The world rankings: an optimal system?

11 January 2020

New year, new system for the world rankings of show jumpers! Studforlife has decided to take an interest, to inaugurate 2020, in the new system of invitations for CSI events wanted by the International Federation for Equestrian Sports (FEI). This system has been designed to fight against the "pay-card" system and to establish a world ranking as fair and transparent as possible. After much debate and controversy about its application, we interviewed two experts, Kevin Staut and Marie Pellegrin, to answer this new Question of the Month!

Kevin Staut, President of the International Jumping Riders Club and French show jumping rider, and ranked 21st in the world rankings:

"The world ranking issue is a vital issue for the riders because it’s the one that simply allows them to go to competitions. Its regulation is the responsibility of the IJRC, which owns the rights. By this I mean that it is up to the Riders' Club, of which I am president, to define the allocation of "ranking points" (Editor's note: These points are allowed to be earned at each international event from CSI2* level and above, with a minimum prize pool of 24,500 euros, in order for riders to climb the international rider rankings.), a measure that essentially defines the world ranking system.

However, the world rankings are closely linked to the CSI invitation system developed by the FEI. This system was voted in in 2017 in order to fight against "pay-cards", a kind of substantial financial "commitment" that allows some riders to compete in CSIs without worrying about their position in the world rankings. Though this practice has, in the past, allowed CSIs to make ends meet, it has also contributed to undermining the meritocracy system by depriving better-performing riders of places in certain competitions.

The question you’re asking about is commonly called "ranking", and therefore ultimately about the invitation system, and is a political question. At IJRC, we fought to ensure that this quota rule, introduced by the system set up by the FEI three years ago, is valid for all CSIs. The IJRC has fought for the distribution of these quotas a lot since then, especially regarding CSI5* events which are the biggest providers of ranking points, and we recently obtained the following distribution of 60/20/20 (60% of invitations allocated according to the world ranking, 20% at the discretion of the National Federations, and 20% at the discretion of the CSI organizers).

The world ranking system is only legitimate if the 60/20/20 rule is respected. However, some circuits avoid this new system, namely the Indoor World Cup, Nations Cup, and the Global Champions Tour circuits. Little has been said in the press about the first two circuits mentioned because their invitation quotas allocated according to the world rankings exceeds the imposed 60%! On the other hand, there has been a lot of debate around the Global Champions Tour, which operates according to its own rules and has an agreement with the FEI.

To date, IJRC is still in deep disagreement with the FEI over this exception granted to the Global Champions Tour. This circuit is governed by specific rules where owners can pay their participation in the Global Champions League, a circuit created in parallel, and therefore in all the Global Champions Tour events, in return for an entry fee check of two million euros. These owners are free to choose which riders will represent them at these competitions regardless of their world ranking. Access to these competitions, all labeled CSI5*, is therefore limited to a very small number of riders, with the required 60% quota not being applied. From the IJRC's point of view, this approach that is based mainly on "pay-cards" is contrary to the ethics of our sport. Therefore, we cannot legitimately support the exception from which this circuit benefits.

We have done simulations, within the Club, to evaluate the impact of this circuit on the rankings, and it turns out that it is quite limited. Nevertheless, we remain extremely vigilant regarding the evolution of this system, which must perpetuate our discipline and protect the integrity of this sport as well as its values.

A set of specifications has been drawn up by all the stakeholders (the IJRC, owners, organizers and the FEI) in order to create a more reliable world ranking system that reflects the reality out in the community, based on the events and competition prizes, in particular. It’s really important to underline that this points distribution is based on meritocracy. The world rankings reward regularity at the highest level. It is therefore revealing in the sense that everything is taken into account: the horses management, the organization, the logistics, the competence of the team, the rider’s style of riding... Steve Guerdat wasn’t World No. 1 for a year by chance. He was at the top of the rankings because he had been the most successful in all of these criteria for the last twelve months.

The new automated CSI invitation system, which comes into force on January 1st, 2020, is optimized both for riders and organizers who will be able to manage their quotas as well as possible, as three weeks before the competition, the registrations via the FEI platform will be final. It’s important to note that 90% of entries will transit through this system.

I sincerely believe that this system will maximize the competition's occupancy rate, and allow riders to optimize their programs. Riders will be able to make the most of the increase in CSI4* and 5* events, as some weekends we will be able to go down to a hundredth of a point for this type of competition. This system is perfectible, but I think we are going in the right direction by promoting a fair, reliable and transparent world ranking system."

Marie Pellegrin, French show jumping rider, 274th in the world rankings:

"Discussing the subject of the world rankings is above all about discussing a paradox. That of simultaneously asking riders to do two rather contradictory things, namely to preserve the well-being of their horses, by limiting their number of competitions while chasing after ranking points, which leads to riders needing to ask for more effort from their horses throughout the season.

It’s not easy to combine ethics, protection and the well-being of the horse with the current system based on this quest for points, to reach or stay at the top of the world rankings. I would like to underline here the complexity of this system, which for some riders, consists of chasing after ranking points to access competitions, which are rightly spread out across a large number of them!

Indeed, the more money there is in a competition’s prize pool, the more ranking points it earns, since points are distributed largely according to the number of competition events. Except that access to these highly-prized competitions that are richer in points is decided according to ... the world rankings. In other words, to progress significantly in the world rankings, it’s necessary to participate in events that are inaccessible for those at the bottom of this ranking. A whole portion of riders must deal with a somewhat unequal system.

About the attribution of these ranking points, I find it a pity, especially for the 2* events, that the main criterion is an event is prize money. The difficulty of the courses should be taken into account more! Indeed, I think that a Sunday Grand Prix, which is more complex, should be higher than all the other events, and for which you have to qualify by jumping your horse over one or even two courses, should always score more points than the other competition events, which is not always the case. This would benefit the horse, the rider, the organizers and the sport.

For me, the real problem lies more in the rankings themselves than in the CSI invitation system, which has been the subject of much controversy in recent months. If you want to value the horseman or woman and take into account the riders’ ethics while highlighting their talent and merit, then I think the system should work differently. I think it would be wise to take the current rankings into account, which accounts for the riders’ thirty best results of the year, and combine it with the world ranking by rider/horse combination, which already exists but is not recognized; for example, taking into consideration the ten best results of a combination over a year. This would make it possible to have a world ranking that reflects reality a little more. The special relationship that unites the rider/horse combination, this unique complicity which is the very essence of our sport, would thus be highlighted, as would the horse's owner(s), and essential actor(s) in our profession.

Some riders climb the world ranking with virtually a single horse, while others do so with a significant number of different mounts. However, the current world rankings do not reflect this reality. To support my point, here’s a significant example: organizers sometimes find themselves having to invite great riders, such as the CHI Geneva in 2018 which had to invite the reigning World Champion Simone Blum, who was too low in the world rankings to be selected for this competition.

The rider who has only one lead horse has two choices: to either chase the ranking points every weekend and exhaust their horse, or to methodically target competitions over the year with a horse that has been preserved, but lacks regularity to stay at the top of the rankings. The current system thus leads a good number of riders to exceed the optimal number of events per horse. It’s also common for an owner to entrust his horse to a higher ranked rider to compete in bigger events or for a top horse to be sold when they start performing at a certain level to keep the stable running. As the owner of all my horses, I can attest to this. After that sale, it’s necessary to take the time to rebuild with young horses and thus you fall back down the rankings.

It must be understood that high level riding is very expensive, about 30k euros per horse per year, and that the financial and sporting pressure on riders has increased in recent years. The rider is a business manager; if they don't get results, they risk losing owners and ruining the business, so they must respect the horses but perform at the same time. On top of that, they have to bear constant pressure. If the performances are not there, it’ll be more difficult for them to find sponsors and new owners. Riding is therefore not easy for the riders who most of the time do this job out of passion and love for the horse.

In conclusion, I would like to point out that while I find the world ranking system very much open to improvement, it does have the merit of reflecting the reality in the field. In the end, there will always be only one truth: the truth of sport. If Steve Guerdat has so far been World No. 1 for twelve months, it’s because he is the best in all aspects. As a true horseman, he thinks in the long term, lets his horses breathe and optimizes their programs. He manages the feat of being World No. 1, even though he doesn’t participate in the Global Champions Tour (LGCT), which enhances his performance when we know how much these events pay off in terms of ranking points and money!

This conclusion brings me to a final subject that I would like to discuss with you, that of the Global Champions Tour. There is double speak coming from the International Federation of Equestrian Sports (FEI) on this subject, which on the one hand says that it favors the sport and the historic Nations Cup circuit, and on the other hand gives its blessing to Jan Tops’ LGCT, with whom the president of the FEI, Ingmar De Vos, is very close.

Unlike the national federations which work hard and are recognized and praised by the riders, the FEI is criticized because they don’t really consider riders’ opinions.

One of the reasons is that in the FEI, all countries have one vote without the number of members per country being taken into account at any time. The more members a federation has, the more it contributes to the FEI budget. Moreover, the principle of democracy, which is one man, one vote, is not respected here, which may be questionable. Each country has the same weight, which has an influence on the votes, and therefore leads to a certain discrepancy between the riders’ priorities and the FEI’s decisions.

Sport must remain sport, and the LGCT remains a separate circuit with special rules. Riders who do not compete on this circuit are at a disadvantage in the world rankings because all the events on the program count toward the world rankings!

The sport is constantly evolving, with more and more money at stake and there are more and more new players. It is vital for our sport to be able to count on the regular arrival of new people out in the community because it prevents the system from closing in on itself in a way that wouldn’t be beneficial. Barriers must be put in place by regulating these issues as quickly as possible, and it must be said that this is not our leaders’ priority at the moment.

It remains to be seen in the coming months what impact the new CSI invitation system, that was set up in early 2020 by the IJRC, will have had".

Interview by Manon LE COROLLER. Featured photo: ©