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FEI President Ingmar De Vos: “We need to redefine the role of the horse in society”

Tuesday, 19 April 2022
Interview

Photo © FEI FEI President Ingmar De Vos. Photo © FEI.

 

Text © World of Showjumping

 


 

At the Longines FEI Jumping World Cup™ Final 2022 in Leipzig, Germany, World of Showjumping was invited to join a round table interview session with FEI President Ingmar De Vos and FEI Secretary General Sabrina Ibáñez. “It has been so long since we have had the possibility to see people and go to events, so we thought to use this opportunity to have an open conversation and answer the questions you have and to inform about what is going on at our side,” FEI President Ingmar De Vos said as the round table got underway.

Two years of global challenges

The FEI World Cup™ Finals 2024 have been allocated to Riyadh (KSA) and when asked about the possible human rights issues in the country, both De Vos and Ibáñez explained how as a sports federation the FEI must remain apolitical. As to the current situation in Ukraine, they detailed how the FEI is working closely with the European Equestrian Federation and the Ukrainian Equestrian Federation.

“After Covid-19, we were confronted with the EHV-1 outbreak here in Europe and had to cancel competitions in mainland Europe for quite a while,” De Vos said about the global challenges that equestrian sports have faced in the past two years. “Then, when everything started to open up again, the horrible situation in Ukraine has its impact on us and the sport in general.”

Our sport is living, it is continuing and thriving, and we see an increase in the participants and events

“I would like to say that in general, when we look at all these events that took place, we are very proud of, and happy with, our community; everyone was so resilient and continued working,” De Vos said. “We are of course very lucky that besides being a sport we are also an industry. I would say the lower-level international shows that are more for the industry to produce horses went on, so we had a lot of events that even during the Covid-19 pandemic continued to take place. It was mainly the high-level events that were affected, events that need spectators in order to be able to be organised financially viable.”

“We had two FEI World Cup™ Finals in a row that had to be cancelled so we are very happy that we are back on track and we hope to be back on track for the coming years,” De Vos said looking back at 2020 and 2021. “We are very excited that we are already allocating FEI World Cup™ Finals for the years to come. Our sport is living, it is continuing and thriving, and we see an increase in the participants and events. We also have some important events in our calendar this year: We have the FEI Sports Forum coming up, where one of the most important topics will be the Olympic regulations for Paris 2024, after having approved the qualification system at our General Assembly in Antwerp in November last year. We are looking forward to this very open discussion. We also have our World Championships in 2022, we are excited to go to Herning in Denmark. We have our General Assembly in November, where we hope these Olympic regulations will be approved so that they can go for final approval to the IOC [Editor’s note: International Olympic Committee] so that everybody knows how things will work for Paris. That is a bit our schedule.”

Maintaining flexibility

Speaking of the difficulties the global uncertainty has created for event organisers, and the Calendar Task Force that was created to help with the issues in the FEI calendar, Sabrina Ibáñez said: “We have quite a number of events in the calendar; currently 5300 events. We had more in the beginning of the year, but we have seen a bit of a reduction. We will be allocating the FEI World Cup™ Finals for 2025 and 2026 at the June board meeting. Regarding the General Assembly, it will take place from the 9th to 13th of November in Cape Town. Things are looking positive.”

We are living in a situation that is ruled by European legislation where the principle of free market is very strongly embedded, and we need to ensure that our rules are in line

“We have maintained flexibility when it comes to modifying dates in the calendar, as things are still quite uncertain,” Ibáñez continued. “We do understand [Editor’s note: The difficulty for small organisers] and we have been seeing certain organisers who are indeed putting in quite a number of events and then cancelling, but always within the dates, using these rules and we are fully aware of that and we are discussing how we can help this to stop becoming the norm in the future. There is Covid, there is EHV-1, but we must remain vigilant and ensure this does not become a common issue in the future.”

“For 2022 the situation is still uncertain,” De Vos filled in. “We need to be flexible but of course we need to look to the future and also learn lessons from all of this. We need to avoid a situation where people are going to fill up the calendar with events that are not going to take place. It is always about finding a balance and we are doing that. We are living in a situation that is ruled by European legislation where the principle of free market is very strongly embedded, and we need to ensure that our rules are in line.”

The future of the Nations Cup

“The Nations Cup is our oldest series and very important for National Federations, especially since they can make the selection of the athletes,” De Vos said when asked about his thoughts on the reducing number of events in the FEI Nations Cup™-series for 2022. “The reality is that we are living in a very competitive world: 30 years ago there was not a lot of competition in the calendar but now we see that there is a huge competition in the calendar. We are working very hard to see how we can make the series sustainable for the future, but we need to make some changes, I believe. We need to keep the format attractive, but we also need to have some control over it. Nowadays, National Federations decide which event in their countries will have the CSIO status. Compared to the World Cup where the FEI allocates a World Cup status to an event, for the Nations Cup events it is the National Federations that do it."

Our priority is of course to keep this series alive and make it better than ever

"We have seen a fallout of some events, so we need to look at how we can make the series sustainable for the future," De Vos said. "For 2023 I think we have found a solution, but we still have to discuss with the organisers. But it is time to think about what the future of the Nations Cup will be, and how we will organise it. It was one of the two topics I found on my desk when I started in the FEI in 2011. I think one of the good things we did in 2012 was to decide to create a final for the series, which has been successful. But I feel like in the build-up to the final we need to make further improvements, and this is where we are working. Our priority is of course to keep this series alive and make it better than ever.”

Olympic regulations for jumping

Over the last years, and especially after the Tokyo Olympics, there has been a lot of debate about the Olympic regulations for jumping, with the format and number of flags being the centre of the discussions. At the FEI Sports Forum in Lausanne at the end of April, the Olympic regulations return to the agenda and it is one of the topics to be discussed, Ibáñez explained.

“On the 7th December we sent out a consultation for those NFs [Editor’s note: National Federations] who either participated or qualified for the Olympic Games in Tokyo and asked their input on how the regulations could be improved,” Ibáñez explained about the decision-making process regarding the Olympic regulations. “We also sent it to the officials, to the committees, to those we have an MOU [Editor’s note: Memorandum of Understanding] with, and we asked for their input by the 15th of February. We gathered that information, had a meeting with them in March and then got more feedback. The Technical Committees are now reviewing that feedback. On the 15th of April the Technical Committees will send out the documents regarding what they see could work as the Olympic regulations and then on the 25th of April we will have discussions with the entire community on each of these regulations. We will take this feedback back to the Technical Committees and on the 6th of July the first draft of the Olympic regulations goes out. Then four weeks prior to the General Assembly, the final regulations go out and then at the GA – God willing – the Olympic regulations will be approved. It is a whole process with NFs, stakeholders, everybody – to get to the best possible Olympic regulations.”

The discussion about the teams is over for Paris

“The discussion about the teams is over for Paris,” Ibáñez continued speaking about the format of three riders, rather than four, per team. “We have to move on. We had a separate vote at the General Assembly in November last year and it was clear that it will be teams of three and we made it clear that we are not discussing that again. We’ve got to move over to discuss the MERs [Editor’s note: Minimum Eligibility Requirements], the qualification events, etc.”

“The order of the competition; to do the team competition before the individual competition, MERs,” De Vos continued about the topics that will still be up for discussion ahead of Paris 2024. “Combinations that will go to Paris need to meet certain standards. They had to do that in the past too, we had a strong system of MERs in place for Tokyo as well. However, due to the Covid situation there was just no possibility for all the athletes to get to shows to gain these so we had to do as in other sports – we had to be flexible.”

“And let me say about the decision-making process: I would invite you to look at the decision-making process in other organisations and International Sports Federations. I think we can truly say that our one is by far the most democratic one, with all these different stages and possibilities for people to provide input,” De Vos continued. “It is not the same in every federation, so I think we can say that we are very proud of this process. This is a proposal that we approve that goes to the IOC, because it is their Games, and they sign of the rules. That is why it was also very important in the previous consultation process that they clearly made a point of how they see this competition should be for them, at their Games, in order to be interesting, especially for a wider audience. And there I think we were successful.”

The IOC decides

“The proposals come from the federations, but I know the Olympic Agenda 2020 and 2020 +5 very well. We have received the criteria for Los Angeles that will be used to decide the sports program for LA 2028 – and it is thorough, it is strong: The recommendations from the IOC are not vague, they are very clear in what they want to achieve,” De Vos continued. “We get the instructions from the IOC, but they of course leave to each federation to come up with possible solutions – but the criteria are clear. Let’s not forget that the revenue of the IOC mainly comes from selling TV rights,” De Vos explained about the importance of appealing to a wider audience.

The recommendations from the IOC are not vague, they are very clear in what they want to achieve

“They don’t look at it from sport to sport, they look at it from event to event. In our case, we have six events with three disciplines, and in each discipline we have the individual and team competition – they look at each event. We have received a very detailed report from the IOC about the performance of the different sports; in the media, TV, the number of viewers, in social media, the digital performance. All of this is measured and this is taken into the equation in the IOC, and IOC decides which sports and which disciplines will be on the sports program. We performed relatively well digital, but there is one clear trend; you see a clear switch from the traditional broadcasting to digital. People want to choose what they want to see.”

Always open

When asked if the FEI will be open to discuss the Olympic format after Paris, De Vos said: “We are always open to talk about the format but we need to be realistic as well. I think the IOC made it clear already for Paris what their criteria are, and we need to see what the criteria will be for LA and later for Brisbane. We are always open for discussion, but we need to really understand what the parameters are, and the quota for the Olympic Games is not going to increase. We live in a very competitive world with other sports, not only with the ones that are already in the Olympic program but also with those who are knocking on the door. The Olympics are owned by the IOC and it is at the end for them to decide what they want to see at their event, and we have to accommodate."

We live in a very competitive world with other sports

"It is not like the World Equestrian Games or European Championships where we can decide, the Olympics are a different story and we need to accommodate to the wishes of these organisers. Otherwise, maybe we don’t have a place there. We need to work very hard and to stay in the Olympic family is one of the main priorities of the FEI next to horse welfare and some other topics,” De Vos said.

Voting system

With De Vos comparing the FEI’s governance to other International Sports Federations, WoSJ asked if there would be willingness to consider alternative voting systems. “The majority of the International Federations apply the one nation, one vote-system,” De Vos answered. “There are some other federations that have other systems in place. I always say, we are open. If there are proposals to change the system, we are open. Personally, I am quite happy with the existing system because in the end, the decision-making process with the National Federations that are involved in the sport, they are around the table. If you look at the composition of our Technical Committees – who in the end are the ones who are preparing the proposals for the rules – those are mainly the federations that are big and strong in the sport. So, I think there is a clear process there. Now, if there are other ideas to do it differently, we are always open to that. But there is one thing one should not forget; such changes will require an important majority at the General Assembly – two thirds.”

If there are proposals to change the system, we are open

“When I arrived in the FEI there was a process ongoing for ten years, where the focus was on the governance, on the voting system of the General Assembly, the composition of the board, etc,” De Vos pointed out. “And it led nowhere, it was ten years of discussion with no conclusion in the end. At a certain moment, it is time to maybe come to the conclusion that there is no solution and maybe things were not so bad, maybe we can now go back and focus on our business – which is the sport. That is why I am not really a big fan of opening this process. I think we have a very good decision-making system, which in 2012 introduced the FEI Sports Forum. Before, there was a General Assembly once a year but no real possibility to discuss with relevant stakeholders. It is very important to involve athletes, organisers, officials and of course National Federations in the preliminary discussions, that is why it is so important to have a Sports Forum where people can come together and have an open discussion – not only the NFs that are voting at the GA, but everybody. That is where our Technical Committees can get good feedback: Is it relevant what we are proposing; or these are topics we need to address.”

Dialogue with the riders

At the International Jumping Riders Club’s (IJRC) General Assembly in December, the riders were yet again frustrated as they feel the FEI are not taking their concerns and opinions into consideration – and WoSJ asked about the FEI’s President’s view.

We really want to work together and improve the communication, but the voice of the athletes has already been heard within the FEI for a long time

“First of all, we have Athlete Representatives in each Technical Committee, the Chair of an Athlete’s Commission is member of the Board and member of the Executive Board, so there is already a lot in place,” De Vos answered. “I think there is a bit of frustration with the IJRC about the decision of our General Assembly in November, but they were consulted, so it is not like there was absolutely no communication. We have identified together that we can make improvements and we have now already had two meetings with the representatives of the IJRC. I think we had very constructive dialogue already a couple of months ago with them. We really want to work together and improve the communication, but the voice of the athletes has already been heard within the FEI for a long time. I hear them; we are improving the communication.”

The International Grooms Association

Also on the agenda for this year’s FEI Sports Forum is the International Grooms Association. The FEI President gave an update on status quo of this project.

“In the past, it has been one of my ambitions to integrate the grooms into the FEI,” De Vos explained. “I have been involved in the sport for more than 30 years and as a Chef d’Equipe I was always a bit surprised that grooms did not exist in a formal perspective. They play a very important role in our sport, especially for the welfare of the horses because they are, on a day-to-day basis, responsible for these horses. I made it one of my important points, to have this discussion about the role of the grooms and what can we do for them – what is their role, how can we help with their education and how can we support them and protect them more? We were the drivers to create the International Grooms Association, and we will formalise that relationship by signing an MOU with them in which we basically will lay down what our obligations are. I really look forward to having a formal relationship with the grooms, and give them a voice in our organisation because they are key stakeholders in my view.”

I really look forward to having a formal relationship with the grooms, and give them a voice in our organisation because they are key stakeholders in my view

“The intention is to come to a charter for the grooms where we want to open a discussion with the different groups of people involved –  athletes, owners, NFs – to give a better definition of how these relationships should be,” De Vos continued. “One of the reasons I believe it is important to formalise the grooms’ role is to defend their rights, because we know there is potential of abuse when their status is not clear. We need to support them in creating this framework of what are good practises and what are not. I know grooms sometimes need to work very long hours and drive the lorry for many kilometres after a show finishes. I think we need better framework on what their rights are and under what conditions they should work. I also think the organisers are important in these discussions because in the past the grooms sometimes have not been seen as the most important ones. We also want to create awareness with the organisers to really recognise the grooms.”

When asked about the lack of regulations when it comes to starting times of FEI competitions – which at certain events leads to classes running late at night, followed by early mornings and no sleep for the grooms – De Vos said: “I would love that, I also like to go to sleep on time. There is no such rule at the moment because the situation of shows is different – if a show starts at 7am and goes on until 1 am the next day, that is an issue. But some shows start very late and run until late, that is different. But I agree with you, this needs to be looked at. This is one of the topics that can be tackled at the FEI Sports Forum when we talk about the standards for shows, they need to be reasonable. And that is not only for the grooms, that is for the horses, athletes and the officials as well.”

Horse welfare and the social license to operate

Equestrian sports are the subject of criticism from many animal welfare organisations, such as f.ex. PETA, that want the IOC to drop these sports from the Olympics. When asked about how seriously the FEI is taking these different organisations and their initiatives, and how the FEI sees their work in promoting and protecting horse welfare moving towards the next Olympic Games, De Vos said: “It is a very good and actual question, and very high on our agenda. It is all about the social license to operate. First of all, horse welfare is always the first priority in the FEI. We have over the years done a lot of research to improve the situation and also taken a lot decisions, changed our regulations in a sense that in specific horse abuse cases we can – we normally only have jurisdiction during the period of an international event, from the horse inspection to 30 minutes after the last event – but we have expanded that three years ago so that we have a possibility in cases of horse abuse to start legal proceedings even for events that happen outside the FEI jurisdiction. This is all reactive, and in our rules and in our own organisation and community.”

“However, what I believe is important in the whole discussion is that we need to redefine the role of the horse in the society,” De Vos pointed out. “I think many people, the wider public, do not really understand the role of the horse in our society, and why our sport is justified. I think we need to re-educate, but we also need to educate our community: To explain that some practices that maybe were acceptable 100 years ago are not ok anymore, so it goes both ways.”

It is all about the social license to operate

“We had a brainstorming about a committee, where we involved the World Horse Welfare Organisation to think about what this could look like,” Ibáñez continued. “We need to establish a commission and what we based us on is what we did in 2009 following the Beijing Games – with the Clean Sport Commission. We are thinking about organising a committee like that. Basically, find a similar structure, of having different focus groups looking at different areas, so you would have scientific, the juridical, the education… The idea is to establish a charter by which this commission would work and establish these focus groups and then come up with proposals, recommendations and a charter. We have identified certain persons that could be the chair – we would like someone not necessarily inside the sport, that has a larger overview, but is aware of these types of issues. We are now in the process of approaching that person, the idea is to hopefully have it worked out in the coming months.”

“The goal is to create a framework, not only be reactive,” De Vos continued. “The society has evolved, and I feel that we in our communication have not done enough to catch up – to keep the society informed. We are living more and more in cities; big parts of society do not have any contact with nature and animals and we need to explain the horse and what the horse brings. We believe we need to re-engage with the broader community and redefine the role of the horse. But we need to look inside of ourselves also, and take action within our own community and within our own rules and regulations to make them more actual compared to what they are today. That is why this commission needs to be independent. We need well respected academic independent people to look at it and tell us what we need for this framework.”

Standing for third term

“I have given it quite some thought and the applications need to be in before 1st of May,” De Vos said when asked if he will stand for election for a third term as the FEI President. “I will stand again for election, for the third and last term. Given what has happened with Covid, I must say I still have some things that need to be done, we still have some topics on my program with some work to do. I still feel fit and like I can contribute to this community, so I am happy to stand again and I feel I have some support. But again, it is an election so maybe there will be other, better candidates.” 

 

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