FEI Maternity Leave - Compulsory, Non-Existent or Both?!

FEI Maternity Leave - Compulsory, Non-Existent or Both?!
Jessica von Bredow-Werndl and TSF Dalera at the Tokyo Olympics in 2021. Credit: Peter Nixon

The FEI has been called upon to reexamine their rules surrounding maternity leave for Equine disciplines. This is following Olympic dressage champion Jessica von Bredow-Werndl being “denied” permission to return to competition at Ludwigsburg, following the birth of her daughter in August.

Currently, The FEI’s maternity leave rules are discipline specific – where they exist at all. In the disciplines they do exist – dressage, showjumping and driving – the rules cover both maternity and periods of leave for medical conditions. There is no provision for maternity leave in eventing or para dressage.

Maternity Leave FEI Dressage World Ranking List Rules …

  • Athletes may request a maternity leave or a medical leave providing the pregnancy / medical condition is certified in writing by a medical doctor: requests for maternity / medical leave must be addressed to the FEI Dressage Director.
  • During the period in which an athlete has officially ceased to compete due to pregnancy or medical condition, he/she will retain 50% of the Dressage World Ranking points earned from the corresponding months of the preceding year until he / she recommences competing internationally.
  • The minimum length of time for which an Athlete may be granted a maternity / Medical leave is 6 months; if the maternity / medical leave lasts less than 6 months, no points will be retained from the corresponding months of the preceding year.
  • The maximum length of time an Athlete may benefit from a maternity / medical leave of absence at one time is 12 months.
  • During the period in which an Athlete is on maternity / medical leave, he/she may not compete in international or national competitions; the FEI will inform the Athlete’s National Federation (NF) accordingly. The Athlete must inform the FEI Dressage Director when he/she resumes international participation.

On September 15th, Jessica von Bredow-Werndl took to her social media to highlight the difficulties she has faced in trying to return to the sport and calls for change…

“I was looking forward to my comeback after the baby break in Ludwigsburg, but my participation was not approved. The FEI denied me permission to start – because of its perception of the regulations on Maternity Leave.

During my pregnancy I had applied for Maternity Leave with the FEI, meaning that for the period of my maternity leave, 50 percent of my ranking points remain. According to the FEI, I am not allowed to start tournaments during this period either.

I know the rules and would have assumed losing the relevant ranking points with a start in Ludwigsburg. Not even allowed to start now, I find it simply unfair and cannot understand the decision given the wording of the FEI regulation. It says: ‘if the maternity/medical leave lasts less than six (6) months, no points will be retained from the corresponding month of the preceding year.’

This has led to the assumption that by deliberately waiving the calculation of the world ranking points, I can also start again.

Since before the tournament a decision by the FEI tribunal would not be foreseen, I have agreed with the FN, and we waive to go to the FEI Tribunal and fight for a start there. So, I unfortunately have to withdraw my participation (also nationally) and am very sad not to be allowed to get my horses to the start.

I hope for the future (for my colleagues) that the rules will be adjusted.”

On Sept. 16th, the FEI issued a statement in response:

“The FEI has been made aware of the social media posts published by Jessica von Bredow-Werndl (GER) on Thursday, regarding her return to competition from maternity leave.

While we fully understand her desire to compete, Ms von Bredow-Werndl clearly expressed her decision to avail of the maternity leave provisions set out in Article 2.2 of the FEI Dressage World Ranking List Rules in April 2022 and it was explained to Ms. von Bredow-Werndl at the time that the minimum period of the maternity leave would be six months.

The FEI also informed the German Equestrian Federation at the time that, further to Ms. von Bredow-Werndl’s decision, a note had been added to her profile confirming that she would not be competing during the six-month period of her maternity leave.

Once an Athlete has chosen to apply for medical/maternity leave under Article 2.2 of the FEI Dressage World Ranking List Rules and has benefited from the provision allowing for the retention of 50% of the ranking points from the corresponding six months of the previous year, it is not possible for the Athlete to subsequently change their mind.

The procedures currently in place for Athletes applying for medical/maternity leave are to protect the fairness and integrity of the sport. Any recalculation of the Dressage Rankings could have a significant impact on other Athletes.

The FEI will undertake a review of the medical/maternity leave Rules for the future, and will liaise with the riders’ clubs (IJRC, IDRC) and the wider equestrian stakeholder groups.”

Not Alone:

Unfortunately, this is not an isolated incident…World and European team gold medal-winning German showjumper Janne Frederike Meyer-Zimmerman wanted to return to competition in spring 2022 after having her son but faced either losing her rankings points that had been frozen under the FEI maternity leave rules – or having to postpone her comeback. Janne did return early (unlike Jessica, who was not allowed?!) but it meant she slipped from 107th place in the world rankings to 270th place. If she had been allowed to keep 50% of the points from the previous year, she would have been 177th.

Janne says, “Until then, I have always practiced my sport with the knowledge that men and women compete with each other on an equal footing. Due to the rules, it was the first time I felt I was treated unfairly and felt disadvantaged because of my gender. It’s not about advantages for women, but about rules that prevent discrimination. There is an urgent need for improvement.” She added.

No Clarity without Consistency:
The FEI have stated that they will review the Rules surrounding maternity leave and it has transpired that not allowing an Athlete to return from maternity / medical leave early, is only one of many layered questions…

Why is there a lack of consistency across the disciplines? Why are Athletes competing in Eventing and Para-Dressage being discriminated against?

Why is there no stand-alone provision for maternity leave? Medical and maternity leave are not the same thing.

Why are only 50% of the preceding years points allocated to Athletes on maternity leave? This means that they will automatically be downgraded on FEI World Rankings.

How is there such a discrepancy between the FEI ruling for Dressage and Showjumping? Why was Janne allowed to return early, albeit forfeiting her points, and Jessica denied an early return to the sport? Why is there a minimum maternity leave at all?

And perhaps most importantly, why does it appear to be so hard for women to return to the sport after having a baby?

Equitas was founded to empower women, offer support and give them a platform to have their voices heard. If anyone was in doubt if Equitas was necessary, I hope you can see that unfortunately, glass ceilings and discrimination against women in the equine industry still exist today.

We are not looking to create enemies by asking these questions, we are looking to create change. Meaningful change. Together, united, we can achieve Justice, Fairness and Equity for all.

We have reached out to both Jessica and Janne offering our support and to aid them in the pursuit of obtaining a temporary but flexible break for pregnant women and maternity leave by changing the FEI rules.

We have more people to speak to, more information to gather and of course, we want to hear what you, The Equitas Generation have to say…This will not be a stand-alone article.

Stay Sound,

Sarah Elebert x

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Sarah Elebert

Sarah Elebert

Equitas Co-Founder, Irish Event/Dressage rider, HSI Level 2 Coach. Her passion is to empower women & encourage more riders into the sport. She is also Mum to her two daughters, Paige & Bree.
Co.Meath Ireland