This post was written by Celina and Adele with the contribution of fellow readers.
We recently published a short article with a few comments by Nienke de Wolff, a longtime friend of VaultingNews who owns a vaulting horse business, about the horses’ situation at the recent Junior World and Senior European Championships. We received very positive feedback, many readers shared their opinion with us and we were very happy about it. Not only because it is always great to spark a discussion, but also because the subject is very important. Some of the remarks gathered here really make us think: What kind of sport is it that we want to build?
To be more specific and to give you a little bit of context on the whole discussion: A few reports from recent competitions claim that vet checks have been slightly lenient and have overlooked a few details, which not only might cause trouble to the horses later on, but meant horses withdrawing or being disqualified as the event progresses. During the Championships, every horse passed the vet check, but one horse was disqualified during the competition and two horses were withdrawn after a few rounds – let us remind you that although we have the vet check, every performance starts with a trot round for a double check. So this is quite a normal procedure.
Carolyn Bland (USA) reiterates that these are all standard measures, and, if a horse is disqualified during the competition, it means that the procedures are working: “The vet checks are taken very seriously by licensed FEI vets and the Ground Jury.There are protocols for ‘fit to compete’ and vets at the competition and FEI stewards watching the horses. There are cases where a horse has been questioned in warm-up by the vets on site.”
Mary McCormick (you might know her as one of the most successful American vaulters of all time :P) was the one who first started the discussion on her Facebook page with a link to our article: “This is hard to share & draw attention to because I believe in my heart that we all love our vaulting horses… BUT… there is much truth to what is said in this write up. The vet check is extremely lenient and there are far too many horses in our highest level of competition that are not happy athletes”, she said.
Adrienne Stang, who is a retired vaulting judge, contributed with a few sentences about the horse score history: “I was on the FEI Vaulting committee when the horse score was added to the rules. There was a huge discussion about this score affecting the vaulter’s score and it was decided that the horse was the most important member of the team and the horse score was added, but it was not a unanimous vote. Attitudes are hard to change but we need to make sure the horse is recognized as the foremost member of the team and he is given equal recognition with the vaulter(s). I just watched the Juniors and Europeans and can name the champion vaulters but not their horses.” – You might notice that we decided to change that with the pictures featured on this post.
Rosie Brown Foucheck answered with a similar experience. “This makes me think of something that first ran through my mind when I was filling out the AVA survey a few weeks ago. It had to do with whether vaulting should be considered more of a gymnastic sport or a horse sport. Well, if you think about it, every other discipline is focused on a consistent and steady partnership between one horse and one rider (except driving). But without the horse, there would be no partnership and no entry for the competition. But in vaulting, we are able to borrow and move around from horse to horse.”
Well, further developing Rosie’s and Adrienne’s point, yes, it is true that in vaulting we can borrow each other’s horses. In Jumping, for an example, if a rider qualifies for the Olympics they do so with a specific horse. There is no changing. But if a vaulter qualifies for the championships, they can change horses along the way. Carolyn Bland also shared her thought on the matter: “Without horse borrowing, it would completely change the face of the sport. The Championships would be Eurocentric or for only athletes with the money to keep horses or fly horses worldwide. We have seen over a few years the gap between elite riders with money in Dressage and Jumping, whereas the common rider can no longer have a dream of competing at a WC or Olympics. Is that where we want our vaulting community to go? I don’t think borrowing horses is a problem – it’s our reporting – we need to make sure the horses get the same accolades as the vaulters.” Yes, borrowing horses does make the sport less focused on the horse, but it also makes it more accessible.
***In the USA, as we spoke last week, they have a rule that allows vaulters to perform their freestyle on one horse and compulsories on another horse, taking this to an extreme level so we have to bear that in mind and understand where they are coming from when they criticize this.***
Maybe Adrienne wouldn’t agree with us: “It was Elizabeth Searle who suggested allowing horse changes between sections of events way back in the 70’s when vaulting was in its infancy in the US. It was her opinion that it didn’t matter which horse a vaulter was on because it was the vaulter being judged. […] Allowing changing of horses […] had positive results as it is evident in numbers participating in competitions. I think the time is past where there is a need for this rule and it should be disallowed.”
Trisha Gallagher feels like vaulting is the “black sheep” in the equestrian disciplines in the United States because of its loose or absent vet checks. She claims that other disciplines are much stricter about the horse’s health and their conditions on display at least at international events. I think that in Germany it is also common to have vet checks only at state championships and above, but not at smaller competitions.
It is never easy to make the call to disqualify a vaulter because their horse doesn’t seem fit to compete: Jordan Hobbs shared a testimonial: “ I once scribed for an FEI**** judge when she rung out a teenager […] on her elderly schoolmaster. He was very much not sound that day and watching that judge explain to that probably heartbroken kiddo that they weren’t going to get to do it today was a serious lesson making tough calls. […] No one wants to be the bad guy, but someone does have to stand up for the horses, and if not the judges, who? Competing is a privilege and not a right.”
There are vaulters that come from very far to compete, either in local competitions or international events. Sometimes it might be their only shot at qualifying for the championships. Their clubs and families invested their time and money on bringing that opportunity, so it isn’t easy to tell an athlete that they won’t be able to take part. On the other hand, it comes with the sport. If you work with horses, you probably know how sensitive they are.
Adrienne Stang confirms how hard it is: “I rang out a horse at the World Championships and after I rang him out, I was shaking like a leaf. The vet met me on the way out of the arena and told me “good job”. […] Hardest thing I ever had to do as a judge!”
Sometimes, reading a horse is hard for a longer or a vaulter. That is why judges have the final call. What could be happening in our sport is that there are many judges who don’t have the equestrian background, they are retired athletes. Carolyn Bland partially agrees that this could be a problem: “Yes – I agree but they take their training seriously and the horse is always a topic at the FEI seminars. But we have controls in place with the FEI vets for soundness.”
Truth be told, we have a developing sport that faces very different realities. Some countries have near zero equestrian culture and they are vaulting on draft or retired jumping horses. Other nations have big clubs with hundreds of vaulters and they only have to travel a few hours to reach the stage for the biggest championships. How can we fit all that into one sport? Do we want a sport that it is only for athletes who have the money to travel with their horses or keep a horse in Europe year-round?
If we think about it, yes, vaulting might be a black sheep in a way, in comparison to other elite equestrian sports. But what other sport has the potential to be the entry door into the equestrian culture like vaulting does? Let’s take a riding school: To teach eight kids for one-hour lessons they need eight different horses. In vaulting, you can use one horse for a light one-hour beginner’s lesson for a squad eight children. In fact, this is a big asset to our sport: It offers a child the opportunity to develop a unique relationship with a horse, while also increasing their athletic capabilities, in a pretty accessible way. It could be an opportunity for less traditional equestrian nations and even developing communities.
We cannot be lenient with vet checks. This is absolutely true. But how can we develop our sport as a whole and make sure that everyone fits in? What can we do to improve horse and longer’s training and education?
Another question that I have just thought of: Yes, most of the opinions featured here are from the USA and we don’t really know about everything that is happening there, but we also received reports from other parts of the vaulting world and most of them had the same concerns. But maybe, this is more of a communications issue and we could solve it with more material for judges and horse trainers.
Here are a few to-dos and conclusions:
We at Vaulting News have the goal of bringing the vaulting community together and talking about matters that are not only relevant for elite level vaulters and big clubs, but that have meaning for small club owners, beginners, and vaulting fans. With this in mind, here is the task we would like to give ourselves to help solve this challenge:
We want to talk about it.
We think that we need to reach out to horse trainers from distant corners of the vaulting world and hear their opinion on the matter, we need to speak more about horses because, at times, we do focus too much on the athletes and not enough on their equine counterparts.
HOW YOU CAN HELP:
If you are reading this and you have an opinion, please speak up!
We are looking for horse trainers, vets, riders, vaulters anyone who would like to talk about it. Share your experience, even if it is short. If you don’t know how to write it down, we will help you out. But we are open for collaboration.
FEI / FEDERATIONS
It is important that we discuss this at the policy level as well. Guidelines and training guides must be always up to day and must be a reflex of the different realities that the sport currently faces. So that, as we mentioned before, we can close the gap without being lenient on the evaluation.
We must also ensure the quality of the judges who are evaluating vaulting horses. Not every judge comes from an equestrian background. Some judges are retired athletes, not coaches or longeurs.
We must also speak openly about this, we have to know what are the initiatives FEI already has towards horse education, what they are doing to solve eventual problems and what are the measures already in place.