A Sport In Search Of Its Soul

Oct 30, 2004 - 10:00 PM

If there is someone out there with a clear, articulate and persuasive vision of what three-day eventing should be, now would be the time to raise your hand and speak up.

Because if ever there was proof needed that confusion reigns, the Olympics and the Burghley CCI**** (England), running back to back, provided it in spades.

For years—decades even—I thought I knew what eventing was supposed to be. I thought it was a sport for tough, sound, brave, galloping Thoroughbred-type horses, full of stamina, endurance, and generosity of spirit. I thought it was essentially a cross-country sport, sort of a “Man From Snowy River” sport, not so much a sport for technicians in dressage and show jumping, but a sport for those who found their exhilaration on the back of a galloping horse.

I didn’t really have anything against dressage or show jumping technicians, but they have their own sports. They had their worlds, while my like-minded companions and I had ours.

We gloried in horses like Cornishman V, Priceless, Columbus, Be Fair, Eagle Lion, Charisma, Molokai, Out And About, and Custom Made-horses so brave and gallant they would have jumped through a blazing hoop or galloped 10 miles, if they’d been asked to do so.

We couldn’t foresee that this saga of courage, speed and stamina would ever end. Why should it end? It fulfilled our wildest dreams and our most fervent imaginings.

We couldn’t imagine an Olympics when most riders would make the time on cross-country, and a couple of dozen riders would have double-clear rounds. That they would do this in an event without roads and tracks and steeplechase—the phases that test the basic mettle of the equine athlete and the conditioning skill of the rider-would have been totally preposterous.

But this is a new era, brought on, if you believe the rumors, by a group of German show jumpers who control the Federation Equestre Internationale, abetted by a new generation of event riders who don’t really care that the sport’s roots go back to cavalry days.

Maybe that’s the way it should be. Different sports for different eras, different dreams, different agendas.

But I see a sport that is seesawing back and forth between “new” eventing (a technical sport, where cross-country is an equal third piece) and “old” eventing (where cross-country sets the standard). Who could imagine a more dramatic showcase of the “new” (the Athens Olympics) and the “old” (Burghley) back to back in August?

From all accounts, Burghley was a survival-of-the-fittest slugfest, while the Olympics were a dressage and show jumping test with a relatively easy cross-country phase. Neither, in my opinion, should be the soul of eventing.

One is too forgiving, but the other is too unforgiving. Can we find a format that rewards the great horses and riders without destroying the weaker ones?

I have a theory that “they” (the Germans, or whoever is behind changing the sport) didn’t have to get their sticky little fingers on the cross-country courses to turn the sport upside down. All they had to do was get hold of the dressage test to be rid of a majority of the horses who can run and jump.

For every rare Winsome Adante, who is good at both dressage and cross-country, there are many more horses who are too aggressive to calmly deal with three flying changes and tight 15-meter counter-canter serpentines. I’m thinking of brilliant cross-country horses like Molokai and Out And About, two of the truly great American products of recent eventing history, who would already no longer excel in the modern, Athens Olympics-type format because of their lack of tolerance for pressure in the dressage arena.

Thoroughbreds, or near-Thoroughbreds, aren’t the breed of choice for dressage. How many of them do we find at the highest levels of pure dressage?

They aren’t usually the horses in the top 20 in the big show jumping events either. But when it comes to stamina, courage, true grit and gallantry, Thoroughbreds are the cream that rises to the top.

By ratcheting up the difficulty of the dressage and show jumping phases, it just about guarantees that the majority of the best cross-country horses will have the cards stacked against them. Think back on the great event horses of the ’70s, ’80s and even into the mid- to late ’90s.

How many of them could tolerate a compression- and obedience-oriented dressage test and also gallop “all day” over a huge track? Some of the few great ones, ridden by the greatest riders, probably yes. Mark Todd’s Charisma, David O’Connor’s Custom Made, maybe Ginny Leng’s Priceless, and a few others. But that’s about it.

Which leads to another point-that the horses who truly have it all are exceedingly rare. Rare leads to an imbalance in the supply-and-demand ratio, which leads to one word: expensive. Do we want to create a sport where only the rarest of the rare can excel-fabulous movers with a tolerant attitude toward dressage, who are careful, scopey jumpers, and who are brave and sound for cross-country?

In Grand Prix dressage and especially in grand prix show jumping, the best horses already sell for three-quarters of a million to well over a million dollars. If and when that scenario starts to apply to eventing, where will most of our great American event riders be? The ones who don’t have a trust fund or a rich sponsor? If you think it’s an elite sport now, for “rich kids,”  just you wait.

When eventing was a sport primarily for courageous cross-country horses, brave, tough young men and women like Dorothy Trapp, Kerry Millikin, John Williams, Amy Tryon and their like could poke about at the racetracks or the backyard sales stables. They could pick and choose among skinny, green youngsters for under $10,000, and have a chance of finding the proverbial diamond in the rough.

Right now, American dressage and show jumping specialists go to Europe and routinely spend as much money on one or two horses as it would take to buy a beautiful farm in Virginia. Is this what we want eventing to become?

I know what I think, but it’s not my sport at that level any more. I rode at the advanced level for 29 seasons, so I can’t complain that I didn’t get my shot at the long format on Thoroughbred horses. If you current riders are happy with the short format, that’s your choice. But, if you prefer the old, long-format formula, are you going to let some little FEI gnomes, sitting in Lausanne, Switzerland, who’ve probably never jumped a cross-country fence in their lives determine your future?

Do you care, or don’t you care? Because if you do care, you better speak up now or take what you get.

Category: Columns
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