A title changing hands, questions over some qualifications for the final and a judge dismissed after 37 years: the British Show Horse Association (BSHA) Rising Star series has sparked debate.
The BSHA has confirmed that the lightweight cob title awarded at the London International Horse Show (LIHS) in December has been reallocated. H&H has heard concerns over the amateur status of some others at the final, but the BSHA said “all concerns regarding the LIHS BSHA Rising Star classes have now been investigated thoroughly by the BSHA board and [LIHS organisers] HPower”.
H&H reported in 2022 that the new series, with its finals at London was, according to the BSHA, “very much focusing on making competing easy and educational, encouraging more to join in and have a go”.
But Alan Mickleburgh, the long-standing BSHA judge who was dismissed last month, told H&H he believes it will have the opposite effect.
“Rather than encourage people, all this misrepresentation is going to put them off,” he said. “They’re trying to establish a series with a final at a prestigious event; everything should be above board.”
Mr Mickleburgh said he was set to judge his first Rising Star qualifiers last spring, and that although with his experience he is familiar with the rules, he never went to a show without a rulebook.
“I asked [BSHA general manager] Lucy Savill for a rulebook and she said they weren’t printed,” he said. “She said, ‘You know what to do’, and I said, ‘OK’, but I was a bit unhappy about it.”
Mr Mickleburgh said he was invited to judge at the BSHA semi-finals in September, where he again asked for the rules and was told they had not been printed.
“I said, ‘This is the semi-final’, and she said, ‘Just do it like a masterclass’; give them something to improve on.”
Mr Mickleburgh judged the hack qualifier, in which there were two riders. He thought Finn Williamson’s ride Port Lou Lou was very nice, but not a hack so placed her second.
“Ian Smeeth, who’s on the BSHA board and chairman of judges, was at the side of the ring and I commented to him that it was a shame; the competitor in second, his horse is more a riding horse than a hack – and he agreed. I asked if there was provision in the rules for him to move to the small riding horse final and he said, ‘Yes’. The competitor thought that having come second, he wouldn’t qualify but I told him he’d qualified for the small riding horse final. I didn’t think there was anything wrong with that as no competition rules were available to me on the day, and I’d had permission from a board member.”
Mr Mickleburgh then judged the large riding horses, in which there was a competitor on a horse he thought more of a lightweight hunter, so he said he asked if the same were possible and Ian Smeeth said yes, she could qualify for the lightweight hunter final.
Judging the final
At London, Mr Smeeth judged the small riding horse final, which Port Lou Lou won.
Maddie Bennett, who came fourth in that final, with Melin Moldavite, told H&H: “I was so pleased to be at London; my horse has EMS [equine metabolic syndrome], and it was so nice to have him out having fun, but it’s bittersweet as he deserved better. This is about the culture of showing, not just this class.”
Maddie and her family have since realised there was debate over the winner’s qualification.
The results from the September semi-final, as on the LIHS website, show that Port Lou Lou won the small riding horse class, which she did not contest. The results of the hack class say a horse and rider who did not compete in that class, came second.
“That rider contacted the BSHA to ask why they’d put her second when she wasn’t even at the show,” Maddie said. “They said [Port Lou Lou] had done the small riding horse class.
“I always do the amateur classes. I love my level and it’s a shame it’s been ruined.”
Maddie’s complaints to the BSHA were dismissed.
BSHA chair Simon Somers told H&H there had been an error in uploading results, as “we had over 1,000 results to put up on our system, and Tigre Jones was accidentally marked as second in the hack class, until she contacted us to point out the error, whereupon this was rectified. Port Lou Lou was added as the winner of the small riding horse class, as she gained the qualification for this class.”
Mr Somers added: “To be clear, more than one qualification place was available in each of the semi-final classes with a minimum of two qualification places per class and all semi-final judges knew that they had liberty to put forward more than one for a qualifying place if they wished to.”
The series rules state that the two highest-placed unqualified horses were to qualify for the semi-finals. The schedule for the semi-final stated: “The highest placed unqualified will qualify” for the LIHS.
Mr Somers said Port Lou Lou’s second place in the hacks qualified her for the hack final.
“Immediately following the class, Mr Mickleburgh came out of the ring and said he liked the horse very much and suggested that actually the horse was a riding horse. This was agreed by board members involved with the series and attending the morning and so HPower director Mr Brooks-Ward suggested that as a qualified horse, he could be swapped into the small riding horse final, as there were no entries for [the semi-final]. This was all agreed.
“This was not an act of ‘favouritism’, as a number of qualified horses were swapped into more appropriate sections, throughout the season, upon advice from judges and/or BSHA accredited trainers, and following consultation with the BSHA and HPower teams – many of the competitors in this series were brand new to showing and so advice was often given on the most suitable section for their horse, which might not reflect the qualifying class entered.”
After the finals, Mr Mickleburgh posted on Facebook to say he was delighted Port Lou Lou had won the final, and to have been a small part in the combination’s success.
“I didn’t know Ian was judging at the final and had no intention to fast-track anyone,” he told H&H. “I started coming across some unpleasantness on Facebook so thought I’d ring Lucy; I wanted to make clear what had happened.
“I thought I’d ring her on Monday but on Saturday [27 January] got a letter from the BSHA saying my application to their judges’ panel for 2024 had not been accepted, and that I have been removed from the panel. I was shocked and devastated.”
Mr Mickleburgh said the reason given was that he had breached BSHA rules. The rule cited states: “The association asks all judges to carefully consider their use of social media and to avoid communicating about any horses or competitors they have judged or may judge in the future.”
He continued: “I have an exemplary 37-year record, and they sent that letter. No disciplinary procedure, I felt I was being made a scapegoat for what’s happened.
“They said I broke the rule but my post was out of pure goodness; I thought it was lovely the young competitor got the recognition he deserved.”
Mr Mickleburgh said he was overwhelmed by the support he has had from across the showing community since his dismissal.
“I’ve also had more than 100 private messages in support,” he said.
And Mr Mickleburgh said there was another incident he wanted to share.
“After [my post] I called a lady, a friend, who was called by the BSHA office in November to invite her to compete in the cob final at LIHS,” he said. “She hadn’t entered a single qualifier.
“I found that appalling. It’s a clear breach of the rules.”
The BSHA declined to comment on this invitation, or on Mr Mickleburgh’s dismissal.
When initially asked about Port Lou Lou’s qualification, BSHA chair Simon Somers told H&H: “It qualified, because it went through to London. Every horse there qualified to be there.
“What happens is, people read things on social media, put two and two together and make five. We haven’t had any complaints.”
When H&H cited Ms Bennett’s letters as an example, Mr Somers said: “We’ve had concerns.”
Mr Somers said the series rules are “being looked at, at the moment, to be improved… to make it clearer who’s an amateur”. He added that the BSHA office had had “many emails of congratulations, cards and phone calls from the majority of members who enjoyed the experience of the LIHS”.
He referred H&H to the official BSHA statement, which adds: “The results will now stand with the exception of the winner of the lightweight cob class who has been removed from the placings. All finalists in the class have been notified by email. The vast majority of competitors enjoyed their experience at the show and we thank you for your positive telephone calls and emails. In 2024 we will continue to work towards making the series an invaluable avenue for new competitors into showing, whilst also supporting our existing members.”
Mr Somers added that the ethos of the series was to encourage people into the sport, and that there was no favouritism.
He said: “Ian Smeeth and Victoria Smith ran some clinics in preparation for LIHS, while we are fully aware that Ian Smeeth also judged the final but there was a second judge Katie Jerram-Hunnable, he was within the rulebook to do so (competitors may attend one clinic a year with a judge and subsequently be judged by them). Both Ian and Victoria were picked specifically for their qualities in being able to encourage and be proactive with all the competitors leading up to LIHS and they were the familiar face in the ring to hand-hold during the classes – going back to the ethos again of the show, encouragement for new faces into showing.”
He said no 2023 rulebooks were printed but all judges were aware they were available to download.
An HPower spokesman told H&H: “The BSHA has made a statement confirming their investigations about eligibility of competitors at the LIHS. We fully support their statement. We are very much looking forward to hosting the BSHA Rising Star finals in London this December, which was, for many, a real highlight of their showing year.”
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