Stewards are not the show police, but they are there to monitor the welfare of the horses and help ensure the smooth-running of the competition. The job of a steward demands the skills of a diplomat and ringmaster, an understanding of horsemanship and an encyclopaedic knowledge of the rules and regulations relating to equestrian events.
THERE ARE three levels of FEI steward and at the top you will find Dan Chapman, one of only two Level 3 stewards listed in the 2017 edition of the British Dressage handbook. He is well-known to riders competing at major Hickstead events and has also become well-known at international competitions abroad.
Dan has been present at some memorable occasions — he was in Kentucky, USA, at the World Equestrian Games in 2010, and he also had the once-in-a-lifetime experience of being involved in the London 2012 British Olympics. Along with the glamour of top shows, there are some pretty heavy-duty responsibilities for stewards that require the skills of a diplomat, ringmaster and stable manager as well as an encyclopaedic knowledge of the rules and regulations for the correct and safe running of a competition.
Dan explains: “It’s a role where you stand between various interested parties. You’re there for the FEI, you’re there to help the riders, you’re there to help the show organisers — but at some point you could end up upsetting everyone. Hopefully the majority of people will see that you’re trying to create a fair playing field for all riders and working in the interest of everyone.
“It’s important for stewards to build good relationships with all the people involved in the show: the Stable Manager, the FEI vet, the Ground Jury as well as the riders and their grooms. Once you’ve opened friendly lines of communication it’s much easier to deal with any problems that may arise”
Qualifications to steward events at various levels and disciplines are based on examinations to test knowledge. This accompanies on-the-job training assisting already qualified stewarding officials. Dan’s training began with his qualifications for his day job of professional rider and trainer. He was lucky enough for this to be at Catherston Stud under the wing of Olympic rider and past Chairman of British Dressage Jennie Loriston-Clarke. He explains: “I had had lessons at Catherston while I was still at school and she was very kind to me and I ended up working there every weekend and every summer holiday. That was at a time when Dutch Courage had retired from competition but was still working, Dutch Gold was emerging as Jennie’s top horse and her daughter Lizzie [Murray] was doing Ponies and her daughter Anne [Dicker] was on the British Young Rider Team. It was an amazing environment to be in and naturally I got hooked on dressage.
“I did my BHSII at Catherston and also got some National Pony Society qualifications. Later I was based with Paul Hayler at Aldborough Hall for a while and then also had horses on Dane Rawlins’ yard — so I have been lucky enough to be around some very good international riders.”
Dan’s decision to become a steward, he says, started after the Europeans at Hickstead in 2003 (the year when the memorable German rider Ulla Salzgeber and Rusty competed). He explains: “I have always tried to go to shows and help, whether it’s been building grandstands, putting up marquees or installing services. That year I did a bit of running for the judges, collecting sheets — and if there was a fridge that didn’t work, or something, I’d go out and find a replacement.”
“Your grade as a steward is based on your experience plus quite a big training programme. You start as a probationary steward studying to become a level 1. Then there are three-day courses at Hartpury for stewards wanting to upgrade from Level I to Level II — this year we had five or six candidates who successfully did so. There is also an annual refresher course for national stewards.”
“At FEI Level 3 I can chief steward a World championships or an Olympics. For most big shows, the show organisers ask the chief steward to put together a team of stewards. The organisers have some input into the choice of people because it could be that on previous occasions they’ve had a steward who has gone too far, or possibly not done enough in exercising their authority. What I try to do at any international in the UK, if I can, is to bring in a foreign steward because it is important that overseas riders competing here don’t feel that British stewards are favouring home riders and not looking after the others.”
Horse welfare priority
Ensuring horse welfare is the stewards’ number one priority and responsibility.
Horse welfare oversight starts from the moment horses step off their lorries and have an initial vet inspection before they are allowed to come into the international stables. Stewards also have a welfare monitoring role in the stables to ensure that the horses are being watered, fed and being groomed
Dan says that at WEG 2010 in Kentucky, and at the London Olympics, their duties continued through the night with an hourly check, quietly walking through the stables, to ensure that no horse had got cast and no horse was pawing the ground looking as though it was colicking. They also had to ensure that any medication being given had received FEI approval.
Welfare of horses when ridden
Riders also have to comply with rules and standards when working their horses. These are not very different from the standards that judges uphold. Dan explains: “We have to keep an eye to ensure that acceptable tack is being used and fitted appropriately. At the moment we are expecting the FEI to introduce a ruling about the tightness of nosebands. It is still under discussion how and when this check should take place. It could be a random check, or when each horse goes into the warm-up arena. The only problem is that some horses are more sensitive than others and, also being fresh, it can upset them.”
Riders may not arena walk, ride or lunge their horse without having a steward present, and stewards must ensure a consistent standard is applied to what is deemed acceptable riding. Dan emphasises: “Nothing is worse than a rider finding everything apparently ‘all right’ at one show, then at another have someone breathing down their neck and saying ‘this’ or ‘that’ isn’t right.”
He continues: “The standards of acceptable riding are those that you have acquired over many years watching riders work their horses. You are trying to ensure that riders don’t become too strong with their hand, or too heavy with their spur — or work a horse for too long. Your assessment of acceptable riding has to be tempered with common-sense. I remember, just before a prize-giving, that the horse of quite a senior rider was about to bolt flat out and he gave it a couple of socks in the mouth. No-one likes to see that, but as much as you wouldn’t want it to continue, if he hadn’t acted in that way there could have been a huge accident.
“Very few people get on a horse with the intention of being horrible to it — or insist that at all costs it has to do what they want — but occasionally in a strange show environment horses get stressed and the rider is under pressure to compete. They might decide to push a horse through a problem, but there is a point where that can go too far. I very rarely have to do more than have a quiet chat… ‘your horse is being a little tricky today…’ and talk them down and cool the situation.
“On the other hand, it is not the stewards’ place to start telling a rider how they should train their horse. If a steward tried to do so, the steward would soon find himself in trouble. You have to give riders room to ride their horses and work round a problem”
“If you’re instantly in there saying that something’s not classical riding, it ignores the fact that we don’t live in a perfect world, or sometimes have a perfect day.
“We are there for when the welfare of the horse is truly being pushed too far. Recognising this comes through experience — and there is a balance to be achieved. The nature of competition is that the horse is asked to perform, either to jump a little higher, step a little more sideways, or engage the hind end a little more — whether it is dressage, jumping, three-day eventing, driving or reining. You may see a horse being pushed a little bit but also see that it is a question that the horse understands and is able to answer. We have to be there for when the horse is pushed to a point where, in our opinion, it is not able to answer that question at that time.
“There are also those moments when you can look into the eye of a horse and see the most peaceful soul producing a magnificent performance. That is very much my inspiration to be part of dressage and also why I became a steward. It’s my way of supporting and helping the sport.
Some of Dan’s magic moments
◊“I still can’t get over having watched Valegro come through from young horse classes to the very top with Charlotte Dujardin. I will never forget at the London Olympics how the hairs on the back of my neck came up, having watched this young girl finish her grand prix test, sitting on Valegro while 20,000 people in tiers of stands in the stadium were swept by emotion.
◊“I also remember the paras. The crowd waved instead of clapped to avoid spooking the horses. I saw a para rider finishing their test and exhausted by the effort, raise their eyes and see 10,000 people waving at them. The emotion was incredible. Like most of the crowd I had tears in my eyes — so simple and yet so powerful.”
◊“As well as seeing some amazing dressage and experiencing the excitement of the prize givings, I love those little moments when the horse gets a scratch behind the ears. I have a lovely picture somewhere of Charlotte and Carl walking their horses on a long rein and Alan their groom is there — quiet moments, when you see how much people care for their horses. They are the moments you cherish.”
© Celia Cadwallader, 18 August 2017
Images from the ‘Trot up day’ at the recent Hickstead International