The last time I rode across country was at an exhibition event in Australia in November, in 35°C — a different extreme to last week when I went schooling and had to break the ice on the water jump before starting.

With so many eventers looking forward to the start of the season, the opening fortnight was marred by cancellations after the deluges — it takes significant rain for sandy sites like Tweseldown to become waterlogged.

The events that managed to run did well to go ahead, but it is hugely disappointing after all the hard work for the organisers of those that didn’t run. With this drying east wind the season can hopefully now get under way without further cancellations.

The sport’s own goal

At Christmas I took the children on a family trip to Olympia to watch the grand prix, in which Bertram Allen rode so well to win before being disqualified due to a small spur mark.

It was a shame that the rules created such an unnecessary mess. The official’s job is to enforce the rules, which, unfortunately, are absolute in stating that elimination in this instance was mandatory, with no leeway for discretion from officials.

The rules for blood are discipline specific — at least from a cross-country perspective there seems to be some common sense that the officials and vets can check a horse and allow it to continue if they consider that the issue is insignificant, but stop the horse if there is a genuine welfare concern.

I spoke to an official who had witnessed a similar incident at the Olympics and chose not to report the matter, deciding instead that the mark on the skin was insignificant, the warm-up and round well ridden and the horse had in no way been mistreated.

The official felt that no one would benefit if a potential medallist were disqualified for a lack of welfare — a judgement that averted international headlines reporting what would only be described (albeit inaccurately) as cruelty.

Thank goodness that such quick thinking avoided a storm in a teacup, but there shouldn’t be the need for an official to illicitly turn a blind eye — the rules should show common sense.

There is a wider issue here: a danger that, so far as the rules of the sport are concerned, “horse welfare” is no longer paramount. Instead, “the public’s perception of horse welfare” is the primary concern. In other words, poor horsemanship or welfare issues are not as high on the radar as the perception that an insignificant nick or cut might be a welfare issue.

I am an advocate of being tough on those who show poor horsemanship, but in his round Bertram Allen demonstrated sublime horsemanship, and eliminating him on welfare grounds was absurd. But the rule is not up for review.

Not surprisingly everyone was talking about it. The television commentators and reporters had to report it, using one of two explanations: either stating the rules were crazy, or saying that he had compromised his horse’s welfare, which he had not.

With social media giving the unknowledgeable a mouthpiece and making everyone an expert, and comments along the lines of barbaric medieval tools being quoted on mainstream outlets, the result was that the rule — intended to protect the sport’s image — had in fact damaged it by blowing out of proportion a minor graze.

Equestrianism is being led by how the audience might perceive it, which shows a worrying insecurity, instead of educating them by communicating via the media.

I would like to see the sport have confidence in itself, the FEI to put the horse first, and then everyone who represents it — competitors, officials, judges, the media — to educate audiences, not be led by the non-equestrian audience.

Ref: Horse & Hound; 17 March 2016