If this year’s Olympic Games in Rio have proven one thing, it’s that the world is well and truly watching. Equestrian sport has flown under the radar for years, but times, they are a’changing, and with the advent of social media, everyone now has their opportunity to communicate with the riders, to share information, to spread rumours, and become an armchair expert.
Because I live in New Zealand and don’t have TV, I have seen very little of the equestrian events at Rio (Sky TV bought the rights to exclusive coverage, and I can’t even stream it online from overseas websites). Most of what I do know has been gleaned off social media, which is always a dangerous place to get information. But there have already been plenty of controversies abounding in all three disciplines (I will post about the show jumping once it is all over).
Things didn’t exactly go to plan for the New Zealand eventing team at Rio. Coming into the competition as likely medal contenders, tragedy struck early when Jock Paget’s Clifton Lush sustained an injury in the stables, cutting his cheek on an exposed water pipe. The injury was kept quiet when it first happened, and wasn’t revealed until the first horse inspection. (Before each phase of the eventing, horses are required to ‘trot up’ for the ground jury, who check that they are sound and fit to compete. If a horse doesn’t look right, they are sent into a holding box while the ground jury deliberates, and are then trotted up again for a second inspection. If they pass the second time, they’re cleared to compete, but if they don’t, then they are deemed to have failed and may not continue in the competition – or, in the case of the first inspection prior to the dressage, start at all.)
Clifton Lush was held after his first pass, trotted up again, and subsequently cleared to compete. However our reserve rider Tim Price had also trotted up his horse Ringwood Sky Boy, and he, like the rest of the team, flew through the inspection. The decision was made to withdraw Clifton Lush due to the cut on his cheek and the fact that the horse reportedly appeared lacklustre, and Jock described Lush as “not feeling himself”. Jock was applauded for making a decision that prioritised his horse’s welfare, and was sent many condolences from disappointed fans and supporters.
It was disappointing, and many people expressed frustration that the injury occurred at all in what was meant to be five-star accommodation. It was revealed that the horse had cut his cheek on an exposed water pipe, presumably after he got up to some mischief and decided to pull the tap handle off this pipe shown in the photo to the right, from the Paget Eventing Facebook page prior to their first night in Rio. (I say presumably as no official comment has been made by the Paget Eventing team about whether this particular pipe and tap was the actual culprit, but I feel that it’s a fairly safe assumption to make.)
That should have been the last we heard of it, but it wasn’t. When details and pictures came out via Horse & Hound yesterday stating that Lush had reportedly undergone a two-hour surgery to repair the five-inch gash in his cheek, which required four layers of suturing and over 100 stitches, the internet went feral once more. Suddenly, far from being a good horseman and role model, Jock was being villainised by the armchair critics who felt that he should never have trotted the horse up at all. It was also revealed in the article that, under close veterinary supervision, he rode the horse in a halter subsequent to the injury in the days prior to the trot-up.
While the injury certainly looks nasty in the photos that accompanied the article, it’s important to remember that we don’t know the full story. Here’s a short list of just a few of the things that we, as people outside of the team, don’t know:
- Exactly when the accident happened – was it the first night at Rio, or only a day or two before the competition started? (The horses arrived on the 31st July to be acclimatised, and the competition didn’t start until August 7th)
- Whose decision it was to trot the horse up – was it Jock’s, the team’s, the owners’, or a combination of both/all?
- Whether they ever intended to compete the horse after trotting him up – it’s probable, in my opinion, that they trotted Lush up just in case one of the other NZ horses failed the inspection, in which case a serious decision as to whether to compete Lush would be made. Whether he would’ve been competed with his injury is still unknown.
- When those photos of his wound were taken – straight after surgery when it was still swollen and fresh, or days later? Was the swelling still there when he was trotted up, or was it healing well?
- What medication was given to the horse prior to and during the trot up, and what drugs would have been available to him during the competition – would he have been allowed a local anaesthetic around the wound site while competing? (I don’t know, but I think the question is worth asking). On this note, the FB comments that made me roll my eyes the hardest are the ones where people insisted that due to the FEI drug restrictions, Lush must have had his cheek sutured without any painkillers or sedation. I would like to ask those people how exactly they think that would be achieved on an extremely fit Thoroughbred – did they just ask Lush nicely to stand still and be brave for two hours?
- What kind of exercise Jock gave him while riding in a halter – he’s being criticised for riding him at all, but the horse has to come out of his stables to stretch his legs, and I don’t personally see a huge difference in him riding the horse compared to leading him out. I know that when my horse was on box rest and then was allowed out to stretch his legs, he was much better behaved when I walked him around bareback than he was when I led him. I don’t know for a fact, but I highly doubt that any work that Jock gave Lush during that time was at all strenuous.
Here’s what we do know for a fact:
- The horse was withdrawn and did not compete in any phase of the event
- The horse passed the horse inspection, despite the injury to his cheek
- The horse was cleared by the vets at Rio to be presented at the first horse inspection.
And here’s the thing that really baffles me. How on earth can people think that Jock, of all people, would willingly go into a competition wondering or knowing that his horse might test for a banned substance? The last thing he needed was this extra controversy, and while I don’t know any more of the facts than anyone else (and admit to some bias due to him being a) a New Zealander, and b) someone I’ve met, albeit briefly) – at the end of the day, all other things aside, the horse did not compete.
“She deserves a gold medal”…?
Which brings me to Adelinde Cornelissen, the Dutch dressage rider whose horse Parzival was bitten by a bug in the stables and suffered a severe toxic reaction to it. Parzival suffered an elevated temperature and was on a drip for nine hours the day before, but seemed to recover well and was again cleared by the vets to compete. After being denied a request to swap starting slots with a teammate so she would have another day for Parzival to recover, Adelinde decided to ride, and began her dressage test. However her horse was clearly unhappy, and a few movements in, she decided to withdraw.
I haven’t seen the test, only some of the photos that came out afterwards, and they don’t paint a pretty picture as the horse left the arena with his tongue hanging out of his mouth and looking highly distressed. Clearly he had not made a full recovery, and was not ready to compete. However Adelinde did make the right decision in the end, whether or not the horse should have been started at all (questionable, in my mind, but again, I don’t know the full situation as I was. Not. There.).
Not long after her retirement mid-test, the plaudits started flowing thick and fast on Facebook, with emotional headlines on linked stories about her heroic decision – including the highly emotive “Gold Medal Athlete Quits Olympic Games to Save Her Horse”, an article which unfortunately includes a picture of the horse bleeding from his mouth prior to disqualification at WEG in 2010, giving the online critics plenty more to bleat on about. However this adulation was swiftly followed by a backlash after misreporting from NBC claimed that her horse had a hairline fracture. This allegation quickly descended into myriad claims on Facebook that she had broken her horse’s jaw through her forceful riding and use of rollkur as a training method. Now I am no fan of rollkur, and I have never particularly liked watching Parzival compete – admittedly the only time I really sat down and watched him go was at London 2012, and I watched it several times, followed by the soft, flowing test of Charlotte Dujardin and Valegro who provided quite a contrast in my eyes – but that story seemed dubious to me. The FEI later issued a statement stating it was entirely false, and that the horse’s injury was related only to the bug bite, and that x-rays had been taken and there was no evidence of a fracture. And the horse was, after all, cleared by the vets to compete.
So is there a question around whether the vets are being stringent enough about horse welfare by allowing horses who are injured to compete? Perhaps. Anyone who has spent much time in horse sport, and any time at all in the professional arena, knows that there are questionable decisions made all over the place. Vets have an incredibly difficult and stressful job, as recent statistics re: depression and suicide in the vet industry have revealed. I don’t want to go on a witch hunt against vets, and of course there is an immense amount of pressure at an event like Rio to pass the horses as fit to compete. I don’t know what their guidelines are to approve horses for competition, but perhaps they need tightening.
Or perhaps we should continue to trust riders to know what is best for their horses. In both of the above situations, the riders ultimately made the best decision for their horse’s welfare. The situations around these decisions and the timing is up for discussion, and you only have to dip a toe into Facebook to join in with the pitchforks and knives.
But before you do, spare a thought for the people involved. One thing I do know for sure is that Jock has been reading the Horse & Hound Facebook comments, and I can only hope that he is not taking the criticisms too much to heart. After all, nobody will be more disappointed than he is not to have had the opportunity to ride, especially given that Lush is 16 years old and unlikely to be starting in Tokyo 2020. (Likewise, Parzival is 19 years old and will soon retire.)
The amount of time, effort – and yes, money – that it takes to get a horse to Olympic level is immense, and the hope, however slight, that the horse would recover in time to compete is always there. However as these riders are well aware, trying to reason with experts who clearly know more about the situation than the people who were actually there will only make things worse. All we can do as viewers of equestrian sport is to look for the positives, and remember that we were not there, and as a result, we don’t have the whole story. Maybe it’s worse than we think, or maybe it’s better. We. Don’t. Know. Perhaps one day we will find out more, but for now, let’s try not to fill in the blanks with our own imaginations.
After all, that’s what fiction is for…