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February 28, 2008

Do Three-Day Events Have A Future?

It is especially ironic that, just at the time that the United States has finally established a legitimate four-star three-day event in Lexington, Ky., some leaders of the Federation Equestre Internationale are questioning the entire concept of sanctioning three-day events at any level. In fact, they'll be discussing it at the FEI General Assembly in San Francisco on the day before the Rolex Kentucky CCI starts and in a forum on the Saturday there.

It's easy to understand why the FEI has been driven to take a hard look at the sport. I'm sure that the cumulative weight of human and equine fatalities and accidents in the last four or five years has created a public backlash against the kind of sport that can have such devastating effects on its participants.

To examine the issues, the FEI established an Eventing Committee comprised of Wayne Roycroft (chairman), Capt. Jose Ortelli, (deputy chairman), Guiseppe Della Chiesa, Jack Le Goff, Eddy Stibbe and William Henson.

Here are some of their recommendations:

It was unanimously agreed by the Committee that the Endurance requirement for the horse would be drastically reduced in all four phases.

"It was also agreed that the recovery process before cross-country is absolutely essential and can only be properly addressed in detail with the assistance of the Veterinary Committee.

"Phase A (roads and tracks)'to be reduced or removed following veterinary advice and practical consideration of the organizing of the competition.
Phase B (steeplechase)'to be reduced half a minute from the current time for four-star level (championships and Olympic Games) and consequently at the other star levels.
Phase C (second roads and tracks)'to be reduced or removed following veterinary advice and practical consideration of the organizing of the competition.
Phase D (cross-country): Shorter distances, 1 minute shorter as per current time for each level; alternative fences to be abolished in the current form (time-consuming long routes) as this causes unnecessary strain on the horses, often shows bad pictures and adds additional costs to the construction. Option fences (easier option at same type of fence, flagged differently) should be encouraged and jumping penalties be awarded to riders for taking the easier option; refusals to be reduced to three on the whole course (instead of five). Falls (of riders and/or horses): the committee already has implemented the compulsory retirement after the first fall of the horse related to a fence and intends to discuss if this should be extended to any kind of fall of the horse or the rider.
End of phase D (veterinary examination): Bearing in mind the possibility of establishing in the near future penalties related to unacceptable recovery process, the Veterinary Committee would be asked to comment and proceed with studies on acceptable recovery rates for horses and how to monitor them on objective basis."
The general feeling of this committee is "that in the long-term future the eventing sport would eventually evolve into a CIC-like format as the result of public expectations, financial issues for the Organizing Committee, and development issues for the less experienced nations. [A CIC is an international horse trial, as opposed to a CCI like Kentucky, an international three-day event or 'Concours Complet Internationale.']"

If the FEI has its way, this means that that eventing in the future will be a vastly different sport than what we consider to be normal today.

These are some of the arguments I've heard for getting rid of three-day events, and I'm sure there are even more:

It takes too much land, costs too much, and requires too many volunteers to run a three-day event with steeplechase and roads and tracks.
If horses are already tired from the first three phases, when they head out onto cross-country, they're more likely to have accidents.
Three-day horses are much more valuable now than they used to be, and owners don't want their expensive horses subjected to the stress of speed and endurance.
Riders at the highest levels have strings of horses, and they don't have the time to get each of them fit.
Owners like to see their horses run more often. Since a horse can only run in two three-days a year, at most, it doesn't allow owners to watch their horses compete frequently, so it's harder to get them to buy horses.
Television can't "grasp" the three-day event format, and since big-time marketing depends upon television, eventing needs to evolve into a TV-friendly format.
Speed and endurance don't really matter. They don't really have anything to do with skill. All they do is wear out the horse.
The public doesn't watch roads and tracks. Since eventing, in order to be more commercial, needs the public, we should focus more on what they want, and endurance is irrelevant to them.
It's hard to get horses supremely fit without injuring them, especially horses with some latent unsoundness problems. Why not get rid of that problem by having an easier test on the second day?
But some of us can counter these arguments with reason to keep three-day events. Here are just a few of them:

The three-day event tests if the horse is sound enough, hardy enough, and has sufficient stamina and endurance to be a superior all-around athlete. Without endurance, it will become a test for an entirely different kind of horse.
Part of good horsemanship is the ability to get horses supremely fit without injuring them in the process. Without endurance, you better change the name from the translation for "complete test" because the new, watered-down version is no longer complete.
Fifty years of successful three-day eventing (which doesn't include the 40 years when it was strictly military) has proven that horsemen on tough, sound, well-conditioned horses can go out on cross-country without being too fatigued by roads and tracks and steeplechase. Why would you change the sport to cater to less able horsemen and less sound or hardy horses?
This is a sport for great-galloping Thoroughbreds or near Thoroughbreds, which derived from the military and the cavalry. We like those roots, and we want to keep a sport that derives from those roots.
Why should we change our sport to cater to television?
Getting rid of three-day events won't eliminate falls, because falls are inherent risks in any sport in which horses run and jump. More of the fatal accidents have occurred in horse trials than three-day events.
If the International Olympic Committee wants a CIC, let it be. Only four or seven riders from each country ride in the Olympics, one year out of every four. Why should the Olympics dictate the format of an entire sport for the thousands of other riders?
If you like the sport as it is today, go watch two great American three-day events in April and May. The Rolex Kentucky CCI**** is on April 26-29, and the MBNA Foxhall Cup CCI*** in Newnan, Ga., is on May 3-6. If the FEI has its way, you may be watching the twilight of a splendid era.