I have no hesitation wading into the deep waters of controversy in the fascinating sport of show jumping. This is especially true when it comes to horse and rider safety. 

Recently, I’ve been mulling over faults. Specifically, on whether there should be a limit on the number of faults a rider can have on course. 

It’s a topic that caught my attention after the International Olympic Committee’s recent announcement that it would stick with the highly contentious teams of three at the next Games. (If you missed that debate, equestrian Olympic teams previously competed with four members, but only the best three rounds counted on the team score. They now compete with three rider teams and every round counts.)

Many elite riders believe the new format creates a horse welfare issue. Without a drop score, all three riders must complete the course or the team faces elimination, which means a rider could feel forced to continue a round when they may have pulled up otherwise.

Indeed, it’s an outcome we witnessed in real-time at the 2020 Tokyo Games with Irish star Shane Sweetnam. First in the ring for Ireland in the team competition, Sweetnam’s round went off the rails when his mount, Alejandro, pulled a front shoe at the first element of the triple combination and paddled through it. The horse clearly rattled, their round became progressively more unhinged. By the water-tray oxer at fence nine, the horse paddled air and poles again, and both came tumbling to the ground.

Now Sweetnam is a fantastic rider! He is highly respected in the sport as a top horseman. Personally, I love the guy. But that round in Tokyo was not their day and he took heavy criticism for his decision to continue.

Others, however, blamed the format.

“I know Shane Sweetnam received a lot of flack on social media for his round, but he was absolutely not at fault—he was only put in that position by the new rules,” Olympic gold medalist Nick Skelton (GBR) to World of Show Jumping. “We could all see what was going to happen after the second jump and it was uncomfortable to watch, but he had to get round or his country lost all chance. On TV that did not look good.”

Curious what others thought, I took the three-rider team discussion to Facebook. A reader of mine proposed automatic elimination after a set number of faults as a solution to the no drop score dilemma. After extensive research, there is a compelling argument to be made for a faults cap, horse safety primary among them.

I’ve since come to think that a maximum faults rule not only should happen, but possibly must happen, to preserve our sport. 

It’s worth noting that this idea isn’t new. A few years ago, there was a proposal to the FEI that 16 faults would result in elimination from the class. At the time, the idea did not gain traction. But much has changed in the past couple of years. (See: the three rider teams). It’s arguably more relevant today than ever. 

Now, before we begin, I’m sure you can think of certain (possibly many) examples when a rule change like this is not needed. Indeed, I am discussing less than 5% of the rounds at a horse show (more on that in a minute). Unfortunately, there are times when a rule is desperately needed to protect our equine partners and that is what I am addressing. 

Disclaimer: Near every rider can think of a round(s) where they had 20+ faults. This is not a personal attack on your riding ability or the quality of your horse. It’s a discussion on best practices for the future of the sport and for the best interests of our horses. 

Let’s start with public perception.

Why we need to have a faults limit is the easiest question of the debate and we need look no further than modern pentathlon at Tokyo 2020 to answer it. A disastrous round by Germany’s Annika Schleu and an appalling display of horsemanship by her trainer in the show jumping phase of modern pentathlon was one of the most controversial stories of the Games. As a result of one incident in two reckless minutes, horse riding has been now been removed from a sport that’s been a staple on the world’s largest stage since 1912. 

Yes, there were prior incidents in modern pentathlon. There have been in equestrian, too. (The great capsaicin controversy of the 2008 Games to name one. The death of eventing horse Jet Set in Tokyo to name another.) Ultimately though, that one incident was the proverbial straw. 

Horse riding is not likely ever to be reinstated in pentathlon, either. If you think the same fate can’t happen to show jumping, I have a bridge somewhere to sell you. If you think Olympic participation does not apply to you, I have a two-for-one special on bridges you may be interested in. 

In the current landscape of our world, where cancel culture is rife, it seems near anything can be erased in mere moments. This affects all horses, from gymkhana to Pony Club to western pleasure and everything in between. If you enjoy horse sport, then you have a vested interest in how it is perceived by the public.

A recent example of this is the Andy Kocher incident. No, not the electrified spurs story. That one didn’t make worldwide headlines. I’m referring to the Spruce Meadows Derby debacle in July of 2019. Kocher won the 1.60m ATCO Queen Elizabeth II Cup with his mount Carollo on Saturday, then jumped the same horse in the 1.45m Derby on Sunday collecting 28 faults and sparking outrage online. 

That controversy spread like wildfire on the world wide web and reflected poorly on the sport. It’s also an incident that could have been easily and entirely prevented with a maximum faults rule. 

A faults cap benefits every show jumper

There are many more reasons for a maximum fault rule, and some may apply to your own horse.

A show round can go poorly for any number of reasons and that is why this topic is so delicate. The most serious and concerning is that the horse may be injured. If a horse is having an uncharacteristically poor performance in the ring, there may be a physical reason in which case the horse should immediately stop working and be evaluated and possibly treated. 

Some will argue that a rider should know if their horse is potentially hurt. I can hear the “We must educate the riders to recognize these things” shouts from the soapbox. Education is obviously critical. Yet when adrenaline is running high, it is not always so simple to make this distinction in the ring, even for the most experienced riders. Possibly the horse landed poorly off fence #1 and slightly tweaked something but still cantered away normally. Many top riders will pull up when a round goes south, but not all. 

What about the horse who is struggling and knocks down the first five jumps at the 1.0m level? If that horse is hurting or over-faced, then it should be protected as well. This is a discussion for every show jumper, not just the FEI horses.

A faults cap creates a more level field of play 

Let’s define a subpar round. 

While a few may argue otherwise, I believe we can agree that four or more rails are not desirable over a course of 10–14 efforts. Note I mention only rails; time faults are not applicable to this discussion and there is already a rule in place for excessive time. If you double the posted time allowed, it is elimination. 

In regards to a refusal, a second stop also results in elimination from the class. It is not that long ago that this number was reduced from three to two. This was done primarily for rider safety but it also helps the horses. So there is a recent precedent for altering the scoring system for reasons of welfare. 

Currently, and I was unaware of this because I have never seen it used, there are two rules in place to deal with high fault situations.

USEF rule JP136.7 Setting a Standard. After the first round of the first class in any section, management or the judges may order a competitor from the ring when it becomes evident that their performance prohibits them from being in the ribbons.

FEI Article 241 3.26. if the Ground Jury feels that for any reason Horse or Athlete is unfit to continue in Competition;

This is interesting but also flawed. The USEF rule is silly for many reasons. Chief among them, horse shows are big business, and while the days tend to be very long, management is not going to eliminate a rider because they are out of the top 10. Imagine a class with 100+ horses in it, a common occurrence at the winter circuits: if you have the first fence down you’d be out. 

The FEI rule makes more sense, but it also puts the judges in an incredibly difficult spot. Having to make a decision like that in the 72-odd seconds a rider is on course is unrealistic. As evidence, we need only look back to Kocher and that ill-fated Derby. Why was this rule was not applied then? Is it not precisely the type of situation that the rule was designed to address? 

The problem is that the rule is too subjective and that puts the judge in a nearly impossible spot. Judges are hired by the show organizer to enforce the rulebook. If they make a call that falls into the grey area of personal opinion, they may be, at best, out of a job and, at worst, potentially facing a lawsuit. 

“As an official, we should not be put in a political position,” a senior judge explained to me. “We need it to be black and white on paper otherwise we may not get hired again.” 

I have watched thousands of jumper rounds, as I’m sure many of you have. No one, however, sees as many rounds as the judges, and I reached out to get their feedback on the maximum fault topic. My panel has over 100 years of judging experience, from the 0.9m level up to the Olympics.

Of that group, only one judge had ever stopped a round that was not a technical elimination. (That judge said the horse was obviously struggling and it was a clear decision.) None had seen another judge do it. And all had wanted to stop a round in the past. The judges unanimously agreed there should be a maximum fault limit, not including time faults, in the interest of horse safety. 

Amateurs, young horses and other concerns

Now, by this point, you may have reasons to dispute my argument. I love that and I always welcome discussion. I do not share my opinions for you to always agree with my points. (Sometimes it is nice, though.)

Here are reasons against a maximum faults rule that have been raised in my discussions, along with my thoughts. 

1. You paid for the class, you should get to finish it. 

Ok, then let’s eliminate the two refusals and you’re out rule. Go back to three, or even four. This type of thinking does not place horse welfare as a priority and holds no merit with me whatsoever. If you have five rails in a class, it is obviously not you or your horse’s day. Maybe it’s a tack issue or a training problem that needs addressing. Possibly one or both of you are over-faced and you need to jump lower. Whatever it is, jumping those last two or three fences is not going to fix the problem. 

What’s more, the rule will not affect the majority of riders. The following chart (Thank you for compiling, Sky!) breaks down number of rounds the 20 fault elimination rule would affect, based on results at Desert International Horse Park during the Desert Holiday II show in December 2021.

WEDNESDAY1 (Welcome Speed)3 (1.10m)7 (>1.0m)11 of 2754%
THURSDAY2 (1.40m)7 (1.15–1.30m)4 (0.7–0.8m)6 (1–1.10m)19 of 3625%
FRIDAY1 (1.40m)2 (1.30m)6 (1–1.10m)1 (0.7m)10 of 3003%
SATURDAY3 (up to 1.55m)02 (1.10m)3 (0.7–0.9m)6 0f 2882%
SUNDAY5 (1.35–1.45m)04 (0.75–1.05m)3 (0.7–0.9m)9 of 1795%
Total Average %3.8%

As you can see, the rule would affect less than 5% of rounds and all the classes were affected in a fairly uniform manner.

2. If the horse is not injured, you should be allowed to finish. 

First, you cannot be certain the horse is not injured. 

Second, even if you are not doing physical damage to the horse due to today’s light equipment and flat cups, it is emotionally defeating for a horse to have multiple rails. This I have seen hundreds of times and, in my opinion, it is indisputable. 

Many people have said what about the schoolmaster who has five or six rails every class and gets their rider safely to the finish line every time? It is true there are a few amateur riders that practice little and like the glamour of competition. If these riders are being eliminated after, say, fence 8, they will be more motivated to train and improve their score. In my mind, that’s a win/win for the coaches, the sport, and the horses as they will receive better riding. 

At the same time, a maximum faults rule may encourage riders to not show at heights that are too difficult for themselves or their horse. If you consistently have five or more rails, put your ego aside and move down a division, or two.

3. Sometimes the horse and rider need to work through an issue in the ring. 

Ok, now this is a gray area. There are many possible scenarios here and a book would be needed to discuss all of them. So I’ll keep it simple. If the horse has had four or more rails on the course, in the best interest of good horsemanship some adjustments need to be made. This could be the height of the jumps, equipment, training, riding, etc. Fix the issue at home or in the schooling ring, not the competition ring.

4. Should we be mandating good horsemanship? 

This is a question from a judge, and it’s a good one. I believe yes, a high standard needs to be set. It would be nice if the industry monitored itself through peer pressure and best business practices. That is not how human nature works.

5. Having rails to prepare the horse for the big class. 

Sound preposterous to you? Well, I know a lot of little secrets of this game, and this is a common one. Going out and having four or five hard rubs/rails in the warm-up class happens. Now with the more modern show schedules, it happens much less than it used to, as often you must qualify for the Grand Prix, so a good score is necessary to compete in the big class. You still see it from time to time, though.

Where do we go from here?

Many readers, some of them Grand Prix riders, have pointed out that that this rule proposal should apply to certain levels and not others. For instance, young horse classes or lower junior/amateur classes where the riders are in the early learning stages should not have a limit. It has been pointed out that there are 20+ fault rounds at the FEI level and the horse is not in any discomfort or jeopardy. 

I certainly see the merit in these viewpoints. If it came into practice, I would not overly object. 

For the sake of this article, I am supporting that my proposal is for all divisions. Just as the two refusal rule is consistent throughout, for the sake of all competitors and fans, it is best for continuity. Just two months ago there was a large uproar over the dotted line in an Equitation National Final. Apparently, some of the competitors/coaches in the class did not know the rule, which resulted in elimination. My philosophy is simple is clearest and so I am a proponent of a blanket rule.

Other people have suggested that 20 faults are too many, the number should be lower. I also agree with this discussion. I have spent many hours getting feedback and came up with this number as the fairest. 

In a perfect world, we wouldn’t need to set an elimination rule after a certain number of rails. I would love to see every rider put their horse’s welfare first and exhibit good horsemanship. I would like to see the education system upgraded to teach what’s right and wrong. And as a course designer, I am always hoping every round is clear and successful. Nobody wants to see 20+ faults in the ring, ever

I also would like the animal activist extremists to realize how wonderfully most of our horses are treated and how happy they are with their lives. 

Unfortunately, that fantasy world does not exist, so it is up to us all to take the necessary steps to make for a better tomorrow. In the interest of good sportsmanship, the future of the sport, and most importantly our love of horses, I believe there should be a 20 jumping fault limit to a show jumping round. If you think so too, I invite you to sign my petition.

What do you think of a maximum faults rule?

Feature image: Shane Sweetnam at the Tokyo2020 Games. @Shannon Brinkman Photography