Familiar faces greeted me when I arrived at my gate at the airport on the way to this year’s U.S. Eventing Association Annual Meeting and Convention in Colorado Springs, Dec. 5-9. Much of the USEA staff was on the same flight. USEA website editor and programs manager Leslie Mintz and I immediately began plotting how we’d find out what happened in the closed-door meetings that new U.S. Eventing Technical Advisor David O’Connor was requiring all the U.S. high performance eventers to attend.
We needn’t have worried. Not only did the meetings end up being open, but O’Connor also made an effort to share his plan for the return to glory days with anyone who cared to listen.
Although the rider meetings weren’t technically part of the convention agenda, it was a logical place to bring the upper-level eventers together.
“I want to bring the riders here every year and meet at the convention,” said O’Connor. “Our sport is not big. We can’t afford to be separate.”
Over four days O’Connor laid out his plan for a new program based on four pillars: respect, integrity, transparency and consistency. He covered topics from personal analysis to the mechanics of good riding to selection procedure. He went into detail about how he planned to prepare riders to compete successfully on the world stage. And he explained a scoring system based on subjective and objective elements that would provide riders with a clear explanation of why they had or had not made the team.
Every rider I spoke to, whether we were out jogging in the pre-dawn hours or conducting a formal interview, was bubbling with excitement. You couldn’t help but be impressed by O’Connor’s innovative ideas and effective leadership.
I asked Olympian Becky Holder what she thought about O’Connor’s idea of sending teams over to Europe to compete in Nations Cup competitions at CIC***s. “It’s kind of like climbing a mountain,” she said. “I’ve been climbing that same mountain many times over the years. I kept thinking that I needed to improve my game by climbing that same mountain better. All of a sudden, he brought us to the top and took us over the edge. I didn’t even know the name of half the competitions he put on the board, which is terrible on my part. I have blinders on to the rest of the world. It’s brought a youthful excitement to the game for me.”
O’Connor introduced a four-year plan and discussed five national lists instead of the previous three:
- Global Talent - The ability now to win anywhere in the world
- World Class - The ability to compete anywhere in the world
- National Potential - Competitive in U.S. international classes
- Under-25 - Talent and attitude to be an elite rider
- Under-18 - Talent and attitude to be a world class rider
He hopes to work with individual riders to get to know their programs, so they can use their own coaches, veterinarians and farriers and still stay consistent to a national system of training and horse care.
“Where I’ve felt lost in the program before was a lack of communication in the sense that I wasn’t understanding the whole plan and idea,” said four-star rider Allison Springer. “I love that he’s brought a multi-tiered approach to this. It’s not just: ‘Who’s hot right now? Give them some lessons and see what they do.’ I love it being so forward thinking.”
Money, Money, Money
And it wasn’t just the riders who were inspired by O’Connor. The best plans in the world won’t be effective without adequate funding, but several announcements during the convention proved that passionate eventing fans are ready to step up in that regard.
Jacqueline Mars, longtime sponsor of O’Connor and his wife, Karen, established the Giltedge Challenge in honor of David’s legendary horse who was inducted into the USEA Hall of Fame on Dec. 8.
“Jackie has pledged a gift of $500,000,” announced Jim Wolf, the U.S. Equestrian Federation executive director of sport programs. Someone in the front of the room shrieked in shock at this incredible sum.
“It will be exclusive to eventing programs if it can be matched by the eventing community by June 1,” Wolf continued once the hubbub died down. “With the incredible generosity of Jim and Sarah Wildasin, Jerome and Sarah Broussard, and Howard Simpson, we are well on our way to matching that gift.”
However, Mars’ gift hasn’t yet been matched, and Wolf encouraged additional supporters to contact USET Foundation Executive Director Bonnie Jenkins in order to contribute.
And the Giltedge Challenge wasn’t the only big grant announced at the convention. Quality horseflesh is an important element of renewed American eventing dominance, and Tim Holekamp and Christine Turner hope they can do something about that from the breeding perspective.
The Holekamp/Turner Young Event Horse Lion d’Angers Prize and Grant will award the winner of the USEA Young Event Horse 5-Year-Old Championships with a cash prize toward travel to the FEI World Young Horse Championships at Le Lion d’Angers (France) for the 7-year-old two-star championships. North American-bred winners will receive $17,500, while imported horses will get $8,000. If the highest scoring 5-year-old doesn’t qualify or is unable to attend Le Lion d’Angers, then the money will be go to the next highest scorer who is qualified and can go.
It seemed like generosity was catching as big grants were awarded left and right. A new grant administered by the USEA Endowment Trust, the Essex Grant, will give $10,000 each year to a rider 25 or younger in order to ease the transition from young riders to the senior ranks. Funds may be used for coaching, training and competition. The inaugural winner was advanced rider Meghan O’Donoghue, the barn manager and assistant trainer at Jan Byyny’s Surefire Farm in Purcellville, Va. Jolie Wentworth received a $30,000 check as the winner of the Rebecca Broussard International Developing Rider Grant, and Tamra Smith got an additional $15,000 grant from the Broussard family.
One last big money announcement caused a stir at the convention: $40,000 in prize money for the advanced division at next year’s American Eventing Championships, which will take place at the Texas Rose Horse Park in Tyler. The winner will take home $20,000, the biggest eventing purse in the United States after Rolex Kentucky.
Of Compromise And Qualifications
In between the buzz over David’s master plan and the tears caused by unexpected generosity came the essential business of the convention. While no rule changes will be finalized until the USEF Board votes at the annual meeting in January, the convention is the place for eventers to get their ducks in a row, so the things they want make it into the official rule book.
Last year, this process didn’t work in regards to doing away with the “one fall and you’re out” rule. EV 141.1b3 currently eliminates a rider for a fence-related fall on cross-country. The rule was part of a multi-faceted response to a safety crisis, but the eventing community is split about whether they like it or not.
Good arguments exist for both sides. New head injury research and data shows that brain injuries are more common than we realized and occur in many different situations. However, there’s no evidence to support that hopping back on after a “pop-off” is likely to lead to another problem on course, and the ability to get back on can often lead to a valuable educational experience.
And regardless of what the eventers want, they have to get it by the USEF Safety Committee, which includes members from all disciplines. Last year the Eventing Technical Committee voted to allow riders to get back on at every level after a fall, as long as they appeared uninjured. However the Safety Committee voted it down, which led to an impassioned debate at the USEF Board Meeting and no rule change. 
This year, Malcolm Hook, the incoming chairman of the Safety Committee, and Carol Kozlowski, the USEA vice president of safety, worked together to create a compromise they hope will pass muster at USEF. At the novice and beginner novice levels, riders would be able to remount after a fall as long as they had landed on their feet and appeared uninjured. While some people objected that this proposed rule change didn’t go far enough, the consensus was that a successful compromise to allow it at the lowest levels was better than a failed attempt to completely roll back the rule.
Another level-specific rule change proposal would eliminate riders for the third disobedience on cross-country at preliminary and above. This is in line with Fédération Equestre Internationale rules.
However, many riders weren’t comfortable with the FEI rule changes that go into effect this year and mean you must earn your qualifications for international evens aboard the mount you intend to ride unless you meet certain criteria to fall into the new categorized rider matrix. 
This came up repeatedly throughout the convention as riders expressed concern over a qualification system that would mean even Michael Jung, the reigning Olympic, World and European Champion, wouldn’t fall into the highest category.
“The concept of licensed riders has been out there for at least five years,” said Robert Kellerhouse, who is a member of the FEI Eventing Committee. “The riders at the top were consistently asking for an easier path to get their horses ready. They didn’t need as much experience as the rest of us. The categorized riding thing was born from that. It’s not perfect. It’s a first stab.”
As 2013 doesn’t have a major world championship, the FEI deemed it a good year to implement the new qualification system so that there would be time to work the bugs out.
- Thanks to money from the USEA Endowment Trust, 50 years worth of old USEA and U.S. Combined Training Association magazines have been digitized and placed online for the benefit of the members. These archives will be free until the August Board of Governors meeting, at which point the BOG members will assess whether they should be for members only.
- In a review of the London Olympic Games, the typically dispassionate Capt. Mark Phillips broke down in tears as he thanked Jim Wolf and the rest of the U.S. team for their support during his 19 years as U.S. Eventing Chef d’Equipe. “I’ve had the honor and the privilege to work with some great riders, owners and fantastic horses,” he said.
- The Licensed Officials Committee did a study and discovered that over the next 10 years, eventing may lose 55 percent of USEF “r” judges and 45 percent of “r” TDs as well as 66 percent of “R” officials due to retirement.
- 369 people attend this year’s convention.