Would Scottish independence be a blow for British horse sport? [H&H VIP]

  • Can you imagine selecting a British showjumping team right now without world number one Scott Brash? You might have to.

    Scottish Sports Minister Shona Robinson says that if Scotland were to gain independence at the referendum in September, Scottish athletes could split from Team GBR for the 2016 Rio Olympics.

    But how feasible is this, in just 2 years ? How would it affect equestrianism? Could Scotland field teams at all?

    Gold medallist Scott Brash is the only rider from the London 2012 teams who lives north of the border. The last Scot — Douglas Stewart — in a showjumping team was when Britain last won gold in 1952, so it’s clearly a good omen. 

    Scott would be a huge loss, but there are others snapping at his heels. And are Scott’s compatriots ready to join him on a Scottish team? Jemma Kirk, James Smith and Graham Gillespie are next in the rankings, with Jemma highest at 380.

    Scott-Brash-mug-newsletterBut Scott (pictured right) isn’t relishing the prospect of independence. “It would put me in a very difficult position, but we’ll cross that bridge if it comes to it,” he said. “I think Scottish independence is a crazy idea, though.”

    Would English owners keep horses with a “foreign” rider competing only for individual honours, and without the funding to which they have become accustomed?

    British Showjumping’s Iain Graham, a Scot based in England, said Ms Robinson’s intention to field independent teams by Rio was “optimistic”.

    “It will take up to 2 years for Scotland to become officially independent,” he said. “The FEI won’t accept a country until it has been recognised by the International Olympic Committee, which gives very little opportunity for team qualification — just the Europeans next year.”

    A problem for eventing too?

    Eventers appear to have the liveliest chance of team qualification. There are 5 Scottish riders competing at CCI4*: Charlotte Agnew, Olivia Wilmot, Emily Galbraith, Louisa Milne Home and Nicky Roncoroni. Olympic qualifications count at CCI4* and CCI3*.

    Had these riders repeated their personal best scores as a team at last year’s Europeans, they would have finished 5th, putting them in the mix for Olympic qualification. The top 5 teams at World Equestrian Games qualify for the Olympics and 2 more from the Europeans.

    But they would fare less well if they missed out on qualification at championships and had to qualify through their world rankings. Nicky Roncoroni is highest at 89th. She told H&H it would be “madness to split”.

    union-flag-eventdress.jpg“My heart is Scottish, but I’d prefer to ride with a British flag on my saddlecloth,” said Nicky.

    “It would give up-and-coming riders more chance to go to an Olympics, but I’ve already decided I want to make it on to a British team.”

    5-times Olympian, Scot Ian Stark, said “independence is a scary possibility”.

    “I’ve spent 16 years on the British team trying to avoid the north/south divide, so I sincerely hope independence doesn’t happen,” he said.

    “Scotland has enough riders with ability — if they have the horse power. But I’d prefer to see them as part of the British team, rather than as the only Scottish riders qualified to go.”

    Dressage-wise, the referendum would have no effect on the British team, as Scotland looks unlikely to be represented. Olympic qualifications require 2 plus-64% scores at grand prix abroad, and there are currently no Scottish riders at that level.

    Nicola Gillespie Corolla last rode at grand prix in 2012. “It’s a nice idea, but we couldn’t produce a team,” she said.

    Money matters

    Lottery funds are allocated from Sport England and sportscotland to the British Equestrian Federation (BEF). 

    A BEF spokesman said: We have had no discussions with the Department for Culture Media and Sport or UK Sport and will not until the result of the vote is known.”

    Iain Graham is urging Scots to chase up authorities, because “there will be much smaller amounts of money than riders are used to”.

    He added: “It cannot work as well for equestrianism because Britain has benefited so much from UK Sport funding over the past 8 years.”

    But sportscotland said preparations are being made. The national sports agency invested £207,300 of Scottish Government and National Lottery funding in Horsescotland (the national organisation for horse sport).

    Scotland would be entitled to a share of National Lottery and UK Sport investment — on top of the £20million sportscotland spends on high performance sport.

    “That equates to a population share of nearly £7.5m per year, bringing the likely spend on a 4-year Olympic cycle to well over £100m,” said sportscotland’s Colin Hutton.

    How much Scotland’s riders see of that may be another matter.

    First published in Horse & Hound magazine (5 May 2014 issue)