Blue tongue back from the dead
It's been more than 11 years since Luise and I published the infamous Blue Tongue World Cup video on YouTube. So it was with some surprise that I woke up this morning to find that Swedish horse magazine Ridsport is writing about it again. In an article about “net hate”, Epona.tv is accused of having manipulated the footage to falsely represent how Patrik Kittel was riding on that day in 2009 at the World Cup event in Odense. This is a lie, but because I don't check the firstname.lastname@example.org inbox very often, I missed the deadline to refute it.
If you've never seen Blue Tongue World Cup, here it is
Since this video now seems to have passed into equestrian lore for good, I think it's important that people know what really happened. That it wasn't just “a picture taken out of context”. What we produced was a work of quality journalism to expose the FEI's non-enforcement of its rules. The publication of the footage was necessary to force the FEI to admit that it needed to address the type of riding which was allowed at international competitions. Unfortunately for Patrik Kittel, he happened to be the one we filmed. At the time, Mr Kittel was invited to give his side of events and watch the video before it was published. His mistake was to refuse and hope the whole thing went away. Now he claims he was caught by surprise by the scandal and that we did not live up to our responsibilities as journalists. I'd like to respond to that, because I do not believe it to be true.
I am working on a manuscript for a book about equestrian sport and the FEI. One of the chapters is about the blue tongue scandal, so it's all very fresh in my memory. I have included an excerpt from the chapter below. Please note that I am using the term “hyperflexion” about what is now known as “LDR” (the type of extreme flexion allowed by the FEI under the assumption that it is harmless to horses), because at the time, “hyperflexion” was still considered the polite term.
When we drove to Odense, Luise and I were not planning to kick off another scandal, let alone an international one. We were not even intending to film the Grand Prix riders. We were interested in the horses competing in the young horse championships at the same event. After a long day of filming, we were on our way to the car when we saw a striking chestnut horse being ridden in hyperflexion. This seemed to be going on for more than twenty seconds. Luise whipped out the camera and started filming. We ended up standing there for hours.
There were other riders who were also hyperflexing their horses, but the chestnut transfixed us because he seemed to never get a break. At one point, he cantered closely by and his tongue could be seen hanging out of his mouth. It was blue. The rider seemed to notice, and halted his horse. Without releasing the tension in the reins, he leant forward and stuffed the tongue back into the horse's mouth. Then he continued riding in the same manner.
Veterinarians had told us about horses' tongues going blue from the severe pressure of the bits, which is necessary to induce the hyperflexed posture. However, we had never seen a blue tongue like this, let alone had a chance to film it. Mostly, horses keep their tongues inside their mouths. One of the purposes of restrictive nosebands is to hide the horse's squashed and often discoloured tongue from judges, spectators and – especially – photographers. But this horse's limp, blue tongue was in full view. In the footage, several spectators are staring at it, seemingly in disgust. We didn't know who the rider was and we weren't entirely sure what we had on tape until we had arrived home to load the footage. Then we realised.
'Do you understand that this is probably the worst rollkur footage anyone in the world has ever published?' Luise asked. She forgot to call it by its polite name, hyperflexion. I did understand. I had never seen footage like this before either. But what were we going to do with it? So far, we had not been able to get the FEI to have any opinions about the footage we had published. We were too small and people only really knew about us in Denmark.
At the time, we ran a subscription based streaming service because we wanted to be independent of advertising revenue, so that we could cover both the scientific and the controversial issues we had not been allowed to prioritise when we were previously employed by a glossy horse magazine. All our content was behind a paywall. The subscription model was great for our independence but we were also a niche within a niche, preaching to a choir of people who already shared our values to the extent that they gave us their money every month.
We decided that the blue tongue footage was going on YouTube, so that enough people could see it that the FEI would be forced to answer our questions. What happened to the ban on hyperflexion? Why did you disband your Welfare Sub-Committee? Again, the footage was slowed to make sure it was impossible for viewers to miss that blue tongue. One problem with horse sport is that most spectators - and even judges and stewards - miss the obvious signs of pain and discomfort constantly shown by horses. A recent study by Dr Catherine Bell and her colleagues at the Equine Behaviour and Training Association in the UK showed that 85% of equestrians – regardless of experience, and including equestrian industry professionals - failed to recognise signs of negative emotions in horses. (I am honored to be listed as a co-author of this study, but I am only included because I sourced the video clips used by Dr Bell and others to gather this crucial information.)
Slowed footage and high quality still images can sometimes help people see what they otherwise miss. Before Luise and I uploaded the original four and a half minute version of what would become known as “the blue tongue video”, we had to find out who the rider was and call him to offer him a right of reply. His name was Patrik Kittel and he was an Olympic rider from Sweden.
I called Mr Kittel to tell him that we had filmed him schooling his horse, Scandic, at the FEI World Cup show in Odense. I informed him I was taping the call. I asked him if he thought he had been riding in accordance with the FEI Code of Conduct. Mr Kittel said he would like the question in an email with the footage so he could show it to his lawyers. When I asked him if he didn't know whether he had been riding in accordance with the Code of Conduct, he replied: 'Of course I do. Otherwise the steward would have done something.' We complied with his request to send the footage and questions by email, but Mr Kittel never replied.
Luise spoke on the phone with the FEI Chief Steward who had been responsible for the warm-up in Odense, who said that complaints had been made about Mr Kittel's riding, but because it was deemed no worse than that of other riders at the World Cup show, it was decided not to intervene.
We sent the footage to the FEI with the usual questions and received an automatic reply to let us know that Communications Director Richard Johnson was out of the office, but would be checking messages. That was on 18 October. Then nothing. On 20 October 2009, we made the video of Scandic public on YouTube with the title 'Blue Tongue World Cup'. We stated that Scandic had been ridden in this manner for the two hours we had been filming by the schooling arena, and asked the same simple question we had asked Mr. Kittel and the FEI in vain: 'is this in accordance with the Code of Conduct of the FEI?' Not long after publication, someone tried to have the video taken down from YouTube, claiming that it violated their privacy. YouTube accepted our explanation that the video depicted international athletes at a major sporting event and was relevant to the public debate, and it was not removed.
The YouTube clip spread like wildfire on social media. The website of British Dressage crashed because of the debate it caused, and a ban on discussing the blue tongue video was imposed on users. International horse media immediately picked up the story. Then mainstream media followed. The Guardian published a news story called 'Olympics row over horse “cruelty”' which described the tens of thousands of people signing petitions and the threats to boycott Dressage at the 2012 Olympics. American fans were planning to protest against rollkur at the Dressage World Championships in Kentucky the following year. The Chairman of the British Horse Society, Patrick Print, wrote an open letter to FEI President Princess Haya, demanding an investigation. Still, we had received no reply from the FEI.
Some people were saying that they didn't believe us and that we had probably patched together snippets of hyperflexion footage of Scandic to make his rider look bad. So on 26 October, we uploaded the maximum length of uncut footage which it was possible to post from a basic YouTube account at the time; ten minutes. It was shaky and not all of Scandic, but it showed that we had by no means exhausted our raw footage when we made the first clip. There was plenty more where that came from.
This was the second video:
By 27 October, we had still not heard back from the FEI communications department. Instead, the federation's legal department reached out. They wanted us to surrender our raw footage for the investigation they were now forced to instigate against Mr Kittel. We eventually told them they couldn't have any footage apart from what we had already made available on YouTube. If the FEI was unable to govern its own disciplines without the help of the equestrian press, then they had a problem in need of solving. It was this problem we were trying to highlight by publishing the footage in the first place. Patrik Kittel ended up receiving a warning letter from the FEI but no formal sanctions resulted from the incident.
Patrik Kittel said in the press that he did not think the incident would have any consequences for him. It appears he was right. The FEI let him hyperflex Scandic again at the Olympic Games in London 2012. Today, Mr Kittel sits on the FEI's Dressage Committee.
-end of excerpt
According to Ridsport, the Swedish magazine which published Mr Kittel's allegations against Epona.tv, there is a problem with "net hate" in Swedish equestrian sport. But is there really? If so, why does the magazine need to bring up a legitimate news story from 11 years ago? The editor of the magazine - somebody called Lena Sellman - furthermore alleges that Epona.tv has filmed a horse trainer she employs. That is very possible. We have filmed a lot of riders in the decade we were active behind the scenes of equestrian sport. But we haven't filmed anyone since 2017, so it seems a bit forced to blame us for "net hate" in an editorial in 2021, even if Ms Sellman's horse trainer has been featured alongside many other riders in our footage from four years ago.
Epona.tv stopped producing new content because our primary motivation for doing investigative equestrian journalism was to try to rid the sport of horse abuse. When it became clear to us that this is impossible, we lost interest. What ails the sport now - in Sweden and elsewhere - is not Epona.tv. It's that the sport is slowly but steadily going out of fashion. People don't like looking at it. And who can blame them?