Eventing?s Speed-Fault Rule Demonstrates The Law of Unintended Consequences

While coaching the cross-country portion of a horse trials recently, I noticed many, many riders at the lower levels gazing at the stopwatches on their wrists as though next week?s winning Lotto numbers were inscribed upon the face. Generally, this attention took one of two forms: Either a rider spending several strides on the landing of each fence staring at their watch and not doing much actual riding of their horse, or somewhere around the second- or third-last fence they?d glance at their watch and then take some kind of drastic action, such as walking, circling, or breaking to the trot (or some combination thereof).

The speed-fault rule?a rule enacted for the sport of eventing in the mid-90s?seems to be overriding the common-sense approach of learning to ride at a pace appropriate for your horse, the course and the conditions.

The most glaring example happened to me while I was riding the cross-country course. I was on a young horse, in his first recognized event, and I’d schooled through the first water jump and had a couple of refusals, but I was still surprised when the rider behind me came galloping up behind me as I was schooling through the second water jump, the third-last fence. I moved aside to let her go past and then proceeded through the water jump.

I was very surprised, though, as we landed from the second-last fence to see the teenage girl trotting her horse about 50 yards ahead of me. I was confused for a moment, wondering if something had gone wrong, but I quickly saw that her gaze was fixed on her watch. My main concern at this point was that she?d not notice me and would suddenly pick up the canter in front of me, forcing me to slow down or pull up, which I didn’t want to do now that I had achieved a forward, fluid gallop with my young horse. So I yelled that I was now passing her, and I was relieved that she did get out of the way. Heather told me later that she heard the girl tell her coach that she was 90 seconds fast at that point.

To their credit, I almost universally heard the coaches and trainers of the walk-trot-circle set correct or admonish them before extolling the virtues of riding a steady pace all the way round. What struck me, though, was that we can coach all we want, but that if there is a different message being delivered from higher up, there is only so much we can do.

The speed-fault rule came about because some people, mostly eventing officials, thought that too many folks at the lower levels were bombing around cross-country courses too fast and were creating a safety hazard. In the name of safety, a rule was then enacted at the lower levels to penalize the rider with time faults for going too quickly (basically 60 seconds faster than the optimum time), just as they were already penalized for going too slowly. At the time the rule was debated, many people stated that creating a rule to do what common sense apparently was not was going to end up creating its own set of problems?and I would say what I saw the other day showed that in stark relief.

Instead of steady, flowing rounds, I saw (not for the first time) a lot of people riding their watch and making less-than-harmonious decisions for themselves and their horses. Now, since, I could see that the trainers of most of these folks had not instructed them to ride like that, why would they be doing it’ The answer is: That someone or something higher on the organizational chart than coaches was communicating that not getting speed faults (or not getting time faults for being a bit slow) was MORE important than having a smooth, flowing round at a pace appropriate for their horse.

I’m pretty confident that the rule?s intention was not to end up with a bunch of folks staring at their watches without blinking for the entire round. It was to protect the occasional clueless yahoo from killing themselves or their horse. But it’s created yet another problem, and I’m not sure how to manage that.

(Remember the episode of ?The Simpsons?, where Bart accidentally introduces Bolivian tree lizards to his town, and they start multiplying and eradicating all the town?s pigeons (which the town is happy about). But then Lisa worries that their town will just become overrun with lizards, instead of pigeons’ But Bart tells that they?ll just send in Chinese needle snakes, then snake-eating gorillas, and then ?when wintertime rolls around, the gorillas will simply freeze to death.? There are moments when dealing with the rules of horse sports makes that episode seem not so funny).

Probably 99 percent of the time, major rule changes come from a place of good and pure intention. Someone spots a safety issue and writes a rule that’s intended to protect the innocent, so to speak. The problem is, that there is rarely much thought given past the first ripple of the rule change. If you penalize people for going too fast, they should just gallop slower, right’ (Hey, it works with cars and speed limits, doesn’t it’). But that sends an unintended message that being right on time is more important than other aspects of riding around a cross-country course. And that unintended message means that you have people nearly walking home over that last few jumps, which everyone can agree is not how it’s supposed to work.

I don’t know what factors have might have caused lower-level event riders to become so preoccupied with their time that they forget to ride their horses. My fear is that it’s because ribbons have become more important than training. Since most of these riders were teenagers, I worry that this is another sign that riding horses has become just another sport or extra-curricular activity (like soccer, basketball or starring in the school play) to the younger generation.

Just as our world will always change, our sports will too. In all horse sports, new issues will crop up, and new rules will have to be enacted because of them. I just hope the next time one comes up for debate, there will be plenty of conversation about what happens in the second ripple from that moment, or even the third or fourth.

Because we sire don’t want to have to deal with a bunch of snake-eating gorillas.

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