Eventing Is Our Sport To Shape And Support

Mar 20, 2014 - 9:01 AM
There's a reason unrecognized events are growing in popularity. How can we translate that interest into growing the sport as a whole?

Chronicle blogger and amateur eventer Kristin Carpenter joins the conversation that blogger Doug Payne started about the future of eventing.  

When I first read Doug Payne’s piece, my immediate response was, “YES.”

Yes to opening up a discussion, yes to ideas to wrangle the sky-rocketing entry fees and widening the base, yes to ways to make our professionals’ lives easier in any capacity so that they can compete with the best in the world.

I have been quite surprised by the online backlash. I think it is beyond commendable that a professional like Doug Payne voices the kinds of concerns that organizers, competitors, clients, owners and riders have been quietly discussing for years. I think that the response to his article highlights the tensions that have plagued our sport, and I hope to bring these to light and encourage further discussion.

This is our sport, and it is ours to shape and support.

A little about my point of view: I am an amateur. I support my riding entirely on my own by running a tutoring company in the Washington, D.C., metro area. I event in Area II now, but grew up eventing in Louisiana and New Mexico.

I am also an organizer of a very popular local show series of unrecognized events at Morningside Training Farm. Last year, we had more than 2,000 riders enter our events throughout the year.

Further, I serve as the organizer for Area II’s Young Rider Advancement Program, which is focused on helping young riders progress through the beginner novice, novice, and training levels, culminating in team participation in the novice and training three-days at the end of the year.

I currently have a 6-year-old off-the-track Thoroughbred that I have produced myself, and have just moved up to preliminary.

And I liked Payne’s proposal. Perhaps I should be ducking things that are flying my way, but just hear me out.

A New Structure

The first major component of Payne’s article was a proposal to tier eventing into A, B, and C-class events. The goal for a C-class event would be “an inviting course and welcoming environment” that has significantly lower entry fees than we currently see at the lower levels (to run a novice in Aiken recently, it would have cost $250 in entry fees).

Payne points out that “There is no reason that these competitions need strict oversight by multiple recognized judges, nor is it necessary to have timing on the jumping phases. Aside from medical services, all other additional costs shall be on the chopping block!”

As many have pointed out, this idea is currently served in many areas by unrecognized events, like the ones that I run. So, why would it need to be a formal structure?

I think the answer lies in an obvious tension: recognized events are canceling due to an inability to break even, and unrecognized events are flourishing financially. While this is great for individual competitors as they have options, this is not great for the U.S. Eventing Association and subsequently the body and future of the sport as a whole. Many venues have tried to solve the loss they sustain running recognized events by 1. Raising entry fees and 2. Running unrecognized events throughout the year.

For the adult amateurs, the rising entry and stabling costs have left many unable to participate in as many events throughout the year. Consequently, the USEA is losing more membership fees, and the organizers are often seeing dropping entry numbers.

I think it would benefit the USEA to, as Payne suggests, drop some of the “red tape” and unnecessary requirements for a safe lower level event and create a C-class that competes with the unrecognized horse trials. This would hopefully lead to more USEA membership, greater participation in recognized events, and lower entry fees for competitors.

Would it put the unrecognized events out of business? Doubtful. Would it open the USEA to a tremendous base of riders that are currently excluded due to the cost of recognized events? Absolutely.

We know the amateurs and lower levels support this sport, and yet they are currently being isolated by cost and ergo driven to participation in unrecognized events. Despite cries that a C-class is exclusive, I would argue that it would actually be more inclusive. Of the thousands of competitors at my events each year, only a third or so are USEA members. If the base of the USEA could expand, then we see a sport more shaped by the people who support it, and I don’t see that as a bad idea.

For the B-class events, they would exist largely as we have our current events. These could be “destination” events for many amateurs, and riders could mix the low cost C-class events with the larger, more expensive, bigger experience B-class events to shape a season around their budget.

There has been some discussion this past year about the possible need for a new level between training and preliminary. Some professionals riders press course designers to make training level more technical to serve as a true preparation for preliminary for their young horses. While many amateurs worry about the growing technicality of what is traditionally a level focused on gallop fences and fostering boldness.

This sort of tension between the nature and goals of cross-country could be addressed in a tiered system. Using training level as an example, for C-class events it could be a more direct galloping course. For B-class, it could be a harder course incorporating things like baby corners, steps, coffins, etc.

In this manner, I could approach my season as using cheaper, C-class events to gain my horse mileage, and the more expensive B-class events as a test before a move-up, or a “destination” event for the year like a personal championship.

There has been criticism that suddenly there would be a gap between “professional” events and “amateur” events, and it has been pointed out the joy all of us feel over getting to ride the same course as an Olympian, or waiting in warm-up next to the best in the world.

I do not think this new tiered system would cause such a division. Why? First, because professionals are begging for cheaper options for their young horses, too, and would absolutely utilize C-class events to gain their horses mileage.

At my schooling shows, I have at least a few Olympians and a large amount of a High Performance list riders trotting around. Second, the B-class events would still run, just like our events today, so if you so wanted to enter one and spend more money on a larger event, you could still do so.

Prize Money

The last tier of events was the A-class, which I imagine being composed of our current CIC and CCI events. Payne mentioned that it would be ideal if we could begin to see more prize money in these events to help offset competition costs for riders and owners.

There was a tremendous outcry that the top few professionals would reap the benefit of what HAD to be an increase in cost to the base of amateurs.

I think it is worth noting that one of the main goals of the tiered system is to save amateurs money in events at the lower levels. As for how he would raise the money for A-class events, Payne used the Carolina International CIC and Horse Trials, which is running March 20-23 in Raeford, N.C., as an example.

Carolina is offering “$25,000 in the three-star, $10,000 in the two-star, $5,000 in the one-star, and prize money at training level.” The entry fees for this event are similar in costs to similar events, and yet they have large purses to draw participants and also help offset the costs of competition for professionals and owners. How?

The funds were raised under the guidance of Jane Murray, and were not from “adding on” entry costs to the lower levels. Payne himself served on committees for this event, so I think he could offer further insight into how organizers can follow in these footsteps.

A large part of the online backlash was the opinion that eventing professionals do not have a right to be able to make money solely by riding.

Fair enough, no one has a right in this country to be guaranteed a living. However, I find it unfair to shut down a conversation over the future of this sport, for both professionals and amateurs, due to such a generic sentiment.

As an amateur, I would love to see my professional trainer have an easier lifestyle and to be able to focus more on her riding and less on teaching 40 lessons a week on top of clinics, riding and training seven horses, and competing, etc. If prize money at the top levels could help her in any way, I think it is worth consideration. 

Furthermore, if prize money can solve part of the puzzle of how to get our top riders well mounted, with good owners, and competitive on the international stage, I am all for a discussion.

Are there pitfalls to a tiered system? Absolutely, and we would be wise to discuss them and also look at the many ways attempts in other sports have failed to execute amateur-friendly scaled systems. Does the fact that it has been done improperly mean that it should never be considered? No.

Are there drawbacks to prize money? Yes. Let’s talk about how it has led sports astray, but also about how it has been used to create tremendous eventing programs in Europe and competitive international teams.

This is our sport, and it is ours to shape as we see fit. I applaud Payne for opening the channels of communication on important topics, and I would encourage other professionals, amateurs, organizers, owners and breeders to consider the benefits and the limitations proposed. We need more voices and well thought-out proposals.

While eventing in this country is not broken, it is not working. At the lowest levels we are seeing rising costs and canceled events. At the highest levels we are struggling to bring home medals. Let’s talk about various ideas of how to shape this sport so that we can all enjoy it for years to come.

One of the Chronicle’s bloggers, Kristin Carpenter juggles her riding with running her own company, Linder Educational Coaching, running the shows and events at Morningside Training Farm in The Plains, Va., and riding her two horses, In A Trance and Lizzie. She grew up in Louisiana and bought “Trance,” a green off-the-track Thoroughbred, as a teenager. Together, they ended up competing at the North American Young Riders Championships and the Bromont CCI**. She’s now bringing another OTTB, Lizzie, up through the ranks. 

Read all of Kristin’s blogs…


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