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Santiago Varela on the time penalty regulations: “The core of the discussion is not the rule itself, but how it reflects the underlying issues”

Tuesday, 14 June 2022

Photo © Dirk Caremans/
“Our sport is complex, and we rarely have a situation of one absolute truth,” Santiago Varela says. Photo © Dirk Caremans/


Text © World of Showjumping



Since the beginning of 2022, a change in the FEI Jumping Rules has come to affect the number of penalties riders can obtain during their rounds. Exceeding the time allowed is now penalized with one penalty for each second commenced, whereas before, one fault was added for every four seconds.

The rule change was implemented with the aim to have all riders carry out a similar course. Under the previous rule, riders could take eight more seconds to finalise a course and would only be penalised by two points. The United States Equestrian Federation was one of the stakeholders arguing in favour of a rule change, stating: “(…) we believe that time is a crucial element to the sport and the penalties should be reflective of how close an athlete is to meeting the time allowed. This is especially true in Nations Cup competitions. There is a significant difference of 0.5 seconds over the time allowed versus 3.5 seconds over the time allowed and the penalties should be commensurate of the performance.”

Other federations were against the rule change, arguing that a whole penalty point for each second commenced would be too harsh – instead suggesting a penalty of 0.5 per second.  

Following the rule change, the discussions have continued – with many riders being concerned about its consequences.

World of Showjumping spoke with Santiago Varela – the Spanish course designer and mastermind behind the Olympic tracks in Tokyo – to gain a better understanding of the rule.

“Our sport is complex, and we rarely have a situation of one absolute truth,” Varela begins. “What I believe should be at the core of the current discussion, is not the rule itself but how it reflects the underlying issues. There are several aspects that come into play here: The hind boot rule, the time penalty rule, as well as the speed and height requirements. Currently, all of these aspects are affecting the sport at the same time, even though everyone seems to only focus on the time penalty rule. However, I like to have a wider view. And while I am in favour of the rule, I can understand the concern.”

A general concept of four elements

“In terms of the sport, it is very simple: The rule aims to make the sport more equal for everyone,” Varela points out, referring to the fact that riding in a slower pace than required previously left riders placed higher than those with a pole down in the correct pace.

“Everyone who competes, should ride the same course: Those who have a pole down when they are trying to win must be compensated for their effort. Previously, you had four seconds to get the second fault, eight to get the third and after 12 seconds over the time allowed you got four faults – and 12 seconds is approximately 15 strides! Under the new rule, one can argue that a refusal is penalized too much, but in my opinion, refusals should be penalized; if you have a refusal on course, you were not able to answer the questions asked,” Varela says.  

This rule is not against horses; in fact, it protects them

The rule change also promotes correct course building and precise riding, and therefore benefits the horses, Varela points out. “This rule is not against horses; in fact, it protects them,” he explains. “Teachers need to teach their riders to ride in the correct pace, riders need to perform well, and course designers cannot use the time allowed artificially. Furthermore, this rule affects the courses; you don’t see huge heights anymore. Before, we were making fences bigger and wider. This year, you have not seen a single Grand Prix – neither three nor five-star – built too high. Course designers are there to make sure the horses can perform well, and we need to work with a general concept of four elements: Speed, height, time penalties and hind boots – all of which work in favour of the horses.”

The course designer’s responsibility

The new time penalty rule reveals how the course designers are doing their job, Varela points out. “They can no longer use the time allowed as an instrument to artificially increase the difficulty of the course,” Varela says. “The time allowed is calculated between the distance you have measured multiplied by the speed, and as a course designer you must measure with the wheel – you simply need to do your job! However, we can make mistakes; everyone can misjudge. Riders don’t always ride correct either and on that day they don’t win. The rule is only reflecting underlying issues and going back to the old rule would mean keeping an artificial tool in place.”

Going back to the old rule would mean keeping an artificial tool in place

Once the class has started, the Ground Jury in consultation with the course designer may alter the time allowed, if they feel a significant error has been made in measuring the course – something Varela believes should be regulated differently. “In my view, I don’t like the rule of being able to reduce the time allowed once the class has started. This is only for the ego of the course designer. Increasing the time allowed is another question: If there is a significant error – and in my point of view one second is not a significant error – you can produce accidents. Most riders are able to recover one second on course though, not all of them, but most top riders can do that. I think being allowed to increase the time allowed once the class has started is in favour of the horses – and rules always have to be that way. Therefore, I would keep the rule of being allowed to increase the time allowed but not allow decreasing.”

How commercial do we have to be?

Some have argued that a growing number of penalties can have a negative effect when it comes to the commercial side of the sport – namely horse sales. “The sport cannot live without the business, and vice versa,” Varela says. “However, our sport is not simply mathematic; we have to protect the horses. To me, the question is: How commercial do we need to be? In terms of business, we have to consider the way of announcing and displaying the penalty points – otherwise, the number of penalties will be confusing in a commercial sense. In the States, for example, different penalties are announced separately; the speaker makes a difference between penalties on the fences and penalties caused by exceeding the time allowed.“

Young horses need time to learn

Many of those against the rule are of the opinion that it puts too much pressure on the young horses. “In my view, the question is not about the rule,” Varela says. “As a course designer, when you are measuring a course for young horses or amateurs, you cannot measure as you would at the highest level; it is obvious you cannot make the lines and turns equal. First of all, a course designer needs to measure in the right line. Secondly, the time allowed is simply a product between the meters of the course multiplied by the speed. If riders are not staying inside the time, it means one of these elements is wrong. If young horses are not able to keep up to the minimum speed, then we need to reduce the speed.”

When you are measuring a course for young horses or amateurs, you cannot measure as you would at the highest level

“Young horses need time to learn and if they are slower than we thought, we have to look at the speed requirements, not the penalty rule,” Varela says. “Before, we did not take this into account; young horses gathering one or two time faults did not look bad. However, we are still discussing a range of 12 seconds – that has not changed, only how it looks on the result list. The issue is actually that young horses are not performing at the speed required; which means the speed is wrong, not the rule.”

Varela believes that some factors – such as the hind boot rule which only allows boots for protective purposes, as well as the required speed – have bigger consequences in the amateur classes than at the highest level. “Amateurs are not able to ride in the same speed as before because the extra energy the hind boots were producing in the horses is not there anymore,” he says, referring to a rule change that came into effect at all FEI events in January 2021. “Most likely, you cannot use the speed of 375 meters/minute because amateurs are not able to ride in this pace.”

Getting used to new rules takes time

“Obviously, it takes time to adjust to new rules,” Varela concludes. “I remember the first time I built a class with one penalty for one second in a national class in Wellington. I nearly had a heart attack when Beezie Madden had three time faults! I ran to the jury box like Carl Lewis sprinting 100 meters, only to be told ‘Santi, don’t worry – this is an American rule with one penalty for one second.’ I thought Beezie had exceeded the time allowed by 12 seconds and was not able to understand my mistake. Everyone laughed when I arrived in the jury box; I was on a verge of a heart attack and could not return to the arena. I believe this is the feeling everyone is having at the moment.”




*Editor’s note:

At the beginning of 2022, the FEI Jumping Rules article 236.1 (vii) was changed. Under the rule change, exceeding the time allowed in all competitions run as a Table A is penalized with one penalty for each second commenced instead of the previous one penalty point for each four seconds commenced.

According to the article 227 in the FEI Jumping Rules, “(…) the time allowed for a round in each competition is determined in relation to the length of the course and the speeds set forth under JRs Art. 234 and Annex II.” Longines Ranking competitions counting for Longines Ranking point groups AA through D at CSIs and CSIO come with a minimum and maximum speed requirement: 375 m/minute minimum and 400 m/minute maximum outdoors and 350 m/minute minimum indoors. For young horse competitions, a speed of 325 m/minute is a minimum.


No reproduction without written permission, copyright © World of

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