Unfortunately, I have to remind everyone of what transpired at Fair Hill, and that is, that a horse ran the majority of a cross-country course with a visibly bloody mouth.
Whether or not this was handled within the rules, while important, is not the defining characteristic of this incident. Hiding behind vaguely-worded rules doesn’t exempt you from scrutiny, doesn’t absolve you of a moral obligation to protect a horse’s welfare. A horse’s welfare should be paramount. I understand that yes, sometimes a horse bites its tongue, or sustains a small nick that doesn’t affect performance or bother the horse much. I also understand that a zero tolerance policy would mean elimination or disqualification for some in this category, but it would also mean elimination or disqualification for more questionable instances, more severe injuries. Whether the FEI will act remains to be seen as far as clarifying the eventing blood rule to address bloody-mouthed horses more consistently.
Honestly, I was not surprised that there were both defenders AND detractors of how this situation at Fair Hill was handled (seems like far more detractors, but my social media experience is biased toward me being friends with and following people I like, admire, agree with, etc.). What struck me most was a few commenters on social media had alarmingly casual attitudes toward a horse biting its tongue, even repeatedly. Sure, accidents happen. But seriously, what are you even doing if you have multiple horses “bite their tongues” on multiple occasions during competition in the space of only a year? I have been riding avidly for 30 years, competing across disciplines the majority of that time albeit at the lower levels, and not once have I seen anything like that much blood drain from a horse’s mouth for that long from a bitten tongue at any level, not without a rider being stopped. (I also think saying things like, “no big deal, racehorses do it all the time” does not further your argument for supporting the leniency that has been afforded one event rider in particular over the past year. Racehorses also deserve better.)
Out of a desire to hear honest answers from riders, in hopes of restoring my faith in the idea that most horse people do, in fact, put their horses first, I hastily crafted an admittedly poorly-worded poll for people to share their thoughts. I probably shouldn’t have tried to word answers to fit all disciplines, because I think that means the hypothetical situations fell short of reality. However, I did get some answers, and for the most part people would not want to compete on a horse bleeding from the mouth. Not exactly earth-shattering, but then why can’t the rules reflect this? Why must we put officials in precarious positions of deciding whether a horse and rider continues or doesn’t based solely on their best judgment in a high-pressure moment? That’s a LOT of pressure and responsibility. Why not offer more guidance, and clarity, in the rules? Allow the officials to shoulder the responsibility with a little more help from what’s on paper? Both the FEI dressage and jumper blood rules have more specificity of wording and additional guidance toward application. Eventing could follow suit easily enough, right? Why is the idea that furthering horse welfare at the expense of riders involved in a few minor incidents in order to catch the truly egregious ones so untenable to some people? Is less regulation really better if it means horses compete while injured, bleeding, or unquestionably in pain? There is no bright line now in eventing. I wish there were, for the sake of all competing horses and the integrity of the sport. I am sure zero tolerance is not the right answer for eventing, due to the nature of the sport, running cross-country in particular. But turning a blind eye and hiding behind a rule with a cavernous grey area falls abysmally short of holding horse welfare as the highest priority.
The poll itself does not supply a large enough data set to be useful beyond satisfying my own curiosity, but it does show proof of concept–ask people!–that some riders have their own zero tolerance policies regardless of an organization’s rules, and maybe wouldn’t hesitate to compete under such a rule. The poll, complete results, and complete comments are here. The IP addresses are visible under the individual responses tab, but no other identifying information is available. I hope this poll gave people a chance to voice their opinions in a less volatile environment than Facebook, and gave people an opportunity to voice opinions they might not otherwise have shared.
This poll has significant failings. I tried to make a one-size-fits-all-poll applicable to a variety of disciplines, and that was stupid, as some of the answer choices of the first question were worded in such as way as to be unlikely to happen for certain disciplines. The choices are most definitely skewed toward hunter/jumper situations, as that is what I have the most experience with and my recollection is not so expansive as to remember otherwise. More than one participant in the poll pointed this out, which I appreciate. I probably should have asked eventers and dressage riders (because that’s who I know) to review the questions first before posting for relevancy. I also could have asked people which discipline they compete, to see if that has any bearing on their answers. Live and learn. Perhaps a better poll could be developed out of this concept.
Regardless, I am gratified to see that many people–the majority in this tiny sample–would most definitely not want to compete on a horse that might be injured, and would determine the horse’s health status first. I think reading the individual responses is well worth the time, as many participants made excellent points about various factors, such as the nature of the injury or a trainer’s influence. I was surprised that no one selected to contest an official decision–perhaps the wording of the question didn’t adequately express the type of situation I was thinking of (I didn’t mean argue with the officials on the spot, if that’s how anyone took it.). Show jumping rider Bertram Allen contested a disqualification, although the FEI stood by the officials’ decision. My personal take on that situation was that that spur mark, although unintentional, warranted a disqualification, and you can bet I was angry at myself for agreeing, because Bertram Allen seems like a good guy and is unquestionably a great rider and he would have won the class otherwise. The FEI developed additional guidance for how to apply the jumper blood rule as a result of this disqualification. It’s a high stakes game at the upper levels, and sometimes putting the horse’s welfare first means losing money. It’s not without precedent. The rules can’t be written to make exceptions for unintentional injuries in the case of blood in the mouth or spur marks; that would not solve the problems we’re looking at here, and my hope is that such injuries are always unintentional anyway. But I don’t think contesting a call is necessarily a bad thing. However, when there is no call, what is there to contest, right? Officials must make these calls for the sake of the horses.
The takeaway from this whole situation–the competition, the reaction on social media, Hillary’s petition, blog posts from Shelby, Amanda, and others, my faulty poll–is that we can do better. We, meaning all of us involved in horses and competing with horses. Should we not all hold ourselves to a slightly higher standard, hold ourselves more accountable for the sake of our horses’ welfare? I think we can, and we should.