The FEI European Championships are now over for all the disciplines, the champions have been crowned, the medals awarded and the honor roll engraved. In all disciplines the championships were a triumph in almost every aspect; great venues, crowded grandstands and nail biting top sport. But amongst all this positivity, it is once again the subject of blood that provides the only real negative.
Four horses were eliminated for visible blood in the dressage and para-dressage competitions. One was stopped mid test, Darko de Niro, ridden by Charlotte Lenherr, when the judge at C saw pink foam in the horse’s mouth. The others were all eliminated subsequent to their tests after examination by the steward. Two for blood in the mouth, one for a spur mark.
Article 430.7.6 of the FEI dressage rules reads: “If the FEI steward discovers fresh blood in the horse’s mouth or in the area of the spurs during the equipment check at the end of the test, he informs the judge at C, who will eliminate the horse and the athlete.” That all seems clear enough and if the FEI is concerned with horse welfare, this zero tolerance policy is a good thing, which also has the added benefit of helping with public relations.
The zero tolerance policy also applies to show jumping, as Scott Brash found out recently at a Global Champions Tour show. After a round in the Global Champions League competition, watched live by thousands and by thousands more on the live stream, none of whom noticed a thing amiss, a tiny abrasion was found on his horse’ flanks, which the steward rubbed and found blood and Brash also was disqualified.
This is all fair enough so far. No mitigating circumstances and no favoritism. Even a para-dressage rider, Michele George who would have won a frestyle medal in the Grade V category at Gothenburg, was disqualified under the current blood rules. The riders in dressage and show jumping might not care for the rule but they all know what they are. “The judge at C stopped me; she thought she saw blood on his mouth. It turned out he had a scratch on his bottom lip, which then made him pink around the mouth,” said Charlotte Lenherr, riding in the dressage for Switzerland.
“He was not bleeding when we checked him again. I think the excitement makes him bite more than usual, but we have checked him now and there is no more bleeding and the horse is fine. I am very sad, but it’s still lovely to be in Gothenburg and that’s life.”
No one is accusing any of these riders of abuse, most of them have been riding in full view of the of the public when these incidents happen and of course it is possible for a horse to bit its tongue during a test or for a rider leg to rub a sweaty horse a fraction too hard with a spur, without abuse coming into the picture but the welfare of the horse is paramount and as the horses cannot tell us if they are in discomfort or not, the no tolerance blood rule is not only fair, but serves the interest of the horse and the public perception of horse sport.
A different sort of blood?
The zero tolerance approach though does not always apply in eventing it seems. Photos have emerged of a horse on the cross country at Strzegom clearly showing a bleeding spur mark about which no action was taken.
The excuse is that horses are traveling faster on the cross country and it is more difficult to see. That may well be true. But last year, sensational photos appeared from the USA of Marilyn Little competing at Fair Hill, mostly taken by the public of her horse clearly bleeding from the mouth. The horse finished the competition without penalty. If the public could see the issue on course, how did the officials miss it. Yes, the horses are galloping and jumping fixed obstacles, they are likely to be stronger in the hand than when doing dressage or showjumping and of course, they may well catch a limb on a solid obstacle and get a graze. So yes, check the horse at the end of the cross country and make a decision on veterinary advice for those sort of bleeds. But if the blood rules are there for welfare reasons, surely a spur mark is just as bad no matter which discipline it occurs in?
During the recent European Championships in Strzegom, a horse was seen at Fence 8 on the cross country with a bleeding spur mark. Not much blood but certainly more than was visible on Scott Brash’ horse or the horse in the dressage at Gothenburg. The photographer at the fence pointed it out to the official there who radioed it to control. Nothing was done, the horse finished the cross country and completed the show jumping the following day.
Once again, no-one is suggestion abuse, but a spur mark is a spur mark surely? In dressage and show jumping, it doesn’t matter if it has stopped bleeding, you still get disqualified. The FEI was asked about this horse at Strzegom and Grand Prix received this statement. The identity of the horse and rider has been removed because this is not a witch-hunt and the horse has been photographed conspicuously fit and well since the championships.
An FEI Spokesperson said, “The Ground Jury was made aware of a possible issue after the horse, ***********, finished the cross country. One member of the Ground Jury personally inspected the horse and reported that there was a small mark on the left flank that was showing no sign of bleeding at that time. It was agreed that the horse would be thoroughly reviewed at the final horse inspection on Sunday morning. Both the Veterinary Delegate and the Ground Jury agreed at Sunday’s inspection that the mark was not significant enough to take action and the horse was passed fit to compete. The horse was also checked after the Jumping and there was no report from the Stewards of the mark bleeding or covering a larger area.“
So that’s alright then. There was a mark but it was ‘not significant’. If this is about welfare, did the horse tell the officials so? The mark on Hello Forever was not significant either, by the next day it was invisible but that did not change the outcome for Scott Brash. The horse at Srzegom is a white grey, many people watching noticed the mark and it has been discussed on several forums but not, so far as Grand Prix is aware, on one in the English language, and so it is escaping going viral at the moment and becoming a PR issue as well as a welfare one.
This is hardly fair, open or transparent. In the case of spur marks,there should be zero tolerance throughout. Does the fact that there are less opportunities to compete in eventing make the sight of blood more acceptable? The Swiss riders at the dressage championships only get that one chance, there may never be another time when they are selected and their horse fit and well to compete. Surely if it is about welfare, the blood rule about spur marks should apply to any discipline? How can there be any ifs, buts or maybe. Only the rider is to blame for these; not the going, not hitting a rough pole or the horse biting it’s own tongue. It is hard to justify the acceptance in one sport when in others there is none.
Text: Lulu Kyriacou