by Fran Jurga | 3 November 2009 | The Jurga Report at Equisearch.com
It's not always easy being a blogger. On Friday, October 23, I took a deep breath and posted on this blog a video I had been sent by a colleague in Europe. I posted the video and simply asked people what they saw, and explained the furor that the video was causing in Europe. Click here to read that post.
American dressage fans had a similar reaction. I didn't know if the story would escalate or just go away, as so many things do. "Blue tongue dressage" became one of those viral news stories that took on a life of its own. It was the horse world's equivalent of "balloon boy". Everyone knew immediately what you were talking about when you said "blue tongue" at the barn.
And they chimed in with their take on a few minutes of video taped half a world away.
It's hard to think of the sport of dressage as having a grass roots level--it's more like a carefully-laid strip of seeded sod--but it has been activated, with opinions running from "leave the professionals alone" to "boycott Rolex and other FEI sponsors". A white-hat protest has been proposed for the 2010 Alltech World Equestrian Games in Kentucky; after all these years of preparation, will the Games be shrouded in controversy?
And last week at the Global Dressage Forum in Holland, the FEI representative announced that the world body of horse sport would be looking into the matter. On Monday, this statement was released to the media:
"The FEI is aware of the video filmed at the FEI World CupTM Dressage qualifier at Odense (DEN) and posted on YouTube. FEI's main concern has always been and will always be the welfare of the horse. We are taking the issues raised in the video and in the comments made by members of the public on social media and by email very seriously and have opened a full investigation. The conclusions of this investigation will be made public in due course."
The problem, if there is one, is that the FEI has already looked into rollkur, or hyperflexion, and decided that there is no concrete evidence that it harms the horse. They do advise that it not be maintained continuously over a long period of training, as has been claimed that the rider in Denmark did in the presence of stewards at an FEI World Cup qualifier. There are no hard and fast rules about rollkur, only a vague advisory.
Click here to read the FEI's advisory on hyperflexion/rollkur.
But the forthright British took things a step further this week with a formal letter to HRH Princess Haya, president of the FEI. It is laced with classic British understatement and yet expresses determination to uphold their reputation as defenders of the welfare of the horse.
Your Royal Highness,
You cannot be unaware of the disquiet - not to say anger - which has arisen following the depiction on Epona TV of Patrik Kittel's horse in apparent distress as it competed in Odense on 18th October.
As you are doubtless aware, in terms both of membership and breadth of interest, The British Horse Society (BHS) is the largest single equestrian organisation in the UK. Our examinations system, and the training and education which underpin it, have earned for the Society international recognition.
No less important is our work to promote the highest standards of equine welfare, which suffuses every facet of our work. I am pleased to report that our commitment to equine welfare is shared by all our colleagues within the British Equestrian Federation, although on this occasion I am writing solely on behalf of the BHS.
Let me acknowledge straight away that no representative of the BHS was present in Denmark to witness the horse's apparent distress, nor do we have the benefit of a contemporaneous veterinary report. Moreover, we do not for one minute suggest that Patrik Kittel at any time sought to treat his horse other than with proper care and respect.
Nevertheless, in matters of equine welfare, the precautionary principle must always apply: if, despite the absence of conclusive proof, the wellbeing of a horse is called into question, there will exist a strong moral obligation on the FEI to respond immediately.
In our view, the concerns so widely expressed are reasonable and therefore deserving of an urgent two-part investigation: first, an inquiry into the treatment of this particular horse on this particular occasion; and, second, a broader inquiry into the ethics and consequences of hyperflexion.
In this second aspect The British Horse Society stands ready to assist the FEI in any way it can.
Please note that we pass no comment on the aesthetics of seeing a competition horse contorted in a way it never appears to choose for itself when in its natural state. Our concern is only to speak out when we believe that the welfare of horses demands it.
Patrick Print FBHS
Chairman, The British Horse Society
This carefully crafted letter was delivered to Princess Haya just two weeks before the opening of the 2009 FEI General Assembly. Will other countries take similar polite but firm first steps? Will the USA speak up on this issue?
By pure coincidence, the FEI's meeting will take place in Denmark, where the Blue Tongue videotaping took place.
Something tells me we haven't heard the last of blue tongue dressage.