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Adelaide: the aftermath

The point of the shoulder is deemed through the flags

Social media is part of our world now. It is brilliant for keeping up with sports events wherever they are in the world; it wasn’t long ago when we used to sit ever-hopeful in front of the news bulletins for equestrian coverage, but now everything, everywhere is available from our screens.

However, social media has a negative side. The comments made on social media can be destructive, and hurtful to those targetted. Things can get blown out of proportion. Debate can be far wider-ranging than at the committee meeting.

At NZ Horse & Pony, we were part of the storm that erupted after the cross-country phase of the Australian International Three-day Event, due to the controversial ’50-penalty rule’. Social media was used for finding evidence, for portraying what appeared as clear evidence, and for making a lot of commentary, some of it very unnecessary, about individuals and the interpretation of a new rule.

FEI brought in Rule 549.2 at the beginning of the season and officials have been struggling with it all over the world, but it was brought to a head when it had a significant impact on the four-star class at the Australian International 3DE in Adelaide. There were four combinations affected by it, but it was Stuart Tinney and War Hawk who were particularly put under the worldwide spotlight. In one particular video, taken from behind by Penny Johnson, War Hawk looked as if he hadn’t made it through the flags. The Ground Jury made the decision, after the post-cross-country press conference, that the 50 penalties initially awarded to Stuart would be removed, putting him back into fourth place. Minutes later, they awarded Megan Jones 50 penalties, which meant she dropped well down the placings and Stuart went into third. The next day, Megan’s 50 penalties were taken away.  If you would like to read the full run-down on what happened, you can read our story on this link.

As the Ground Jury debated, so too did the eventing world about the rule, about the people involved, and about what they thought should happen. Some of it was bonkers, some was well reasoned, and some was deleted. We decided to contact some of the people involved directly, and find out their own points of view of the situation.

Stuart Tinney kindly responded to our enquiries via email.

“Firstly, I would prefer not to ‘harp’ on about the past weekend, yes I was vilified not only by social media but by other well-known professional riders, which in itself is very disappointing.

However, you write ‘many’ videos were posted on social media. We saw one, the one you re-posted which was taken by a spectator, which is unfortunate and an unfair view. The ones from the front and side were not posted as they belonged to the event.

War Hawk was ‘judged’ so harshly from THIS BEHIND video which is totally inadmissible in this case. Tinney Eventing posted a photo after consulting with the event. We wanted to make it clear that War Hawk did pass through the flags as per Eventing rule 549.2. This photo was posted after the 50 was taken off.

We also did not protest or appeal, all queries of such fences are looked at by the GJ and their decision was made from what footage and photos had been presented to them by the event. We have viewed the front and side footage owned by the event and have taken the opportunity not to post it in respect of the GJ’s decision and the rule.

With all the experience that I do have in this sport, plus knowing and understanding the rule, I did not hesitate to turn back, we cleared the fence as per the rule – I agree it was messy, I am personally shocked that both myself and War Hawk were given an unfair judgement by social media and some other poor sportsmanship behaviour.

Can I also add, on the flip side to social media, the margin of support from ‘the lovers and appreciators’, their positive and defending comments drowned the negative ones. These supporters delivered empathy for the level of riding and dedication we (Tinney Eventing) have to continually produce world class horses, and what it means to represent your country over the past 25 years – my appreciation for these supporters has my utmost respect.”

Stuart Tinney, War Hawk, at the final trot up at Adelaide

Penny Johnson is an eventing competitor who had travelled to Adelaide to watch and learn. She competed at Adelaide in the two-star in in 2012, finishing in 28th place. This year, she did a lot of videoing of various competitors throughout the course, and was at the water jump for some parts of the four-star.

One of the combinations Penny filmed at the water was Stuart and War Hawk, and she shared her footage openly on her Facebook page with the caption: “Sorry but after watching today unfold, if this doesn’t earn 50 penalties, I don’t know what does!”

The footage has been described as “horrendous” (even by the Ground Jury) as, from Penny’s angle, it looks like the horse hasn’t even attempted the fence, and Stuart continues without re-presenting to that jump.

Penny’s video has been seen by more than 32,000 people so far, has been shared extensively and contributed to a wide debate on social media about the rule. Unfortunately, people also started making comments about the various people involved, including Stuart, the Ground Jury and Penny herself.

This led to Penny posting again: “I never intended my video to become a personal attack against Stuart Tinney or his connections, true to every sport though, the higher the profile of the athlete the more publicity something like this will attract. Whilst my personal opinion of the jump has not changed (yes, I’ve seen Megan’s video) and I know a lot of people are of the same view, including many riders and officials, this is no longer what’s important as the event has finished and the results are final. You can call me a ‘couch judge’ and a ‘bully’ all you like, but to clarify, I was there, witnessed this first-hand, I personally know many of the riders and officials and have some FEI experience both as a competitor and behind the scenes. The argument that the public should not be entitled to question any decisions is very ignorant; bear in mind the ‘public’ consists of volunteers, fans both young and old – all who have a vested interest in the sport – and I believe when something like this occurs, a statement and evidence is a more-than-reasonable requirement. These people are the foundations of eventing and if their voice is not heard, the sport cannot evolve and cannot be considered inclusive and encouraging. I maintain full respect for the ground jury and understand the difficulty of their job.”

Penny told NZ Horse & Pony that she thought Stuart rode really well, and War Hawk is a nice horse. For her, however, this was about the rule, and to promote discussion for change.

“In my opinion it was definitely 50 penalties, and that to me encapsulated what the 50 penalty rule is for. My decision to post it on social media was after the 50 penalties were removed by the Ground Jury, because I felt that they shouldn’t have been. In my honest opinion, I think that they have gone through many frames, from many angles, to find something that looks like it may be a clear.”

While we understand that people who shared the video on their own Facebook pages have been approached by Stuart’s wife Karen, and other Tinney supporters, to take the video down, Penny said she had no such approaches herself, including from the owners of War Hawk. “I saw the Tinneys on Sunday and they didn’t say anything to me then, but I don’t know if they know who I am, to be honest.”

Various media outlets, including us, shared the post on their own social media pages. Eventing Nation was asked to take the post down, but not by the Tinneys. EN decided to comply, but mainly as the comments had got out of control, with lots of ugly name-calling and violations of their social media policy. We in turn had shared Eventing Nation’s post, and while there were a lot of comments, our followers had refrained from being personal. When EN took the post down, it therefore went from our page as well – otherwise we would highlight a few of the well-thought-out comments that were made.

Penny herself received quite a bit of social media heat, with many of the comment-makers attacking her for posting the video, suggesting she was putting the sport in a bad light.

Penny disagrees. “I don’t think that it displays the sport in a negative way. The horse looked fit, strong and happy with its job, but I do feel that it opens a good discussion about that rule and the way it is interpreted by officials, and the way it supports the competition.”

War Hawk has his own Facebook page – obviously run by the owner of the horse. War Hawk the Eventing Horse’s page is full of photos and videos of his various performances and successes. However, it went into attack mode as well in response to Penny’s video.

War Hawk the Eventing Horse Facebook page

“Hi guys, so much controversy and the single video from PJ that started all this and for some reason seems to have gained world-wide fame. Mum will be purchasing other video footage, riders on the ground who saw the footage that the Ground Jury saw apologised to Stuart, and agreed with the decision, there is a still shot clearly showing Stuart and War Hawk are abiding by the rules, but social media is not making a big enough deal about that 🙁 If you were there or find any video from other angles, post them to this page and we’ll get them out there. There are LOTS of different angles to this jump. PJ has done a LOT of damage to the sport and to the event by posting her video and starting this ‘trial by social media’, it was totally inappropriate. She did not have all the facts in hand, or maybe she did but chose to ignore them. We have politely asked her to remove her video, but she has chosen not to.”

There are comments on this post, suggesting it in itself was a form of cyber-bullying, and there definitely seem to be some differences of opinion within the comments on the page.

Penny has seen the post and these comments on War Hawk’s page. “I think that they were definitely very personal comments. I wouldn’t say I am comfortable with what they have said about me; however, I can handle it and I am okay.”

Penny has no regrets about putting up the original video and post. “I don’t feel that I said anything directly personally about anyone, and I don’t feel that I have defamed the sport in any way. I do feel that I have added to discussion that perhaps needed to be had. I feel that if it wasn’t a controversial rule that a lot of people were really passionate about, then it wouldn’t have got the response that it did.”

On the Tinney Eventing Facebook page, there are a few references to the controversy, including sharing the Megan Jones post (as rider’s rep) which explained the Ground Jury’s findings.

“Today we have met with extreme controversy within the social media platform – it is important that we stress to all that Stuart has just been called to the Ground Jury so he could see all the footage of the fence in question, which up to now Stuart had not seen.  We also stress that the reason he was called in was for them to show Stuart why the 50 penalties were taken off. There was no protest – no appeal – just the decision of fairness in line with rule 549.2 in the rules. We have respected their decision which was made by them – as maybe others should, too, at this most amazing four-star event.”

The other four-star riders have kept their distance from the social media debate, which is a very wise decision. They have little control over their supporters, however.

Stuart Tinney, Clarke Johnstone, Megan Jones about to get on the Adelaide podium

What has emerged from this is that there is a strong swelling of opinion that the rule needs to be changed, or at least improved.

Penny would like to see the rule saying “something along the lines of the horse must clearly attempt to jump and that he has to make the action of the jump, so his hind legs have to come up and he has to push off the ground. There should be something said along the lines the hind end follows the front end of the horse in a direct line.”

Corinna Huskinson loves her horse War Hawk a lot – so much that she has even set him up with his own Facebook page and regularly posts photos of his accomplishments. She, too, kindly emailed us about her perspective of the situation.

“As the owner of War Hawk, with a love of eventing, I write from an emotional and personal view.  I was shocked and appalled at the ‘trial by social media’ which Stuart was subjected to. One spectator chose to post one very deceptive clip of the jump from behind. Instead of approaching a rider actually competing in the event, she posted this video to as many eventing and equestrian-related Facebook pages she could think of. This then resulted in an attack on Stuart personally, which was totally unjustified. Many lies also made the rounds. The issue seems to be with the rule: many people do not properly understand it, which in itself has caused problems. The insinuations that came on social media were insulting not only to Stuart, but to the Ground Jury. Stuart is a pinnacle of professionalism in the sport and always shows integrity. He is an incredible rider and athlete, who ultimately rides to represent Australia at international level and that is why we chose Tinney Eventing to partner War Hawk – to increase Australia’s ability on a world stage.

The video shared by that one spectator is SO deceptive, and the comments that are posted, which insinuate the Ground Jury were influenced by the rider in any way, are insulting and damaging to the sport, the riders and the integrity of the event.  Megan Jones, a rider who actually competed at the event, also posted a video, tried to explain, even the Ground Jury have explained, yet still the controversy continues and disparaging comments against Stuart are made.

Due to the truly deceptive angle of the video and the negative publicity, we asked the poster to remove it, or at least amend her comment which accompanies the video. She has chosen not to. Many of Stuart’s supporters have contacted various Facebook pages asking them to take down the video as it misrepresents the truth. As we all know, once something is on the internet it stays, and it will continue to cause controversy when viewed later.  There are many other angles and lots of other vision, including Megan Jones’ explanation. What can be shared has been posted on Tinney Eventing’s page and on War Hawk’s page. The negativity and unjust, ill-informed comments that accompany the ‘shot from behind’ video posted provide a very unbalanced view of the whole event.  We wish the media and so called ‘professional’ eventing and equestrian-related social media pages would present a more balanced view of the whole thing. It’s over. We came 3rd and we are proud of Stuart Tinney and War Hawk and are excited for 2018.”

Heath Ryan, who was at Adelaide as Hazel Shannon’s coach, is never short of a few words and was happy to talk about the event with us.

“It was a good event, there was controversy, that makes for the story, I think Clarke [the winner] was freaking awesome and just needs to be congratulated.”

Heath Ryan

While he believes that in a court of law the Ground Jury would have been proved wrong about their decision to award Hazel and Clifford their 50 penalties, Heath said it doesn’t matter now. “For us, we didn’t perform well enough with or without that penalty. It’s time to move on.”

“That group of riders are top-of-the-range competitors, made for the Olympics, and they are throwing everything they have got to get the best possible result. Sometimes it may be questionable, but it has to be within the rules. It is a war zone.”

Heath was very keen to see the strong support that competitors have for each other continue. He described his own experience of being arch rivals with other riders, but “when the chips are down” everyone will help everyone else.

“I refuse to drag another competitor down for my own advantage. We have to be so good that we can beat these other guys, not try to inflict something on them. I would be very sad if a rift came amongst the riders. For me, this is the biggest danger with this controversy.

“The footage of Stuart is horrendous in terms of attempting the fence; however, he also has that photo which is more than convincing. In the end the right person won, and I think Stuart is the ultimate competitor and professional. I kind of would have expected him to go to the wire on this, and I think he has prevailed and been very clever, but that is what I expect from someone who is on our Olympic team.”

Heath also agrees that the rule needs to be reviewed. “I think the reason it is there is so the teams do not get taken out of the competition. I think that is good. I think we have to keep rules that let the best team win.”

As for how it should be changed, he wasn’t so sure. “I’m not sure that rule needs turfing but it does need clarification. I think the Ground Jury also need to be instructed more clearly on it.”

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

Heath is also concerned about how the whole thing unfolded, and the on-again, off-again situation that developed. He suggested that the evidence may need to be limited. “I thought that all should have been dealt with in the afternoon, straight after the cross-country. The Ground Jury were between walking show jumping courses when they dealt with us, and under huge pressure. It was just inappropriate and I think maybe you have to ask where the evidence is going to come from. Having said that, there is no question that when you get one lot of evidence from one camera angle and another lot from another angle, then you get completely different outcomes. I’m not quite sure what the answer is.”

He suggests that a working party may be needed to look at the rule. If this were to happen, he said riders must be included in it. “They need to come up with a clearer and fairer version of the 50-penalty rule, and also the process through which you can protest.”

He is now back at work, and back helping Hazel to reach her goal of competing at the Tokyo Olympics.

Hazel Shannon, Willingapark Clifford

In conclusion: you can form your own opinion on the rights and wrongs of what happened.  What we do suggest is that people realise the new reality that has been caused by social media. It can’t be controlled by event organisers or Ground Juries, or individuals. The only control is what you choose to post and comment on.  What looks red and white in one picture or video, can be blue and yellow from another angle.

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