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Marie Pellegrin: “The best riders in the world prefer not to upset anyone and look the other way”

Wednesday, 04 November 2020

Photo © Sportfot Marie Pellegrin. Photo © Sportfot.


Text by Lucas Tracol for GrandPrix ©, translated with permission for World of Showjumping. This article was first published by GrandPrix on October 8, 2020. 



Marie Pellegrin is tired. Tired of asking for more fairness in the sport, of asking for more communication and answers from the FEI, of seeing that too many of her colleagues are struggling to make a proper living from their profession… The French 41-year-old rider, who represented Switzerland between 2014 and 2019, is also afraid that animal welfare groups eventually will get involved in the debates concerning the sport. Straightforward and with passion, Pellegrin speaks out to GrandPrix. 


Q: In a social media post, you state that the CSI Invitation Rules should be given an overhaul in these special times where we are experiencing a health crisis and hence a very quiet period when it comes to the number of shows. In particular, you suggest that the world ranking could be split in two: One part for professional riders and another for amateurs. Where did you get this idea from?

A: I absolutely do not claim to have all the answers to the problems we are facing. However, by observing certain issues, I ask myself questions and I am not the only one. This affects riders, breeders, owners and competition organisers. If almost everyone is working with a loss, there is a problem…


Q: Is it correct that you disapprove of the fact that it’s possible to enter shows through pay-cards, which again makes it difficult for other riders to get in? 

A: The way I see it, things are going in the wrong direction – our industry is moving away from the ethics of the sport. The horses must be put back at the centre of the debate, because without them we are nothing. We see more and more amateurs able to pay to enter international competitions. We must also separate the different categories of competition: Nationals, CSI1* and 2*, then CSI3 *, 4* and 5*. I have the impression that we are getting more and more like sports such as sailing or Formula 1 [Editor’s note: Two sports with the reputation of being accessible only for athletes with financially strong sponsors]. For me, the small adjustments and other regulatory changes that are made are just short-term solutions when we should rather take advantage of this difficult and strange year to set things straight. 


The horses must be put back at the centre of the debate, because without them we are nothing


Q: To what extent do you think the horse is forgotten in the rules as they are today?

A: First of all, there is a problem as the horse is forgotten in the world ranking. There should be two rankings in use: The one that currently exists and one which takes horse-and-rider combination results into account [Author’s note: Such as dressage]. In my opinion, the latter should have the same value as the current ranking because the horse is the very foundation of our sport. A rider who has enough Grand Prix horses and who can take part in the Longines Global Champions Tour every weekend will automatically earn a lot more points than a rider with one single top horse. Additionaly, if you are not among the top thirty in the world you will have to pay an entry fee to compete and prove yourself. It’s difficult… Today, a rider who knocks at the door to the top level – and who has incredible talent – is forced to sell the horse. Take a look at tennis as an example: The young Hugo Gaston, 239th on the ATP world ranking, got an invitation from the French Tennis Federation for Roland Garros and almost won over world number three Dominic Thiem after beating Stanislas Wawrinka in the third round. It will change his career. Likewise, I believe that it is essential to constantly renew our sport. We have to give as many riders as possible access to competitions, to avoid ending up in a vacuum.

I have found myself in all situations and always try to put myself in other people's shoes. Some have very short memories; once they are at the top of the list, they forget everything else. However, we must remember that with horses the tables turn very quickly.


The rules must be the same for everyone, this is essential


Q: You think there is a lack of meritocracy? 

A: Yes, exactly. I think the priority should be to establish an official ranking for the amateurs, because I believe they would be happy with that. Without professionals competing against them, they would also be able to win. Of course, we have to distinguish two types of amateurs: At CSI3*, 4* and 5* level, some amateurs are very well equipped – both with very good trainers and very good horses. I recently took the example of José Maria Larocca, who is a very good rider that delivers a lot of clear rounds in the CSI4 * and 5* Grand Prix classes – at the same time, he has a profession in another field than sports. 

The difference between an amateur and a professional is that unlike the latter, the amateur does not make a living from the riding. The problem today is that a lot of professionals don't make a living from their profession anymore, although they have the skills and the desire to do so… I am not criticizing anything or anyone in particular, I am just putting my finger on a fact.

The rules must be the same for everyone, this is essential. Why not organise a CSI Amateur parallel to the CSI3*, 4* and 5* – during which the riders could train their clients? Another possibility would be that a professional, who usually competes at CSI4 * and 5* level, would not be allowed to ride a horse over seven years old in a CSI1 * Grand Prix, so the entries are limited. It might also be wise to create a percentage of amateur riders who are allowed to compete at 4* and 5* shows, once they have proven themselves in their own category. This could be a possible pathway, but a minimum level should be required to be allowed to compete among the professionals. 


If amateurs want to take part in the same shows as professionals, it seems logical that they comply with the law of sport: Performance


Getting through two courses with less than eight faults in a CSI3* or 4* Grand Prix to be allowed to jump at the Olympic Games as well as reducing the teams to three riders to make room for new nations is of no interest if they crash through a whole course. It’s not good for the riders, nor for the horses, nor for the public. I understand that you have to give everyone a chance, but a minimum set of skills is required to be able to make a horse jump in a 1.50m class. I don't see who could contradict me on this. And from experience, my clients would be delighted if there was a world ranking for amateurs only! For example – when participating in athletics, you first have to be able to run the 100m at a certain time. Equestrian sport is the only sport that mixes everyone up and makes it possible to compete in a CSI5* Grand Prix as long as you have paid for a good horse as well as a right to participate.

Speaking of the Olympic Games, it is essential that a long-lasting and prestigious structure can be built or improved for Paris 2024, rather than relying on an historical site like that of Versailles. This could benefit the entire French equestrian sector, because expenses and investments should not be confused with each other. 

Furthermore, by prohibiting draw reins, hind boots, etc, we are slapped on the wrist due to concerns over animal welfare. Rather than banning different practices, we should educate people. Horse abuse begins with ignorance. Having and taking care of a horse cannot be improvised and “the horse for everyone” is not a sustainable ambition. There is an animal involved. In Formula 1, half of the drivers on the starting blocks are there because their sponsors have paid for it. You could say that Jan Tops was inspired by Bernie Ecclestone [Editor’s note: Former chief executive of the Formula One Group, who revolutionised this sport as a pioneer in the sale of television rights]. Jan Tops is also extremely strong because he manages to make money in two ways: By organising shows as well as by selling horses that participate. Of course, our sport needs these brilliant people and these businessmen, and we are very happy that they organise competitions and that they bring in so many clients who have huge financial resources. However, we have to look at the rules so that they are the same for all the organisers.


 Basically, the way the world ranking works is the problem


When it comes to fairness in the sport, there are issues because the rules are not the same for everyone. The distribution of points to climb on the world ranking is de facto not fair. Basically, the way the world ranking works is the problem. I would like someone to explain to me… The International Jumping Riders Club (IJRC) owns the rights to the world ranking formula. In no other sport does the world ranking belong to a group that is represented by its fifty or one hundred best athletes. However, I'm part of this club – which does a great job and tries to fix a lot of issues. So – if we summarise: The world ranking belongs to the IJRC, the FEI is led by Jan Tops’ former right-hand man and is supposed to represent its riders ... However, the FEI takes decisions that go against what most riders want. It makes decisions without taking the opinions of those that keep the sport alive into account. 

In the open letter published by Stephan Conter [Editor’s note: That stated that the FEI is a “dictatorial, anti-democratic and freedom-depriving federation] there are things with which I agree, but deep down he preaches for his own parish. He says he would like to have the same rights as Jan Tops, but that is not the real issue. The real issue is that Jan Tops has rights which directly compete with the official FEI circuits. We are of course delighted that there are wealthy clients to sell horses to, I myself sold some to Bill Gates' daughter, or Reed Kessler, and I don't bite the hand that feeds me. I am simply asking for sports fairness so that professionals can make a living from their profession and that people who have talent and who work get their chance. If amateurs want to take part in the same shows as professionals, it seems logical that they comply with the law of sport: Performance.


Q: Are the people you have been able to talk with on the same line as you regarding separating the amateurs from the professionals on the ranking? 

A: Of course, almost everyone agrees with what I'm saying, but no one dares to speak about it – even though the IJRC is trying hard to shake things up. I am not in the inner circle of riders that take part in all the meetings and decide, but I hear all the time that they are not heard and that no dialogue is possible with the FEI. It’s a taboo subject, which even the media does not dare to address much either – but remember that we’re just talking about horse riding and only asking for answers to very simple questions.


Almost everyone agrees with what I'm saying, but no one dares to speak about it


Q: You were talking about animal welfare. Why do you say it has been put aside?

A: The lack of animal welfare exists at all levels: When it comes to people who take poor care of their horses – leaving them abandoned in a field, in stables that are badly managed by people with too little knowledge, among professional riders lacking the resources and who have to deliver that clear round so that the owners do not take their horses away, the amateur who at all costs want to compete in a 1.50m class even though he has never won a Grand Prix at 1.30m level and who crashes his horse in half of the fences… In addition, many take too lightly on this, but animal welfare groups might come after us soon. I believe in re-educating people and punishing unwanted behaviour, rather than banning things – because there is no point to that. If we put competent people around a table and rather have them make the decision as opposed to those who have no idea about the harsh reality for those out there working, the situation will be different.


Q: With the current system, shows are largely financed through entry fees paid by amateur riders. Is it still possible to reverse and deconstruct this?

A: The vicious cycle of pocketing money and thinking short term has its limits. You can see it in any field. We need to professionalise our profession again. Mixing together amateurs with professional riders as is currently done also opens for conflict of interests. Show organisers can also be horse dealers that sold the rider a horse alongside a right to compete at hers or his show, the rider is somehow related to the sponsor of the class and hence gets to jump – when it comes to entries there are many different scenarios which prevent clarity as to how many people pay and how much they pay to compete. 

We need everyone, but we have to have regulations that benefit the majority – just as in business. I am the daughter of two traders, and I have always been told that a business is successful when both customer and seller are happy. In our community, this is currently not the case.


 You have to be able to see things from other people’s perspectives, not only navel-gaze


Q: Is this something you have noticed more recently or is it a concern that has been there for longer?

A: No, it has been there for a long time. I must say that I am lucky to have parents who are jewellers but also riders. My father, who competed in eventing, was the owner of Galoubet A, as well as other jumping, eventing and racing horses. My mother was French Champion for female riders and my grandfather was a schoolmaster at the Cadre Noir. I was brought up with respect and love for the horses, with a taste for effort and work. However, I am well aware of having been privileged and that my parents were able to help me get started with good horses – and even more so with the best French riders such as Gilles Bertran de Balanda, Hervé Godignon, Hubert Bourdy ... Now, I earn my living from competing and selling horses… I just try to put myself in everyone else’s shoes.


Q: Do you feel like you are being heard?

A: Absolutely not, because every time the IJRC or the French Equestrian Federation tries to do something nothing comes out of it. The FEI is supposed to represent us, but when we ask questions, we don't get answers. The most influential ones are the thirty or fifty best riders in the world, but they don't really want to say anything because they have access to all the shows – they prefer not to upset anyone, so they look the other way. I don't judge anyone, especially since I myself was one of the hundred best in the world with only one horse, but you never know what can happen ... It only takes one horse to be lame and another to be sold to have a career change overnight. You have to be able to see things from other people’s perspectives, not only navel-gaze.


The FEI is supposed to represent us, but when we ask questions, we don't get answers


Q: Did you have the opportunity to discuss all of this with the world’s top ranked riders?

A: Yes, but it’s difficult. I have sometimes attended the IJRC’s annual meeting in Geneva, and some people stand up to make their voices heard – but eventually you end up hitting your head against a wall. The only one who really dares to talk about all of this is Steve Guerdat. If the national and international federations as well as the riders cannot work hand in hand, there is a problem. The FEI charges money from the riders, the organisers and absolutely everyone but gives nothing back. I would like to know where the money is going. For example, the FFE charges money but it also gives it back. More or less wisely of course – it is always possible to debate it – but we have no reason to complain. Compared to other countries, we have a very good federation.

Let’s not forget that the riding clubs are the first that nourish our national federation. At high level, we are very lucky to benefit from federation trainings supervised by Henk Nooren or Barnabas Mandi, to have help when taking part in CSIO shows – the most beautiful competitions and Nations Cups that a rider can take part of. Real sport belongs in large sand or grass rings, but certainly not in “sand boxes”. I shrugged last year when I saw that the elite riders met in Berlin for the Global Champions Tour, at a small and poor venue, while the same weekend you have CSI5* Dinard with one of the most beautiful rings in the world…

Furthermore, there is no other federation than the FFE which helps its riders so much. All this money comes from the clubs and it should not be forgotten. I believe that the riders on the French team should also give free-of-charge lessons to stables, or even offer coaches training. It would be a fair turnaround. I would also like to offer my services through the federation. I believe that to hope to receive, one must also know how to give.


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