Harry Meade: Against the spirit of the sport *H&H VIP*

Opinion

Belton was the first test of the new FEI rule on missed flags. This requires the entire body of the horse to pass within the line of the flag as originally positioned, so any contact with the flag by the body of the horse (excluding limbs) was an infringement.

Dozens of horses had 15 penalties added on or removed at various stages, which cast a shadow over an otherwise excellent event. Constant changes to the live scoreboard meant following the narrative of the competition was impossible.

The fence in question was a table on a curving left bend to a right-handed corner — you could either stay out on a short six strides or cut in on a moving five. A good question, but a single camera angle could not be head-on for both approaches.

I had a great ride on Away Cruising, but after receiving messages of protest from people watching the livestream that I had 15 penalties, I watched my footage. My horse’s entire body passed through the flag line, but my boot knocked the flag down. I approached the ground jury, who said the technical delegate (TD) was reviewing all cases and referring the borderline ones to them.

As we talked, my 15 penalties dropped off the electronic scoreboard, so we laughed and went our separate ways. Having ridden my next horse, I was on my way home when the 15 penalties reappeared on the scoreboard. We drove back to Belton, but the TD and ground jury president had gone home.

I felt sorry for the officials, who were doing their job with a woeful rule. After a nightmare Saturday of using rulers on computer screens, they sought clarification; the FEI confirmed that if a flag bends even slightly because it’s been touched by the horse’s body, it’s 15 penalties. That isn’t common sense for a horse moving at 500mpm on a turning line to an angled fence only a few feet wide.

The solution

Prior to 2017, a horse’s shoulder had to pass inside the flag and there were almost no problems. The one thing this didn’t address was horses whose hindends canter around the fence without taking off.

But this new rule punishes horses who have jumped the fence — 75% of those judged clear jumping out of The Lake at Badminton last year would now be penalised. Without such questions, how can designers test competitors while minimising horse falls?

A solution was submitted to the FEI last month. It requires the head, neck and both shoulders — everything in front of the saddle — to pass inside the flag and the hindquarters to jump. If the shoulder drifts or the hindend never jumps, that’s a run out and failure to re-present results in elimination; the 15 penalties is done away. This wording had unanimous support from the International Eventing Officials Club (IEOC), but it’s been put on hold for the time by the FEI.

On the plus side, there’s only one option worse than the current rule — automatic penalties for knocked flags, whether hit by a horse’s leg, stirrup or tail. This cop-out would be easy to judge, but is fundamentally against the spirit of the sport. Such a rule would also encourage designers to use stronger flag poles and riders to aim at the unjumpable part of corners or shoulder brushes, neither of which prioritise safety.

Hopefully we can work with the FEI to get the IEOC’s proposal adopted.

Ref Horse & Hound; 4 April 2019