Show jumper Janne Friederike Meyer-Zimmermann shows top performances in the saddle at the CHIO Aachen. At the same time, she fights off the course for more equal opportunities for women in equestrian sports.
Show jumper Janne Friederike Meyer-Zimmermann became a mother at the end of January and is already achieving top results again. She just won the Nations Cup with Germany at the CHIO Aachen. However, the return to sport two months after the birth of her son Friedrich did not go smoothly. Normally, according to the rules of the World Equestrian Federation FEI, female riders have to take a break of at least six months if they are pregnant.
Victims of a well-intentioned rule
They then keep 50 percent of the world ranking points that they collected in the corresponding period in the previous year. Normally the points expire after one year. The regulation is intended to enable female riders to return to the level after pregnancy at which they were before. The world ranking points help decide which tournaments you can take part in – the higher the ranking, the higher the quality of the tests.
Because Meyer-Zimmermann took part in a tournament in Oliva in Spain after a five-and-a-half-month break, the world association canceled all points that were older than a year, and she then slipped from 107th place to 270th place in the world rankings. Meyer-Zimmermann sees herself as the victim of a regulation that she is now fighting to have repealed. In an interview with DW, she talks about an initiative that was launched for more equal opportunities in equestrian sports and her personal sporting goals.
DW: Ms. Meyer-Zimmermann, who is at a disadvantage when a rider returns from maternity leave to competitive sport half a month earlier than previously announced?
Janne Friederike Meyer-Zimmermann: I’m quite sure that nobody will suffer as a result. Also, I don’t think the rule was originally introduced to punish anyone, it was created with the positive thought that at least 50 percent of the leaderboard points are secured.
The FEI’s maternity leave rule was introduced when Meredith Michaels-Beerbaum was pregnant with her daughter in 2009. It applies to the equestrian disciplines of jumping, dressage, and eventing. Why did it take so long for your example to show that something was wrong?
It probably wasn’t such a big problem in the past because there weren’t that many big tournaments where you could collect world ranking points week after week.
Would you credit the regulation with the intention that it was well-intentioned as a kind of protective barrier?
It is always said that it is about maternity leave. Unfortunately, that’s not the point at all, it’s the complete opposite. Because if points are withdrawn from me, I have to do even more to get them back. Then I even ride more than less.
What are you requesting?
I think that every woman should be able to decide for herself and flexibly how much time she needs after the birth of her child. If you want to take a longer break, for example, because it was a difficult birth or you don’t feel physically fit enough, then that’s more than fine. On the other hand, if you are at home in top-class sport and want to return to your job as an entrepreneur, it should also be possible to get the chance to do so.
As a consequence, they founded “Equal Equest” , an initiative for equal opportunities in equestrian sport, which is also supported by other frontrunners such as dressage Olympic champion Jessica von Bredow-Werndl and Meredith Michaels-Beerbaum. The aim of the initiative is to change the rule. What is your proposed solution?
In principle, we just want that there is no more loss of points when re-entering earlier and more flexibility in the time limit of the break. Don’t be locked into six to twelve months. We have also made the suggestion that riders from countries that are not major equestrian nations and that do not host many tournaments should be given wildcards based on the world ranking they held prior to their pregnancy break.
It’s simply about creating equal opportunities. Nobody wants to get anything for free, neither money nor points.
What kind of feedback do you get from other female riders and especially from your male colleagues?
Incredibly positive. I have yet to meet a male colleague who rejects this. On the contrary, many say: ‘We didn’t know that at all.’ I can understand that because as a woman I didn’t know it before either. That’s why it’s important for us to clarify. We received great support from the German federation, the FN, and there was a lot of talk about it here at the tournament in Aachen. I think that the somewhat rigid structures of the FEI can be softened in this way.
Proposals for amendments can be submitted to the world association by July 6th, which could vote on them at its general assembly in November. How do you see the chances that the rule will actually be changed?
I see the changes as relatively high. I would be very happy for the next generation if it works, even if it doesn’t happen overnight. We will certainly be able to submit the application via the FN. But of course, that still doesn’t mean that it will actually be processed and come through. But once it’s on the table and people are talking about it, the first step has been taken. First comes enlightenment, then comes adaptation.
The results you have achieved since giving birth are great. Is that because you were angry about the point deduction and went into the exams according to the motto ‘now more than ever?
For me, it was of course an incentive to show that I had a good reason to start earlier. I felt fit, my team continued to train the horses excellently throughout the winter. In addition, in Messi, I now have a young horse that I have carefully built up over the past five years. He is a very special horse with special potential and I am counting on him for the future.
How well do you see the chances of attending the World Cup in Herning with Messi in August?
At the beginning of the season, it was more of a dream, my goals were smaller. I wanted to do well at the Derby in Hamburg in order to be able to get a starting permit for Aachen. So far all goals have been met, but Herning is still a step too far away. Now comes the Grand Prix in Aachen. Messi has never faced such a tough test. I trust him that he will do well and that we can show that we are safe at this level. If that succeeds, we also have a chance to recommend ourselves to the team in Herning.
You have already won the Grand Prix in Aachen in 2011 with Lambrusco, called “Mops”. At that time you already let go of the reins over the last jump and galloped to the finish line with your hands-free. What do you think the celebration would be like this time?
( laughs ) Definitely different, because if I cheered for Messi like that, he would gallop with me all the way to Hamburg. He’s super sensitive. You have to make sure that you stay calm. But I think I’d gallop to the finish with a pretty big grin.
Show jumper Janne Friederike Meyer-Zimmermann, born on January 12, 1981, is multiple German champion, European team champion since 2011, and team world champion since 2010. She celebrated her greatest individual success by winning the Grand Prix of Aachen at the CHIO 2011 on Lambrusco. Meyer-Zimmermann, who runs her own riding stables just outside of Hamburg, has had a son since the end of January 2022.