on course at the same time, ahead of Carl, and he was briefly held for a fence repair, which was mentioned by both the commentators and Samantha at the time. There was no mention at any point of Cyrano Z being held to be checked although it is possible he was held at an earlier fence. If that is the case, it was not mentioned on the commentary. There was no conspicuous delay in proceedings and by the time the horse reached the eighth fence his mouth was bleeding profusely and the colour of it indicated a fresh bleed.

The FEI was asked, on the basis of the evidence from Bramham, to explain exactly who is responsible for stopping a horse which is clearly bleeding, and what measures were in place to make sure the rule is implemented fairly.

At the moment it appears that if you ride a white horse on a nationally televised event you are much more likely to be penalised than if you are riding a dark coloured horse with no television.

Obviously blood is easier to see on a white horse but this cannot be an excuse for the failure to stop a horse. Perhaps if this is the issue, eliminations will need to be retrospective if evidence of a clear bleed is produced after the competitor’s round.

Carl Bouckaert and Cyrano Z over the eighth fence at Bramham.
Carl Bouckaert and Cyrano Z over the eighth fence at Bramham. © Samantha Clark

Catrin Norinder, FEI Director Eventing & Olympic Department said: “It is the role of any individual member of the Ground Jury to eliminate any horse which, in his or her opinion, is lame or unfit to continue. As well as the possibility of a horse being stopped on course, all horses are examined by a veterinary surgeon at the finish of the cross-country and the vet will report any findings to the Ground Jury for a decision. A horse can be eliminated for blood at any time. Clearly blood will show up more on light-coloured horses, but it is the duty of the Ground Jury to treat all horses equally.

“Carl Bouckaert’s horse was stopped on the Bramham cross-country course at the request of a member of the Ground Jury after a fence judge early on the course had reported seeing blood. The horse was checked by a vet who reported back to the Ground Jury that it had bitten its tongue and there was no welfare issue. The Ground Jury gave permission for the horse to continue.”

This statement complies precisely with FEI Eventing Rule 520.1, but there are only three members of a ground jury, one of whom is generally at the finish, one is in the control tower/box and the other will be on course during the cross-country phase. Samantha Clark however, seemed a little confused by it.

She said: “I was quite surprised by the FEI statement. It is definitely conceivable that Carl was stopped and his horse checked, but the commentators made no mention of it, I distinctly remember them saying William had been stopped for fence repair, and they announced him being stopped at Fence 17, the Yorkshire Stick Pile. Carl was ahead of William, so must have been nearly finished by this point. I was at completely the other end of the course so have no idea, I’m afraid. It still seems terribly subjective to me, and sounds like the horse ran almost the whole course with a lot of blood coming out of the side of his mouth. There was equal confusion with Becky’s (Holder) horse (in Kentucky) in that they announced her fit to continue, then eliminated her, then gave her an R for the record because the owners were, understandably, so upset.”

Carl Bouckaert and Cyrano Z.
Carl Bouckaert and Cyrano Z. © Samantha Clark

That confusion among the owners, riders and visitors is still rife means that the blood rule is still not working efficiently.

Suppose at the London Olympics a horse bites its tongue while being watched by millions of mostly sport and animal lovers, many of whom will not be familiar with the intricacies of the blood rules.

All they will see is a bleeding animal being made to continue to jump and gallop. Now there is the internet and so much live television, this is no longer just about horse welfare but the appearance of it, and the way authorities demonstrate their awareness of it. Can anyone imagine the furore if a horse bleeding like this is seen galloping around Greenwich? It cannot be explained to a layman; that blood does not mean a serious injury of some sort. In the 21st century the rules of the sport must be seen to preserve its image and a bloodstained horse completing a cross-country course, even when there is absolutely no suspicion of rider abuse, does little to further the cause of equestrian sport.

The organisers of London 2012 are said to be planning several measures to make sure the pictures seen by the world of the equestrian section are only of fantastic sport, by delaying transmission by a few minutes and having a rigid (some might call it Draconian) policy regarding the press, especially the photographers.

The FEI does also employ sector stewards at major championships (it was one of these that spotted the blood on the grey Italian horse at WEG) and perhaps more use might be made of these officials.

But even allowing for this, it will be impossible to stop the public using the cameras in their mobile phones and any unpleasant sights finding their way onto You Tube, Twitter and Facebook.

Perhaps these last few weeks before the Games begin is the time to tighten up and improve the implementation of the blood rules because one thing is certain: if equestrianism, particularly eventing, is to have any hope of remaining an Olympic sport then the images seen from Greenwich must be 100 per cent positive.

The huge cost of the venue and the lack of a real tangible legacy (aside from showing poor, horse deprived Londoners what it is all about!) are already playing right into the hands of equestrianism’s opponents. Those in charge of our sport must be certain to give them no more ammunition or Olympic equestrianism may well itself come to a bloody end at London 2012.

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