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Looking back at 2021– with Henk Nooren: “What everyone in the equestrian community should focus on as their main responsibility, is the welfare of the horse”

Friday, 31 December 2021

Photo © Jenny Abrahamsson/WoSJ "I think that the FEI talks a lot about horse welfare, but this is not enough – they also need to put their words into practice," Henk Nooren says. Photo © Jenny Abrahamsson for World of Showjumping.


Text © World of Showjumping



WoSJ looks back at 2021 with Henk Nooren, coach for the French A-squad, who sums up his thoughts on the year and shares his opinions on how the welfare of the horses must take centre stage in all areas of the sport.

“2021 began with the sport slowly getting going again after the Covid-crisis, but then we got hit by the EHV-1 and this once more stopped everything for a few weeks which meant the beginning of the year was very difficult to plan – except from in America where they could continue to show. However, at the start of 2021, all Europeans had the same problem," Nooren begins.

At the beginning of the pandemic, I had the idea that the break would benefit our sport in the way that it would make the riders feel a little bit less pressured to run from show to show.

"I was hoping it would make them do two-three shows in a row and then take a week off before they did a few more," Nooren continues. "Now I see that they unfortunately are back at rushing from show to show, week after week. So, as far as our sport is concerned, I can unfortunately not see any positives coming out of the pandemic. I would have hoped that we had learned something from it."

"Moving on to this summer, I think we had great sport at the Olympic Games in Tokyo," Nooren says. "This was in large thanks to Santiago Varela, the course builder, and Louis Konickx, who was technical delegate. They did a wonderful job in order to separate the top riders from the ones that perhaps shouldn’t have been in Tokyo."

I think the very, very best team came out on top, and also the best individuals, so we had a great Olympics as far as the actual sport was concerned.

"In the aftermath of the Olympics, there have been discussions between the FEI and their stakeholders about what the next Games should look like," Nooren says. "At the core of these discussions is the welfare of the horses, which the majority of the European stakeholders believe should be the single most important topic of the conversations we are having. Currently, many of us have the feeling this is no longer the case."

I think that the FEI talks a lot about horse welfare, but this is not enough – they also need to put their words into practice.

"The bad images we witnessed at the Olympics, are something we absolutely should try to avoid seeing a second time and this is why the European stakeholders keep pushing for four riders on a team with a drop score," Nooren points out. 

"This is not only about the FEI though; it’s about enough national federations putting pressure on the FEI too. Slowly, the riders have started to speak up – especially after the FEI General Assembly this autumn. We have Steve Guerdat that was the one who started to get vocal, and now more riders follow him – trying to get help from the media to get their message out," Nooren says. 

"However, if we can’t get the FEI voting system changed, we will stand no chance in their decision-making process," Nooren says. "For a long time, the national federations have known that the voting system does not work as it should. Already 10-15 years ago, the FEI started lobbying the smaller countries for every important decision that needs to be made. As a consequence, I believe we often end up with decisions that reflect the FEI’s own opinions but that are not necessarily in line with the opinion of the largest – in terms of the number of horses and riders – national federations. This is very frustrating, and it’s a pity that it’s like this."

We have to find a way to move forward from here.

"What everyone in the equestrian community, including the FEI as well as the national federations and all their officials, should focus on as their main responsibility at all levels and in all areas of the sport, is the welfare of the horse," Nooren says. "In my opinion, what we see today, is that the stewards don’t have the authority needed, so they also don’t dare to draw the line with the riders – and I’m talking about all levels here, those that jump 80cm and those in the very biggest classes. When a FEI steward sees something happening in the warm-up – or somewhere else on the show ground – that should not be happening, he or she should have the authority and the knowledge to say’ stop it here’. Even the judges at the Olympics are not brave enough to do that. They should also ring the bell and say, ‘stop it’."

"Personally, I would also like to see twelve faults as a limit and at thirteen penalties, you are out," Nooren points out. "It should not be possible to continue a round with anything above thirteen penalties. This will not be a round that is productive neither for you as a rider, nor for the horse, nor for the public, so I think the right thing to do under such a scenario is to leave the ring."

To be able to have the officials draw the line in the correct way, we have to start by re-educating them. 

"Then, when this has been done, we have to give them more authority. However, rule changes are needed so that the officials have the mandate to act in the best interest of the horse. It will still take a few more years until we have implemented such changes, because a lot has to be done to get all the FEI officials up to the level they should be at. As I said, the FEI talks a lot about welfare of the horse, but the way I see it, they are not acting enough on it,” Nooren closes off. 


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