This year seems to have been the year of the FEI Yellow/Red Card. First was Mary King’s two month ban after a Yellow Card was given to her after Bramham (where she pulled the headstrong King Joules up voluntarily after a less-than-smooth trip up to and including the coffin.) This, added to the Yellow Card given to her last year at Le Lion d’Angers (for kicking on to “a small set of rails” – at which she incurred a stop – after the horse landed 4-footed in the water), added up to 2 within a 12 month period, so an instant Red Card and 2 month ban.
So, Mary, one of the most experienced event riders in the world, with numerous 4* and Championship clears, countless horses produced to 4* level, ended up with a ban for using her judgement on two different occasions. In neither situation, and I think this is a really important point, did a horse end up on the floor or injured.
In her blog Mary said that the Ground Jury at Bramham had told her that “because I am a high profile rider/role model for younger riders I should have been more sensible.”
Since one could argue that anyone competing regularly at top level is a role model to many, this seems a perplexing reason for giving the second Yellow Card. The Ground Jury would surely have been well aware that there was already one on her record, and that she would therefore incur a ban.
Here is the list of current FEI Sanctions. At WEG, in going that was described by one 4* rider as pretty much “the worst I have ever ridden on”, there were a few dramatic scenarios, and some Cards handed out. Hawley Bennett-Awad’s Yellow Card (for “Dangerous riding/continuing after 3 refusals”) seems particularly harsh, as she was riding for the Canadian team, and was genuinely not sure whether she had been given 20 penalties for the horse’s hesitation at the top of the big step down before the first water, so didn’t know whether to count that or not, so continued.
Perhaps the WEG fence judges were not instructed to yell out “20 penalties” immediately (or maybe the jury was still out on whether it actually was twenty penalties, at that point.) With Olympic Team qualification as an aim, I can totally understand why she continued until told not to, even though her mount ‘Ginny’ was not relishing the ground at all. I think that particular punishment was pretty harsh.
There were two verbal warnings given at WEG: to Tim Price, who was stopped by the Ground Jury when cantering home over the last few fences on a tired Wesko, and for Aoife Clarke, for “Dangerous riding/irresponsible riding” on Fenyas Elegance. This may possibly have been for really gunning her mount into the bounce after the water, a heart-stopping moment only saved because the horse had lightning-fast reactions, and the fences were brush-topped and very forgiving.
Anna Hilton was given a Yellow Card for “Dangerous riding/causing a horse fall” after a nasty fall in what was apparently a fairly uncomfortable-looking round.
At Burghley, Megan Heath was given a Yellow Card for “abuse of horse/excessive use of whip”, presumably because she used the whip after he stopped very naughtily twice at the first of the arena hurdles. In fact she appeared to reverse the whip in her hand (leaving it pointing upwards), and then used it again down the shoulder into the next two, and three times on his bum after he’d jumped the last. I personally would not have regarded that as abuse, as she used it in groups of 3 (no more), but overall I guess it was seen as Too Much. Very difficult… since he’d been naughty (her approach, both times he stopped, looked perfectly good) and obviously she had to convince him to get going forward off the leg if she was to have any hope of carrying on well.
Also at Burghley, Aoife Clark’s ride Vaguely North landed on his belly after the ditch on the second trip through Discovery Valley, after a slightly hairy first trip through there. He scrambled to his feet, took a couple of tiny steps after getting up, and she instantly drove him forward, taking two good canter strides before jumping the big brush parallel the direct way, which he cleared well.
Normally, trying to get a horse to jump a fence from two strides of canter after coming pretty much to a standstill would get you a really serious telling-off… even at the lowest levels where the fences are 1m or less (so far less likely to cause the dreaded slow rotational fall). Or, in Mary’s case, a Yellow Card.
Aoife went on in her typical attacking style, which was working very well, until a glance-off at the Rolex Combination brush corner. She carried on, now carrying 20 penalties, so with no hope of a top finish, of course. At the direct route out of Capability’s Cutting, Vaguely North hung in the air a little across the spread, and rapped his hind fetlocks quite hard on the back bar as he came down, but landed fine. This slight hesitation might possibly explain Aoife’s next actions.
On the long downhill run to the Stamford Station, the huge squared-off white rail oxer, she drove him determinedly onwards, with no visible rebalancing (It’s on the individual Burghley TV video, from about 7 minutes onwards), resulting in a very unbalanced and unsure take-off from a long way away, and a horrible fall (he landed on his side and then right rolled over her) for both horse and rider. Very luckily the horse was apparently unhurt, and Aoife reportedly only hurt her shoulder. Phew. Very very lucky.
Aoife was given a verbal warning for her riding at Burghley, for “dangerous riding/inappropriate riding” although I suspect that in the eyes of many watchers, her riding might have been viewed as having caused that fall. (Both of the experienced commentators did not sound very impressed by her approach to the fence.)
This article is 100% not supposed to be about bashing Aoife – not only is she a million times better rider than I could ever hope to be, but also I’m sure she has had enough time to think about those two rushes of blood to the head, and how very lucky she is that the horse is unscathed and she’s pretty much okay too. That is all that really matters in the end, of course. But the ‘punishment’ system seems pretty illogical and skewed at the moment – that’s my point here.
The Verbal Warnings and Yellow Cards are given based on the personal opinion of the three Ground Jury Members at the time, and it is just not possible for these to be completely evenly judged around the world at all the different levels and events, by a myriad of people, but if the guidelines were specific enough, surely the punishments could be more levelled out?
There has been a lot of discussion on social media after Burghley about these warnings and cards, and the fact that they do not seem to be being given out evenly and fairly at all. What is the point of a verbal warning, if a rider can go and do the same thing a week later, resulting in a grim rotational fall, just to be given the same warning again?
Surely two verbal warnings a week apart, for the same offence, should escalate to a Yellow Card? That would make sense. It’s still only a theoretical punishment, after all… it only escalates to a ban if another is incurred within a 12 month period… but at least it would mean something.
In fact the Verbal Warning is only one level down from the Yellow Warning card, as this chart from the FEI Rulebook shows, so it seems odd that 2 of category a) within a week does not equal category b), when two of b) within a year equals a 2 month ban!
The FEI has at times looked bungling and inefficient in administering certain of the various sports under its umbrella. It’s to be hoped that the rot has not spread to Eventing, the most dangerous of them all.
What do YOU think? Should two Verbal Warnings for the same offence within a short timescale mean a Yellow Card, or do you think the system is just fine as it is?
Photo of Mary King in action by Katie Mortimore for e-Venting