29, October, 2019

With all the talk recently about a social licence for equestrian sport and the ever increasing scrutiny of our duty of care as far as it pertains to the welfare of the horse, I’ve decided to revisit something rather troubling that I became aware of over the course of Burghley Horse Trials regarding the ‘blood rule’ and how it pertains to the different disciplines. Before I go on, I want to make it quite clear that my views are not about one person or one situation – the last thing anyone in the industry needs is another ill founded witch hunt, it is simply that an incident on cross country day brought to my attention a discrepancy that I never knew existed.

Those of us in Dressage are well familiar with the blood rule and the sometimes sensational results of it being enforced at the highest level. I think my first real awareness was at the Kentucky WEG in 2010 when Parzival was eliminated in the Grand Prix, preventing a much anticipated direct head to head with the then up and coming Totilas. British readers will of course have in their recent memory the exclusion of Mt St John Freestyle at this years European Championships. We know that the rules are simple – there is no room for interpretation – if there is any sign of blood, the only possible outcome is elimination. Within the Dressage community I have never even heard whisper of dissent about this. We accept that we simply have to be above reproach and while nearly all of the injuries are extremely minor and certainly without intent, we must always err on the side of caution when it comes to the safety of our horses.

Showjumping has similarly strict rules, with any blood on the flank from whip or spur use resulting in elimination, although interestingly blood in the mouth is discretionary where the ground jury deems it to be ‘minor’ and ‘accidental’. Showjumpers are also disqualified if the whip use marks the horse. However, with Eventing it is much less clear. All signs of blood are discretionary. In the showjumping phase ‘minor’ blood caused by the athlete will result in a recorded warning, but the results will stand. In the case that brought these discrepancies to my attention there was a competitor on the crosscountry who finished with quite an obvious and rather large wound on the flank – apparently from running into a flag or a fence. It was deemed to be accidental, not caused by the athlete and no penalty was imposed.

While I quite agree that in a lot of cases, blood does not indicate a major problem to horse welfare and there are a number of instances where the cause is completely innocent, I do wonder if it is time to completely draw a line in the sand, and at least have one rule with equal penalties across all disciplines. It makes no sense to me that a dressage horse is considered too injured to continue with the exact same injury that an eventer or showjumper can win a medal with – such as a minor cut to a tongue or cheek from the horse biting itself.

Personally, I’d like to see a rule that all blood, anywhere on the horse, caused by anything at all, means instant disqualification, removing all doubt and any subjective decisions by a ground jury. Yes, there will be some ‘unlucky’ cases, but that’s our sport. It’s no more unlucky than a trip in the water jump between fences when you’re only steps away from an almost certain podium finish, or standing on a stone on the way to your warm up. And for the good of our public image, the ‘social licence’ to continue to demand extreme performance of our exceptional equine athletes, it is a small price to pay.

A close up of a horse as it's being ridden

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