What a season the 2023 one has been so far – in many respects, it feels like it’s scarcely started here in England; in others, I feel as though I’ve been on the road for months. With several long-haul flights, two five-stars, and a handful of short-formats behind me so far, I suppose I have.
In any case, it turns out that, no matter how many seasons I do this job, I continue to walk away from the big ones with a million thoughts and ideas zooming around my head — for better or for worse, where my energy levels are concerned. And so this will be the first in a short series of faintly chaotic collections of musings spanning the last few weeks of top-level sport: its highs, its lows, its controversies, and what it might all mean for the future. First up: some thoughts in the aftermath of Badminton, where our 2018 World Champion Ros Canter took her first five-star title, the rain came down hard, and we all waded into the quagmire of public opinion – a quagmire we’ve not yet come out of.
There’s no time like the present
When the going gets tough, the first thing that needs to go by the wayside is the idea of chasing the clock — and that was a widespread notion at Badminton, where several riders, including Harry Meade, opted to turn or take it off entirely before heading out on course, giving them one less distraction as they worked on feeling the horse beneath them. Those who did opt to ride with one largely did it just as a tool to track how long they’d been galloping — or, in the case of Francis Whittington, “to give me a bit of motivation — hearing the beep every minute just reminded me to keep going, and keep thinking forward.”
(As an aside, Francis’s cross-country round at Badminton was one of those moments where I love nothing better than to be proven wrong: of all the horses in the field who might have found themselves in Badminton’s tough conditions, his DHI Purple Rain certainly wasn’t one I’d have put forward. The extravagant gelding has huge, round movement — almost, at times, more akin to a carriage horse than a blood event horse — and I would have expected that that would get in his way, and cause him to lose energy more quickly than a more economical type. But this, DHI Purple Rain’s third five-star, was arguably his most impressive: he came home clear with 42.8 time penalties and looked better and better as he went. This, Francis explained, came down to a thorough rethink of the gelding’s fitness programme after retiring at Burghley last year: “There, he hit the door and didn’t know how to open it — now, he’s been given the tools to open it and continue through it,” he explains, citing long, steady gallops with sprints at the end, which work the horse mentally as well as physically, as being the key.)
Time and time again, we saw riders slow down, check in with their horses, and make decisions that often sacrificed a potential leaderboard gain in favour of a sympathetic ride. The tough conditions on the cross country course meant that weariness was almost always something that we, as spectators in the media mixed zone, could see from its onset, and how riders chose to deal with that was insightful. Lithuania’s Aistis Vitkauskas, mounted on one of my favourite cross country competitors in Commander VG, felt his game and experienced horse begin to tire, thought about making the call to retire, and then opted to take each fence as it came and let his horse tell him when, and if, he was done – but as each fence appeared, the gelding pricked his ears, lifted his head, took the bit between his teeth, and sailed over it. The pair came home with a serious amount of time penalties, but Aistis’s willingness to immediately steady the pace and give his horse the chance to enjoy his job was heartening.
In a different vein, several people may have wondered why Caroline Powell decided to keep going after a couple of issues on course with the young talent Greenacres Special Cavalier, who had proved her chops with a placing in her five-star debut at Pau last year. But after those green wobbles, ‘Cavvy’ soon settled into a rhythm, began jumping much better, and very visibly learned as she went around. When Caroline came back to the mixed zone afterwards, her explanation was simple: she could have pulled the mare up and saved her for another day, because there was no chance to take home a placing now, but, she said, there was still value to be found in continuing on as long as the mare was happy to. By doing so, she would get the chance to learn the horse’s staying power over a very different course to Pau, and she’d learn, too, how she’d jump the day after a tough test like the one presented at Badminton. For a horse who’s been considered a Paris prospect since her Le Lion days, this is crucial intel: at ten minutes, and built at four-star dimensions and technicality, the Olympic challenge has nothing on Badminton, but knowing that a horse can handle considerably more is seriously useful for a competitor who will, some day soon, likely need to plumb the depths of her horses’s competitive zeal.
On the flip side, there were the riders who made the equally wise call to put their hands up. I often say there’s one undeniable truth in eventing, and that’s that nobody ever regrets withdrawing or retiring — and that, I’m confident, is absolutely true even for those riders who saw the door open for them to climb up the leaderboard on such a tough day of sport. At the forefront of that has to be Richard Jones, who is such a consummate cross-country phenom with his Alfies Clover that we all shut up and crowded around the screens in the mixed zone to see just how high they’d get on the leaderboard. It was a shock, and a touch deflating at first, to see him retire — but equally, it was absolutely the right call when he felt his horse just start to tire, and that level of horsemanship is more admirable even than a placing at Badminton. Likewise, I could have kissed Emily King for her decision-making: she and Valmy Biats were enjoying a barnstorming round up until the Lake, which they popped neatly into – and then, inexplicably to us all at the time, she aimed the gelding right past the corner in the water, calmly put her hand in the air, and pulled him up. For the next 24 hours, all of us were asking one another, ‘have you spoken to Emily?’ and ‘does anyone know what happened there?’, because they’d looked so fluid on course and there wasn’t a visible hint of tiredness to be seen. But when Emily finally emerged and cheerfully explained that she’d felt him get a bit tired and decided not to push him, she truly earned her brownie points: the mark of a great rider is one who listens to their horse first and foremost. That she’d been able to feel Valmy’s limit approaching well before anyone could see it, even through the red mist of competitive zeal, is something we should all be aspiring to. I promise not to kiss anyone who does that, if that’s any incentive.
Could the FEI’s sanction system benefit from increased clarity?
Once again, we’ve sadly seen a great victory slightly overshadowed by drama surrounding another competitor, and whichever side of the pro- or anti-Townend debate you fall on in this instance, I think we’re all pretty well united in agreeing that it’s a great shame when eventing hits the mainstream because it’s being torn to shreds by a skeptical public.
But here’s the thing about eventing: no matter how much we love it, it really does just boil down to consumer entertainment. If the entire concept of eventing were to disappear overnight, there’s a relatively tiny swathe of people who’d be very sad about it, and an even smaller swathe who’d need to find new jobs, but the world at large wouldn’t change in any fundamental way, as it would if, say, the entire concept of brain surgery disappeared overnight. Being a professional event rider is very hard work, I certainly won’t dispute that – but it’s also an inessential role, which makes it a privilege, and one in which ego must be shelved, because ultimately, it’s not about the event rider. It’s about the audience. The world doesn’t need event riders, in the very same way that the world doesn’t need eventing journalists; as a result, even when I’m exhausted from working back-to-back five-stars an endless eighteen hour days, I sometimes need to pull myself out of what I’m doing for a second, give myself a shake, and thing, ‘is what I’m creating here actually serving the audience? Or am I phoning this in?’ The second I spot myself capitulating to my own ego — giving my audience less than what they deserve so I can go to the riders’ party, or to sleep, early, for example — I know I’m abusing the privilege of being in a role that doesn’t need to exist, even if it’s often a tough job. Likewise, the second a rider appears to consider themselves beyond the scope of the social license conversation, and looks puts their own desire to win or finish above serving the optics of the sport, even if that’s not necessarily the case behind the scenes, it will all begin to fall apart, because it is all inessential without audience approval. It’s that simple.
We all know, at this point, that horse riding generally, and eventing especially, aren’t viewed favourably by the general public. We are all sick of the social licence conversation, which feels like it comes up at least once a week — and roughly once per day, if you work in equestrian media. It’s an exhausting, constant reminder that eventing is still dithering at the dangerous crossroads it was at long before I ever made the move from grooming to writing. We are on our last lifeline; we don’t know if we’ll continue on as an Olympic sport past the next couple of cycles; though we know differently, to the average person, what we do probably looks roughly as senseless as, say, horse diving once did. You don’t see horse diving anymore, and that’s no bad thing — but there’s not an awful lot to stop us going the same route.
This means, though, that every single move we make as a singular unit has to be decisive. There is no wiggle room anymore when it comes to wishy-washiness on welfare. And subsequently, there needs to be total clarity on what constitutes a breach of horse welfare standards – and how that’s dealt with.
There was an interesting piece in The Irish Field this week, penned by writer Christa Dillon, which pointed out the worrying discrepancies in the number of sanctions handed out by discipline. Every discipline governed by FEI rules has a yellow carding process in place (except endurance, which… feels like another op-ed for another day, frankly), but looking at the ‘Big Three’, dressage got away most lightly: between early May 2022 and early May 2023, when the last update was made, dressage saw just three yellow cards handed to riders, and none for abuse of horse infractions. (And yes, I am very aware of dressage’s own issues.) Showjumping saw 38 yellow cards over the same period. Eventing saw 71. 55 of those were for abuse of horse infractions, which can include pressing a tired horse, overuse of the whip, visible blood, and so on.
There is often some amount of nuance to the situations in which a yellow card is handed out, but it’s important to note that whether a rider is handed a yellow card or a Recorded Warning, they all get the right to speak to the ground jury prior to the awarding of the sanction. In every case, riders can explain the circumstances from their perspective. There is a chance to fight the good fight if, as a rider, you feel your actions and intentions have been misunderstood. Often, though, receiving a sanction simply comes down to being, quite probably, a good horseman who made a slightly suboptimal decision.
One of the key issues, though, is the transparency of the sanctions process, which seems lenient at best – two Yellow Cards within 12 months leads to a two-month ban; three Recorded Warnings within 24 months will yield the same punishment – and lacks clarity to outsiders as to why an offence might earn one and not the other. ‘Pressing a tired horse’ can be a Recorded Warning offence, or it can be a Yellow Card offence, for example, but the threshold appears to be subjective and the information about how to differentiate isn’t made public. (And what to make of those verbal warnings, visible in the sanctions list, often citing an abuse of horse issue, but without any clarity on why they’re considered less severe?) Though there is, no doubt, plenty going on behind the scenes, I suspect it may be time to make these inner workings clearer to the public, if only to show that horse welfare is taken seriously in our sport.
I’ll be the first to admit that racing isn’t my field of expertise at all, and much of the limited knowledge I possess on its intricacies comes from being friends with several very good journalists who spend a lot of time in that world. What I do know, though, is that its disciplinary structures are much more robust than ours, and handled with an extraordinary amount of clarity. I’ve spent quite a bit of time this week diving into recent sanctions and appeals, which are all laid out clearly on the British Horseracing Authority website. And when I say laid out clearly, I mean it: every moment of the ride is analysed, every position on either side of the argument is presented with no shortage of detail, and even a horse racing illiterate like me can make sense of the situation at hand. There’s a surprising amount of human touch to the whole thing, too: when one young jockey was charged with overuse of the whip, after a lengthy examination of the circumstances, the Board made a point of clarifying that they saw no evidence that the overuse was performed maliciously, but rather as a result of overenthusiasm and inexperience. A punishment was still delivered in accordance with the misdemeanour, but that punishment also focused on education: the young jockey was made to serve one day of his suspension in a training course, and his reputation will have been preserved by the powers that be. It’s all done with a deft and educated touch, and more importantly, it’s easy to understand. Even a layperson can see that actions come with clear consequences. For a sport that’s living on the edge as ours is, this seems like a necessity.
I know what the counterarguments will be: eventing is already deemed expensive and impractical to our own powers that be, and adding in processes like this would cost manpower and money that we, an industry with considerably less fiscal capital than racing, simply do not possess. I understand that. But I wonder if we’re also now at the point where we have to stop making excuses and simply find a way to do it properly, or lose the sport altogether. I wonder if we’re finally at the point where we have no choice but to stop bickering and get it done.
For example, let’s take a look at the whip rule, and how contraventions of it are dealt with in British racing under rules:
- The whip can be used a maximum of six times in a Flat race or seven times in a Jump race. Any more than this will prompt the stewards to review the ride
- As well as the number of times the whip is used, The Whip Review Committee will look at the force with which it is used, whether it was used from above shoulder height, whether the horse has been given time to respond, the purpose for which the whip was used, whether the horse was in contention or clearly winning at the time it was used, and whether the whip has been used in the correct place (i.e. on the horse’s hindquarter rather than flanks)
- Any rider found to have contravened the rules or guidance will face a period of suspension, and any rider picking up third suspension in a six-month period will be referred to the Judicial Panel for penalty
- Should the whip be used four times or more above the permitted level, the horse and rider will be disqualified from the race
Suspensions work differently in racing than in eventing: jockeys and trainers will have races in their diary with a far greater frequency than eventers have events, and each race represents a much more significant earning potential than what we’d see in eventing. There’s no doubt that a two-month suspension for an event rider with repeat offences would have a hefty impact: in those two months they’d lose plenty of chances to secure MERs, particularly in a season plagued by cancellations, and may even lose owners, who don’t want to see their precious charges sidelined for a quarter of the season. It’s harsh stuff, but then, it needs to be: a rider who’s keen to keep their business on track will toe the party line for that reason, even if all others seem to be of secondary concern. In the midst of the busy bit of the season, a two-week ban could also be impactful – and perhaps it’s time that we see those brought into effect for abuse of horse sanctions. I doubt I’ll make many friends by saying it, but we’re in No Man’s Land now, and if we don’t make some tough decisions, I fear for the future of our sport.
We deserve better than ‘#bekind’
I suspect I may have already lost a few readers with my crosshead, but hear me out. Social media can be both a blessing (it facilitates communication; it allows for free access to information and inspiration and all sorts of nice things; it lets us promote great stories and, we hope, get more people hooked on our world) and a curse (people can be really fucking mean. Also, there are child influencers telling other children that they need expensive stuff in order to be happy. Very dark! Very weird! Let’s turn it all off and go live in caves). The immediacy of social media means that people’s successes and their mistakes alike can be disseminated around the world in milliseconds, and the relative anonymity of it means that most people feel able to chip in on any given discussion with no holds barred emotional responses. A lot of the time, this stuff is just plain nasty — whenever there’s a young woman competing at a five-star, you can guarantee there’s a TikTok account somewhere dedicated solely to shredding her to pieces in real time, which is generally tantamount to schoolyard jealousy but can do real damage to a young person simply trying to focus under pressure. But oftentimes, we see a vocal response to a very real misjudgment on the part of an individual in the public eye that’s not wholly unjustified — it just requires more nuance.
Nuance is where the internet can fall short and — forgive me — where the horse world really tends to suffer. We often see big issues debated online as binaries: for example, when Mark Todd got into a spot of bother for using a branch to coerce a clinician’s horse into water, social media split like the Red Sea into two camps. You were either on Toddy’s side, and argued that he was the greatest horseman of our generation and absolutely justified in his actions, or you were convinced that he was the devil incarnate and surely doing much worse behind the scenes. Much rarer was the middle-ground, less emotionally charged, and arguably much more reasonable response: that Toddy is, indeed, a very, very good horseman, but one who, in this case, made an error of judgment. The thing with errors of judgment made by public figures is that even if they’re made without malice, they still have consequences. I worry we’ve entered an age of the Internet in which accountability is being summarily binned.
Looking outside the horse world, when Love Island graduate and influencer Molly-Mae Hague took on a tokenistic ‘Creative Director’ role at fast-fashion brand Pretty Little Thing, she quickly got herself in hot water when discussing the role on the Diary of a CEO podcast. There, she spoke about how she’d “worked her ass off” to get to where she was – despite not having the relevant experience or qualifications ordinarily required for a Creative Director role. Her assertion that ‘everyone has the same 24 hours in a day went like this:
“When I’ve spoken about that in the past, I have been slammed a little bit, with people saying, ‘It’s easy for you to say that, you’ve not grown in poverty, you’ve not grown up with major money struggles, so for you to sit there and say that we all have the same 24 hours in a day, it’s not correct. And I’m like, but technically what I’m saying is correct. We do. So I understand that we all have different backgrounds and we’re all raised in different ways and we do have different financial situations, but I do think if you want something enough, you can achieve it.”
Molly Mae, who grew up in relative wealth, probably didn’t mean to come across as completely tone-deaf. She probably didn’t even consider the unique hurdles that people in very low income households, who may have non-traditional dependents, or those with disabilities, for example, may face, and so I’m sure she wasn’t intentionally speaking down to them. She may not even have been aware of Pretty Little Thing’s habit of paying its garment makers a disgustingly low £3.50 an hour, making it one of the least ethical fashion companies around. But as a grown woman in her twenties, it was her responsibility to do her own research, and to think about what she said – and when she misspoke so publicly, it was absolutely right that she was held accountable for her error. The aftermath of the incident brought to light a lot of information about fast fashion houses that had been swept under the carpet for a long time, which had the knock-on effect of increasing the public’s ire about mistreatment in garment factories, which also springboarded high-profile boycotts of fast fashion — in short, all things that may actually have a long term positive impact on the industry and the individuals exploited by it. Plenty of people took to social media to try to silence the criticisms, citing the 2020 suicide of TV presenter Caroline Flack and urging people to ‘#bekind’. In the end, Molly Mae took some time and some PR guidance and released an apologetic statement, and is ultimately still absolutely fine, still working with Pretty Little Thing, and still very, very rich. She will, I hope, have learned something; maybe, one day, she’ll use her considerable platform to campaign for improved conditions and wages for the people she profits from. Even if she doesn’t, what they’re up against gained some much-needed public exposure from the whole thing.
My point? If, the very second public opinion turns against someone who’s made a mistake, we allow all criticism to be silenced while we make actually insane comparisons to the tragic death of a totally unrelated person, we do a few things: first of all, we completely negate the importance of accountability. People in the public eye are very much aware that they’re in the public eye. Being in that exalted position comes with responsibilities. In the case of our sport, those responsibilities focus largely on treating horses well. Anything outside of that is an issue. Secondly, the use of ‘#bekind’, and the casual implication of suicide risk, is actually reductive and harmful for those who genuinely are suffering from mental health issues. People very rarely commit suicide because someone has been unkind about them on Facebook. People who commit suicide generally do so because they are also suffering from a longer-term mental health problem that triggers suicidal ideation. I speak, in part, anecdotally: I have suffered from depression for twenty years, which has often manifested itself, quite inconveniently, as suicidal ideation. Getting help for this is extraordinarily, monstrously difficult. It is made all the more difficult as a result of the flippancy with which many people view mental health problems, and the fatigue that people can experience towards genuine mental health problems because of the boy-who-cried-wolf effect of so many people using vague insinuations of mental health as a weapon against criticism in this way. I saw somebody trawling through Townend-critical Facebook threads in the days after Badminton, and no matter what they were replying to, their comment was almost exactly the same: “if you criticise Oliver,” she wrote, “don’t you dare ever claim to support Riders Minds or #bekind.” The notion that being critical of a public-facing person’s wrongdoing equates with being against mental health initiatives — Riders Minds is an excellent mental health charity that had an on-site presence in the stables at Badminton this year — is absolutely baffling to me. Again, we’re lacking nuance here: you can be kind and also be critical. You can understand that every single human being on earth is a complex and multifaceted and difficult and confusing and probably deeply odd collection of contradictory thoughts and feelings and experiences and actions. You can call out the bullshit without being told you’re going to trigger a suicide, and you can also speak up about things you think are wrong without, say, doxing someone. We are capable of this! I believe in us! All of us — including the ones making those occasional mistakes — deserve something smarter than ‘#bekind’. We all deserve — and need — nuance.
Let me be clear: in no way am I advocating for some kind of social media free-for-all. Of course we should all be more conscious of the human beings on the receiving end of what we write online. We absolutely must be better, and, yes, kinder and more thoughtful — but in doing so, we cannot lose the skill of critical thinking. And when we reduce the complexities of the human experience to an epithet like ‘#bekind’, it becomes meaningless. Worse still, it becomes weaponised; it’s the swiftest silencer of meaningful discourse, because it immediately paints the person on the flip side of the debate as someone who simply doesn’t care whether the object of their criticism is wounded. It implies that the worst can happen to that object of criticism and the person will be unruffled. That’s so seldom the case, and such an unfair and lazy way of ending a conversation. We don’t make anyone kinder that way — we just make everyone slightly less proficient at communicating, bit by bit. But looking at eventing specifically, we no longer have the wiggle room to be able to avoid hard conversations. It’s time to grow a backbone.
While we’re at it, let’s put the notion that it’s dangerous to be openly critical of ‘one of our own’ to bed. I’ve seen a few people arguing that we’re only drawing outside attention to the negative within our sport if we continue to post about it; this, I think, is patently untrue. The answer to fixing the social license issue isn’t to hide instances of horse welfare contraventions from the outside world, it’s to minimise their occurrences. We need to clean house, and it’s only those of us who are already in the sport that can do so in a way that allows us to blossom and grow — or, at least, to survive a little while longer.
It’s MIMs o’clock: let’s adjust accordingly
One of the biggest topics of conversation going into cross-country day at Badminton — bigger, even, than the weather, if you can believe it — was the set of MIMclips used on the timber rails going into the lake. The direct route saw horses and riders land directly in the water; the very slightly longer route gave them a dry landing that immediately set them forth into the lake. William Fox-Pitt, always an outspoken advocate for positive change for riders, was vocal in his dislike of this fence, pointing out that well-trained cross-country horses will use the drag of their hind legs to rejig their balance as they jump fences like this, which could result in the safety devices being triggered, either unfairly penalising horses and riders who’d done the right thing or encouraging the wrong kind of ride into the fence. Course designer Eric Winter, on the other hand, presented the compelling argument that our sport must go in the direction of safety in order to survive; that when there had been a large log fence into the lake previously, many riders had simply gunned around the corner and scrambled over it, some turning themselves over in the process.
Who was right, and who was wrong? Both, and neither, I suspect. There’s never been a quick-fix answer to the issue of eventing in safety, nor to the issue of public perception — if there was, we’d have used it. I’ve seldom found myself sitting on the fence on anything; ordinarily, even if it takes hours of private reflection, lots of research, and plenty of opinions canvassed on either side of a debate, I’ll come to a firm conclusion and feel quite ready to argue it any given point. But on this, I was — and remain — torn. Eric’s right: nobody wants to see horses on the floor (except, perhaps, whoever it is who keeps making those ‘Best falls and refusals’ YouTube compilations after every five-star). Nobody wants Badminton to make it to the mainstream media because of an avoidable accident. He’s also right that as a course designer, his role goes beyond creating an exciting competition — it helps to define how riders train at home, and if he was sick of watching them career into a log fence into water and wanted to encourage a more considered approach, he certainly used his influence as intended there. But William is also right: while there are some cross-country fences that can be ‘showjumped’, we have also always seen how horses used their stifles to slow their trajectory. It is, after all, why we grease the hind legs. Is it fair to punish that?
As it turned out, we didn’t get to see many tackle that route, either because they didn’t get that far, or because they followed William’s lead and avoided the straight route. But we did get to see a small handful, and actually, it largely didn’t cause issues. The first rider to go straight was Dan Jocelyn with Cooley One To Many, who did trigger the MIMS clips after the horse looked to back off on the approach. As a result, he took off from a deep spot, leant on the rails, and was, arguably, saved from a fall. The next to go straight was Pippa Funnell with Majas Hope, who had thought about taking the long route here but ultimately decided that “if I can’t do it on him, I’ve got no chance!” Though she gave the rails a tap behind, there was no doubt they’d stay up. Austin O’Connor, who delivered the fastest round of the day with Colorado Blue, was another to go straight and clear — a note in my phone simply marks his route here as ‘textbook’ — while winners Ros Canter and Lordships Graffalo went long.
It’s a small sample pool to pull from, and ultimately, my view on safety devices remains the same as it ever was: we need them, if we want to survive — both as a sport and, unfortunately, quite literally on some occasions. We have to be seen to be doing everything we can to look after the people and the horses within the sport, and particularly the horses from a public perspective, because they cannot speak for themselves or make the decision about whether or not they pursue eventing as their career of choice. But all good decisions must come with a robust and reasonable action plan, lest we end up seeing pins and clips become the most influential part of our sport. Until the beginning of 2020, safety device penalties could be appealed: if a rider could argue, using the official footage as support, that their horse wouldn’t have fallen, they could see those penalties removed. The loss of the appeals process was felt most keenly at Tokyo in 2021, when Michael Jung was one of many riders to hit the corner at 14B. Footage shared on social media showed that the safety device didn’t activate until horse and rider were several strides away from the fence on departure, and the penalties added there cost them a gold medal — but by that point, that removal of the appeals process was well and truly embedded.
Look, I’m a realistic person, and I understand why the appeals were taken away in the first place: they require extra man power and man hours, and that’s something that costs both money (limited, at best, behind the scenes at most events) and experience (again, limited — we have relatively few people who are qualified to act as officials at the top levels). Appeals generally have to happen at the end of the day, which can delay the release of results, making the experience more confusing for spectators, as there may not be a clear winner until late in the evening. The appeals process will also always be at least a little bit subjective. And so it’s imperfect, but perhaps it’s better — if we could find the resources to appoint a small committee of people whose only role on cross-country day was to immediately review appeals ‘in-play’, so to speak, we might be able to hasten the process, and ensure that if another, more immediate and urgent incident, is keeping the rest of the team of officials busy, that progress can continue on in some respect. That, too, might avoid issues such as last year at Badminton, when Oliver Townend and Swallow Springs were held at length, allowed to continue, retroactively eliminated, and then reinstated into the competition. My argument for bringing this in isn’t necessarily because eventing will become less exciting for viewers if pins and clips begin to rule cross-country day — I’d argue that sitting lakeside with a Pimms in hand, placing bets over whether someone would go straight or not, or take the pin or not, is just as exciting as anything else, and much more fun than watching a horse go down — but because I can’t help but fear that younger competitors, who are raised to fear the penalty punishment of a knocked pin, will get in the habit of showjumping even the solid fences that aren’t pinned. That, to me, is a gateway to riding defensively and a little bit backwards; that, to me, is an even bigger risk to wellbeing.
What goes up must come down: there are different ways to be a hero
Without making this all about me (she says, while knees-deep in an opinion piece), in doing the job I do, you get to know a lot of people quite well. Back in 2018, I met Tom Crisp, his wife Sophie, and their brilliant, bonkers family when they offered a lift down to Pau for my close friend and US rider Hallie Coon for her first five-star. We all bundled in to one lorry together, with two horses and too many people to count, and had one of the best weeks of my life, hands down. That week, Tom and the excellent Liberty and Glory finished in the top ten, marking Tom’s first time at the business end of the leaderboard at five-star, and over the following years, the Crisps dealt with niggling injuries, balancing family and eventing, and, of course, that pesky pandemic, to which the homebred ‘Lori’ lost some of her best years. All this is to say that every time they leave the start box now, I jump every fence with them, because I know how much has gone into getting there, and how much it means to every person in that family — and how much they all deserve it. On Badminton’s tough cross-country day, I thought for sure that Tom and Lori would be one of the heroes of the day, climbing and climbing after dressage to crack the top ten, as they had at Burghley last year. And boy, did they look like they were going to: up until the Lake, they were delivering one of the rounds of the day, which tiny Lori skimming over the top of the heavy going, pinging her way through all the toughest questions, and looking every inch the kind of five-star horse we all dream of sitting on. (For what it’s worth, I have sat on her, and she hated every minute of it.)
But then it all unravelled in the blink of an eye: after a beautiful jump into the Lake, Lori ballooned the corner in the water, cleverly twisting her ribcage to retain her balance in the air. Tom, who was riding with a hernia that’s due an operation this month, found himself jolted out of the tack, and without his usual core strength to help him regain centrality, he went for a serious swim. And then? He made himself a star. As spicy Lori cantered around grinning at all the applause from the huge lakeside crowds, Tom unstuck his face from the mud, gave everything a quick wiggle to make sure it all still worked, and then struck off in a comedy crawl that Michael Phelps would have been proud of. Finally, he stood up and took a bow, delighting absolutely everybody.
I can only imagine his frustration, and his disappointment, and the number of times he must have replayed those few strides in his mind, wondering what he could have done differently to sit that jump out and find a different kind of glory at the end of the day. But in some ways, this is his moment: Tom has always been a huge talent, as has the tricky, quirky little mare Lori, but we exist in a sport that’s overloaded with talent, and those moments in the sun are so rare, and so short, as a result. But if you can epitomise sportsmanship? If you can make people laugh on a day where an awful lot of what we saw looked like quite hard work? If you can remind people of the ‘good old days’ of Thrills & Spills VHS tapes and the fun of a dunking, rather than the constant fear and worry we often feel about the state of the sport at the moment? You’re a hero that people will remember long after the competition ends and everyone goes back to their normal lives. I hope Tom gets lots of money and opportunities thrown his way now that people have seen why all of us who are in his wider circles of friends adore him, but even if the only perk is public perception, then he’s really nailed that one. Bravo, Tom.
Author’s note: the original version of this article had some confusing wording regarding the athlete’s right to appeal an FEI sanction. This ‘right to be heard’ is only applicable prior to the awarding of the sanction, after the incident has occurred, and the wording has been changed to clarify this. Thanks to Clare Chamberlayne for her eagle eyes!