protecting show horse welfare

At the pinnacle of equine sport, what are FEI officials doing to put the horse first?

Under the bright lights of Paris’ Bercy stadium in April, a hushed audience watched a sprightly dark bay gelding canter into the arena for the 2018 FEI Longines World Cup Jumping Final. The horse, Admara 2, approached the first jump under Colombian rider Carlos Enrique Lopez Lizarazo with clear energy and style.

The 13-year-old Dutch Warmblood leapt over the inviting fence with ease. But he landed in strange form. He kept his hind limbs abnormally high and outstretched. It was as though he was trying to make absolutely sure those legs didn’t touch a fence.

And it was no fluke. A second jump, then a third, then a fourth … all in the same form. Sometimes he even kicked out after clearing the fence. Admara 2’s conspicuous “overjumping” style drew gasps from the spectators and caused chatter, specifically over whether the horse would be “barred.”

Barred. A doubly negative word in the world of show jumping at events organized by the Fédération Equestre Internationale (FEI), headquartered in Lausanne, Switzerland. Barring—also known as rapping or poling—is a technique in which a person on the ground purposefully strikes a horse’s legs as he goes over a fence, to try to teach him to jump higher. Some trainers even apply chemicals or devices to horses’ legs to make them more sensitive to hitting the jumps, with the idea that they’ll try even harder to not hit them.

But in the FEI arena, a barred horse is also one that’s barred—as in excluded—from competing.

Barring is a form of cheating, which goes against the FEI standards of fair sport. It’s also a violation of horse welfare. And the FEI maintains that horse welfare matters more than any medal, financial gain, fame, or glory.

As soon as Lizarazo and Admara 2 came out of the ring, FEI authorities approached them. After investigating, the FEI determined that Admara 2 was simply overreacting to his hind boots. He had not—and would not—be barred, in any sense of the term, they said.

Their show went on. Others’, in that and other competitions, would not. The FEI governs the sport and also the welfare of the sport. Just how the FEI does that—and how well, according to some critics—is a complex issue we’ve investigated for this article.

Decisions the FEI makes don’t just affect the welfare of high-level horses; our sources say their impacts can trickle down to competitions at all levels, even unsanctioned local shows and noncompetitive leisure riding. 

Codes and Checks

The FEI has published a general welfare code describing how horses should be treated, managed, and ridden. Its “FEI Code of Conduct for the Welfare of the Horse” stipulates that anyone participating in international horse sport must “accept that at all times the welfare of the horse must be paramount.” It also reminds participants that equine welfare “must never be subordinated to competitive or commercial influences.”

The FEI welfare code comprises five categories: general welfare, fitness to compete, events, humane treatment, and education. It’s written to allow flexibility in applying the code. For example, the code states: “Horses must only undergo training that matches their physical capabilities and level of maturity for their respective disciplines. They must not be subjected to methods which are abusive or cause fear.” And as far as tack is concerned, it must be “designed and fitted to avoid the risk of pain or injury.”

Individual disciplines also have specific welfare guidelines in their rulebooks. In dressage, for example, judges can “discreetly” inform the C-Judge—who makes the final decision regarding elimination in the case of welfare breaches—that they’ve noticed a problem such as bleeding, lameness, or “abusive riding.” The rules do not give further details about what’s considered abusive in dressage.

The show jumping rules mention “excessive” spur use (with one detail: no bleeding allowed) and rapping. They get very specific when it comes to whip use. Riders can’t whip horses on the head, can’t whip more than three times in a row, can’t break the horse’s skin with the whip, can’t whip after they’ve been eliminated, and can’t whip “to vent an Athlete’s temper.”

Equine practitioners approved as FEI veterinarians check horses before and after events for signs of abuse, including abnormal sensitivity of the legs, in show jumping and endurance horses. Judges also keep an eye open for welfare issues during the competition itself. And FEI stewards who’ve gone through rigorous FEI training check tack, skin condition, and general welfare as horses enter and leave the arena, says Roly Owers, MRCVS, CEO of World Horse Welfare, in Norfolk, U.K, independent welfare advisor to the FEI. 

The penalty for compromised ­welfare—even the appearance of it—is severe. In most cases the horse is eliminated from the class (if it’s a dressage or show jumping show). Sometimes it’s disqualified from the entire competition. FEI decisions are immediate, final, nonappealable, and irreversible. If the FEI establishes intent to harm, it might impose several-thousand-dollar fines. “From what I see in my committee meetings with the FEI, the organization takes welfare very seriously,” says FEI head veterinarian for the U.S. Kent Allen, DVM, of Virginia Equine Imaging, in The Plains. “Whatever the topic, the bottom line is always the welfare of the horse.”

Policies on Bleeding, Hypersensitivity, and Whipping

Irish rider Denis Lynch was eliminated during the 2018 FEI Longines World Cup Jumping Final after stewards detected blood on his 15-year-old gelding All Star 5’s flanks. The event organizers stated that even though this didn’t “imply that there was any intent to injure the horse,” he still had to be eliminated. “It is crucial that the rules are enforced in order to ensure that horse welfare is protected,” they said.

protecting show horse welfare

At the 2010 Alltech FEI World Equestrian Games, the ground jury noticed blood in the saliva of the chestnut Dutch Warmblood Jerich Parzival, ridden by Dutch dressage rider Adelinde Cornelissen, and dismissed him. “There was a tiny spot on the tip of his tongue,” Cornelissen explained at the time. “It had stopped bleeding on the way back to the stable.” Although the Dutch team accepted the decision, it led to heated controversy because blood was not yet specifically mentioned in the dressage rules. (FEI officials added the precise mention of blood in a 2012 rules revision.)

Meanwhile, U.S. rider McLain Ward and his mount Sapphire were disqualified at the 2010 FEI World Cup Jumping Final, in Geneva, when examining veterinarians found the 14-year-old mare to be hypersensitive on her legs upon palpation. “She’s naturally sensitive,” team veterinarian Tim Ober, DVM, said after the disqualification. “I wouldn’t call it hypersensitivity.”

Two years later, during the Olympic Games in London, 10-year-old Dutch Warmblood Victor was disqualified from show jumping for hypersensitivity. The horse had a small superficial cut on one of his front coronary bands, causing him to react to contact at that spot, said his rider, Tiffany Foster of Canada. Foster gave an emotional appeal of the decision at a press conference, and teammate Eric Lamaze accused the FEI of a “miscarriage of justice.”

Whipping cases get penalties added on top of disqualifications. In 2010 show jumper Michael Morrissey was fined 2,000 Swiss francs ($1,900) and suspended for three months after whipping the 14-year-old Holsteiner stallion Crelido 13 times following a water jump refusal at a World Equestrian Games trial. The FEI also formally reprimanded the event’s entire grand jury for not intervening.

More recently, the FEI fined Irish rider Kevin Thornton 5,000 Swiss francs ($3,600, plus an invoice for legal fees) and suspended him for four months after his horse died during a schooling session at the FEI CSI* show in Cagnes-sur-Mer in October 2016. During the case’s tribunal hearing, FEI representatives stated that “to push a horse beyond its limits by whipping it and forcing it to continue to gallop, as Mr. Thornton did, displayed a wanton disregard for the welfare of the horse and amounted not just to horse abuse but to serious horse abuse, deserving a commensurate punishment.”

Such decisions don’t always meet with riders’ and the public’s approval, but horse welfare can’t be compromised to make people happy, says Allen. “As the veterinary delegate working with the ground jury, I’ve thrown horses out of Olympic competitions, and I felt bad for all parties involved,” he says. “If you want to win a popularity contest, you probably don’t want to be an FEI veterinary delegate. But if I’ve eliminated that horse, it’s likely that it’s the best thing for the horse.”

Head and Neck Positions

While the FEI might seem like a rigid equine welfare defender, some critics claim the organization is too lax with certain issues—especially those that challenge the status quo of competitive equestrian sport.

For example, Dutch biomechanics researchers pointed out that riding horses behind the vertical (with the head behind a line drawn from a horse’s face profile perpendicular to the ground) was far more common in the 2008 World Cup dressage classes than in the 1992 Olympic Games dressage competition. Specifically, the Top 15 horses in 2008 held their heads behind the vertical on average more than 50% of the time in the four main classic dressage gaits, whereas in 1992 equivalently placed horses only did so in two of those gaits.

Yet researchers have shown that hyperflexion (also called rollkur) causes airway obstruction, pathological changes (damage to tissues) in the neck structure, impaired forward vision, stress, and pain, says Paul McGreevy, BVSc, PhD, MRCVS, MACVS (Animal Welfare), professor of animal behavior and animal welfare science at Australia’s University of Sydney. While FEI stewards have issued verbal and yellow warning cards, to date they’ve made no eliminations or sanctions at any international event because of ­hyperflexion.

For the FEI there’s a distinct difference between “low, deep, and round” (LDR) and hyperflexion. In LDR a horse brings his head behind the vertical naturally, or his rider encourages him into this position without using force, for a short period. In hyperflexion, however, a rider forces the horse behind the vertical with aggressive techniques, for longer periods.

Researchers have shown certain benefits to this LDR position—namely that it increases the range of motion in the back and legs, allowing for freer, even more exaggerated movements. They say this can lead to improved performance—but also to increased injury risk and welfare issues, especially if the position is prolonged.

The FEI rules don’t get into discussion of hyperflexion itself, but they do state that during competition, “the head should remain in a steady position, as a rule slightly in front of the vertical, with a supple poll as the highest point of the neck, and no resistance should be offered to the Athlete.” They do not mention head position in warmup.

In reining neither “head” nor “neck” appears in the rulebook. Vaulting rules don’t describe head and neck position, either. They do address the use of fixed side reins—specifically, that there should be two, and that in the warmup ring they shouldn’t be attached “for an excessive period” and that horses should be “allowed to move freely for a period of time” before they’re attached again.

Welfare over Winning

Where the FEI does mention the term hyperflexion is in its guidelines for stewards. In the annexes of the FEI Stewards Manual for Dressage, it states: “Long, deep and round riding is accepted, unless used excessively or prolonged (hyperflexion of the neck). There is a danger when copied by unskilled riders.”

This addendum to the annex appeared following an FEI roundtable discussion responding to public outcry over Swedish dressage rider Patrik Kittel’s warmup during the 2009 FEI World Cup in Odense, Denmark. Videos of Kittel riding Watermill Scandic allegedly for up to two hours in frequent hyperflexion surfaced on YouTube. In a short section of the video, the horse’s tongue appeared blue, leading to a scandal that escalated into a call for equestrian enthusiasts to boycott the 2012 Olympic Games. The FEI issued Kittel a warning but after investigation ruled, “there is no reliable evidence that the warm up techniques used by Mr. Kittel were excessive.” While the FEI determined that no rule changes were necessary, it did release a statement distinguishing LDR from hyperflexion.

Nosebands: The New Rollkur?

As much as hyperflexion has dominated equestrian welfare conversations, a new concern is emerging as a result of ongoing research. The use of ­nosebands—in particular, tight nosebands—came under International Society for Equitation Science scrutiny in 2012.

Tight nosebands can deny the horse at least four normal oral behaviors, push the insides of the cheeks against the molar teeth, constrict blood vessels, and can be painful, says McGreevy. They can even cause permanent damage to the nasal tissues. What’s more, he says, they prevent horses from opening their mouths, which is one way horses express discomfort.

Yet nosebands are required tack in FEI dressage competitions. Even so, dressage rules state they “may never be as tightly fixed so as to harm the horse.”

The FEI has clear rules about nosebands, says FEI veterinary director Göran Akerström. “We consistently review our rules on tack and saddlery to ensure they are fit for purpose, and new research is factored into that review,” he says. “FEI stewards officiating at FEI events and the Olympic and Paralympic Games check all the saddlery, including nosebands and bits, of every horse competing to ensure that the rules are followed.”

A Public Image to Uphold

The FEI governs horse sport ­internationally—but that doesn’t mean its rules only affect high-level sport horses. “You’ve got every young person going through his or her first eventing competition, and what they’re thinking about is what the high-level athletes are doing,” Allen says. “They’re going to model their behavior after them.”

And the effects of FEI choices aren’t just limited to horse people. The way FEI horses are managed can affect how the entire world views equestrian sports. “Horse sport operates with a social license from the public for horse sport to take place, and you need to build that trust and that transparency with the public to enable that virtual ‘license’ to be approved,” Owers says. “Welfare abuse is a sure way of endangering that license, and if you endanger the license, you endanger the sport.”

Allen agrees. “It’s like when you see blood on a horse,” he says. “What does that mean? In many cases, it’s not harming the horse. But it sure looks bad to the public. So even if it’s just a nick, the horse is there foaming in the mouth, and it looks horrible. Is the welfare of the horse compromised? Probably not. But you still have to make that decision to defend the sport.”

Take-Home Message

FEI horses are among the most pampered animals in the world. Receiving the highest level of veterinary care and attention, high-level sport horses must live up to the FEI image of the “happy athlete.” The FEI oversees these animals’ welfare through a rigorous system of rules, verification, and enforcement. And while it still has to jump through the hoops of committee meetings to ensure fair play for all members worldwide, it keeps close ties with researchers to ensure it’s fulfilling its position as role model for riders of all levels, disciplines, and nationalities.