EN Blogger Contest Finalist Ruth Jacobs: In or Out? Improving Fence Judge Decision-Making on Missed Flag Rule

The 2022 EN Blogger Contest finalists were asked to write about one rule they’d instate if they were made President of Eventing 4Ever as one option for their final, Round 3 submissions. The following piece is published unedited. Your feedback will help us select our final winner! Use the rating poll below to give this post a thumbs up. Votes will be factored into our final decision.

About Ruth:

Ruth Jacobs, 30 years old, has a PhD in experimental particle physics, but really, REALLY likes horses, actually. Born and raised in a small village in Germany, she caught the horse bug from her next-door neighbor who taught at the local riding school. Ruth works full-time as a postdoctoral researcher in Hamburg, Germany (an hour’s drive away from eventing hub Luhmühlen!) and owns 15-year-old Oldenburg gelding Soli, with whom she events up to German Novice level equivalent. Ruth’s most embarrassing eventing-related anecdote is accompanying a friend to a dinner with Piggy March, Ruth’s all-time heroine. Piggy and Tom March were lovely people, but probably too polite to ask who that star struck fan girl was, obviously too nervous to say anything sensible, let alone finish her baked potato. The pinnacle of awkwardness was reached by hugging Piggy for good-byes while mumbling something like “thank you for the privilege of meeting you”. Really sorry, Piggy, that was weird!

[Click here to read Ruth’s Round 2 entry]
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One of my horsey highlights of every year is volunteering as a fence judge on cross-country day of the CICO 4*-S at the CHIO Aachen in Germany. Getting up early to be on time for the morning briefing, and then spending the day watching the best of the eventing world fly by, clocking, observing, all the while freaking out about possibly having to stop someone out on course, is a thrill every time.

This year’s Aachen was a bit different than usual. This was because, even several hours after the final rider had crossed the finish line, all report card had been handed in, and I was already on the train home, it was not decided who had won the event.

At first, Michael Jung and Chipmunk FRH were announced the winners, but the press conference was called off and postponed. When it did happen two hours later, Sandra Auffahrt, riding Viamant du Matz, sat in the winner’s chair. The reason for this was an incident during Michael Jung’s ride at fence number 14, a brush corner after a long gallop phase, where the pair had an awkward jump which wasn’t clearly between the flags. Only after an hour-long review of the video footage taken by fence judges at this jump (luckily that wasn’t us), the ground jury decided that Michael Jung and Chipmunk incurred 15 penalty points for a missed flag, which cost them the win.

For clarification of missed flag versus run-out, here is what the FEI eventing rules, article 549.2, have to say about it:

“Run-Out: A Horse is considered to have run out (20 penalties) if, having been presented at an […] obstacle on the course, it avoids it in such a way that the body of the Horse (head, neck, shoulders and pelvis – legs are not included) fail to pass between the extremities of the […] obstacle as originally flagged. […]

Missing a flag: A Horse is considered to have missed a flag (15 penalties) if the Horse jumps the dimension of the obstacle and the majority of the Horse’s body (as defined above) passes through the flags. This means that some part of the body is not inside the flags (e.g. one shoulder, or one shoulder and part of one hip).“

Sounds difficult to decide? Now imagine deciding between an “awkward, but clear” and a “missed flag/run-out” on the basis of the few split seconds that you as a fence judge observe, or from the review of a video taken with a mobile phone. From experience I’d say that even from an optimal observer or filming position it can be very difficult to locate the relevant body parts of the horse (i.e. the points of the shoulders and the pelvis) and determining their position with respect to where the flag would have been.

The FEI Eventing Committee has published some additional points to be considered by the fence judge and jury when applying article 549.2:
“When reviewing a video, it must be easy to decide if the horse is inside the flags, if it is necessary to review several times, the decision should be made in favor of the rider.”

Now, can we make life easier here for the fence judge, and for the ground jury reviewing a video? I think the answer is: yes, we can, and it’s not so hard.

My proposal is simply to mark the relevant body parts of event horses, namely the two shoulder points, two palpable pelvic points (point of hip and buttock) with retroreflective adhesive stickers, such as are being used in motion-capture techniques for film-making. Retroreflective material reflects daylight impinging on it, without much diffusion, so the stickers clearly indicate the relevant body points of the horse regardless of its coat’s color. These markers would make it much easier to determine the relative positioning of those points with respect to the flag position, especially in video footage. In addition, having six well-defined positions to determine what is the “majority” of the horse’s body would allow the FEI to formulate a clearer definition of the missed-flag and run-out rule at narrow fences.

Left: Example of an unclear situation/possible missed-flag. With shoulder markers, from this perspective, it looks more like a clear. Right: Example of a clear run-out. (source: FEI, picture modified to add yellow indicators)

Applying the stickers before a pair leaves the start box would not be more difficult than attaching a Flair nose-strip and would not restrict the horses’ movements at all. Traditionalists may point out that it can spoil the looks, but the stickers need not be large to be effective and a more fair and efficient judging should be in everybody’s interest, in particular at high-profile international events or championships, where there is a lot at stake for riders, owners, organizers and sponsors.