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Blood, sweat and tears:
reflections on the World Equestrian Games

October 14, 2010

COMMENT: by Lulu Kyriacou

There were many good things about the 2010 Alltech FEI World Equestrian Games. Things like the friendliness of the locals and the volunteers, the quality of the competition and the glorious weather. But sadly there were other factors and incidents which cast a shadow over the Games and left questions about the feasibility of running a championship that gets larger with each renewal.

Picture showing the small nick on Parzival's tongue.
Problems with the infrastructure were not the leading topic of conversation as the Games began in spectacular style with the elimination of the Dutch dressage horse and leading medal contender Jerich Parzival and rider Adelinde Cornelissen) after movement five of her first test when the judges noticed some blood on the horse's lips.

Under the directions in Article 520 of the FEI Rule book, blood on the mouth means instant elimination for the competitor in a dressage test, even if it subsequently turns out the horse has simply bitten its tongue. Which was the case here; the bleeding had stopped by the time the horse had left the arena and upon examination the source of the blood was a tiny nick on the edge of the tongue.

Unfortunately this elimination meant the horse and rider could take no further part in the competition at all and as the only combination to ever beat Moorlands Totilas, it effectively ended the contest for the gold medal.

The blood in the mouth rule rule is in place as part of the code of conduct regarding abuse of the horse and is part of the FEI endeavour to keep horse sport clean with the welfare of the horse paramount, all of which is to be commended.

However, this case was clearly an accident that occurred in front of several thousand people, part way through a test. The behaviour of the horse was entirely relaxed throughout, there was no sign of tension or pain but for Adelinde and her horse, years of training had now gone to waste.

But if that had been the only incident a call for a review of the 'blood rule' might not have been heard.

FEI rule, Article 520:
1. Any act or series of actions that in the opinion of the Ground Jury can be defined as abuse of a horse or dangerous riding shall be penalised by disqualification and such other penalties in accordance Art. 532.1 of the present Rules as the Ground Jury may determine. Such acts include, for example:*
1. Rapping
2. Riding an exhausted horse
3. Excessive pressing of a tired horse
5. Riding an obviously lame horse
6. Excessive use of whip, bit and/or spurs
7. Dangerous riding
8. Riding in an unsafe way or losing control of the horse
9. Series of dangerous jumps
10. Horses bleeding on the flank(s) or bleeding in the mouth, nose or marks indicating excessive use of the whip on the flank(s) or the horse's back, will result in disqualification. (In minor cases of blood in the mouth, such as where a horse appears to have bitten its tongue or lip - Officials MAY authorize, except during a test, the rinsing or wiping of the mouth and allow the rider to continue - any further evidence of blood in the mouth will result in disqualification. Officials must report such actions as soon as possible to the Ground Jury through the Secretary of the Organising Committee or Control Centre of the event as appropriate, supported where possible by a statement from one or more witnesses. The Ground Jury must decide if there is a case to be answered.
Any individual member of the Ground Jury who observes such actions, has the right and the duty to disqualify the athlete forthwith on his own authority.

* there is no number 4 in article 520.

The blood issue was to cause more controversy before the week was over. And once again, the incident occurred in front of a packed house and was an unpreventable accident. A bitten tongue in a horse can hardly be anticipated or prevented, unless some sort of mouth guard or tongue tie is used. Both of those options provide much more opportunity for abuse in a horse, which is why tongue straps are against FEI rules entirely.

During the second day of eventing dressage Karim Laghouagh began his test on Havenir D'Azac as an individual rider for France. His white mount completed the test as far as the onlookers could see without issue, but as he finished it was apparent there was some problem with his test.

In the press room the live camera showed Roger Haller, one of the officials, examining the horse's head and in the arena, a member of the ground jury left her box.

The audience were also wondering why the horse's final score had not gone up. Shortly afterwards an announcement was made stating that Karim and his horse were eliminated on veterinary grounds.

At the press conference, it was confirmed that blood on the mouth was the culprit again. Except that, on this occasion, no-one else had seen the blood except Anne Mette Binder, the judge at B. She originally said she thought she saw it when the horse was performing one of the late canter movements in the test, but was not actually sure until the horse came towards her in his final canter movement. At this point she stopped scoring the horse, and notified the other Ground Jury members.

By the time, the evening press conference was convened, president of the Ground Jury Marilyn Payne had slightly amended this version of events to say that "when he started his test we didn't see it but in the middle of his test we saw a little pink. When he passed the judges we could see it was getting worse but we let him finish. It was a hard thing to do, but we must go by the rules".

It is also worth noting that Roger Haller, an experienced eventing official who counts Badminton among his past credits as an official, said that the blood on this occasion was extremely minor and in no way a reflection on the rider or a case of 'abuse', but after all "rules are rules."

French rider Karim Laghouagh and Havenir D'Azac.

Except that is not what the rule states at all. The rule actually states the following:

"In minor cases of blood in the mouth, such as where a horse appears to have bitten its tongue or lip - officials MAY authorize, except during a test, the rinsing or wiping of the mouth and allow the rider to continue - any further evidence of blood in the mouth will result in disqualification."

If any member of the Ground Jury had seen the blood clearly, they are entitled under the rules to eliminate the horse under their own authority without discussion as stated here,

"Any individual member of the Ground Jury who observes such actions, has the right and the duty to disqualify the athlete forthwith on his own authority"

which is the concluding sentence of Article 520. And one must remember that this was a WHITE grey horse. In the sequence of photos, no discolouration can be seen until the final canter movement. Surely if discolouration cannot be seen clearly and instantly by dressage judges with an unobstructed view from feet away on a white horse, the 'injury' must be so minor as to be of no consequence.

And it is hardly 'sporting' and in the interests of 'fair play' to let a competitor think he has completed a test without error only for him to be disqualified afterwards when the 'blood' is so indistinct that even on a white horse the judges cannot be sure?

Apparently this course of action was taken because the eventing Ground Jury wanted to make sure the discolouration was from blood and not from any other reason, for example a red-coloured sweet the horse might have been fed. How kind, but when a horse is performing a test in front of thousands, surely the difference between abuse and an accident can be easily established? And the Ground Jury appeared to have stopped scoring already so something in the chain of events is not being recorded accurately.

But if such a minor injury will result in disqualification "on welfare grounds" surely all incidents of blood letting, no matter how or where they occur should be treated in the same manner?

Over-reaches, for example. One show jumper left the ring on the first day of competition with clear evidence of this, according to an eye witness, but blood where the public probably will not notice must be different from that which they can?

A horse on the WEG cross-country who had bitten his tongue.
And it should be easy enough for a veterinarian to establish the difference between a 'bitten tongue' and cut lips or bars due to rough/abusive riding on examination after a test?

But, regardless of that question, the equestrian version of 'bloodgate' was not done with WEG yet.

Cross country morning dawned fine and clear and only half a dozen or so riders had been before the first member of the Italian team started his cross-country round. Marco Biasia was riding his white horse Gandalf the Grey and already having had a stop at fence five was riding somewhat cautiously. According to his team-mates he also has a habit of looking around him between fence as if constantly checking his horse.

He jumped into the water complex at Fence 17 of the 28 fence course rather awkwardly and the FEI sector steward noticed what looked like a little a little blood as the horse continued through the complex. As required by the rules the official radioed this to control to make sure the situation was monitored.

"I did see some blood but to be honest there were several horses who did not jump the white birch rails cleanly. I am fairly positive if you had looked at the fence afterwards there would have been a few smears on there, but I can only report what I see. Yes it is fair to say, that on a white horse an injury is more visible, obviously, but I doubt that was the only horse who had one," was the official's comment when asked.

Marco carried on, unaware of what was going on and jumped through another water complex by which time the graze had stopped bleeding but a combination of sweat and water had made a pink stain on the horse's coat.

He was stopped before Fence 23 so the horse could be looked at. The injury was deemed very minor and the bleeding had stopped already and Marco was officially allowed to continue. Except by this point the following competitor was getting very close and it was decided to let them go past before Marco went on, so the officials opened the string to let Marco out to wait.

Which would have been fine if anyone there had spoken Italian and could have explained the situation to the rider who does not speak English, and therefore, in the light of the eliminations from blood already mentioned, he left the course and walked away, thinking he too was eliminated.

It is recorded on the results as a retirement because Marco left the competitive field of play but actually only because he thought he was being directed to do so. This non-completion eventually meant Italy did not get enough riders home for a team score, which was extremely disappointing for them especially after a medal-winning performance at the 2009 Europeans.

However, subsequent discussions with an FEI representative indicated that there were about 67 veterinarians on course during the cross-country phase, about two per fence as well as those at the start and finish.

A member of the ground jury is supposed to be in the control box watching the action on CCTV. Another should be at the finish watching the horses come home, while the third is 'floating', usually on course.

The FEI Director of Eventing Catrin Norinder would also have been in the locality while the competition was on.

The eventing horse two fences from home on the cross-country, who apparently bit his tongue. © Kim MacMillan / MacMillan Photography
Despite all this, another horse with its mouth clearly bleeding two fences from home, was subsequently allowed to finish. This competitor finished the contest in the top ten. The mouth is clearly bleeding but the horse is a dark colour. As is the horse in the other cross-country picture, another that completed without being stopped despite what looks like blood on its mouth mid-way round the course. Is this a rule that will set pale coloured horses at a disadvantage? We are clearly not talking about situations the amount of blood seen is obviously an immediate concern, like the horse at Badminton in recent years that was pierced by a flag (prompting the move to plastic flag poles and sticking them to jumps with velcro). If this blood rule is to be applied, surely it should be applied to all competitors, immediately and regardless of where they are in the course or what discipline they are performing.

I asked the FEI to clarify the difference between a bitten tongue and bleeding mouth in the dressage and one on cross country if this was about pain and horse welfare, but so far there has been no response.

They were also reluctant to believe a bleeding horse had been on course without being stopped until the photographic evidence was produced. They have also been asked to clarify exactly who stopped and then examined Gandalf the Grey and then failed to make it clear to Marco Biasia he was OK to continue. And precisely what he was stopped for. There is no evidence of blood in that horse's mouth in any picture found so far.

Anna Hasso, a former member of the Swedish team, suggested that perhaps a different coloured flag could be used to signal a veterinary stop (and subsequent restart) to a rider if there are language barriers and this seems to be an excellent idea.

One thing is for sure, none of the riders pictured was 'abusing' their horse but the question still remains why a rule allegedly in place for horse welfare, is so widely interpreted and loosely implemented.

And another thing ...

Eventing silver medalist William Fox-Pitt and Cool Mountain.
As far as eventing goes, the question one really must ask is should the aim of a world championship be to encourage lesser nations to compete or to find the best of the best? Even building a track with many two-star level alternatives failed to get half the teams home complete.

At the 2009 European Championships only seven teams started in the first place and the only three who completed at all as a team were the medalists. The FEI have created this scheme of giving teams a 1000 point penalty if they don't get three members home so they have a completion score and the results superficially look better but why should teams who cannot field four appropriately skilled and qualified riders be allowed to compete in the first place?

A world championship, like competing at 4*, used to be something to aspire to, not the God-given right of every competitor who wants to have a go.

As a marketing tool to attract sponsors, small, select fields might be seen as a disadvantage but on the other hand, marathon driving is even smaller and more select but more than 40,000 people entered to watch this event at WEG and which provided an exciting spectacle, with no horse or human injuries of any significant nature.

Even with all the fiddling about with eventing rules and courses and qualifications there are only six nations in the world capable of fielding a winning side at championship level, so in effect blurring the standards has not changed the status quo at all.

William Fox-Pitt, when asked about this said: "The FEI have set qualifications that are the same for all of us which should ensure a level playing field but I do wonder if the levels of the qualifying CCIs and CICs are all the same." It is perhaps worth noting that ALL of the medalists in Lexington had previous 4* experience.

Cheers for Alltech and Rolex

The new indoor Alltech Arena at the Kentucky Horse Park, host to the reining and vaulting events.
Unfamiliar to most before these championships a big cheer must be raised for Alltech. Dr Pearce Lyons and his company originally invested $US10 million as the first ever title sponsor for a World Games but according to a report on a Lexington radio station on Monday morning, the final figure was closer to $US32 million. The company, which is based in the Kentucky city, provided not only money but many nice touches for which a championship should be remembered, such as the carved crystal horse heads presented to the winners and the Alltech Chill Zone, where media, sponsors and competitors could find peace, quiet, drinks and snacks as well as CCTV to keep abreast of what was going on.

Alltech was also smart enough to provide bottles of water for the press, who were especially grateful for this concession as the weather was generally so warm.

Rolex, who to be fair have had much more practise at sponsoring, also need to be thanked for media lunches and champagne draws, USB sticks and Lloyd Bell. The latter is the company run by Rupert Lloyd Bell that provides audio clips of competitor interviews for media use. This is a great help when a show site is as large and spread out as this edition of WEG, where it was impossible to get to every press conference, without missing something else!

Belgium, Britain and how to win show jumping medals

The British Equestrian Team headed the WEG medal table with good results in all the disciplines in which they competed. Except one: show jumping.

Many might wonder why anyone would make the Nations Cup series a priority in a World championship year in the first place. Perhaps British Show Jumping fought its relegation from the Meydan Top League at the end of 2009 - despite performing appallingly badly in it - because they thought they had a God-given right to be there and then disregarded the rest of the 2010 competitive schedule.

Belgium, on the other hand, took its relegation like grown ups, won the 2010 Promotional League in a common canter (as they say in racing), and then won a team Bronze medal and an individual Gold at WEG.

Two of their riders are also very young and so are at least two of their horses, so flying a team out to the USA for 'experience' as the British have is clearly an argument that holds little merit.

Another medal-winning team were the French, who, since spending a year in the Promotional League, have won both the editions of the Meydan Top League since they rejoined it, have the reigning European Champion among their riders and won a silver medal in Lexington.

All this has also been achieved in great part by riders under the age of 30 who "made their bones" riding in places like Zagreb and Ugar. Three of them had never competed at a World championships or an Olympic Games before and this "lack of experience" has not impeded them to any great degree it seems.

Nor is there no more money for horses in Belgium than there is in Britain, although they have a better, more established breeding programme. But a great many of their home bred and produced horses are sold to other nations, well before the home side can make use of them at championships.

What the British may lack in a breeding programme, however, they gain in the World Class Programme for developing talent, which does not have a FFlemishequivalent. So both nations have advantages and disadvantages but what looks better on a world stage to owners and sponsors? A well beaten third in a Nations Cup series or a couple of medals at a World Championship and maybe thinking about that is the best way to organise a team strategy?

Sabotage and Security

The sabotage of IJsbrand Chardon's marathon carriage didn't stop him from leading the phase. © Dirk Caremans
The ongoing investigation into the sabotage of IJsbrand Chardon's carriage is being somewhat hampered by the departure of those who may be key witnesses as the Games closed. As the damage is likely to cost more than $US1000 to repair, it is a felony offence in Kentucky which will carry a much stiffer penalty than a misdemeanour under US and Kentucky law.

But that aside, the most worrying thing must be that anyone could have entered a secure compound during the night at a Championship event in the first place.

Eventing staff are well used to being locked out of the stable complexes after a certain time on cross-country day by FEI rules so the horses can get some rest, but at this event the stables were supposed to be closed every night (unless for veterinary reasons). This was enforced so rigidly in one case that some of the reining horses were almost prevented from leaving as arranged because the gates were locked.

One has to assume that the security had become more lax as the end of the Games approached. I witnessed credentials from those who had already left the Games being used by other people. Perhaps a swipe card system of gates might work more effectively than relying on the human eye.

Saddlecloth stresses

Susanna Bordonne of Italy had a different problem with officialdom. Competing in two disciplines, dressage and eventing, makes for a lot of pressure anyway so being made to change her saddle cloth within minutes of her Grand Prix dressage test was not a great help.

"I do not think the official there knew the rules," Susanna said. "I have my sponsor's name above the flag, very small and certainly within the prescribed size allowed under international rules but an official looked at the whole thing, flag included and said it was too large and I must change it or risk being eliminated.

"I tried to explain that they were not correct but they were adamant and my mother had to run and buy another from a trade stand while I worked in. We ended up changing it while the horse before me was in the arena. This was not good for me or my horse. It is very hard to maintain concentration and the person making this fuss was wrong. I do not even think they were an FEI official, just a volunteer steward."

Scoring scandals?

Had he said this after the championships, Jos Lansink might have been accused of sour grapes, having lost his world title but actually he was quoted on a German website as saying the following well before his chance of a medal was gone.

"Any 2* show in Europe could do a better job of organisation. There was no heating or hot water for the grooms for four days and everyone knows you will need that."

Jos was also critical of hotels which appeared to be overcharging, the food prices on site as well as the fact there were long delays in getting start lists and results to the competitors and connections. When they did arrive, often they were incorrect and amendments had to be made. Jos went on to say that other people had expressed similar thoughts in private but did not want to speak so clearly on the subject in public.

More than one of the grooms confirmed the heat and hot water story and added that many of the static caravans provided were filthy when they arrived.

Dutch Sports Director Maarten van der Heiden also confirmed there were many organisational issues but on the other hand he had been very happy with all the shipping arrangements for the horses, which he thought had been excellent.

But the issues with results and scores cannot be denied - even now the results for the three-day-event on the WEG site have not been converted to penalty points; you need to download a PDF to get the true scores.

Measurement mishaps

Dutch para dressage rider Petra Van De Sande celebrates her Grade II gold medal aboard Toscane. © Dirk Caremans
How on earth did an arena for a freestyle Para dressage test get measured the wrong size by four metres?

Most people would probably agree that the difficulties facing many of the para competitors are great enough as it is without such a basic error.

Conversely the only person it did not effect was the most visually disabled rider, who continued to count her strides as usual and because it was a freestyle test did not get marked down for missing the end of the arena.

For many of the others those few extra metres meant that after starting they found that they were not in the right place in the right time to match their music.

Some adjusted better than others as they realised something must be wrong somewhere. Once the class had started the mistake could not be rectified and although a re-run was offered not all the competitors wanted to ride their tests again, particularly if they had got a good mark, so the Ground Jury were unable to take this course of action and the result had to stand.

Another logistical error, this time on the eventing side of things, was that unfortunately no-one remembered to prepare a track for galloping the horses, some of whom had been cooped up for days due to the travelling time and quarantine period and most of whom would have been due a pipe opener before the cross-country.

Aerial view of the Kentucky Horse Park the morning of the eventing cross-country. More than 50,000 people attended the Games that day.

And ...

Finally a thought for the organisers of the 2012 London Olympics. Despite the distance to travel, the cost of hotels and all the other factors set against audience participation, more than 50,000 people visited the Horse Park on eventing cross-country day. Current estimates for the total capacity of Greenwich for the equestrian events of the Olympics are about 15,000 on the course for cross-country.

That of course will include all the obligatory tickets given to each competing nation, officials and dignitaries.

Into a space one tenth the size of the venue for WEG.

Enough said, really.



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