It was only a matter of time before the suitability of rider issue would rear its ugly head again – which it did last month at The Royal Three Counties Show at Malvern, when the show's executive decided to bring its own enforcement policy into action.

Exhibitors couldn't say that they weren't warned as Schedule Rule 106 clearly states, 'SUITABLY MOUNTED – All riders must be a suitable size for their horse or pony, whether in the ring, or working in. Riders working in ponies for other competitors or children must also be a suitable size for the pony and suitably mounted. Only riders competing in the relevant class may be in the Collecting Ring.'

That's what the rule stated and that's exactly what the show's executive acted upon much to the dismay of those asked to dismount.

The initiative came from the show secretary, Betsy Branyan, someone with an immense experience in the equine field having played major administrative roles at the East of England Show and Ponies Association UK as well as founder and director of the very popular Equifest, described by its organisers as a 'Festival for horse lovers.'

Make no mistake that Ms Branyen knows what she's talking about and if she observes that there are issues over rider size, particularly on ponies, rest assured there are. From previous comments in this column, readers will be aware that it is an issue close to my own heart.

I commend the Three Counties executive for supporting the move and they did well to enlist the help as welfare officer of Amanda Stoddart-West, livestock and entries co-ordinator at the Great Yorkshire Show.

It was Amanda who led a strong campaign on this front at the Great Yorkshire which in 2016 brought in a ban against any rider whose weight, including tack, is more than 20% of the animal's weight anywhere on the show ground.

The Yorkshire went a stage further in 2022 by insisting that show animals can only be ridden outside the show ring by a rider whose age would make them eligible to ride in the class entered.

In simple terms, nowhere on the show ground at any time can older riders exercise or ride in ponies for younger riders about to compete in classes where there are age restrictions, eg plaited show pony and show hunter pony classes or those for lead rein or first ridden ponies.

With weighing facilities for both ponies and riders available on site and bowler-hatted stewards and vets on duty in the collecting rings and around the show there is strict adherence to the rules.

Needless to say this policy has caused an uproar with some exhibitors at The Yorkshire however there seem to be many others who support and applaud the move. It is very obvious that the show is having none of it and the policy seems to be paying dividends as the number of eliminations (yes, that's what happens to the rule breakers) has dramatically reduced.

To date, the Royal Three Counties hasn't taken its welfare policy this far but watch this space is what I'd say. I sense a growing feeling among exhibitors that, while it may have been acceptable in the past for larger riders to work in ponies especially for their young possibly inexperienced jockeys, it isn't any longer.

For many, the argument seems to centre around level playing fields and unsuitability of the preferred quality type of pony in the show ring, whose temperament, in the view of many, does not suit young riders thus making them unfit for purpose.

Personally, I don't necessarily hold this view and would look to the environment surrounding the show animal as a major contributory factor rather than blaming an individual pony or its specific type.

However, there are definitely issues regarding the suitability of a rider and we must be very careful not to attribute cause or blame to their age, gender or weight.

Riders are what they are and the trick is to find a mount that suits that individual – let's face it, there are all sorts and breeds of horses and ponies available in Britain to meet the demands of any rider.

It is a matter of finding the right one which, in addition, will win its rider a rosette. Therein lies a fundamental problem – it has to win a rosette or, moreover, the rider has to win a rosette.

A difficulty does arise in the definition of the term 'suitability' or moreover the lack of one. No horse or pony society, or organisation, has made the bold step that the Great Yorkshire has taken to set parameters to which rules can be applied.

The term can be found in the welfare rules of each and every one of them however there seems to be a reticence to bring policy into action. For exhibitors and judges alike, the lack of defining parameters brings about a lack of control and accountability.

This applied to me recently at Royal Cheshire as I watched the 'mini' plaited classes before I was required to judge. Very blatantly for all to see, a young man wearing a riding cap, T-shirt and jeans, possibly in his late teens, jumped on board a quality small first ridden show pony in the collecting ring and harassed it for fully five minutes prior to its entry into the arena with its small jockey on board.

This man was no weight at all but with his feet barely 10 inches off the ground, while his treatment of the pony was indefensible, there was also no question that he was inappropriately mounted and acting against the rules of both HOYS and the British Show Pony Society.

As a senior judge, I witnessed this event but felt powerless to do anything about it as there is absolutely no direction to me from the societies I represent despite the rules appearing in print in their rule books.

Nevertheless, I would have appeared in the background of any photograph taken of the incident by a welfare activist who could have rightly argued that I was complicit in the act by not intervening.

This applies equally to judges and members anywhere on a show ground with classes governed by the rules of one of our societies. I wonder if they have considered the implications of rule breakers or do they consider that the familiar plea of, 'It had nothing to do with me', would stand up in court.

While their councils blame the lack of scientific evidence in the case of weight ratio of rider to equine, there are many more issues relating to the show ring rolling into the public domain such as the use of the whip, tightness of nose bands and the use of solid metal curb chains.

Exhibitors and judges require clarity and guidelines that allow welfare policies to be enforced. This does not exclude the exhibitor who has a crucial role to play in all this.

In this regard, I liked a recent quote from well-known Scottish equestrian and trainer, Patrick Print OBE FBHS, who said: "We, the industry, must be seen to self-regulate. If we don't, 'activists' and those with little or no previous interaction with horses will bring pressure on the government to legislate against us. In my view, that could be catastrophic for the horse."

I completely agree with this point of view and urge everyone from exhibitors to judges and organisers alike to get our house in order before the issue of inappropriately mounted ponies becomes an issue or cause on which the 'activists' protest.

Particularly in Scotland, we have seen the lengths taken by our government to restrict fox hunting to a bare minimum through rigorous legislation on the basis of welfare grounds.

In the continuing absence of meaningful action from the show societies, I suspect that it will be left to event organisers, like the Three Counties and Great Yorkshire, to fight the welfare cause not only on behalf of our equines but on behalf of the future of our interest and sport if it not to fall foul of the protesters.

Self-regulation by exhibitors and society members, as suggested by Patrick Print, is the logical and most effective way forward during these potentially worrying times for the showing industry.