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The stakes in sport can be high, whether the prize at risk is money, a medal or Olympic qualification.

However clear the rules appear to be, it’s amazing how the “field of play” can throw up unexpected scenarios. The ongoing dispute over the official who ran in front of Cian O’Connor at the showjumping European Championships and arguably cost Ireland their Olympic ticket proves that.

Between the flags?

One area which has often led to dispute in eventing is whether horses have passed inside or outside the flags at corners.

Gemma Tattersall lost out on a brilliant clear at Badminton last year after it was judged Arctic Soul had missed a flag at Huntsman’s Close, while Holly Woodhead (and consequently, the whole British team) was eliminated in the Nations Cup at Aachen this summer following a similar judgement on a corner in the water (pictured).

The wording of the FEI rule reads: “A horse is considered to have run out if, having been presented at an element or obstacle on the course, it avoids it in such a way that the head, neck and either shoulder of the horse fail to pass between the extremities of the element or obstacle as flagged.”

Making the close calls on this is an unenviable job — sitting in the press room at Aachen, our television suddenly flicked on to a back-and-forth replay of Holly’s fault in slow motion. We had obviously managed to tune into the channel the ground jury were watching to make their decision and it was a tough one.

At the World Equestrian Games last year, technical delegate Alec Lochore came up with a system to help riders if they are in doubt whether they have passed through the flags.

Fence judges were issued with red and green cards, bearing a cross or tick. If a rider pulled up, rode back and asked if they had gone clear, the judge would show the relevant card. This removed any language barriers and meant riders could retake the obstacle if the red card was shown — so they added 20 penalties but not an elimination — or continue knowing they were clear if they saw the green.

The same system was employed at the Europeans at Blair.

Weighing up the risk

Of course, riders have to make a judgement call on the time it takes to check — a competitor gunning for a win may decide to risk continuing for a fast clear. But offering riders this opportunity to check seems a good idea — they can decide if they want to take it depending on what their aim is for that particular competition.

If a high placing is everything and the time is tight, they will probably continue and accept the possibility of elimination. But if they need a qualification or a completion for their team, they can get the information they need to ensure that.

The crucial part is that if riders are shown the green card, that decision must stand — they cannot then be eliminated if an opposing team protests. This is how the system operated at Blair and that was explained to chef d’equipes in a meeting before cross-country day.

That’s only fair — it would be wrong to say that riders could be shown a green card, then eliminated retrospectively. And fence judges — volunteers already under pressure — must be secure in the knowledge that their decision will be respected.

Of course, if a rider brushes through a flag and continues without asking the question, video review can still be used and the rider eliminated.

I look forward to seeing if this system becomes common practice in the future.

Ref: Horse & Hound; 1 October 2015