Eventing’s rule chaos: enough is enough

Clarke Johnstone won his first four-star event – a joyful occasion (Image: Libby Law Photography)

There was drama aplenty at the 20th Australian Three-Day Event in Adelaide: joy, excitement, disappointment, grief and all the other emotions that accompany any major sporting event.

The sadness and grief were considerable when it was announced that former event director and double Olympic gold medallist Gillian Rolton had died, succumbing to endometrial cancer. She died about the same time as the last four-star horse finished the cross-country course. Gill (61) was a much-loved and admired woman, who was instrumental in making the Adelaide four-star the great event it is today. Flags flew at half-mast on Sunday as a sign of respect.

But Adelaide 2017 will be remembered as a triumph for New Zealand’s Clarke Johnstone and his much-admired Balmoral Sensation; the first four-star win for both of them. We hope it will be the first of many more wins at this level for our new champions.

Let’s also hope that the controversy over the FEI’s Eventing Rule 549.2 will be soon forgotten. The rule, introduced this year, was dubbed the “50-penalty rule” at Adelaide. There were four cases, which kept the Ground Jury working all hours. It also kept many people engrossed in social media for many hours!

Mike Etherington-Smith’s cross-country course was technical. Six of the four-star combinations didn’t finish, and only two horses made the time out of the 21 starters. At the narrow arrowhead in the water, both Ginny Thompson (Star Nouveau) and Stuart Tinney (War Hawk) were given 50 penalties, initially on the basis they didn’t jump between the flags.

Hazel and Willingapark Clifford on their lap of honour during happier times last year. (Image: Libby Law Photography)

Last year’s winners, Hazel Shannon and Willingapark Clifford, were the next to see 50 penalties appear on their score, incurred at the third element of the combination at fence 6. Just as a sideline point, the fence analysis on-line currently has them incurring this at fence 5, but it was definitely at fence 6.

Hazel had taken an innovative approach to the first element, coming in on an angle, which saved considerable time, but did impact on the third element. She took the flag out, but was deemed clear initially. Hazel said that in hindsight, she wouldn’t take that line again.

Hazel Shannon and Willingapark Clifford over fence 7, the one after the fence where she was given 50 penalties. (Image: Jane Thompson)

The rule (see below for the actual wording), means that when a flag is taken out, riders have a choice of either continuing and potentially getting 50 penalties if they were deemed outside the flag, or re-presenting and jumping the fence again, to incur just 20. They are not allowed to ask the fence judge (or anyone else) if they were successfully clear. The rule has caused a lot of issues, including recently here in New Zealand. There have been few cases when riders in doubtful situations have turned around and re-jumped the fence. And there have been many cases when the 50 penalties have been taken off, after the Ground Jury has looked at at photographic or video evidence.

The first to have 50 penalties removed at Adelaide was Ginny, after the Ground Jury ascertained that she and the mighty Star Nouveau (‘Paige’) were definitely within the flags. Evidence was clear, so the Ground Jury was able to deal with that one quickly, with no further debate (that we know of).

Ginny Thompson and Star Nouveau flew around the challenging course (Image: Libby Law Photography)

The other three cases were not so clear-cut; but at this stage of the story, surely we have just two more affected… Stuart and Hazel? No, there was more to come…

After cross-country at large events, there is a press conference for the top three riders. The Adelaide one was delayed for some time, while the Ground Jury reviewed video footage. It eventually proceeded on the premise that the top three – Clarke, Megan Jones (Kirby Park Impress) and Sonja Johnson (Misty Isle Valentino) would still be in front of Stuart and Hazel (if their 50 penalties were taken away).

The three riders arrived, and there was a great press conference; all three are very good communicators. Photos were taken and they departed.

Those of us writing stories were just about finished when it was discovered by one of us that the leaderboard had changed again. Stuart’s 50 penalties were gone… but the real surprise was that Megan had now acquired 50 at fence 26b, a brush corner, which moved Stuart into third and Megan out of contention. Stories were hastily rewritten!

This is one of the two-star riders jumping the narrow brush beside the 4* B element in the water. There is some debate about whether having the “soft” brush is a good thing in cross country fences.

Social media went into overdrive, with many different photo and video posts of Stuart and War Hawk through the water being viewed by thousands, many commenting that the 50 penalties were deserved. Debate raged about whether he should have re-jumped the fence, which would have incurred 20 penalties. There was some talk that Stuart had protested about his 50 penalties, but that wasn’t correct as the Ground Jury made the decision as part of its normal review of any decisions involving this rule. Sadly, as seems to happen on social media, things did get a bit nasty and personal towards both Stuart and the Ground Jury, and also towards the woman who posted one of the more viewed videos.

The Ground Jury was Christian Landolt from Switzerland, Sue Baxter from Great Britain, and Gretchen Butts from the USA. Martin Plewa from Germany was the technical delegate. Christian has been judging at FEI level since 1997, including at the 2008 Olympics, and this is not his first time at Adelaide. Sue Baxter has judged at all other four-star events, and now has the “complete set”, as Adelaide was last on her list. Gretchen Butts has competed at four-star level, but this appears to be her first four-star as Ground Jury. She was chief jump judge for the 1996 Olympics.

The Adelaide Ground Jury of Sue Baxter, Gretchen Butts and Christian Landolt

Martin Plewa is very experienced as a rider, a coach and an official. He was president of the Ground Jury at the 2008 Olympics, and was technical delegate here last year.

Sunday morning saw the Ground Jury busy again after the trot-up (which was not controversial) reviewing more evidence that came forward, including from Megan and Hazel.

Many of the riders had signed a petition asking the Ground Jury to relook at the evidence in Stuart’s case.

The stress and workloads must have been immense for the Ground Jury, and they did make a mistake, which they have taken responsibility for. Between the two-star and three-star classes, the media centre took on another role; it was the venue for hearing a protest by Hazel about her 50 penalties. The media centre had a number of journalists and photographers working away, but when they saw what was happening, keyboards went quiet. The hearing involved the officials as well as Hazel, Heath Ryan (Hazel’s long-time coach), Kathryn Howard (a horse-riding lawyer) and other supporters.

Kathryn Howard (in the blue paisley), Heath Ryan, Hazel in the red at the back

Hazel’s team argued that Clifford did not try to avoid the obstacle – he was fair flying at that point. The Ground Jury agreed the intention of the horse was to jump the fence. There was then considerable debate about how much of the shoulder must pass through the flag. Was it the point of the shoulder, was it the whole shoulder? Was it 100% or “part thereof?” Hazel’s lawyer was very good and made strong points. There was also discussion on whether the note section is part of the rule. One point everyone did agree on was that the rule’s wording needs work.

With working journalists looking on, the Ground Jury deliver their decision that the 50 penalties will remain 

Unfortunately for Hazel, her issues happened at a fence where there were few spectators or photographers, so there is little extra evidence; unlike Stuart, who had his issues at the most popular fence on the course!

Mr Hokey Pokey flew over the fence where Hazel had her issue!

In an interview after the event, the Ground Jury acknowledged that holding the hearing in the media centre shouldn’t have happened. “That was a bit of a cock-up,” said Christian. “We came in here to look at a video. The fact that Hazel and Heath were there suddenly made it all happen. That was totally wrong, and I was well aware when I was talking to them that everyone went quiet. It really shouldn’t have happened. It should have been dealt with differently.”

The final decision was that Hazel’s 50 penalties stayed, and the Ground Jury departed to look at more videos and photos of Megan and Stuart.

Just prior to the three-star show jumping, the on-line four-star leaderboard was again updated, with Megan back in second place, just 3.7 penalties behind Clarke, and Stuart was back to fourth. The start list was finally released just over an hour before the start of the show jumping.

Stuart had two rails down in this, with Sonja taking three, meaning Stuart finished third. Both Megan and Clarke jumped beautiful clear rounds, so the title was Clarke’s, with Megan runner-up. Hazel put all behind her – a credit to the determined and talented young woman – and produced a lovely clear round to finish in 11th place.

The Ground Jury’s press conference after the conclusion of the event was very interesting. Christian did a great job of talking through their decisions and issues. He said the rule was put in for team competitions, and added: “I am a strong believer that it should stand for team competitions but it shouldn’t stand for individual competitions.”

He also said the wording of this rule, and the run-out rule, needs to be clearer. “We want horses to get over the jump, we want the horses to answer the question that is being asked of them, but the way the definition of a run-out is, as we have seen this weekend, a horse can make a half attempt to jump a fence and still be deemed to have jumped it. Whatever happens to the rest of the body seems irrelevant. We strongly believe it needs to be changed and reworded.”

Discussing the evidence that was used for the Ground Jury’s decision on Stuart’s penalties, Christian said there was a lot to see and go through.

“We obviously had lots of video footage – some from the back, some from the sides, that were fairly horrendous – and we all agreed it was an appalling jump. However, we had two sets of footage, one from the front and one from the side which, if you watched at normal speed, you would instantly say he never passed through the flags. When you actually start to slow it down and take it frame by frame, you then start questioning yourself. The front-facing footage – you can see the horse within the flag and drifting to the right. He did jump left to right anyway. You see that as he is actually basically almost over the jump, he is still within the flag, and then pushes the flag sideways.”

However, the crucial photo in Stuart’s case was the one the Ground Jury ended up giving to Stuart and to Megan Jones to show to the other riders, in an effort to quieten the growing concern amongst them. It was taken from the side and shows the point of the shoulder is within the flag. “The moment you can see the flag start to move, is basically beyond that line when the shoulder was already through the flag. It is the rule: head, neck and both shoulders, and therefore on that piece of evidence we had, we had to actually give him clear,” explained Christian.

The point of the shoulder is deemed through the flags

The Ground Jury also explained about the timeframes involved, especially for Megan. “We kept having new stuff being thrown at us, ‘oh, you must look at this’, and ‘you must look at that’.” They thought that they had all the evidence to award Megan the 50 penalties and take Stuart’s 50 penalties off on Saturday night. However, Megan’s pleas on social media uncovered more evidence and she asked to see the Ground Jury on Sunday morning and showed them the still photograph that had been sent to her.

Christian was happy with how this was handled. “Good on her, and I am pleased that she did it, because she went on social media and said, ‘Please, if you have any footage or photograph that can help me, then bring it on.’ We were very pleased to look at it and analyse it.”

After seeing the photograph, which was from a different angle, the Jury removed Megan’s 50 penalties. “Even she admitted that it was a very, very close call but it was so close that ultimately we were happy to remove the 50,” said Christian. “With Stuart, it was also a very, very close call but had we actually said we had given him the 50, he and other people would have come with other evidence and said, ‘Look, I am within the flags’, and he was.”

Christian also confirmed that if someone had come with new evidence, even during the show jumping, the Jury would have had to look at it as well.

As for whether the Jury finds for or against the rider, Christian clarified that “If it is too close to call, one way or another, let’s go with the rider. With Stuart it was a little bit borderline but we have this photograph that is very clear, so we went with that.”

“With Hazel, I would have to say that it was actually a little bit clearer as the head was clearly not within the extremities of the jump, and one shoulder was also on the outside of the line, so it actually was clear, certainly from the angle we had.”

Sue Baxter did find a positive in the whole messy situation. “I think it is good that this has happened, as the FEI will have to make changes.”

Christian confirmed that the Adelaide GJ will be going to the FEI and explaining the number of problems they had. While earlier saying that he thought the rule should stay in for a team event, Christian also said that if it had been a World Championship: “It would have been a nightmare, because you would have had lawyer versus lawyer.”

He went on to say that perhaps the only way of being 100% sure of whether a horse is in or outside a flag would involve lasers and other such precise equipment (video referee hold-ups for football, cricket and rugby sound familiar?).

Megan Jones and Kirby Park Impress during the CCI4* Dressage (Image: Libby Law Photography)

There was also an interesting discussion about what event organisers could do to prevent a repeat of the confused situation that resulted at Adelaide. At Luhmühlen and the European Championships, as well as at many events in the USA, additional fence judges are issued with recording equipment, and film from directly in front of the fence. Christian certainly recommends this to event organisers.

Sue was involved with this technology at the European Championships, but said she had learned that this may not be enough. “With Stuart’s footage, we also needed it from the side, and I didn’t appreciate the importance of that until today.”

Corey Wood and Pick Up Line incurred 50 at this fence in the recent Canterbury horse trials (Image: Jane Thompson)

The role of the riders’ representative is also very important in these situations, but, in this case, the riders’ rep was Megan Jones who was also involved in 50 penalty issues. It is normal procedure for the Ground Jury to communicate with the other riders through the riders’ rep, and this is what happened at Adelaide. The Ground Jury also took the step of issuing a statement to riders to explain the rule and what had been done. “When we heard there was still on-going rumbling, that is when we got Megan in and said, ‘Look at the footage’. We can’t involve everyone, but ultimately the riders’ rep is our connection to the riders,” Christian said. Certainly the petition signed by many of the riders was unusual, and a sign of how high tensions were rising.

“When Megan came and we showed it [the photo of Stuart from the side] to her, we said ‘Please, you have to show this and explain the situation to the riders’. She said, yes, that is clear, she could see for herself. She was very helpful in that matter.”

As for Megan actually being involved herself, Christian saw that as “kind of interesting.” He went on to say that “At the same time, she was exceedingly clear on the word of the rule. She came to contest her 50, so she was exceedingly clear and knew exactly what the rule was. I think a lot of riders don’t know the rules and that is also a big issue. Because she was so clear, to us that was an advantage, as she came, she looked the footage and said, ‘Oh, okay, it is very close but it is clear.’ She knew it. That was a big bonus.”

So, there is a lot to take in, and there has been a lot of talk. Let’s hope the FEI does a lot of work to get the rule clear and fair, and in the spirit of eventing.

And if you haven’t seen one of the many videos that were doing the rounds of social media, here it is.

Eventing rule 549.2 was introduced in 2017 and states:

A horse is considered to have run out if, having been presented at an element or obstacle on the course, it avoids it in such a way that either the head, neck or either shoulder of the horse fails to pass between the extremities of the element or obstacle as flagged. In case the horse has clearly attempted to jump the element or obstacle and may have missed a flag, the athlete can choose:
a) to re-present (accepting automatically 20 penalties) , or
b) to continue on course incurring 50 penalties (no elimination) in case the element or obstacle was not correctly cleared.
Note: a horse will be considered to have cleared the fence when head, neck and both shoulders of the horse pass between the extremities of the element or obstacles as flagged.

Ground Jury and TD looking at An Eventful Life’s video footage while the World Cup show jumping is going on (Paul Higgs)