Imagine doing what you think is best for your horse, only to find that your considerate action had got you eliminated from an international competition. That’s exactly what happened to Tristan Tucker.

The Australian “dressage cowboy”, who is now based in the Netherlands and well known for his horse-friendly techniques to teaching horse confidence, felt tension in his mount at the end of his intermediate I test at Uggerhalne CDI3* in Denmark earlier this month and patted him on the back behind the saddle.

“My horse, Jewels Sir Weibach, is an inexperienced horse and he had quite a bit of tension and was holding his breath, so the canter-trot transition at C at the end of the test was late,” he explained to Horse & Hound.

“So then on the diagonal in the extended trot when I could feel tension, I rubbed him a bit [behind the saddle] and he started to breathe again and let go in the body. I was in the moment and I was trying to reassure him. I rubbed him on the wither again and he was then really relaxed.”

However, after the final halt, the German judge Gotthilf Riexinger got out of his judges’ box and informed Tristan that he had been eliminated from the class.  

The eight-year-old gelding is by Sir Donnerhall out of Isabell Werth’s Rio Olympic mare Weihegold.

“The judge came out of the box after I saluted and I thought, ‘What’s going on’?” said Tristan. “He said, ‘You can’t pat your horse, so I have to eliminate you’. I had no idea of the rule and didn’t think of it — but I had no problem with the decision. I was just thinking of my horse not about the points during the test. He’s an electric horse who struggles to control his tension in big environments, so it’s my job to give him good experiences and a good feeling.”

The rule that the judge was alluding to is Article 418.3, which states: “Riding with both hands is obligatory at FEI dressage events. When leaving the arena at a walk on long rein, after having finished the test the athlete may, at his own discretion, ride with only one hand.”

This rule is problematic. Although designed with horse welfare in mind, it could be interpreted in myriad ways. For example, if a rider has to swat away a fly with one hand, scratch their nose, or readjust their hat — no matter how briefly — during a non-freestyle test, that could mean that they are eliminated.

There have been extensive calls for the FEI to review the rule so the wording more closely aligns with the intention.

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“I wasn’t expecting such reaction on social media,” added Tristan. “Everyone thinks you should be able to give the horse a good feeling, which I was trying to do. But I also think you open up a large can of worms if you say it’s OK to ride with one hand — there would be a lot more things you’d have to regulate — but I think it’s important that what you can and can’t do is clarified. If a judge has a problem with the horse losing connection [when the rider only has one hand on the reins], then I’m sure the judge would mark down that movement.

“However, rewarding the horse should not be an elimination offence.”

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