Alleged Abuse Case Involving Rider & Trainer at Wellington Dressage CDI Sidestepped by International & USA Federations

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Global Dressage Festival stables at the Palm Beach International Equestrian Center. File photo. © Ken Braddick/dressage-news.com

By KENNETH J. BRADDICK

WELLINGTON, Florida, Jan. 29, 2019–A decision by the International Equestrian Federation (FEI) and considered appropriate by the U.S. Equestrian Federation to not become involved in one of the first alleged incidents of violence at a horse show after America’s Safe Sport Act was signed into law has thrust dressage judges into the unfamiliar role of dealing with violent actions that occur on show grounds.

Three international judges and the chief steward of the 2018 Global Dressage Festival Nations Cup week in Wellington, Florida in March appealed to the FEI to investigate and act after a Canadian competitor was allegedly assaulted by an American trainer in the dressage stables at the Palm Beach International Equestrian Center’s Stadium complex.

A copy of the complaint sent to the FEI and the USEF was signed by Garry Rockwell, an American, FEI 5* judge and president of the ground jury; Isabelle Judet of France, also a 5* judge and the “foreign judge;” Cesar Torrente, of Colombia, a 4* judge as well as an attorney who is a member of the FEI Tribunal that performs as the organization’s court, and Elisabeth Williams of the U.S., chief steward at the event.

The FEI, governing body of world horse sports, stated it was not taking action because the judges had not imposed a penalty such as a suspension ranging from one month to a lifetime ban that could be appealed within FEI channels.

The alleged Wellington incident was further discussed by the FEI at the annual International Dressage Officials Club General Assembly of judges at Frankfurt, Germany last month.

(Dressage-news.com has chosen to withhold names of both parties in the alleged incident because no finding was made in what the show officials described as a “he said/she said assault situation” during the Nations Cup competition Mar. 27-31, 2018)

The U.S. Safe Sport Act was signed into law in February 2018, a month earlier, as a result of abuse of athletes. Under the law, all participants in horse sports are required by the USEF to undetake online training.

In the Wellington case, a rider in the stables alleged she was physically attacked by a trainer who would not allow the rider to leave her stall with her horse that had been blocked by another horse under control of the trainer. The rider did not file a formal protest.

A complaint signed by the judges and the steward, along with videotaped statements by the parties and others who witnessed or were otherwise involved was sent to the FEI.

The FEI replied that because the ground jury did not take any action or impose a sanction, “then the FEI does not propose to take any further action.”

The judges and steward responded: “We made our decision to submit the case to the FEI in good faith and expecting a harmonious collaboration from the FEI, in order to handle the incident.

“At that point of time, and today, we believe, that in the interest of fair sport and in order to avoid future similar incidents, a matter like this cannot be tolerated and the FEI rules must be interpreted in a manner that allow a decision that clearly reprimand such unacceptable behaviour.

“You and we know, that when incidents happen not in the competition arena or in the warm up area, but outside them, there may be some grey areas, as to jurisdiction of the Ground Jury, the National Federation and/or the FEI. This is exactly the reason why we decided to submit the incident to the FEI.

“We do not believe we made a mistake and therefore, respectfully we do not accept your decision. We made a very sincere and thorough attempt to do the right thing.

“We understand there may be some grey areas of interpretation of the rules… but we hope that instead of blaming the Jury for not making a decision, that could have also been questionable as to its jurisdiction, in a harmonious collaboration (with the Ground Jury) and to formalize the collective commitment to the Olympic ideal, the FEI opens a disciplinary case against the person involved in the assault, due to the fact that this behaviour brings equestrian sport into disrepute and is clearly a breach of the FEI Rules and Regulations. In our opinion both requirements are clearly met in this case.”

Gary Rockwell (center), international 5* judge, with fellow American 5* Linda Zang and Great Britain’s Stephen Clarke, the FEI Judge General. File photo. © Ken Braddick/dressage-news.com

The officials cited the FEI Code of Ethics and the statement of an eyewitness.

The reply from Bettina De Rham, FEI Director of Dressage, after consultation with the organization’s legal department, stated there was no rule allowing a complaints to be filed with the FEI except in the case on horse abuse or facts were not known until after the international event concluded.

As the person accused of the assault was not disqualified by the ground jury “then there is no basis for referral to the FEI Tribunal.”

“If the Ground Jury had imposed a sanction… then she could have filed an Appeal against the GJ decision with the FEI Tribunal (since there was no Appeal Committee on site),” Bettina wrote. “The FEI Tribunal would then have had jurisdiction and could have either allowed her appeal, upheld the original sanction or imposed a higher sanction.”

Further, “the FEI has reviewed the video and while we feel that (the trainer) should have not reacted in that way, our view is the incident does not merit a sanction beyond the range of sanctions that could have been imposed by the Ground Jury.”

“While the FEI does not condone (the trainer’s) reaction, the FEI is not of the opinion that the conduct in question is so serious as to say that it ‘brings equestrian sport into disrepute’.”

The FEI, based in Lausanne, Switzerland, noted that Florida is a “two party consent” state, making it illegal to record conversations unless all parties consent to be taped or overheard. It is not known whether the same law applies in Switzerland as the FEI has cited its location in other cases as a reason not to be bound by laws of other nations.

“This would most likely make any prosecution of this particular case very difficult, since the video of the original incident would be inadmissible in any proceedings without (the trainer’s) consent. It is also our view that (the rider’s) actions in recording the matter and continuing to hold her phone in front of (the trainer) while recording her, may well have enflamed the situation and provoked the reaction somewhat.

“Our proposed course of action is to request the USEF to contact (the trainer) and advise her that her conduct relating to this incident was not acceptable and to warn her about her future conduct.”

The USEF said in response to questions from dressage-news.com:

“USEF received a copy of the electronic FEI Chief Steward Report, as well as a typed addendum outlining the incident. After communication with the FEI officials involved, USEF determined that the FEI had jurisdiction over this matter, as it occurred at an FEI event, and that it was addressed appropriately.”

There was no indication that the USEF followed the FEI recommendation to warn the trainer about future conduct.