Tryon Got The AEC Right

Oct 16, 2017 - 2:37 PM

Our columnist believes the sport needs outside-the-box ideas to evolve.

“If you can imagine it, you can create it. If you can dream it, you can become it.” —William Arthur Ward

Overused by scout leaders and presidents alike, this inspirational maxim and others like it get trotted out, restated and repackaged in a variety of contexts, from Fourth of July parades to my nephew’s eighth grade graduation. As hackneyed clichés go, it’s pretty true: One does not get what one wants in life without goals and a good strategy for how to achieve them.

When I was 13, I used to fantasize about what it would be like to win Olympic gold in equestrian sport. This thought usually popped into my head while mucking stalls or feeding horses, jobs mundane enough that a 13-year-old’s mind could wander without coming to any harm. Tad Coffin had just won double gold in the Montreal Olympics, beating the likes of Princess Anne, and for a brief moment in time, equestrian athletes looked like they might become household names. I imagined advertisers lining up at Tad’s door with endorsement offers and rich owners passing out promising young horses like mints at a garlic festival. I wanted that to be me.

Every afternoon in the barn I mapped out a plan for how I would get to the Olympic team before my parents made the tragic mistake of sending me off to college. The plan went something like this: I would achieve my Pony Club B rating later that year. As soon as I was old enough, I would start competing at preliminary events and become a candidate for the Area 2 Young Riders team. By 16 I would have my A rating and would be a regular on the national horse trials circuit. By 18, the U.S. Equestrian Team would be calling me to come ride for them.

With the unbridled success I was planning, college wouldn’t be necessary, and I would talk my parents into buying me horses with the tuition money. I freely entertained visions of me, a gold medal draped around my neck standing on a podium listening with tears in my eyes as “The Star Spangled Banner” played in my honor. It was my very own Carl Spackler moment. “He’s a Cinderella story. Tears in his eyes as he lines up for this last shot, an unknown coming out of nowhere to lead the pack at Augusta …” (Bill Murray in Caddy Shack still cracks me up.)

With more than my share of teenage angst and awkwardness I found refuge in the barn and power and identity in riding. I had developed a love of horses, and I grew attached to my own like best friends. I worked hard, my natural gifts developing quicker than I could have hoped, my strategic plan never far from my consciousness, everything happening right on schedule. I became one of the youngest advanced level riders in U.S. history, catch riding an experienced horse at international level in my senior year of high school.

On the day I graduated from high school, Jack Le Goff called me to ask that I defer entering college for a year and move into the USET training center as the rider in residence. I left the next day for South Hamilton, Mass., too young really, just three weeks shy of my 18th birthday. “He’s a Cinderella story, out of nowhere, former greens keeper, now about to become Masters Champion … it looks like a miracle … it’s in the hole! It’s in the hole!”

Once I got to the team, like the dog that caught the car, my strategic plan ran out. I was happy to have reached my objective but too stupid to know what to do with it. My job was to ride and learn and rely on others to provide the opportunities that would lead to ultimate success. I had no plan other than to obey every order and command given me. Worse yet, the benefits, fame and fortune that I had always thought would come to me never really materialized. I hadn’t won anything yet, just another good rider among many in a sport too small to get noticed by the general public. For the first time in my life, the way forward seemed shrouded in the shadow of uncertainty.

In the year I rode for Jack, I gained a great deal of perspective on equestrian life. I realized that, sadly, the exposure the sport achieved in 1976 hadn’t amounted to much, and our super star riders were no closer to a Wheaties box cover than they were prior to Tad’s double gold. At that time, the opportunities available to me and other young riders would take years of hard work and sacrifice to really get the most out of them. That was time I couldn’t or wouldn’t give it. So, in the fall of 1982, I gave up on riding and entered college for Act 2 of my incredible journey. There I fell in love a lot and discovered things like writing, public policy and Shakespeare.

No Significant Shifts

In her wonderful book Seabiscuit: An American Legend, Laura Hillenbrand gives us a superb look at the social and economic hierarchy within the racing world of the post-Depression era. With little or no social safety net in place at the time, trainers, stable hands, exercise and race jockeys had little opportunity for upward mobility within the industry. Hillenbrand recounts the sad fates late in life of the superstar jockeys of the day, noting that Red Pollard, Seabiscuit’s jockey, ended his career as a jockey’s valet.

‘Twas ever thus as horse sports have never offered much in the way of easy financial security to the majority of its professional participants. We do it because we love it, not because it makes us rich. There are no pension funds or old horseman’s homes stepping up to ensure a long and happy retirement. More often than not, professional horsemen today make a living selling, breeding, training or competing, day in and day out scraping for every nickel until the cumulative effect of injuries and other misfortunes forces them onto the sidelines while younger, healthier and more capable horsemen take the spotlight. And for the most part, success as a rider still is based on a system of patronage that offers little long term financial security.

So here we are in 2017, and the sport looks not so different than it did in 1981. Oh sure, the jumps are better, there are more competitions, more starters, better veterinary practices, and the horses look better. The industry has moved significantly away from farm-based, privately organized horse trials to events professionally run and produced on public lands and state-of-the-art private facilities. This change aside, the industry hasn’t seen any significant shift in the fundamental economics that drive it for decades. Sponsorship is still given mostly in kind or in such small amounts as to make little competitive difference to a rider and trainer. Prize money lags behind other sports by several zeroes and almost doesn’t exist in eventing. And outside the horse world, few people know our names.

Don’t get me wrong. I love my sport, and I’ll be happy if it stays right where it is. But I feel we owe it to the 13-year-old dreamers mucking stalls and fantasizing about the twilight’s last gleaming to put more on the table for them when they’re ready to make their mark. So the sport must evolve. If we hope to give it a push in the right direction, we have to imagine where we want to be in five years, 10 years and 20 years, and then chart a path directly to it.

What Could Eventing Be?

This isn’t the first time I’ve looked at the sport from this vantage point. Almost 20 years ago, I served on a USEF Strategic Planning Task Force for eventing with several other notable industry players. Headed up by David Lenaburg, then CEO of Banner Life Insurance Company, the committee included Karen O’Connor, Shelley Page, Kyra Stuart, the late Roger Haller and myself, and was tasked with looking at aspects of the sport that needed to be improved for real growth to take hold. Encouraged to think outside the box, we spent the initial discussions focused on what eventing could be in America. After months of discussions, we came up with a handful of initiatives designed to grow the sport in a healthy direction.

I don’t remember all of the specific proposals we made, but I remember we weren’t popular with a great many stakeholders. A suggestion that prize money be required at upper levels was met with fury from organizers. (How dare we put our hands in their pockets?) Development of a prestige eventing tour never really went anywhere, mostly because of a lack of experienced organizers willing to produce an event at that quality level. New eventing equitation medal classes never took off either, and this still plagues the quality of riding in the junior and young rider ranks. At the USEA convention in Tampa, Fla., we had targets on our backs by the end of the first day. Funny thing, it turns out that change is hard for some people to wrap their heads around.

But one suggestion did take off: the creation of the USEA American Eventing Championships. I was particularly proud of this idea and remember discussing at length how this would work with a skeptical USEA staff and board. Convinced of its appeal, I talked Fair Hill International (Md.) into running an East Coast championship for lower levels in conjunction with its fall CCI. The purpose was to create a competitive ladder that would encourage people to perfect their skills at each level before moving up. This in turn would promote local participation at events and give the lower-level riders meaningful goals. The AEC could be for the lower levels what the World Equestrian Games and Olympics are for high performance competitors.

Until recently though, I wasn’t convinced that the AEC would ever promote participation in the ways we hoped it would. For years, the event has moved from location to location, offering widely disparate levels of quality and prestige. Many in the USEA still believe that the event should move about the country to allow different regions a home field advantage of sorts. That would be fine if the event were fungible and easily duplicated at a high level anywhere in the country, but it’s not.

Not every AEC has moved the needle in a positive way. Many AEC events devolved into nothing more than glorified local shows, deficient in the amenities that would induce competitors to travel great distances to attend and failing to offer the kind of platform that draws in major sponsors. Each time it has moved it starts with a new volunteer base and organizer with much to learn about how to produce a good national championship. And each time it has moved, it has lost entries in its second and third year as people left the first year disappointed in the quality of the competition.

Glimpses Of What Might Be

What we need to learn from this experiment is that location, management and facilities matter to the future of eventing. If we want to have a true national championship that gains prestige every year, it must be extremely competitive with the best horses and riders competing head to head. It needs to run where the largest numbers of qualified riders can get to it, at facilities befitting the level of horsemanship expected at the event, and with the highest quality organizer available in the industry.

Last August, Tryon International Equestrian Center met all of these requirements and then some. The state-of-the-art facility is thoughtfully designed, with millions of dollars in footing that can take monsoon rains and still make safe competition possible. Unless they could have talked Jane Atkinson out of retirement, TIEC could not have hired a more experienced team leader than Shelley Page to manage the event. Given the current demographics of qualified riders, the location makes a great deal of sense for the time being. It took more than a dozen years to get right, but with more than 770 entries, the largest in U.S. eventing history, Tryon produced exactly the kind of championship we envisioned for the sport all those years ago.

Add to that the organizer’s goal to provide high quality, inexpensive family entertainment with its carnival-like atmosphere attracting several thousand spectators from the surrounding community, and the event felt every bit like the national championship it was supposed to be. With their popular Saturday Night Lights events and non-equestrian attractions for the general public, Tryon’s innovative approach to producing horse shows is exactly the medicine we need to secure our future.

Tryon is the brainchild of Mark Bellissimo and a group of bold real estate investors focused on how to make money with an equestrian-based product. Almost 10 years ago, I met Mark in Wellington, Fla. Over dinner he asked if I thought it possible to bring eventing to West Palm Beach, specifically the WEF showgrounds. At the time, I said rather dismissively that no, eventing couldn’t come to Wellington because there wasn’t enough room. I wasn’t wrong, but I wasn’t right either. My version of eventing couldn’t be run in Wellington. But Mark’s could. Apparently, Mark and his investors don’t think in terms of limitations.

For several years, Mark and his organization have run the Wellington Eventing Showcase, a derby type event, at the Global Dressage facility, across from the WEF showgrounds. That doesn’t mean everything Mark’s group and entrepreneurs like them do is good for equestrian sports. One has the feeling that such people might be tempted to put profit ahead of what’s good for the horses at times. But through their innovative thinking we see glimpses of where equestrian sports might go in America. And we need to embrace this spirit if we want to grow the sport long term.

Next summer offers a wave of opportunities for American horse sports with the World Equestrian Games coming here again. I’m excited to see what Tryon does with the Games to add excitement and appeal for the general public. But let’s be honest, a World Games is a much bigger project than the AEC, and it could take the skills of a dozen Mark Bellissimos to pull it off successfully.

Looking back at the 2010 World Games in Lexington, Ky., I can’t help but think we missed a moment. Perhaps I wasn’t paying attention, but I cannot name one lasting effect or legacy gained from those Games. This time around every affiliated organization (USEA, U.S. Dressage Federation, U.S. Hunter Jumper Association, the USET Foundation and of course the U.S. Equestrian Federation) should leverage the exposure offered by the WEG to further their own strategic plans for growth. They must pledge to work productively with the event organizers to make certain they have all the resources they need to execute their tasks in the best way possible and, where and when their interests align, to work together for the good of the sport.

The WEG aside, having seen how fast a single entrepreneur can move the sport with his imagination, what kind of eventing world can we imagine in five years or 10? I can imagine putting the AEC in California once a suitable facility gets developed and if the numbers of starters in the West balances those in the East. Are we taking the steps necessary to achieve that reality? I don’t know. I’m not even certain we know what those steps might entail.

I do know that the USEA has just completed a process by which it hopes to develop a new strategic plan for eventing. The effort was professionally managed and included participation by many prominent and capable stakeholders in the industry. I hope that they were encouraged to think big, with a healthy entrepreneurial spirit to envision a reality that is fundamentally different than the one we now have.

The mistake our old Strategic Planning Task Force made was not that we thought too big or that our ideas were bad ones. We failed to move the sport forward significantly because, except for the creation of the national championship, we didn’t address the things that mattered with the right resources required to effect lasting change.

I hope that the new strategic plan has fashioned a way forward that is innovative and bold in its approach, leveraging powerful forces of technology, economics and public policy to position our sport for future growth. I hope they have attempted to map out a strategy for dealing with important issues threatening the sport like the loss of open space and sophisticated animal welfare groups openly hostile to equestrian sports. I hope they have looked at how to increase interest among young people through expanded community-based riding programs and education. I hope they have a strategy for expanding participation throughout underserved areas of the country by working with local equestrian groups and communities.

If the best time to plant a tree is 20 years ago, we had better immediately get started on a new plan that dreams big, sets its sights high for the future, and then takes the bold steps necessary to achieve those goals. Because the AEC is finally doing what we intended it to, I have hope we can do another couple of big things right.

Editor’s Note: The Bellissimo family owns The Chronicle of the Horse LLC, and Mark serves as its publisher.


Patrick McGaughan was rider in residence at the U.S. Equestrian Team from 1981-1982. He graduated from Duke University (N.C.) in 1987 and from the University of Maryland School of Law in 1991. A team gold medalist at the 1987 Pan American Games aboard Tanzer, he is now “a reformed lawyer spending my time teaching, riding and training horses” at his Banbury Cross Farm in Clarksburg, Md.

 

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