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September 27, 2012

Where Do We Go From Here?

While opportunities to ride in college exist, Michael Pollard believes that if universities focused their equestrian programs on the Olympic disciplines, it could lead to greater senior team success. Photo by Meghan Blackburn.

If there is one thing that annoys me, it’s the person who is forthcoming when pointing out problems but silent when it’s time to offer solutions.

As I have been rather critical and have tried to point out problems lately (particularly related to the success or shortcomings of U.S. equestrian sports), the Chronicle has been kind enough to offer me the space in order to avoid hypocrisy and to relay what I think are potential solutions. I am sure many of these ideas will be old, rough, or just plain bad, but I hope they will continue to promote an internal debate that may soon answer: Where do we go from here?

While I really prefer to keep to myself and work on my own numerous riding issues, I’ve felt compelled to be more vocal recently because I see huge opportunity for the future, and a moment in time where things can change for the better. I hope that people will understand that my opinions are just that, and that I can certainly have my mind changed by reasonable arguments. I am not the expert, but I am passionate to see the U.S. successful for both selfish and altruistic reasons.

In addition, and in general, I feel quite good about where the program is headed with David O’Connor taking over. I’m sure he has his own ideas, and these may only help to supplement those. He’s been easy to open a dialogue with, and I think he will spend the time necessary to resurrect our program.

Now, disclaimer over...

There are groups that must be coordinated in order to have any team pull the proverbial rope in the same direction. In our sport, these consist of riders, grooms, breeders, vets/farriers, officials, organizers, trainers, fans, owners and the team system. Each group has its own role to play, and each must fulfill its role well in order for the whole unit to be successful. My goal with this series is to offer my suggestions about what each group needs to do in order to help the nation as a whole succeed.

I hope you notice that I won’t state funding as one of our problems. We have very generous contributors to the USET Foundation. While more money will always be helpful, and donations will and do play a very important role to the team system, we need to recognize that we have more money already than any nation on earth. What we need is better utilization of our assets. When this is achieved, you will be surprised at how much more money finds its way to our program.

I believe there is a large portion of disgruntled fans who may be willing to contribute once we demonstrate that our efforts, integrity, and our utilization of their money is worth supporting.

I’ll start by identifying holes in our system, and then I will be slotting in where each group fits into the equation. I also hope to point out where the crossover will reoccur between groups.

How To Avoid Being Lost In The Shuffle

One of the key items we lack in our country is a clear path from beginning to excellence for both horses and riders. As riders, it’s our own responsibility to do what is necessary to achieve our personal goals and to find the right horses to fit our individual plans.

However, when taking a step further back, it’s clear that as a nation, a more robust network of assistance is necessary to make sure our talent doesn’t get lost in the shuffle. I believe we have many of the programs in place to form the majority of the framework, but there are some major holes that prevent a clear and consistent process from taking shape.

From a rider development perspective, there is much that can be done to find more talent and to help nurture it; but where I see the biggest gap and the largest opportunity is at the age of 18. This is when parents and young riders have to sit together and figure out the direction of the future.

Often, for the aspiring equestrian, there are no good choices. Either you forego higher education and become a semi professional, or you go to college, putting your riding aspirations on the back burner. In either scenario, it’s difficult to recover precious lost time.

Additionally, we have a culture where (probably correctly) many families do not find it acceptable for their children to skip university in order to pursue riding ambitions. This issue is quite personal for me because I decided not to attend college for exactly these reasons, and though things have worked out beautifully for me, I still regret missing this opportunity.

This dilemma correlates with an interesting trend that became very apparent to me at the last Olympics. The sports in which the USA is most successful are those that are benefited by the opportunity to obtain university scholarships and participate in intercollegiate competition. We are starting to see more and more universities offering scholarships for their riding programs. However, currently, these programs aren't geared to help produce top Olympic riders. Perhaps if we redirected these riding programs and teams towards the three Olympic disciplines, we could bridge the gap between 18 and 21, and develop the strength and depth found in other U.S. Olympic programs.

The benefits to all parties in such programs seem immense, and they could probably be formulated in a way that it would not be overly expensive to produce. Universities, especially those with equine and veterinary programs, are perfectly set up to support such teams. This would create very good jobs for trainers, would be a potential opportunity to help create breeding centers, would assist tremendously in talent spotting (who better than universities looking for talent for their team to find it?), would open up new riding lands, would provide university veterinary students with real sport experience, and could provide the type of student achievement and alumni base that universities need.

Additionally, I think more parents would be willing to support their children's riding ambitions if it didn’t sometimes seem like such a dead end and endless money drain. While this will never be completely eliminated, the opportunity for university scholarship would certainly help to ease those worries.

A Path For Young Horses

Just as parents want to see their children have opportunities, breeders want a place for their young horses to shine as well. I think the FEH and YEH programs are fantastic, but it seems like we have a bit of a gap after that. I believe we need a showcase event for horses at each age that helps pull them along through the system and provides breeders with an opportunity to gain some recognition.

The best way to do this is through a final that makes breeders, owners and riders want to be involved. I would recommend modeling this after classes such as the Burghley YEH (England); Lion D'Angers young horse final (France), and Blenheim 8/9-year-old final (England).

If you aren’t familiar with these events this would mean a final for: 2- and 3-year-olds judged in hand; 4- and 5-year-olds judged under saddle and in hand; a 6-year-old final at the one-star level, a 7-year-old at the two-star level, and an 8- and 9-year-old final at the three-star level.

A competition like this would provide an opportunity where the best at every age want to show up. This will provide a showcase for the breeders and will create a platform for them to work together with the riders (a key to our future success). The one thing that seems to be missing between riders and breeders is the fact that they don’t really have any contact with each other. If we could get the best of these two groups together for a week, I believe it would pay huge dividends long-term, I would also include a 3- and 4-year-old event horse auction to coincide with these championships, giving breeders a desperately needed avenue to sell their horses. 

While this wouldn’t solve all problems, at least it would be a starting point and a nice change for the overall business of horses. Hopefully, it would start to develop the market necessary to take breeding in the U.S. from mostly hobby to a coordinated program capable of the depth and professionalism needed to consistently produce champions. Breeding is one of the cornerstones of most other nation’s advantage over us, and if it’s never addressed, that advantage will never go away.

We Need Another Four-Star

If we can help pull young horses through the system, then the next major hole is at the four-star level. We still need a fall four-star. I have been the beneficiary of several funded trips to compete in Europe, but that money would be far better spent (in my opinion) on developing another Rolex Kentucky.

Although this was attempted without success a few years ago, the need is just as strong today as it was then. There are a few venues that could handle this type of commitment, but any of these would need a considerable push from the USEF to make it happen.

I would actually forego funded trips to Europe for a few years to make this a reality, and I think others would be on board as well if the right plan was in place.

If we put each of these pieces in place I believe we’ll have a framework that is more able to produce world-class combinations. Of course, just the framework is not enough. Competitions are only as good as the competitors who show up.

As I said before, there are many stakeholders that influence our team. As I write in the coming weeks I’ll try to pinpoint what each group might do to realize these above goals and where better connectivity and coordination might help to provide better overall competence.

Michael Pollard and his wife, Nathalie, run Chatsworth Stud, a breeding and training facility in Chatsworth, Ga. Michael, 31, is also the CEO of several carpet and equine-related businesses and a father of four. At 18, he jumped around the Rolex Kentucky CCI*** and won the Markham trophy as the highest-placed young rider. He was the U.S. Eventing Association’s Young Rider of the Year in 2001. In 2009, he won the Jersey Fresh CCI*** (N.J.), and in 2011, he was a member of the gold-medal U.S. team at the Pan American Games (Mexico).

 
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