Features 6th November 2019

Broken or fixed: the FEI equipment approval process

Equestrianism has a long history in the Olympic programme, as it is one of the few sporting events to have featured in the Ancient Olympics. However, as horse riding was more ingrained into everyday life, the inhabitants of ancient Greece would have been far more familiar with the events taking place in the Hippodrome than today’s average sporting fan. The rules of equestrian events are very detailed and complicated. This is due to the need to regulate which equipment can be used by riders and horses in order to keep an equestrian event fair and – more importantly – to keep both rider and horse safe.

The international equestrian federation (FEI) will host its General Assembly in Moscow from 16-19 November. Although it does not appear to be on the detailed Agenda, the FEI has confirmed that it is setting up an Equipment Expert Group. In an email, an FEI spokesperson said that that this group would ‘review the impact of specific equipment on horses’ and would ‘propose more harmonised equipment rules across the FEI disciplines’.

At present, a two-tier system is in place whereby manufacturers must apply to the FEI for approval for their equipment to be used in international competition, even if it has been approved for competition by their national association. Equipment manufacturers must submit a form to the FEI Technical Committee for the relevant equestrian discipline, who then forward it on to the FEI’s Equipment Working Group. If they approve the equipment, the form is then sent back to the relevant FEI Technical Committee for discussion, before a final decision is issued.

On the face of it, a simplified single Equipment Expert Group seems like a good idea. However, certain equipment manufacturers allege that this will allow the FEI to retain and internalise a corrupt, flawed, and dangerous equipment approval process. More specifically, they allege that by not approving equipment that is internationally recognised as placing a greater priority on rider safety, the FEI is putting riders at risk of injury or death.

Perhaps understandably, given their serious nature, the FEI denies the allegations. It also argues that it has launched legal action against the main proponent of such claims. However, The Sports Integrity Initiative spoke to other equipment manufacturers who told a similar story. In addition, despite being asked, the FEI failed to provide equipment testing reports or meeting minutes that would have verified the reasons why certain equipment was rejected for use in dressage and eventing. 

Adrian Morgante and the WTP Bit

Adrian Morgante is an ex jockey, and is the owner of Intelligent Inventions, which is the manufacturer of the Safety Technology Stirrup (STS) Irons and the Winning Tongue Plate (WTP) Bit. In simple terms, Stirrup Irons are a part of saddlery that holds a rider’s foot, and the bit that goes into the horse’s mouth is required to steer and control the horse.

On 19 July 2013, Morgante submitted the WTP Bit to the FEI for approval in dressage competitions, but it was rejected on 14 October 2014. In a 2017 statement, the FEI argues that the reasons for its decision were communicated to Morgante and he was given an opportunity to appeal, which he didn’t take. However, Morgante argues that he couldn’t appeal until the FEI provided him with the Equipment Working Group signed reports to appeal against. The FEI states that contrary to claims made by Morgante, the WTP Bit was never approved for use in any FEI competitions.

“Our company was informed that the WTP Bit was not approved by the FEI because the centre piece was too large”, said Morgante. “We provided the FEI with photographic evidence showing that the centre piece of the WTP Bit is the same size in comparison to other Bits approved by the FEI. The FEI objection was then withdrawn on 12 December 2015.” 

Morgante claims that after this objection was withdrawn, he was informed that the WTP Bit was also rejected because the arms of the bit were partially blocked, and his company had previously been informed about this. “Carina Mayer, former FEI Dressage Director, said that this objection had been previously communicated to us”, he said. “However, when requested by us, Mayer was unable to provide any evidence. This objection was also withdrawn by the FEI after we provided photographic evidence comparing the WTP Bit to the FEI-approved Myler Bit Arms, which are also blocked in the exact same position.”

Morgante says that on 12 December 2015, Mayer began a comparison of the blocked arms, and stated that the WTP Bit would be retested by the FEI in 2016. “To our knowledge, this testing has never taken place”, said Morgante. “On 5 July 2016, we contacted Mayer to confirm the outcome of the testing and were informed that the WTP Bit could not be approved for use by the FEI because of the function of the Bit.”

Morgante argued that although the FEI is correct to point out that he was given the opportunity to appeal, the FEI hasn’t provided him with its testing reports, making appeal impossible. You have to know what you are appealing against in order to appeal. However, despite this, Morgante submitted the below letter, which includes photographic evidence that the centrepiece of the WTP Bit is similar in size or smaller than other FEI approved Bits.

The WTP Bit remains prohibited for use in dressage. On its 2019 List of FAQs regarding Tack, Equipment and Dress for Eventing (PDF below), the FEI lists the WTP Bit as prohibited in Dressage ‘as the centre piece has the effect of a tongue plate’, referencing Article 428.3.1.3 of the Dressage Rules. This appears to be the ‘function of the Bit’ referred to by Mayer.

It would appear that Article 428.3.1.3 didn’t exist prior to the 2019 version of the Dressage Rules. It reads: ‘A snaffle may have up to two joints. A barrel or ball joint is permitted as the centre link in a double jointed snaffle, however, the surface of the centre piece must be solid with no moveable parts other than a roller. The centre link may be tilted in a different orientation from the mouthpiece but must have rounded edges and may not have the effect of a tongue plate.’

There is no Article 428.3.1.3 in the 2018 version of the Dressage Rules. There is also no mention of any prohibition on Bits that ‘have the effect of a tongue plate’, as there is in the 2019 version. It would appear that the FEI adjusted its Dressage Rules in order to prohibit Bits that have the function of a tongue plate from use in international competition. However, Morgante argues that the WTP NP bit submitted for approval doesn’t have the function of a tongue plate. Only the WTP EP has the effect of a tongue plate, to prevent horses from getting their tongue over the bit. 

The Sports Integrity Initiative asked Carina Mayer, who is now Secretary General of the European Equestrian Federation (EEF), why this change in the Dressage Rules was made. We have yet to receive a reply.

Steve Reynolds & STS Irons 

On 24 November 2017, Steve Reynolds applied to the FEI for approval for the Safety Technology Stirrup (STS) Irons to be used in international competition. As can be seen from the PDF below, the application was rejected. ‘At international level, the feet should be parallel with the horses to have correct contact with the horse’, it reads. ‘These stirrups make the athlete hold their feet turned away from the horse, which creates a constant leg pressure on the horse and could be a risk of the excessive spur use on the horse’s flank’.

The Report is dated 26 June 2018 and is signed by Frank Kemperman, Chair of the FEI Dressage Committee. Yet on 13 June 2018, Morgante alleges that the FEI published the below decision on its internet site, which advises that the STS Irons were not approved because they are not made of a collapsible material, as the FEI argues that metal safety irons could injure the horse if it fell on them.

Morgante alleges that this suggests that the Equipment Working Group completed the tests prior to 26 June, which raises questions as to the authenticity of the document signed by Kemperman. “Equipment testing is conducted between March and June each year”, he said. “The procedure is that the Equipment Working Group are given these forms and they must fill them out and sign them after testing the equipment, then the reports are given to Chloe Harty [FEI Project Administrator for Dressage, Para Dressage, Reining & Vaulting]. For the FEI and Harty to publish the result on 13 June, the test was completed and the forms signed before the 26th.”

Morgante argues that Reynolds did not receive the 26 June Report until 25 July, despite promises from the FEI that it would inform him about whether his application had been successful by 30 June. ‘You will be informed if your equipment has been approved or not by June 30 2018 and you will be provided with a copy of the report as completed by the Equipment Working Group’, reads a 15 November 2017 email from Harty. The email references the Dressage Equipment Approval Process and Form, which the FEI website states is ‘no longer in use’.

‘Following the approval of 2019 FEI Dressage Rules, which contained a full revision of Article 428 Saddlery, the equipment application process will no longer be in use’, it advises. ‘All equipment used in FEI Dressage competitions must adhere fully to the rules or are not allowed for use in competition’. 

In the 2018 version of the FEI’s Dressage Rules, Article 428 Saddlery doesn’t mention stirrups at all. Yet as well as outlawing a Bit that ‘has the effect of a tongue plate’, the 2019 version also specifies that ‘stirrups and safety stirrups must have closed branches, and no attachments. The foot must not be fully or partially enclosed and must in no way by attached to the stirrups (for example with magnets). Safety stirrups must have closed branches.’

The STS Irons involve a partially enclosed foot and a partially enclosed branch on the horse’s side, which allows release of the foot in the event that the rider falls from the horse. It would therefore appear that as well as excluding the WTP Bit, the wording of Article 428 Saddlery also excludes the STS Irons. 

“They were asked on 28th of June for the reports and seven times between then and the 25th July”, says Morgante. “They just stalled to try and come up with a solution”. As with the WTP Bit case, Morgante says his company has yet to receive the full Testing Reports relating to the STS Irons. Reynolds asked for the Minutes of the Eventing Committee Meeting on 23-24 March 2018 in order to clarify if the matter was discussed, but hasn’t received them either.

Equine Corruption Integrity Unit

The Equestrian Community Integrity Unit (ECIU) was established in January 2010. In the FEI Statutes, its mission is described as the protection of ‘integrity principles within the equestrian community, including, but not limited to, the “Clean Sport” programme and betting or corruption risks’. However, the Statutes add that ‘In any case under investigation that involves an FEI Board or FEI Executive Board member, the ECIU will report to the President and the FEI General Assembly’. 

In other words, it would appear that if any corruption uncovered by the ECIU involves an FEI Board Member, the FEI Statutes limit its reporting capacity to the FEI President and General Assembly. This isn’t unusual in sport. Similar mechanisms were put in place at FIFA under Sepp Blatter’s tenure. Kemperman, the man which Morgante alleges produced a fake Report, is an FEI Board member.

On 18 July 2018, Reynolds lodged a complaint with the ECIU, seeking its assistance regarding requests for the FEI to provide the full equipment testing reports for the STS Irons. Reynolds was told that these issues are dealt with by the FEI. In reply to questions sent to Quest, which operates the ECIU for the FEI, The Sports Integrity Initiative was referred to the FEI Legal Department, as the ECIU considers the issue ‘a commercial dispute between the FEI and the manufacturers of the product’.

FEI Legal Department

The FEI Legal Department is more than aware of Morgante’s disputes with the FEI. ‘The FEI has filed a criminal complaint in Switzerland against him’, wrote an FEI spokesperson in an email. ‘There is no lawsuit at this stage as the matter currently sits with the Prosecutor. The fact that Mr. Morgante is located outside of the territory of Switzerland complicates and delays the matter, especially in relation to the service of the proceedings.’

The FEI said it filed the criminal complaint with the Swiss authorities in February 2018. A statement sent to national federations in February this year, and seen by The Sports Integrity Initiative, accuses Morgante of ‘continuous false and defamatory statements’ about the FEI, FEI staff members and FEI office holders. 

In July 2018, Morgante received an email from the FEI Legal Department confirming that it had filed a criminal complaint with the Swiss authorities, and that he would be ‘hearing from their counterparts in Australia in due course’. He has heard from neither.

Such delays are not unusual in criminal procedures, especially those involving sport. Just ask the Diacks. As the FEI points out, there currently is no lawsuit, as the Prosecutor has yet to take a decision on whether to act on the FEI’s complaint.

When asked if it could supply the Testing Reports relating to the WTP Bit and the STS Irons, an FEI spokesperson said that it could not supply them to The Sports Integrity Initiative ‘for the reasons set out in our statement’. The statement referred to concerns the pending legal action against Morgante.

Morgante & Reynolds

Given his experience and open criticism of the WTP Bit equipment approval process in 2014, it is perhaps understandable that the 2017 application regarding the STS Irons was filed through a third party. However, the FEI alleges that Morgante and Steve Reynolds, who filed the 2017 application, are the same person. It also alleges that a company owned by Reynolds is non-existent; that Morgante and Reynolds have attempted to masquerade as the ECIU in order to obtain information; and that media releases published by the Intern Media internet site are both fraudulent and falsely attributed to people who never made such statements.

Morgante argues that Reynolds was an advisor to his company, and Reynolds informed the FEI that his association was a business relationship with the STS irons company. ‘They never emailed Steve or I stating that they wouldn’t supply the Reports, they just ignored all requests’, wrote Morgante in an email. ‘They never alleged that we were the same person in any communication with Steve or me’. The Sports Integrity Initiative was not able to contact Reynolds, and has only communicated with Morgante.

The claims about the media releases on the Intern Media internet site appear to stem from the following media release, published on Valentine’s Day. In a letter sent out to national federations, the FEI accuses Morgante of ‘paraphrasing’ an extract from the minutes of the FEI’s 2017 General Assembly, which have been turned into a ‘quote’ and ‘falsely attributed’ to Lord Stevens, the former Metropolitan Police Commissioner who heads the ECIU.

The comments do appear to come from para. 31 of the meeting minutes, where Lord Stevens outlined the activities of the ECIU. It may be accurate that such comments were not a direct quote from Lord Stevens. But to state that the comments are ‘falsely attributed’ to him is perhaps stretching the truth, since Lord Stevens did outline the work of the ECIU at the FEI’s 2017 General Assembly, as the meeting minutes corroborate.

Corroboration

The FEI’s contention is that following failure to obtain approval for his products, Morgante is operating a one man crusade against the FEI. However as the FEI holds the keys to international approval for equipment, manufacturers were reluctant to speak out through fear of damaging their relationship with the FEI. More than one national federation, perhaps having received the FEI’s communications referred to above, told The Sports Integrity Initiative that they would rather not comment.

The Sports Integrity Initiative did speak to manufacturers who corroborated Morgante’s claims. We cannot reveal more details because they are worried about potential damage to their business.

Separately, whilst browsing Facebook, The Sports Integrity Initiative found that in 2016, the FEI had told Equestrian Australia that another product, the Baucher Bit, was not approved for Dressage or Eventing. There may have been valid reasons for not approving the Bit but, again, no explanation was apparently offered. A specific Baucher Bit was approved in 2017.

Clarity on the new EA/FEI Baucher RulingPlease see below email from Equestrian Australia regarding the use of Baucher…

Posted by Bit Bank Australia- For Horse Bits on Monday, 18 July 2016

Why?

Manufacturers allege that the FEI freely promotes certain equipment brands, which they argue is a conflict of interest. They allege that these brands are favoured because they give out free equipment at FEI events, due to a close relationship with FEI officials, which companies have been able to develop over time due to their location closer to the FEI headquarters in Switzerland. They allege that although rounded stirrups are not permitted for use, stirrups from these favoured brands are included on approved lists of equipment. 

The Sports Integrity Initiative has chosen not to name the brands concerned. Manufacturers can only speculate as to why FEI officials might favour one brand over another. It is significant that the allegations centre on a perceived bias towards European brands.

In 2008 the former President of the FEI, Princess Haya of Jordan, forced the entire Dressage Committee to resign, over serious allegations of corruption. While the national federations and athletes apparently agreed with concerns about corruption, it is understood that many were unhappy with the way in which the resignations were handled.

In 2014, Ingmar de Vos was elected as President of the FEI, after Princess Haya decided not to stand for a third term due to a potential conflict of interest because of her marriage to Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid Al Maktoum, Vice President and Prime Minister of the United Arab Emirates (UAE). 

Sheikh Mohammed founded the Godolphin horse racing stable. In 2013, the British Horseracing Association (BHA) found that Mahmood Al Zarooni acted alone in doping 11 horses at Godolphin’s Moulton Paddocks. In addition, concerns over horse welfare in the UAE led to the suspension of the UAE federation in 2015.

Princess Haya has fled the UAE and has reportedly applied for a forced marriage protection order at the UK High Court, as well as for custody of her children, one of whom fled the UAE alleging abuse. Of course, none of this suggests corruption at the FEI, but it does show how Princess Haya’s intention to reform the Dressage Committee may have been put on the back burner.

Safety

Aside from business interests, the reason that manufacturers are so concerned is because they allege that the FEI is prioritising commercial relationships over rider safety. Morgante alleges that there is no risk of a falling rider being dragged using his STS Irons, unlike with some of the approved Irons. The FEI alleges that the STS Irons pose a risk to a falling horse, which might land on them. Reynolds supplied the below document, which appears to suggest that such a claim is flawed.

Yet none of the above negates the risk of riders being dragged. Safety is obviously a concern. But is it a priority for the FEI?

A picture showing Kerrie Bowman in approved FEI Irons being dragged…

‘I have attached a photo below of me being caught in my normal approved Stirrups from FEI and Equestrian Australia’, reads a statement from Kerrie Bowman of Fourwinds Performance Horses. ‘This was at a CNC *** competition in Australia. As you can see in the photo, even when my beautiful horse stopped, I still could not remove my foot from the stirrup. I was so lucky that my horse stood still and did not panic, while a smart spectator ran to me to get me out. In my opinion this incident could have killed me if my horse wasn’t so amazing.’

As such, Morgante has threatened to launch a lawsuit if somebody is killed as a result of being dragged due to being forced to use FEI approved Irons. It would indeed be a tragedy if this eventuality did come to pass.

It’s complicated

As stated in the introduction, equestrianism is complicated for those that are not involved in it. Corruption is almost never simple, as those involved put complex mechanisms in place in order to avoid detection. If the FEI had no questions to answer about why certain equipment wasn’t approved, then why not publish its testing reports in full, or at least send them to an interested journalist when asked?

It does appear convenient that a pending legal action, for which there is no evidence, is the main reason why such reports cannot be published. It is also significant that despite alleging that legal action is in process against Morgante, the FEI didn’t produce evidence that it has been filed. The threat of legal action can be an effective way of silencing complainants.

If the FEI is accurate and Morgante and Reynolds are the same person – and there is no evidence that they are – such a move might be considered an innovative way of testing whether non-approval of Morgante’s WTP Bit was personal. It could be possible that the FEI suspected this late in the day and initially approved Reynolds STS Irons application, but later backtracked after discovering that Morgante’s company manufactured them. But all of this is pure speculation.

Kemperman is not a member of the FEI’s Dressage testing group, yet he signed the 26 June testing Report supplied to Reynolds on 25 July, which Morgante alleges is fake. Kemperman’s signature has opened the FEI up to allegations that he only signed the Report to ensure that the ECIU must report any findings of corruption related to it to the FEI President or the FEI General Assembly only, as is its remit concerning investigations into FEI Board members.

In addition, the FEI’s adjustments to its Dressage Rules do appear to be excluding particular types of saddlery equipment, without adequate explanation as to why. The Sports Integrity Initiative is not in a position to comment on whether safety has been compromised, as alleged by Morgante, but it does appear to have ignored products that are internationally praised for their safety innovations.

At present, the FEI holds the key to international approval for saddlery equipment. It is in a powerful position. However, approval from national federations can put pressure on the FEI to approve recognised products that are shown to improve the safety of both rider and horse. 

If the FEI equipment proposals become the national and international standard, then the FEI is in an incredibly powerful position. Innovation is cast aside, and the FEI gets to decide which saddlery equipment is safe and can be manufactured.

If everybody were happy that the FEI handled and processed equipment approval requests based solely on merit and safety concerns, then this wouldn’t be a problem. But everybody is not happy, and manufacturers of innovative equipment fear that the FEI will use this opportunity to lock them out of international competition for good, in favour of the FEI’s preferred partners. They fear that rider and horse safety will suffer from the creation of a closed shop.

As also mentioned in the introduction, there is a long history of equestrianism in the Olympic programme. As the ECIU has confirmed that it considers its investigation into the approval process for both the WTP Bit and the STS Irons closed, perhaps a complaint to the IOC Ethics Commission is the answer. However, to enable this to happen, the FEI must be transparent and provide the Equipment Working Group testing reports and other relevant information.

‘The Olympic parties must use due care and diligence in fulfilling their mission’, reads Article 2 of the IOC Code of Ethics. ‘At all times, they must act with the highest degree of integrity, and particularly when taking decisions, they must act with impartiality, objectivity, independence and professionalism. They must refrain from any act involving fraud or corruption. They must not act in a manner likely to tarnish the reputation of the Olympic Movement.’ If the manufacturers allegations are accurate as they appear to be, then they may have a case…

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