Thursday, February 16, 2012

American Eventing Is it at a Crossroads?

By Denis Glaccum

To determine the road to the future requires looking at the recent past. How eventing will look 10 years from now can’t be determined by reviewing the past 10 years alone. But an examination of the last decade shows the evolution of our sport and the many causes (some good and some not so good) behind this evolution.         

The Aiken Horse recently ran an excellent book review about Snowman, the famous jumper of the 1950s and 1960s. Snowman, whom I competed against, was purchased at the New Holland, Penn. auction, and went on to be one of the most colorful and successful jumpers of that era. The book highlighted the many cultural changes in our society and their relationship to horses. In a very short period, horses have gone from being used for agriculture, transportation and war to being considered almost as members of the family. In the agricultural era, horses provided services and were viewed as having a useful existence. Horses do still play important roles in society and in combat: After 911, American Special Forces participated in charges against the Taliban in Afghanistan, mounted on little mountain horses.

The three-day event was created as a test of the military officer’s horse. It was a very demanding, athletic sport undertaken by fit, prepared officers and horses: consisting of four and five phases in which horses and riders competed over 20 plus miles, it was not undertaken lightheartedly. The “complete test” tested the breeding, remount, and training programs of the various cavalry schools.  Horses were important military equipment. Even in World War II, the horse was a major factor with most armies. For example, the German army used over 2.3 million horses.

In the 2000 Olympics in Sydney, the three-day event still had four phases. I am sure few of those who saw David O’Connor win the individual gold medal that year could envision the changes of the last 10 years and the impact of these changes on all levels of the sport.

At the lower levels, eventing has become a recreational, consumer-driven activity. The United States Eventing Association has lowered the bar of entry, allowing a greater number of individuals to enjoy the thrill of riding cross-country. Lowering the bar is not in itself a bad thing, however it creates some challenges. When the entry level of the sport was Preliminary, a rider had to have considerable training, experience and resolve to compete at all. Just the time and journey to get to the start box required considerable commitment. Eventually, Training level was added, and later Novice, and lastly Beginner Novice to increase opportunity.  It’s fair to ask how many riders have spent adequate time developing the necessary skills to have a successful competitive experience.  The competition should be the arena where we test skills we have learned, and not just where we attempt to develop skills. Everyone involved in the sport needs to enjoy the competitions while at the same time focusing on improving how we ride. 

The levels are designed to be a progression in which riders and horses move up as they gain experience and expertise. However, all riders do not want to move up, and that is another attribute of the sport. In 2005, there were approximately 6800 Preliminary starters in the U.S. In 2011, Preliminary starters numbered approximately 6100.

The reality of our society is that we all want instant gratification.  If we buy a Preliminary horse to go Training level we want to compete “now.” Horses require daily care and exercise. But young people today are involved in many activities. Soccer on Monday, piano on Tuesday, something else on Wednesday.  How will eventing at the lower levels evolve within the reality of our culture?

Eventing in 2012 at the upper levels and especially internationally, has considerable other pressures. If eventing at the lower levels is a recreational consumer activity,  eventing at the international level is a results-oriented, serious athletic endeavor.  In 2000 the United States was a top eventing nation. Unfortunately, our results during the last four years show that we have a long way to go to get back to being competitive.

To compete today, riders need to be personally fit and to have a comprehensive program in both horse and skill development. Many experts feel that riders preparing for the old format event assimilated many skills as they went up through Preliminary level. Just going through the process created the environment to learn these skills. For example, a Preliminary three-day event required riding for over an hour under competitive conditions. The personal conditioning and competitiveness needed were developed at the horse trial level.  The cross-country phase in a horse trial took approximately five minutes. In the three-day, the cross-country phase could be eight minutes. The jump from five minutes to eight minutes, although significant, was not a big factor then because you were already competing for over an hour in roads and tracks and steeplechase. Today, the jump from doing a five minute cross country course at an Intermediate level horse trial to going eight and nine minutes at the CIC two star is huge.

Today at the lower levels most competitors have a coach or trainer who controls most aspects of their training and competition. Again this is because our society wants coaching and trainers. Bad? Not necessarily, but a rider who has reached the Training level should be able to walk a cross-country course without an umbilical attachment to his or her trainer. Since most trainers use course walking as a revenue stream, this statement may not be popular.  However, eventing at the upper levels requires a level of self-confidence, self- assurance and independence, which need to be developed. When riding at the CIC star level, riders must be able to make judgments, react quickly to situations and make corrections as needed. That is one trait that makes Phillip Dutton so successful. He is always correcting and encouraging his horse as he goes around the course.

The cost of competing in and putting on an upper level event have soared during the last 10 years. For the first time in the sport, riders have been importing considerable numbers of high priced horses with the hope of “making the London Olympics.” The high cost of finding, screening and training horses professionally in this country makes it very difficult for American riders to be competitive.

George Morris and others have written articles asking “where has the American thoroughbred gone?” We have horses with the potential to be eventers in this country, but we need to develop incentive programs and processes to get the Thoroughbred from the farm and racetrack into other competitive areas. The Jockey Club fortunately recognizes that other equestrian sports are viable homes for Thoroughbreds after their racing careers are over and has introduced new programs for 2012. But much more needs to be done.

A lack of horse flesh is just one area where improvement must come. If you look at the operations of some of the top international event riders it is easy to see how American riders are at a disadvantage. William Fox Pitt, who rides for England, has no less than nine horses qualified for the Olympics. When he is off competing, which can be up to five days a week, his horses are ridden in dressage by a former British team dressage rider. He has a show jumper rider working with his horses for that phase. When he is at home he may have to teach a lesson or two, but most of his day is spent with his horses. Contrast this schedule with American riders who teach five and six hours a day and spend many days during the year giving clinics all over the country just to make ends meet. 

We all need to be aware that the increasing cost of land and services needed to support a viable equestrian program in this country may be too expensive in 10 years. Take a look at Aiken, which has enjoyed huge growth during the last decade. How many acres here are in land preservation with equestrian easements? I am sure less than one percent. Most of the open land today has few or no restrictions, so how do we know it will be available 10 years from now? Today you can hack from Windsor to Aiken. What about 10 years from now?  What are we doing as equestrians to make sure the politicians understand the importance of dirt roads and trail networks to equestrian economic development?

If America is not competitive internationally, what can we do as individuals and as groups? Volunteer at one of the local events even if it’s just for a half a day. If getting volunteers is a huge challenge for organizers today, what will it be like in 10 years?  We all can’t get to the Olympics, but we can be part of the journey by helping support our riders. Although the United States is a very wealthy nation, our eventing teams are underfunded. If you are a competitor, write out a check for the equivalent of an entry fee and send it to the USET Foundation and earmark it for eventing.  If you are not an eventer, go out to one of the eventing training clinics and introduce yourself to one of the riders. They are good people and after watching them you may want to jump in, join their team and have some fun.  
I would ask those reading this article to appreciate that although I am expressing my views and opinions based on over 50 years of enjoying this sport, I recognize that there can be other views and opinions and I don’t expect everyone to agree with me. I would hope however, that everyone recognizes that eventing is one sport, from Beginner Novice to the Olympics, and that from healthy dialogue can come improvement. “Adversity makes for strength” is very true when examining eventing in 2012 and considering the future. If we all help, we will still have a sport in 2022.