Ursula Upperlevel trots purposefully into the dressage arena at We Do It Right three-day event, having waved her hand at the Lowly Volunteer bit checker waiting to see the snaffle bit in Fernhill Cooley Ringwood’s mouth. The test is done, Ursula exits, and impatiently waits while Lowly checks her bridle. There’s a problem. “Ursula, you are riding with an illegal bit,” Lowly says. The officials gather. Ursula protests. “But they let me ride with that bit at New South Upper Level Event, and Giant Ego Horse Trials, and even at Swatch Watch!” she exclaims, beside herself with righteous indignation. “This can hardly be my fault,” she insists. “Those other officials must be wrong to allow me to ride with the bit at all the other horse trials,” Ursula says.

bits legalWell, who is right? Is the rider responsible? The officials at the other trials who did not catch it? Or is it the problem of the We Do It Right officials, who are forced to eliminate Ursula because she performed her test in an illegal bit?

The answer is a little bit complicated, but all the experts I checked with agree the rider is ultimately responsible for making sure they are riding in legal equipment. As far as our fanciful example above, my people also agree that the We Do It Right officials are correct in eliminating her, and here’s the reasoning. First, the rider has options. Option one: checking the proper rulebook for the competition entered. Two: she could have let the bit checker look at the bridle of the horse BEFORE she rode her dressage test and then when the bit was found to be illegal, it could have been changed before trotting down center line. Three: While the officials may have missed it at previous competitions, that does not give Ursula a break at the current competition where it is found to be illegal – she is still going to get the letter “E” at We Do It Right.

The current competition officials cannot be responsible for what may have happened last week or last month. While the governing bodies of horse sports do try to make sure that the rules are consistently enforced, and they are interested in knowing what official may or may not have missed a violation, it is ultimately the rider’s responsibility to know what tack is correct for their phase. The officials at the previous horse trials and events who did not catch the illegal bit were wrong, and should have noted that violation and notified the rider, but chances are they were relying upon trained volunteers to check the bits or had other responsibilities and missed that particular competitor’s ride time.

Cindy DePorter,  FEI Eventing Technical Delegate, “S” event judge, USEF “R” dressage Technical Delegate and FEI Steward, responded to my questions about this issue, and here’s what she said:

“[The rules indicate that] elimination must be applied in the following cases, ‘Performing a test with improper saddlery.’ [This] rule is pretty clear and it is not even a discretionary deal for the PGJ (president of the ground jury). What people forget is the majority of our bit stewards are volunteers and sometimes they make mistakes. Then you get the really proficient bit checker that has done it for years and catches things. Since the bit stewards are usually different at each show, a bit could get by. If the dressage judge doesn’t catch it, which could happen, if you have sat and watched 60 horses in cold, sleet, rain, snow, or hot weather, it is conceivable it got missed. That doesn’t make it right, and ultimately, it is the competitors’ responsibility to have proper equipment.”

Several of my officials also remark that at times, there seems to be confusion as to which rulebook one must follow. “Just because you used [a bit] at Giant Ego and New South Upper Level and got away with it, it just means you didn’t get caught. It would be lovely to have informed volunteers or enough informed officials to monitor all situations at all times, but unfortunately that isn’t the case. The bottom line is if the bit you are using for dressage isn’t pictured in the appropriate rulebook for the competition you are competing in, it is not legal.”

So what is the appropriate rulebook? For all levels of US Eventing, the USEA rulebook illustrates the same bits that the USEF Eventing rulebook does. Cindy says if there is any question for national level eventing dressage, the next rulebook to be referred to would be the FEI bit pictures for eventing dressage. What tends to happen is the confusion between bits allowed for straight dressage (USDF) – there are some differences in bits that are allowed for regular dressage at the national level, and bits allowed for eventing dressage at the national level. Confused?

- photo by Cindy Lawler

– photo by Cindy Lawler

It is very difficult to be eliminated, and I’ve been there a time or two, so I know it is very frustrating. It probably bears emphasizing that a rider really must download or obtain a new copy each year of every rule book they compete under, and read them cover to cover. Here’s links to the 2015 USEA one, here’s the USEF one, and here’s the link to the FEI/eventing. I know that’s fairly complicated, but hey, by the time you’re riding at the international level – us Horse Junkies are pretty sure you are understanding all those things pretty well!

And finally, the rules allow the rider the option of letting the bit checker see the bridle prior to the test, or immediately after – and if you aren’t sure, then let the checker see before you ride just in case they do find you’ve got the wrong bit, and can change it before competing. Remember, in eventing, the president of the ground jury does HAVE to eliminate if you ride in an illegal bit, even if a volunteer mistakenly allowed the rider to compete with a checked but illegal bit. My sources tell me most of the time, the judge, as a courtesy, will allow the rider to complete the test, but eliminate them upon finishing.

I think the problem lies in what riders get comfortable with at home. So often little things make a difference to a horse, and any rider wants to make sure that their horse has the most comfortable and responsive equipment. It’s a good reminder to all riders to just not take what you are doing day to day for granted, make sure what you are planning to use is not illegal, and as with everything in life — double-checking never hurts! It’s worth it to find a quiet moment sometime to review the rule book even if you’re perfectly sure everything you’re using and doing is completely allowed.

Pictured below are sketches of SOME of the USEF/USEA legal bits. I’ll try to get some more photos of bits that are both allowed and illegal for dressage in my next blog! Many thanks to experts Cindy DePorter, Seema Sonnad, and a few more (you know who you are!) and the USEF/USEA for the partial illustration below.

A snapshot of the page in the USEF Eventing rulebook with the snaffle bits allowed

A snapshot of the page in the USEF Eventing rulebook with the snaffle bits allowed. Copyright USEF 2015.

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