Horse welfare at elite equestrian competitions

8 October 2021 Written by Debbie Higgs

We have seen strict measures put in place to ensure that horses competing at the races are in their peak physical condition, but how does that compare to measures in other horse sports? Debbie Higgs takes a look at the protocols put in place by the Fédération Equestre Internationale (FEI), the international body for Olympic equestrian sports, in this short article.

The welfare of horses at equestrian competitions is ‘paramount’ says the Fédération Equestre Internationale (FEI), the international body for Olympic equestrian sports that sets the rules and regulations for competitions around the world.

So, what are some of the key measures put in place to ensure that horses competing in the equestrian disciplines of dressage, show jumping and eventing are provided with the best possible environment and care during the competition?

Let’s start with the Veterinary and Horse Inspections, a vital part of determining a horse’s health and fitness to compete in top level classes.

At international level FEI competitions, the horses are checked on arrival at the venue by the event’s Veterinary Delegate, who must be a qualified veterinarian; their job is not only to verify each horse’s identity, vaccination history and FEI passport details but also check each horse’s state of health. Any problems found must be reported to the Ground Jury, preferably before the first Horse Inspection.

The Ground Jury at the 2019 Australian International 3 Day Event in Adelaide (Credit: An Eventful Life/Debbie Higgs)

The Ground Jury are the official judges for the competition and, according to the FEI rules, they also have the ‘duty and full authority at any time during the Competition to eliminate from the Competition any Horse that is lame, sick or exhausted’. They are also responsible for taking action should any case of dangerous riding or abuse of the horse arise at any stage of the competition.

But the time that the decisions made by the Ground Jury are most visible is when they officiate at the Horse Inspections.

Sir Mark Todd, one of the most famous eventing riders and now racehorse trainer, presents his horse at Badminton Horse Trials 2018 (Credit: An Eventful Life/Debbie Higgs)

In the discipline of eventing there are two Horse Inspections – the first one takes place no more than 24 hours before the start of the dressage phase and the second one takes place before the show jumping phase, ensuring that the horse is fit and well after the demands of the cross country phase. Both inspections are conducted by the same Inspection Panel and under the same conditions.

Crowds start to gather for the popular First Horse Inspection at Badminton Horse Trials in front of Badminton House (Credit: An Eventful Life/Debbie Higgs)

Horse inspections must be open to the public and they have now become a very popular part of major competitions such as Badminton Horse Trials in England or the Australian International 3 Day Event in Adelaide. At these events, which attract many spectators to both inspections, it sometimes seems that fashion is the focus of the runway but don’t be fooled – the Ground Jury, assisted by the Veterinary Delegate, has a very serious job to do.

The Veterinary Delegate inspects a horse at the Australian International 3 Day Event in Adelaide (Credit: An Eventful Life/Debbie Higgs)

The horses, presented by their rider, are inspected in hand, at rest and in movement on a firm level, clean but not slippery surface so that they can be judged if fit to compete. Some horses may be a bit too fit (providing some additional entertainment for the crowd with their ‘airs above ground’) but in general, most horses are immediately accepted. However, if there is any indication of a problem such as a sign of lameness, lack of condition or questionable fitness to compete, the Ground Jury will refer the Horse to the Holding Box for examination by the Holding Box Veterinarian.

The Holding Box Veterinarian examines the horse in an area close by and soon reports any findings, while the rider is given the choice of re-presenting the horse for inspection. It is a tense moment for the rider and connections of the horse, but most horses are passed on the second presentation and the decision is announced immediately. Any horse not passed by the Ground Jury at either Horse Inspection is eliminated and cannot continue in the competition

For the horses that have passed the Ground Jury scrutiny, they are now ready to compete and are usually raring to go!