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.