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This year I have written a few posts about how I think the FEI needs to change how it responds to cases where the rider has over used the whip, perhaps by looking into some of the horse racing legislation on this topic. Because my thoughts on this topic were triggered by the actions of one particular rider, I am sorry to say that my posts have come across as witch hunting to some readers and I just wanted to clear the air around this topic.
The lack of official reaction, not the rider
Firstly, I just want to make clear that while I do not agree with Oliver Townend’s riding during the cross country phase at Badminton this year, my criticism does not lie with him, but with the Stewards and FEI.
As disappointing as it is to see a top rider have a huge lapse in judgement as Oliver did at Badminton this year, I am more disappointed in the lack of action from the FEI. I believe more should have been done by them to show that overuse of the whip is a potentially serious welfare issue. While I don’t want to see any rider specifically punished, I do believe more needed to be done to “make an example” of this case.
A second warning with no consequence
My second issue with the FEI is that within 4 months of this initial case, Oliver Townend was once again given an official warning for over use of the whip on one of his horses at Blair Horse Trials. Now my understanding is that he later spoke to the ground jury and this issue was resolved.
However, I do feel that if ANY rider is given a second warning for the same offence in a short period of time, this should be looked into further. I believe there should be some sort of investigation done by the FEI. I believe the rider should be able to fight their corner in these investigations and have the chance to appeal any decision. But I still believe there should be more action.
In previous posts I have discussed how the public perception of equine sports can put pressure on the FEI to show that things are being done to improve equine welfare. This is both a good and a bad thing. It’s good because things are being done to show that we do care about horses in our sport and that we want to have rules in place to protect them. However I also feel that the rules are not always clear. A few years ago I wrote about when Bertram Allen was disqualified from Olympia. Yes he left a mark on his horse, but when you watch the round, there was no over riding or over pushing the horse. It was just an unfortunate case of bad luck that the spur left a mark on a thin skinned and clipped horse. I understand why he was disqualified. BUT I struggle with how Oliver Townend did not get disqualified from Badminton this year when his actions were far worse. Yes they are different sports, and yes Oliver Townend hadn’t left a mark. But in my eyes, Oliver’s riding was more of a welfare issue than Bertram’s and should be treated as such.
I feel that the welfare rules need to be revisited across all sports to make a clearer picture of what warrants a punishment and what doesn’t. There should also be clearer guidelines as to what level of punishment different incidents should receive. I believe more clarity will not only continue to improve welfare in our sport, but also help to improve public perception of our sports.
World Number 1
I have only used Oliver Townend as an example in these posts because he is involved in the case which first sparked my thoughts on this matter and he is the only rider to my knowledge who has received two warnings for the same behaviour in a short period of time. Yes, this may be largely due to the media covering this more broadly than other incidences. But I have only been using him as an example as he highlights the point I am trying to make, not because I have an issue with him as a rider.
Oliver Townend is currently the World Number 1 of Eventing. I do not believe (nor do I want to) that a rider can get to that spot without having their horse’s welfare as a priority. Virtually all of his horses are fairly young in the grand scheme of things and he has spent a long time producing them to this level. I think you have to respect him for the work he has done to have as many young horses running at top level as he does.
I do not believe there are any welfare issues involved in how he trains and rides his horses. Yes he has displayed some awful displays of riding this year and he himself has said how horrible his riding at Badminton was. However, I do not believe there is anything going on behind the scenes to cause the general public to worry about the welfare of his horses.
That being said, I still believe it is important for the FEI to implement more measures to check and ensure horse welfare in these cases. Not because I believe that any of these riders pose a welfare risk to their horses, but because I think it is important for them to be putting welfare first and double checking when a rider has received multiple warnings for the same offence.