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EEF President Theo Ploegmakers: “Horse welfare must be the no. 1 topic in every discussion about our sport”

Wednesday, 15 December 2021
Interview

Photo © EEF “The whole world is watching us and our regulatory bodies have to be sensitive, categorical and proactive. Downplaying, avoiding or delaying the discussion about horse welfare incidents that occurred during Tokyo 2020, that were actually broadcasted to the broad public around the world, is not wise and may lead our community to an “ostrich situation”,” Theo Ploegmakers says. Photo © EEF.

 

Text © World of Showjumping

 


 

World of Showjumping asked Theo Ploegmakers, the President of the European Equestrian Federation (EEF), to share his thoughts on the discussion around the Olympic format introduced in Tokyo, the qualification system for Paris 2024 – which was approved at the FEI Hybrid General Assembly last month – and on how the current FEI voting system could be improved to represent the sport in a more accurate manner.

Improvements needed

“The FEI voting system is democratic, but it is obviously not representative of the allocation of sport capacity and knowledge in the global equestrian community,” Ploegmakers says. “The current voting system may still be working for General Matters, for example matters of global common interest such as elections of President and Committees, Olympic Games and matters of rules and development such as General Rules, Solidarity, etc. But the current voting system is inefficient, slow and probably even distorting when it comes to Specialized Matters, like top sport, commercial matters, regional issues, etc.”

“The voting system has to be improved and this can be done in different ways,” Ploegmakers continues. “Options could be keeping the existing system for General Matters and introducing a more representative voting system for Specialized Matters, or adopting a more flexible and modern decision-making process for Specialized Matters, that will not be dependent on the existing General Assembly approvals and votes. Alternatively, considering weighted voting systems already used by other international federations of Olympic sports, such as the BWF (badminton), the FIS (skiing), the FISA (rowing) and the IIHF (ice hockey) could be an option. The EEF has brought up this subject with substantiated arguments to the FEI already since 2018. If there is political understanding and will, and provided this is allowed by Swiss Law, we can do it also in our sport to serve our common interests."

 

The FEI voting system is democratic, but it is obviously not representative of the allocation of sport capacity and knowledge in the global equestrian community

 

While other sports already have weighted voting systems in place, Ploegmakers believes that for the FEI it should not be a matter of copying, but being open to whatever is the best solution for our unique sport which involves horses and horse welfare. “I have no specific preference to an existing voting system, as the systems used by other Olympic federations are custom made according to their needs and particularities,” he points out. “The FEI must bravely and openly discuss with its member NFs and create a voting system that will be allowed by Swiss Law, will serve our sport the best way and be modern, relevant and efficient for the next 10-15 years, as well as representative of the allocation of sport capacity and knowledge in the global equestrian community.”

While the EEF already actively has questioned the current voting system, they have seen small improvements made by the FEI. “Based on the EEF Report and our initiative, the FEI has already introduced an associated membership for new NFs that want to become members,” Ploegmakers explains. “An associated member NF has no voting rights until the level of the sport in that country has reached a certain level and they cannot vote on Olympic Games issues until they have taken part in the Games. This is not a change to the voting system, but it is a first step and an improvement, with more drastic changes hopefully to come soon.”

Operating with horse welfare in different social and legal environments

With 32 of the 136 FEI affiliated national federations currently having zero horses registered, and 20 between one to five horses, an important question is how the welfare of the horses can be safeguarded within the FEI framework when all countries have the same vote. “The bigger difference is not having “NFs with no registered horses” versus “NFs with 10.000 registered horses”,” Ploegmakers explains. “The main problem is that the NFs around the world do not operate in the same social and legal environment. In theory, horse welfare may be one thing for the FEI, but in practice, this is comprehended and realized differently in the different countries and societies around the world."

 

The main problem is that the NFs around the world do not operate in the same social and legal environment

 

"Countries that have no registered horses may very well have knowledge and be entitled to an opinion about horse welfare, but they do not have the same social pressures, the legal constraints and the financial impact that countries with 10.000 horses or more have," Ploegmakers says. "European NFs with millions of horses do not claim to be more horse welfare sensitive than NFs from other parts of the world. However, European NFs have immense social, government and EU attention and pressures and a huge equestrian community to answer to, that most other NFs around the world do not. This is why the rest of the world and the FEI need to understand that European national federations are not asking to have a different vote-weight on horse welfare, but they do demand that their sensitivities are heard and respected and, definitely, not dismissed when it comes to this.”

 

European NFs have immense social, government and EU attention and pressures and a huge equestrian community to answer to, that most other NFs around the world do not

 

“Having said that, the EEF, representing the European NFs and the European equestrian community, feels that the horse welfare issues related to Tokyo 2020 and the Olympic qualification system and rules, have not yet been addressed adequately within the global equestrian community,” Ploegmakers points out.

No evaluation as promised of the Tokyo Olympic Games

“The FEI had promised that after Tokyo 2020 an extensive evaluation would take place with all stakeholders involved,” Ploegmakers continues to detail. “All stakeholders showed patience and refrained from public statements, while waiting for the FEI to open this discussion, as promised. We understand that the time available was limited due to the postponement of Tokyo 2020, but it was still important for the EEF that an evaluation had been made and the outcome and possible improvements be published before the discussion and the vote at the FEI General Assembly. The EEF asked the FEI not to vote before the evaluation had been made and to see what could be improved. Instead, as it becomes obvious from the General Assembly resolutions, the FEI chose to turn this into a discussion of “three or four in the team” for Paris 2024, which for us was not the discussion."

 

EEF, representing the European NFs and the European equestrian community, feels that the horse welfare issues related to Tokyo 2020 and the Olympic qualification system and rules, have not yet been addressed adequately within the global equestrian community

 

"As we said during the General Assembly, for us the discussion was about the qualification system, the required technical level and the MERs for the Olympics in order to protect horse welfare and the image and fairness of our sport," Ploegmakers says. "In this respect, the EEF has argued that the FEI should have set up a more balanced qualification system where all teams and riders would have to qualify under the same conditions and rules. This would ensure that the teams and riders going to the Olympics would have proven that they are capable to participate on the level the Olympics represent, thus avoiding the participation of combinations that are not up to the standard and are damaging to the fairness, the image and the social acceptance of our sport.”

The world is watching

“Horse welfare must be the no. 1 topic in every discussion in our sport,” Ploegmakers points out. “The whole world is watching us and our regulatory bodies have to be sensitive, categorical and proactive. Downplaying, avoiding or delaying the discussion about horse welfare incidents that occurred during Tokyo 2020, that were actually broadcasted to the broad public around the world, is not wise and may lead our community to an “ostrich situation”,” Ploegmakers says.

 

Downplaying, avoiding or delaying the discussion about horse welfare incidents that occurred during Tokyo 2020, that were actually broadcasted to the broad public around the world, is not wise and may lead our community to an “ostrich situation”

 

“We must address these incidents, explain to the public and act swiftly to avoid such incidents repeating. This is the only way equestrian sports will remain acceptable to the broad public and our sport will enjoy and respect its “social license”. On the other hand, approving exactly the same qualification system for Paris 2024 without even discussing these incidents, their causes and their effect on our sport, gives a message that the equestrian community feels that Tokyo 2020 went perfect for the equestrian sports, which is not the case.”

Extensive and transparent discussions are needed before forming an opinion

Many riders have expressed frustration with the FEI, and some of their affiliated national federations, as they feel their opinions are being ignored. However, Ploegmakers believes that the European national federations are listening to their riders. “This is not black and white,” Ploegmakers says. “I do not believe that it is a matter of ignoring the opinions of the riders. National federations need to answer to their governments and to a number of stakeholders. When NFs reach decisions, they need to take many things into consideration, including of course the riders’ opinion. I believe that the EEF and the European national federations listen to the riders and work with them well, especially on sport matters. Sometimes the opinion of the riders becomes the position of the NFs and sometimes the opinion of the riders needs to be compromised along with opinions of other stakeholders to achieve what we hope is best for all because we are all in this together. The international riders need to have an ongoing communication with the FEI and the EEF, but also with their NFs at a national level. The way to ensure that the riders have a say, is for them to first convince directly their own national federations to adopt and support their positions.”

 

I believe that the EEF and the European national federations listen to the riders and work with them well, especially on sport matters

 

“In the recent case of the Olympic qualification system debate, the opinion of the European NFs and that of the riders were in agreement and we stood together in front of the global equestrian community at the FEI General Assembly 2021 in Antwerp,” Ploegmakers continues. “The fact that the FEI and the majority of the national federations around the world decided against our opinion, does not mean that they didn’t listen. It means they didn’t agree with our position and that is their right. It is perfectly ok to have a different position. However, before forming an opinion, it is important to have an extensive and transparent discussion and a real chance to present the facts and arguments. This is what was promised and did not happen in the case of the Tokyo 2020 debrief and the Paris 2024 Olympic qualification system debate, and this is what has brought frustration to the riders and to the EEF and its member NFs. Let’s hope this will not be repeated in the discussion of the Paris 2024 Olympic rules and in the discussion for the Los Angeles 2028 Olympic qualification system. The riders need to be ready for these discussions and to speak in advance to their NFs worldwide. The EEF will certainly be ready.”

 

Before forming an opinion, it is important to have an extensive and transparent discussion and a real chance to present the facts and arguments

 

No reproduction without permission, copyright © World of Showjumping.com



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