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November 11, 2010

We Hosted A Worldwide Celebration Of Horsepower

Our columnist is proud of the way the World Equestrian Games brought horse sports across divides.

I’m glad that 2010 is drawing to a close. It’s been a long and rewarding year for the United States in so many ways. The Alltech FEI World Games are done and dusted, and from many points of view the Games were a real success.

I think we proved that the Kentucky Horse Park is the greatest venue in the world to have multiple horse activities in one place. Even with the walking that we had to do to travel from one venue to another, for the competitors themselves the facilities were outstanding.

It was too bad that a two-month drought left the Kentucky bluegrass more the Kentucky brown grass in every place but the actual cross-country track. Mick Costello, being the unforgiving grass police, produced a track that was as good as it gets. The footing in the competition rings was fantastic; the outdoor stadium felt like you were competing in a huge sports stadium. So when you get down to the final answer the facilities allowed competitors the ability to produce their best performances possible.

I truly believe that in multiple sports we saw unbelievable levels of performance. Who will ever forget Moorlands Totilas in the dressage ring competing at a level that has never been seen before? Talk about an athlete. The show jumping was as high a consistent level as I have ever seen. You didn’t see horses and riders struggle over Conrad Homfeld’s very impressive courses. The top horses made it look easy.

The driving competition was as exciting as I have seen, not only to witness the Americans win a medal, but the level of driving in the obstacles by the top drivers was jaw dropping. It was fantastic to see Tucker Johnson in his last World Championships win the individual bronze medal and anchor the team to silver.

Reining and vaulting produced performances that truly broke records and had the crowd on their feet. The endurance competition was blessed with the best weather that could have been and so produced a very fast competition. To see a horse after 100 miles gallop across the finish line is an impressive feat of athleticism no matter what animal kingdom you belong to.

The Perfect Course

The eventing competition was the best ever. We all have a big debt of gratitude to Mike Etherington-Smith for producing a course that was the perfect level.

If the riders got their horses to places where they could understand the questions, the horses tried their hearts out and were rewarded for it. If not, there was a penalty that did not put the horse in danger.

Aside from the injury at the Lincoln corner—which should never have happened—it was an almost perfect competition and made us all remember the fine line between being aggressive and reckless. The Italian horse who was injured, Iman du Golfe, had a cut through its muscle with no permanent injury, but it was a stupid mistake by his rider, Juan Carlos Garcia.

It’s such a difficult task to push the competitors hard enough to truly produce a world champion and not cross the line where the horses get the short end of the equation. I always judge a course by how the horses finish, and I must say that the horses that completed were full of run, with ears still pricked. Even younger horses that hadn’t done a four-star before came home with confidence. These are the qualities of a great course. In 2006 the Aachen course was a very good one, but many previous World Championships produced horrible pictures of horses barely able to cope with the fences.

So the question becomes, who replaces Mike as the next course designer? Who leads our sport in a direction that balances competition and survival? Mike has said that he’s retiring from designing, but I hope that a European four-star doesn’t let the chance go by of offering him a job to do a CCI**** closer to his home.

Looking For The Right Answers

The U.S. eventing, show jumping and dressage teams didn’t have the weekend that they were hoping for, but the right questions will be asked in these next few months. Will the right answers follow? I think so. Everyone must look at his involvement and be honest about how his role stood up to the excellence required at this level. The United States will win again. It’s easy to Monday morning quarterback, but harder to put a plan into place and give it the time to work. We have the riders, horses and support system to win at the very top level. We’ve done it before, and we’ll do it again. Have faith.

Another measure of the success of the WEG must be its reach into the world outside of horses. The WEG had more television time than any other horse endeavor at any time in our history. The U.S. Equestrian Federation website had 1.5 million people visit. There were more than 300,000 people who live streamed from USEF Network. This is unprecedented. This is all out-side the 500,000 people that were there in person, from kids to volunteers to royalty, all to see horses compete at their best.

So to anyone who now thinks that horses are not interesting to the public at large I would say: Wake up, look around. Yes, it may have been a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity, but it’s shown many that the horse world can be entertaining in a true sports way.

Now that 2010 is over let’s go on vacation and be proud of the spectacle that the United States put on. The world came, and we welcomed them and showed them that top-level horse competition does cross borders and universally celebrates the power of the horse. 

The current president of the U.S. Equestrian Federation, David O’Connor earned individual gold at the 2000 Sydney Olympics. He won the 2001 Rolex Kentucky CCI**** and was the second U.S. rider ever to win the Badminton CCI**** (England) in 1997. O’Connor retired from international competition in 2004 and now trains horses and riders and designs cross-country courses. He began contributing to Between Rounds in 2004.

If you enjoyed this article and would like to read more like it, consider subscribing. "We Hosted A Worldwide Celebration Of Horsepower" ran in the Nov. 12, 2010 issue. Check out the table of contents to see what great stories are in the magazine this week.

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