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February 5, 2010

Of Leaders, Loss, Numbers And Safety


Any sort of year-end review is automatically suspect, because it depends too often upon the unique perspective of the reviewer. I’m reminded of Erich Remarque’s World War I classic, entitled, with savage irony, All Quiet On The Western Front, not so quiet for the book’s protagonists.

In order not to fall into the trap of too limited a viewpoint, I enlisted the aid of U.S. Eventing Association President Kevin Baumgardner, U.S. Eventing Association Executive Director Jo Whitehouse and U.S. Equestrian Federation Executive Director of Sports Programs Jim Wolf. Together, their perspectives sweep from the top to the bottom of American eventing, and from the East Coast to the West Coast.

Jim Wolf

  • We all remember the loss to eventing of Jack Le Goff and Wash Bishop. (This theme was echoed by Jo and Kevin.)
  • In a year of economic hardship, it’s very positive that major sponsor Rolex has renewed its commitment to eventing. On that same note, Canon Business Solutions has become a new sponsor.
  • The process has begun of “identifying a replacement for Capt. Mark Phillips when he retires from coaching the U.S. team following the 2012 Olympic Games. Identifying his successor early and managing this transition is critical to our ongoing success in the international arena.”
  • The sport is healthier than ever in the western United States, thanks in no small part to the efforts of two strong leaders, Rebecca Broussard and Robert Kellerhouse. (This was a theme that came up again and again in 2009.)

Jo Whitehouse

  • The American Eventing Championships at Lamplight (Ill.) was a huge success. Sponsors contributed $60,000 in cash and $110,000 worth of prizes, despite the poor U.S. economy. Steve Cooper, Tim Moxley and Katie Lindsay did a superb job.
  • The Spalding Labs/USEA Young Event Horse Championships were held on both coasts, this year at Fair Hill, Md., and at Galway Downs, Calif.
  • The USEA introduced Eventing USA 2.0, an e-magazine, to supplement the print magazine.
  • The USEA introduced a Medal Program to create incentives for members to improve riding skills at each level.
  • There were 12 training-level three-day events and four long-format preliminary three-days in 2009, supported by SmartPak and Stackhouse Saddles. The “Save The Three-Day” movement seems on solid footing right now in the United States.

Kevin Baumgardner

  • From my perspective, one of the most positive aspects of 2009 was the coming together of various groups—grassroots eventers, upper-level riders, organizers, officials, etc.—to create what in my experience is an unprecedented culture of shared responsibility for the sport. I saw this in a lot of ways. A number of upper-level riders stepped up to the plate in key governance roles as well as by reaching out to the grassroots and starting to bridge the divide between the “pros” and the “amateurs.” Jon Holling’s role on the USEA Executive Committee, and his leadership of the USEA Professional Horsemen’s Council, are great examples.
  • Another example is the enthusiastic participation of the upper-level riders in the Equine Cardiovascular Study at Plantation Field (Pa.) and Fair Hill (Md.)—to the point of allowing their horses to be “wired up” on course. We will need to continue this trend.
  • I was also very impressed, at a number of events around the country, with the way the officials took a more proactive role in dealing with dangerous riding and other issues—but did so, for the most part, in a very responsible way. I attended rider briefings at various events conducted by Marilyn Payne, Roger Haller, Wayne Quarles, Gretchen Butts and a number of other officials who were excellent. They did not avoid the tough issues but instead put them on the table and talked them out with riders in advance, while at the same time offering to help anyone who needed assistance and making it clear that everyone is on the same team.
  • I was also heartened by the commitment and passion for the sport demonstrated by our members. In 2009, the year of the worst economic downturn since the Great Depression, it was the fourth-best year ever for starters in the sport of eventing in America! Overall, our starters were down only 3.5 percent from 2008. The second half of ’09 was even better—with many events oversubscribed—and may have been the best July-November we have ever had. I think our organizers did an incredible job in weathering the economic storm and putting on great events that offered competitors what they wanted.
  • In the West, a key trend that we discussed (and one that is very close to my heart) is the growth. A lot of factors have come together to make that happen, including some superstar riders and horses such as Amy Tryon, Poggio II, Gina Miles, McKinlaigh—and now look out for Kelly Prather, Jennie Brannigan and North American Junior And Young Rider Championships two-star gold medalist and USEF Youth Sportsman of the Year Max McManamy!

But, more than anything, two visionary organizers, Robert Kellerhouse and Becky Broussard, have completely changed the landscape in the West. Robert runs multiple events at three spectacular California venues—Galway Downs, Twin Rivers and Woodside—while Becky and her unparalleled Rebecca Farm have made Kalispell, Mont., the Mecca of eventing in the West.

The Leadership Succession

Jim, Jo and Kevin also spoke of the need for the sport of eventing to cultivate a new generation of leadership, especially among those in their 20s, 30s and early 40s. This is a local as well as national issue.

Too many boards of directors of riding associations are filled with men and women in their 50s and older, and they all ask the same question: “When we step down, who is going to step up?”

Obviously, this issue isn’t confined to 2009; it’s part of an ongoing process and challenge.

Speaking of matters that transcend a year (or even transcend decades), “safety in eventing” is still a front-burner issue. Compared to several recent years, 2009 was relatively accident free. There’s definitely a culture shift that’s taking place in eventing, and I believe this virtual paradigm shift is a direct result of a generational shift.

I’m one of a handful of riders actively competing today who were actively competing in 1954, five years before the USEA was founded. Back then many of my coaches and judges were former military men with cavalry training. Eventing was still strongly connected to its cavalry roots, with all of the implications of that connection.

“Over, under or through” was our literal motto. It was akin to, “Damn the torpedoes, full speed ahead,” and if horses or riders suffered the consequences, well, that’s the nature of warfare, isn’t it?

By 2009 that thinking was becoming obsolete. Even though I don’t believe for one second that we’ve fixed all of the problems, I do believe we are open minded about exploring new ways to make eventing safer for horses and riders, something highly unlikely while the military ethos was the prevailing culture.

I would be remiss if I didn’t speak yet once again about land loss as a feature of 2009. When I started competing, there were about 150 million Americans. By 2009, there were 300 million. Projections estimate that by 2050 there will be 400 million of us. Where will we ride? Talk about an ongoing issue! Land loss is the 900-pound gorilla sitting in the corner. And you know what? Every year the gorilla grows bigger.

Finally, my personal highlight of 2009 was going to the Hall of Fame dinner during the USEA’s 50th birthday annual meeting in Reston, Va. I won’t discuss the contributions of the award recipients, as that’s old news by now. While it is true that the USEA honored Denis Glaccum, Eileen Thomas, Kevin Freeman, David O’Connor and Bruce Davidson, the reality is that they honor us by their example and by their service to eventing.

If our sport’s biggest challenge is to create a new generation of leaders, we don’t have to look any further than these five Hall of Fame inductees to find our role models.  

Denny Emerson rode on the 1974 World Championship gold-medal eventing team. He served as the U.S. Eventing Association president twice and won the USEA Wofford Cup for his lifetime dedication to eventing. At his Tamarack Hill Farm in South Strafford, Vt., and Southern Pines, N.C., he trains horses and riders and stands stallions. An original Between Rounds contributor, Emerson began writing his column in 1989.

If you enjoyed this article and would like to read more like it, consider subscribing. "Of Leaders, Loss, Numbers And Safety" ran in the February 5, 2010 issue. Check out the table of contents to see what great stories are in the magazine this week.

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