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Rodrigo Pessoa is concerned about horse welfare as the FEI Jumping Committee supports Olympic formula with three horse-and-rider combinations per team

Tuesday, 16 November 2021
FEI Hybrid General Assembly 2021

Photo © Jenny Abrahamsson/WoSJ Rodrigo Pessoa. Photo © Jenny Abrahamsson for World of Showjumping.


Text © World of Showjumping



Three months after the Olympic Games in Tokyo, the FEI’s proposal for the qualification system for the 2024 Olympic Games is to be reviewed “as a priority for approval” by the FEI Hybrid General Assembly. Prior to the General Assembly, which takes place this week between 14-17 November in Antwerp, Belgium, the FEI Jumping Committee has in a report stated that it has “agreed to respect” the Olympic formula with three horse-and-rider combinations per team. Despite concerns sparked by the new format, the Committee does not support going back to teams of four with a drop-score.

Decorated riders such as Steve Guerdat, Ludger Beerbaum, Mclain Ward, Nick Skelton and Rodrigo Pessoa have been among those that have voiced criticism towards the system that was introduced for the Tokyo Olympics. Horse welfare has been cited as one of the biggest concerns among the riders. In their feedback to the FEI Jumping Committee on the Olympic qualification system for 2024, the American, French, German and Irish national federations also highlighted horse welfare as a concern in their evaluation of the format used in Tokyo. In the FEI Jumping Committee’s report to the FEI Hybrid General Assembly, these concerns have not been addressed. 

In the report, the Jumping Committee states: “Following receipt of the letter sent from the IOC to the FEI President, dated 3 November 2021, the Jumping Committee has agreed to follow the recommendations set forth by the IOC. For this reason, the Committee recommends to maintain the qualification system as proposed and is open to discuss with different stakeholders the best possible formats that can be found within the three athletes per team formula.”

The IOC recommendation that the Jumping Committee is referring to, is part of a letter to the FEI from IOC Sports Director Kit McConnell who reflects on what the IOC believes to be “(…) positive results of the changes the FEI made to the Tokyo 2020 Olympic qualification system and competition formats which moved to teams of 3 riders with no drop score as opposed to the 4 riders and a drop score which had been in place in previous Olympic competitions.”

In the letter, McConnell goes on to describe a number of benefits from the changes that were implemented: 

i. A direct increase in universality (or flags) within the Equestrian team events, which in turn engages with wider audiences for the event and greater opportunities for promotion and engagement in a wider number of territories.

ii. Each result being critical for the result of the event, aligning with the formats in place across nearly all other sports and events

iii. Being more understandable for the global audience, while showcasing the skills and performances of each individual rider and horse combination.

iv. Ensuring a more fair and equal level playing field for all participating NOCs rather than favoring the larger National Federations and NOCs

McConnell then concludes with writing: “For the reasons mentioned above, the IOC would welcome proposals for the Olympic qualification system and competition formats for Paris 2024 that maintain the same principles.”

The IOC, which will approve the qualification procedure for all sports at the Olympic Games in February 2022, does not address the horse welfare concerns raised by national federations, riders as well as animal welfare organisations, but is focusing solely on what they consider as the benefits of the format changes. 


To put the FEI Jumping Committee’s position into perspective, WoSJ asked Rodrigo Pessoa – a former member of the committee, Olympic Champion and competitor in Tokyo – a few questions. 


What is your opinion on the position of the Jumping Committee? 

“The Jumping Committee is a technical committee that makes recommendations to the FEI Executive Board and the FEI Bureau. Their job is to listen to the stakeholders to gather information, and based on this make the best recommendations possible,” Pessoa says. “On this particular topic, this is obviously not happening. First of all, I know for a fact that two of the members in the Jumping Committee are in favour of having four riders per team and a drop-score – so it’s not as unanimous as it is presented. Secondly, the Jumping Committee and the FEI are in my opinion hiding behind the IOC letter which does not contain recommendations but welcomes suggestions on the competition format. As we all know, the IOC does not interfere in rules and regulations. If the Jumping Committee would be impartial and would in effect listen to their most important stakeholders – such as the riders and the owners – their message would be totally different.”

What about the topic of horse welfare, that seems rather absent in the feedback from the Jumping Committee and the IOC?

“As riders, our biggest concern in all of this is horse welfare, because above all we are horse people,” Pessoa says. “We do this because we love the horses, and we want to protect the horses. Horse welfare is our priority. And that should be the priority for everyone involved here.” 

The IOC Sports Director lists a number of benefits from the format changes that were implemented for the Tokyo Olympics, what is your view here?

“I am all for an increase in universality as long as it does not affect the quality of the competition,” Pessoa says. “As to each result being critical for the result of the event, I can live with a format where you don’t carry your result over and restart on zero. It’s not what I like, but if compromises have to be made, I can live with that. When it comes to making the sport more understandable, I have to point out that it’s not complicated to follow a team competition format with four riders where the worst score is scratched off and then you have a total score. To me, saying it’s difficult to understand is a lame excuse. Have you ever tried to follow cricket? That’s way harder. As to the fourth and last point of ensuring a fair and level playing field for all participating NOCs, I don’t think it’s correct to make it easier to accommodate for everyone’s participation. It’s the Olympic Games, it’s the biggest event in the sport: If the competitors cannot jump 1.60, they probably should not be there. That’s why we have to strengthen the minimum eligibility requirements and make it much tougher than what it is now. You should be capable of participating multiple times at a high level with good results in order to get to go to the Olympics.”

“In my opinion, everyone involved needs to take an ego-check, and look at what we can improve here. Little changes would go a long way,” Pessoa says.

If it was up to you, what would the Olympic format for 2024 look like?

“First of all, this is my personal opinion, I am only speaking on behalf of myself here,” Pessoa says. “I would say 75 riders to start with, because that’s our number and we cannot move from that – how we allocate teams and individuals is up for discussion. The 75 all go on the first day in a 1.55 Table A competition. On day two, we have round one of the team competition set at 1.60m – open to teams of four with a drop score as well as the individuals that made it through the first round. Those individuals eliminated and retired in round one, do not get to jump the second day. The third day would be the team final open to the eight best nations with three riders per team, as well as the ten best individuals, competing – that’s 34 riders in total. Everyone starts at zero, the way the IOC likes it, and it’s a jump-off for the medals if required. For the teams, I think it should be allowed to make last-minute changes: If you have a horse that is not ok in the warm-up, you can pull out your fourth team member from the stable, so you have a replacement possible. There should also be a score of 16 faults maximum for elimination, and 32 faults for those that retire – this would mean that even if one of the three are unlucky and falls off because the girth breaks or any accident, the team can still be in the game if the two other riders deliver clear rounds.”

“After the team final, there should be one day rest, and then the top thirty from those first three rounds go into the individual final where everyone again starts on a score of zero as the IOC prefers. I personally like a final over two rounds, but with the welfare of the horses in mind I think one round with a jump-off is the better solution. It will be harder for the course builder, but we need to cut down on the jumping for the horses,” Pessoa says. 

“Most important when discussing this, is that we all have to remember that we are dealing with horses here. It is simply different from any other sport, and we have to cut the horses a bit of slack when creating these rules.”


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