Mark Phillips: ‘Why selectors, not computers, pick the British team’


  • The former Olympic team gold medallist, four-time Badminton winner and leading cross-country course-designer muses on a spring season that has been far from normal...

    I’ve enjoyed being part of the senior selection team for Britain during the era of Chris Bartle as coach and Dickie Waygood as performance manager.

    In normal times the judgement calls don’t seem too difficult, but there has been nothing normal about this season leading up to the European Eventing Championships at Haras du Pin in August.

    We had a wet Kentucky Three-Day Event with dressage and showjumping on all-weather surfaces, then dressage in the mud at Badminton Horse Trials followed by a big cross-country track, where 20 or 30 time-faults were the norm in wet then sticky soft ground.

    At Luhmühlen, again we had all-weather surfaces in balmy sunshine, 23 of the 38 starters jumped clear across country and 12 went inside the time on a flat “five-star minus” course. That was after Bramham Horse Trials, where we had an Ian Stark “four-star plus” classic on serious terrain.

    All these events have to be on the selectors’ “menu”.

    If anyone was hoping for a level playing field, they were out of luck! I guess that’s why we have selectors to make the judgement calls and not computers.

    Where’s the common sense?

    I cannot agree with the FEI policy of making horses and riders do more short-format courses at a level before they can go long in the name of improving risk management. It makes it more difficult and more expensive for future talent to qualify in the hope that some will start to ride better and safer.

    The only thing that gets riders riding better is good coaching. Bad practice and bad experience does nothing to help bad habits, especially when you don’t understand that you have them! It’s perfect practice in the training field that prevents poor performance.

    Add into the conundrum that in terms of qualifying points, which help horses and riders get into Badminton and gain Olympic individual places in the future, it doesn’t matter which five- or four-star you choose because they all offer the same points at the top end. Most riders will gravitate to where they can pick up easier points. Organisers, equally, won’t do anything that might deter entries.

    Then the FEI wants to encourage more countries to participate, so nobody is about to do anything to change the status quo, even though there is nothing equitable about how riders achieve their FEI points.

    The final irony is that at the Olympic qualifier for Africa, the Middle East, South East Asia and Oceania – held at Millstreet over a strong Mike Etherington-Smith CCI3*-L – the Japanese, who have been so successful on the international stage recently years, lost out to Australia and China. So now the best possibility for Japan is a couple of individual spots if they can gain enough FEI points or to chase Belgium in the Nations Cup standings for the last team slot in Paris.

    Of course, to take up their place, the Chinese need their four-star certificates of capability before the deadline next summer.

    I am sure there is some common sense in here somewhere, but it’s not blindingly obvious.

    A new leader

    In the meantime, Rosie Williams has been appointed as British Eventing’s (BE) new CEO. For me, she can’t start work soon enough if she is to get her head around all the problems facing BE both as a sport and a member-driven business.

    Meanwhile we continue to be frustrated by the FEI when an international event is cancelled because of weather. With national fixtures we can slot in a replacement say two weeks later, but the FEI insist on sticking to their rules where there can be no replacement scheduled for a minimum of four weeks, by which time the poor rider has lost that window for getting a qualification. Small wonder then we are seeing numbers down at the long-format events. It’s a pity the FEI legal department cannot make any allowances for exceptional circumstances.

    Hopefully the solid rain of the spring is now behind us and we can all look forward to a wonderful summer of sport.

    ● Do you agree better training, rather than more competitions, helps riders perform more safely? Let us know at hhletters@futurenet.com, including your name, nearest town and county, for the chance to have your views published in a future edition of Horse & Hound magazine

    • This exclusive column will also be available to read in Horse & Hound magazine, on sale Thursday 29 June, 2023

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