Social media opens so many doors for our sport. Most of them good. It brings more opportunities for funding and sponsorship support and gives us a chance to showcase the incredibly talented equine and human athletes we have in the sport locally and internationally. What it also brings is a bigger responsibility to uphold horse welfare because the sport is, more than ever before, under a microscope that now belongs to the wider community, not just those within the sport.
For those of you who haven’t seen footage of the abovementioned incident you can find a link below to footage of the final part of his Badminton cross-country ride on one of his horses for reference. His other ride was allegedly treated in the same way with regards to the use of whip and spurs on a tired horse.
Here are some key facts regarding the rules that govern our sport…
- riding an exhausted horse;
- excessive pressing of a tired horse;
- excessive use of whip, bit and/or spurs.
Similarly, the FEI Rules for Eventing state that the Technical Delegate may warn or stop an athlete on cross country course for:
- dangerous riding;
- riding an exhausted horse;
- excessive pressing of a tired horse or;
- excessive use of whip and/or spurs.
The rules go on to define the above actions as abuseand recommends that the Ground Jury, if they didn’t directly witness the action, should be alerted so they can act on the case (FEI Rules for Eventing Art 526.1).
Regarding the use of the whip the rules state that the whip is:
- not to be used after the horse has jumped the last fence on a course (FEI Rules for EventingArt 526.3.3c)and
- not to be used more than three times for any incident (FEI Rules for Eventing Art 526.3.6f).
In the rulebook at least, the FEI has a fairly clear stance on over use of the whip and pressing of a tired horse. It’s just as well because not only is it a welfare issue, it is a safety issue.
In the short piece of footage available of the final 8 or so jumping efforts of Oliver Townend riding Ballaghmor Class he appears to consciously hit the horse twice each time, followed by a third and sometimes fourth hit after a stride or two. After the final fence it is unclear whether he makes contact with the horse or just waves the whip around near the horse’s neck and flank but either way that doesn’t seem an ideal image for the sport. As a repeat offender - having had warnings for finishing on a very tired horse (2008), dangerous riding (2014), abuse of horse/use of whip and spurs (2014) and abuse of horse/inappropriate use of whip (2017) - we can presume that he is well versed on the wording of the rules regarding use of the whip.
Whether Oliver Townend can be accused of over-use of the whip as per the rules or not, he was definitely pressing a tired horse, if not riding an exhausted one and in my mind that constitutes not only abuse but also dangerous riding. He should have pulled up when his horse was tiring, and failing that he should have been pulled up on course by one of the many officials at the big shows who are there to:
- help athletes and all involved with reasonable training and to respect the rules,
- protect the welfare of the horse,
- ensure fair play,
- support the organising committee in the successful running of the event.
From a list of over a dozen qualified people officiating over the 2018 Badminton Horse Trials it is frightening that not one of them seemed to step in and advocate for the horse in this case.
On Oliver’s part it was a massive error of judgement fuelled at least in part by the chance of a grand slam win (a prize of US$350,000 to a rider who wins the CCI**** at Kentucky, Badminton and Burghley consecutively). That’s a lot of money at stake, sure, and I am by no means excusing him for his behaviour or his character (see image below of a quote from one of his post Badminton interviews) - but isn’t that the role of officials? To help riders make good choices when the spirit of competition may (regrettably) affect good judgement? It seems that while the FEI has some very good guidelines on the subject, officials in the sport still don’t have a clear understanding of what constitutes good horse welfare.
In this case, Oliver may well have found himself subjected to far greater punishment than a yellow card or elimination from the competition thanks to the controversial discussions regarding his actions in the weeks following the event. He lost the grand slam and lost a sponsor or two following his actions as well as being subjected to much scrutiny on various forms of social media. Some warranted, some perhaps a little over the top. You watch the footage and make your own judgement.
What is disappointing to see within our sport is riders that commented on the video saying those who haven’t ridden 4* can’t comment as they are just “armchair critics”. A claim which makes as much sense as suggesting that only international cricketers can talk about ball tampering. It’s just ludicrous. If it walks like a duck and quacks like a duck it’s a duck. That was cheating and this is abuse.
Oliver's later apologies for his ugly riding fail to convince many people about his character given his immediate response at the event. It wasn't just one horse - he treated both his rides in the same manner and showed a complete lack of empathy during follow up interviews. Let's hope the young riders watching are equally horrified and don't use him as an example of how it should be done.