The rule for activating frangible pins (the pins that allow a cross country fence to collapse under pressure) is currently in the spotlight. The rules were changed by the FEI in December 2014; a horse and rider combination that activates a frangible pin will now be awarded a ‘non-negotiable’ 21 penalties. The question in my mind is why do we need penalties at all?
Frangible pins were introduced into the design of cross country fences as a safety measure in order to reduce the possibility of a rotational fall. These falls are dangerous and can be fatal for rider and horse. Frangible pins are generally found on the more upright style fences so that if a horse, for example, breasts the fence, the pin will activate, the fence will dismantle thus breaking the forward motion of the horse and helping to prevent a rotational fall.
Frangible pins however are not completely straightforward. A pin, it was discovered, could possibly activate more readily as the competition progressed, having been weakened by knocks and or having been previously activated. Some fences have been seen to fall as horse and rider galloped away from the fence, rather like a pole in showjumping, having not saved a fall at all or even interfered with the horse or rider.
Under the old rules, the awarding of the 21 penalties thus became the discretion of the Ground Jury. If it was thought activating the pin had saved the horse from falling the combination was awarded penalties, if it was thought otherwise the combination were penalty free.
Naturally, it became a contentious matter and riders that received penalties would appeal. Competitions were delayed as the Ground Jury watched video replays and dealt with appeals. Take Burghley last year; the final results on cross country day didn’t come out for over an hour after the final horse had finished thus frustrating spectators who had no idea what was happening and are already confused by the appearance of 21 penalties on a score sheet. It also held up press reports, not insignificant for a sport that already feels under-represented in the mainstream media. Yes it was messy and brought bad feeling among riders, owners and federations.
So removing the grey area is good but is the return to a non-negotiable 21 penalties – which was the FEI’s originally rule – the right way forward? Certainly riders are not happy and the Event Riders Association (ERA) is vigorously campaigning against the ‘non-negotiable’ rule.
In my mind everyone is missing an obvious option. Why award penalties at all? In the first instance this would provide a simple solution in a sport that is already complex enough. It would also be consistent with other areas that could be deemed “grey”. For example no-one has thought it necessary to award penalties for a horse banking a filled-in corner – a feature also brought into fence design as a safety measure – nor taking out the flag on the edge of a fence which could also perhaps cause a fall. Why penalise a combination because a pin activates as the horse is galloping away from the fence, thus instantly demoting the pair, possibly from prize money and also importantly, for the combination, the loss of a qualification meaning they would have to go to another event?
The sport of eventing is a tough one and has enough potential pitfalls to navigate during three phases. Penalty free would mean absolutely no grey areas. I don’t get why the sport is in the first instance saying “we have potentially saved you from a life threatening fall ” and then saying “therefore we are now going to penalise you”? It doesn’t make sense.
Why not accept it for the safety measure it is and have a positive solution rather than a negative?