At a meeting last week in Istanbul, leaders of the Federation Equestre International did what they’re so good at doing: They announced the creation of wrong-headed rule. And they did it in typical FEI style—without warning or thorough input, they wrote it in confusing and unclear way, and they made it unenforceable.
The exact wording of the new rule is: ” The number of series per discipline and per category will be limited in order to have a well structured calendar, to avoid date clashes and to manage athlete horse power properly to protect the welfare of the horse. Athletes and officials will no longer be permitted to participate in both sanctioned and unsanctioned events. If an athlete, horse or an FEI official participates in a non-sanctioned event, such person or horse will be prohibited from participating in any sanctioned events, both international and national, for a period of six months thereafter. An unsanctioned event is an event that is not on the FEI calendar and is not authorised by a National Federation.”
I’m sure they’ve been shocked by the affronted reaction. Yet, despite the outcry, no official statement of clarification has been released yet by the FEI. Several observers have pointed out that even a clarifying statement won’t really fix the rule’s stupidity. The legal fact is that a rule is a rule, and being badly written only allows numerous interpretations and, perhaps, a multitude of unintended results. A rule has to say what it means, not suggest what it means. And if what the FEI really wants to do is to force riders to compete in only their events—well, it could mean a war is on. It could mean many people have some serious decisions to make.
What they’re really after, apparently, is the Global Masters in jumping and the Global Dressage Tour, which have attracted well-heeled sponsors and have fabulous prize money and other attractions. These events are mostly in Europe, but they do come to Florida in the winter (where there are also numerous FEI events). The FEI’s true target does not seem to be the hundreds of schooling shows we have in our country, the competitions where international riders of highest and lowest levels take young horses. These competitions have no prize money (or perhaps a few hundred dollars) and aren’t a threat to the FEI’s events. (At least, they shouldn’t be.)
But the effect could be devastating to some popular but unrecognized competitions. The most significant example I know is the U.S. Eventing Association’s Young Event Horse Series, because about 90 percent of the riders who compete horses in it are FEI-licensed riders. Kim Severson, three-time winner of Rolex Kentucky, is on the cover of the new USEA magazine winning the East Coast Championship. The FEI’s rule, if taken and enforced literally, would destroy the Young Event Horse Series.
Cleverly (they think), the FEI is cloaking this rule under the guise of the “welfare of the horse,” a theory that’s hard to oppose. It’s the same guise they used for changing eventing from the classic format to the short format eight years ago. The cloak worked then.
FEI officials are claiming that their goal is to keep riders from over-competing their horses—a worthy goal, sure. But there isn’t strong evidence that this is a widespread problem. Besides, how many times a horse competes in a year depends on the horse. Some need to—and like to—compete often. Others cannot and do not.
What shows that “welfare of the horse” isn’t really the goal is that the rule limits on how often the rider can compete too. Who cares how many times a rider goes into a ring? The FEI’s mission is not to protect riders from physical or checkbook fatigue. Plus, if you’ve got a string of horses, they have to compete somewhere. You simply can’t run every horse in the same competition. Are they next going to try to limit how many horses a rider can have in his or her barn? This part of the rule shows that their real goal is to keep riders from competing in non-FEI events. (And officials too!)
Instead of writing a rule to keep people out, the FEI’s leaders should look at what leaders of other sports have done when they’ve been challenged by other competitions or other leagues. History shows that it doesn’t work to legislate against the challenger or to try to prevent athletes from playing elsewhere. What works best is to re-evaluate your own program, which has often become stale, complacent or boring. (I think “complacent” is an excellent adjective to describe the FEI!) Ask yourself, “Why are our athletes and fans going there? Why and how are the other guys attracting sponsors to pay for it? What could we do better?” And then you do what your challenger is doing, only better.
That’s how NFL fended off the World Football League about 25 years ago and how 25 years before that they basically forced the American Football Conference to merge with them. About 30 years ago the upstart American Basketball Association was wooing the biggest stars from the established National Basketball Association, with teams in new cities, lucrative contracts, some new rules that made the game more exciting (like the three-point shot). Basically, the NBA changed their game and co-opted the ABA’s teams.
A similar thing happened in U.S. show jumping in the ‘80s. The American Grandprix Association had grown complacent by its success, and it wouldn’t accept more shows. So Charles Ziff, who had a series of shows the AGA wouldn’t accept, made his own U.S. Grand Prix League. It was a success, with prize money that rivaled the AGA’s for a few years, but, like the NBA, AGA leaders saw things in a new way and started doing what the USGPL was doing even better. In a few years, the USGPL was gone.
What the FEI’s leaders should do is to honestly analyze what the rival show jumping and dressage tours are doing that’s making them so attractive to riders, sponsors and fans—and then fix their own game.
And they should finally learn how to make rules that are inclusive and not exclusive, plus learn how to communicate with their athletes and fans.
In the meantime, as an FEI-licensed rider in eventing, I’m going to ignore this stupid rule as it’s currently written. The unrecognized shows I do (including the Young Event Horse Series) shouldn’t be the FEI’s concern, and they’re an absolutely mandatory part of how I, and scores of my fellow riders, develop horses whom we hope will be able to someday compete in FEI competitions.