“Considering the birthing pains, the delivery was quite good.” That’s how Roger Secrist, the man who hatched the idea of the American Eventing Championships and its location at the Carolina Horse Park, evaluated the inaugural AEC (p. 26).
Ever since the concept’s introduction two years ago, some organizers and members have predicted that the AEC would be a failure because enough riders would never cross the country to make it truly “national.” Others opposed it because its date conflicted with established events in Area II (the U.S. Eventing Association’s most populated area), others protested that the AEC shouldn’t be on the East Coast, and others believed the USEA shouldn’t be promoting any competitions. But 415 horses started (from about 470 entries), and they came from all 10 areas and 38 states plus the District of Columbia, although only about half a dozen riders made a cross-country journey from California, Arizona, Oregon, Utah or Idaho, despite the $50,000 prize money.
I’ve always been in the doubtful camp, for two reasons: First, geography has predestined the dismal failure of national championships in endurance and dressage, and why would eventing be able to buck history? Second, the USEA’s mission is to further education, not competition, and I considered the AEC an incorrect use of the USEA’s human and financial resources. Roger and I have discussed the AEC’s value and desirability several times, so when I managed to qualify for it in July, I decided to ride because I knew Roger’s crew would stage a top-class event and that John Williams’ courses would be worth the seven-hour trip. On those two counts, I’m glad to say that I was absolutely right.
More importantly, my AEC experience suggested that it might be educational in a subtle but important way. The organizers spent more than $100,000 on Williams’ AEC courses, and his fences required correct riding and presentation. Some of the competitors had never seen novice or training level fences as demanding as those before; others had never seen an intermediate or advanced course at all. So being at the AEC raised their own competitive bar, and, penalties or not, it should have raised their training or educational bar too. And since about a dozen times John built the fences for all five levels side by side or close by each other, he provided a clear illustration of how the questions increase as the levels progress. He even led anyone who wanted to join him on an advanced course walk on Saturday.
Denny Emerson also gave a talk about breeding and finding event prospects, and Roger told me that they plan to offer many more educational opportunities next year. “From our surveys and what people said to us, those things seem to have been an even bigger hit than I ever thought about them being,” he said.
I initially objected to the AEC because I thought the USEA should be using its resources to improve cross-country course design and construction and to standardize instruction around the country, not to create a new competition. Well, perhaps this competition will have just that effect as it gathers riders, trainers, organizers and course designers from across the country to see riding at all levels, an experience few have regularly. While the novice and training level riders were reveling in having a “Rolex” of their own, it occurred to me that, just maybe, the AEC will have the educational bar-raising effects on the lower levels that the Rolex Kentucky CCI**** has had on the advanced level. If it does, the AEC would, indeed, be a valuable investment of people’s
time and money.