After mucking around with the system years ago and going up to teams of 5 of which 3 to count, which was the format for the 2012 and 2008 Olympics only, the FEI in its infinite wisdom has now decided to go back to the time-honoured formula of teams of 4 (or 3) of which 3 to count, the format used for the European Champs, the World Games and the Pan Am Games.
This is a really important decision, for lots of reasons.
Primarily, it means fewer athletes per country get to ride at the Olympics, a huge deal if you are vying for that 4th (or 5th) place. I think this is a huge shame.
It means that, at least theoretically, it makes the field more level for countries who struggle to raise a team of 5 at a Championship. But realistically this makes little difference, since a country with only 3 or 4 top contenders is usually pretty unlikely to bother the Big Guns at the top of the leaderboard, although it has been done: Sweden getting team gold at the 1993 Europeans, and team silver at the 1997 Euros, for example.
It can have a pretty big effect on team tactics (and therefore, perhaps very slightly, on horse welfare) which is why some of us were totally boggled when the FEI changed the format in the first place! If you have 4 team members and 3 scores count, your first horse out really MUST go clear, and ideally in or near the time. If not, all the others have to ride defensively because their scores must count. Three out of four to count leads to more conservative team orders, usually. The only time I can remember a team losing their first member and still doing brilliantly was the Aussies at the Barcelona Olympics, when they all just pretty much went for it after David Green’s forced retirement, and it worked out very well for the remaining 3 (they netted both Team and Individual golds!)
With a team of 5, and 2 potential discard scores, of course you can be a bit more gung-ho in your choices as well as your team orders, and perhaps take the ones which might be fantastic or might crash and burn, basically. This led to some interesting team choices at the last 2 Olympics.
Jeanette Brakewell and Over To You were Team GB pathfinders for years when the old ‘4 to a team, 3 to count’ format was always used. Over To You was never going to trouble the very top of the leaderboard after the dressage but everyone knew that, barring utter disaster, Jeanette could be trusted to do a solid dressage, storm round the XC clear and near or inside the time, give the other team riders invaluable feedback on how the course was riding, and then have no more than one down SJ. The ideal pathfinder, a solid score on the board. This slot has now been filled by Nicola Wilson and Opposition Buzz, whose dressage is getting smart enough that he might be individual medal material on a tough xc day, as Over To You was at the WEGs in Jerez.
I’m not sure whether the new format has definitely been decided or is just being debated, but I really hope they stick to the ‘teams of 5, 3 to count’ option they ran with in Greenwich, as it definitely did not detract from the competition in the slightest. Or, as Tina Cook suggested in her column in Horse and Hound, why not have ‘teams of 5, 4 to count’… that would be win/win in every way.