Danny Warrington Explains The Logic Behind USEA’s Proposed New MERs

Mar 4, 2021 - 8:02 AM

It caught a lot of eventers by surprise a week ago when they learned that the U.S. Eventing Association’s Cross-Country Safety Subcommittee was recommending a rule change that would significantly toughen the minimum eligibility requirements to move up the levels, as well as establishing a tiered licensing system based on rider experience.

“The USEA Cross-Country Safety Subcommittee developed the original proposal after a review of serious injuries and fatalities in the sport,” the USEA reported in an article on its website. “The consensus of the group was that the standards needed to be raised to earn the right to move into a higher level of competition. The MER numbers were based on best practices of top-level competitors in the sport as well as data analysis supported by the independent firm EquiRatings. The proposal passed from the Subcommittee to the USEA Board of Governors who made the decision to lower the requirements before it moves to U.S. Equestrian.

Much of the discussion about the changes has focused on the new requirements to move up to preliminary. Originally the committee had recommended 10 MERs at training or modified level, as a combination with the horse, before a pair would be qualified to move up to preliminary. A MER is defined as scoring below 50 in dressage, no jumping penalties on cross-country with no more than 90 seconds over optimum time, and no more than 16 faults in show jumping.

That number has since been revised down to eight, and two of the MERs could include 20 cross-country jumping penalties. (Those riders licensed as “A” or “B” could have fewer MERs; see here for full definitions.) Previously a rider only needed four MERs.

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The USEA has proposed a new set of MERs for riders and horses. Lindsay Berreth Photos

Many online commenters pointed out that in some areas of the country, attending more events means significant travel and expense, and those changes might put competing at preliminary out of reach of the typical adult amateur who juggles riding with a full-time job, a family or other commitments.

We spoke to Danny Warrington, a member of the USEA Rider Safety Subcommittee, former steeplechase rider and upper-level eventer, and founder of the LandSafe Rider Fall Safety System, to find out how the committee came to these changes and what they mean for the sport as a whole. The conversation has been lightly edited for length and clarity.

Can you tell me a bit about how the committee approached this MER rule change process? Was there a specific goal in mind or a problem that needed to be solved that led them in this direction?

There’s been a problem—we’re working on this problem for 20 years now. What happened is a bunch of people sat in a room and thought, “What can we do to make this [problem] better?” And we’ve been doing that for 20 years. And finally we have stepped up and said, “This is what we’re going to do: We’re going to make this harder, and we’re going to make it more difficult to qualify, so you’re better qualified when you do move up.”

So how else would you like to do it? “Well, I have a special situation, I live in Iowa; I live in North Dakota… ” Everybody has a special situation, and everybody has a special horse, but I have a special problem—people are getting hurt, and they’re trying to ruin the sport that we love.

So we have to, at some point, stop them from hurting themselves and educate them on how to become educated, so obviously the more times that you go out [and compete], the more experience that you gain.

I personally think it should be 10 [MERs]. Not only do I believe it should be 10, but I believe four of those should be double clean—clean show jumping, clean cross-country and sub-40 [penalties in] dressage.

Somebody says, “Well, that’s just ridiculous.” Well, listen, why are you moving up? If you’re not sub-40 in dressage, at what level are you then competitive? So why are you moving up?

If you have three rails in show jumping, at what level are you then in the top five? So why are you moving up? If you’re having stops on cross-country, why are you moving up? And if you get lucky and [go clean cross-country] two or three times, why are you moving up?

There’s a lack of reality of what expectations are, and if we want to make this safer, if we want to make this better, this is how. You’re going to spend more time at each level; you’re going to get more proficient at your skills, and there’s going to be a better, stronger arm to make sure that you are ready to move up.

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“Preliminary is not what it was 25 years ago; it’s not what it was 15 years ago. Some of the events, it’s not what it was five years ago. For me, our sport isn’t taken seriously enough at that level,” said Danny Warrington.

The focus seems to be primarily targeting the move-up to preliminary level. Why?

I think that’s where you see the worst of the riding, right? I will not be politically correct on this at all, and I will take any heat that is brought my way—that is where we see the worst of the riding, the move from training to preliminary.

There’s some stigma about preliminary, that people feel they should go preliminary, and they have to be a preliminary rider. Preliminary is not what it was 25 years ago; it’s not what it was 15 years ago. Some of the events, it’s not what it was five years ago. For me, our sport isn’t taken seriously enough at that level.

“I want to go preliminary!” I want to play in the NBA. So? No one gives a s**t that I want to play in the NBA. I’m not tall enough; I’m not fast enough; I can’t shoot a three-pointer. So guess what? I’m not playing in the NBA. I can’t stop you from going to preliminary, but I can at least force you to get better educated before you do.

What was the thinking behind changing it so that the MERs (for license B and unlicensed riders) have to be completed as a combination with the horse?

I honestly don’t know, I wasn’t in on that conversation. We’re not trying to make this thing impossible, right? That’s the other thing, you’re not going to have to take every horse and say you have to do all these things, all these things, all these things, because it becomes repetitive. Once you get your classification, once you become an A rider or a B rider, these things back off a little bit. So we’re calling them categorized riders, A, B or unlicensed, which is going to be changed. We’re not making it so that, forever, you have to run every horse you ever have [eight times at training level].

How many horses have you had in your barn that have had to do 10 or 12 or 15 training levels before they went preliminary because they just didn’t get the game? I’ve had a couple horses that went preliminary for two years before they moved up, not because they couldn’t jump the jumps, but because they just weren’t ready mentally; they weren’t really ready to play the game. The game was still too fast for them.

The problem isn’t people that take too long—the problem is that people don’t take long enough. No one ever says, “Oh, he took too long with that horse!” That’s never a conversation, is it?

We need to make a change, and this change just makes sense. When the top riders in the world, this is what they do anyway, why is it an issue?

When they looked at William Fox-Pitt, and they looked at Andrew Nicholson, and they looked at Michael Jung’s records, and how many times their horses ran at the levels before they moved up, these were the numbers they came up with.

That’s interesting because many people would assume that, say, Phillip Dutton might just do one training level and then go straight up to preliminary.

You’d be surprised how many! They go a lot. [Some horses] may get to Phillip having already done a bunch. [For those upper-level riders], their move from preliminary to intermediate is the bigger move than the uncategorized or unlicensed rider from training level to preliminary.

The problem is that we’ve put a number on something and said, “You’ve got to do four events.” And then people said, “Oh, well, once I do four events I can move up.” No. You missed the point.

To be quite honest, there are not enough people out there who are pushing this game in the right direction. If I hear one more parent say, “Why can’t my kid move up?”

My answer to them is, “When did you go advanced?” That’s my answer to them.

“Well, I didn’t ride,” they say. Well, then, shut up. I’m trying to keep your kid safe. Stop. Did you ride? Did you ride to a level where you were on a team? Did you make a selection team? Did you do training sessions? How far along in this game did you go? Now you’re putting pressure on your 14-, 15-, 16-year-old kid to make young riders to do a two-star.

We’ve got to make rules to stop people from hurting themselves, period, because they don’t understand the game. Back up one generation: How many of Bruce Davidson’s horses foxhunted before they ever went preliminary? Buck, Bruce, we were all out hunting in Cheshire [Pennsylvania], that’s why these horses could step out and go preliminary. It’s a different time, so we need to make a severe adjustment to replace that education.

This is what I’m asking of people: Why can’t you be proud that we’ve taken a huge step toward making the sport safer and better and globally more competitive? Because we’ll create better riders who understand taking your time, who understand development better. We have to change the way we think. If you want to be safety conscious, then you have to change, and you have to become a safety culture.

You can’t keep throwing the word “safety” around every time it rains. “Well, we can’t run cross-country because it’s not safe!” That’s not unsafe. You have to know how to ride cross-country when [the footing] is soft; that’s safe. You have to have experience so you can go out and ride correctly at the correct speed during those circumstances. Maybe the ground’s too hard; maybe you shouldn’t run fast so you don’t break your horse down so he can run in three weeks at the big event.

Why don’t we look at this and take pride in a huge step toward making a big difference and making things truly safer and truly educating people and truly trying to help people get it?

Was there any thought given to making the standard for MERs tougher rather than increasing the number? Like you mentioned earlier, requiring some double-clears, lowering the dressage score?

Yeah, it was discussed. [Laughs.]

I’m the wrong guy to ask this because 20 years ago, I said the first thing we should do is fine people who go too fast. I rode races. If you do something wrong race riding, you get fined, you get suspended, you get set down, you get taken off the horse. You get all kinds of repercussions.

[In eventing], if you did something wrong, you come back and yell at your parents, yell at your trainer, and move your horse to a different barn. Whoa, hold on, you were the one who did something wrong! You yell at the [technical delegate] and say the TD doesn’t understand. You’d be surprised how much we do understand.

The thing I want everybody to understand is we’re trying to be part of the solution, and change is not easy. And this is a big change, and it’s a good change. It’s a positive change by becoming a better rider, by giving yourself more time. You have more time now. It’s OK.

I’m sorry if you’ve got some 15-year-old horse, and he’s going to be 17, and you’re not going to get your eight trainings done so you can go preliminary. You know what? Enjoy your horse, and the next one, get started a little sooner. You’ll have more time; you’ll have more experience; you’ll have a better experience.

It’s often mentioned that a rider’s trainer should be the one telling them they’re not ready to move up, although as you mentioned, many riders don’t want to hear that and will just change trainers. But do you think setting a tougher minimum standard in the rules lets trainers off the hook a little bit?

Yes, I do. If [the rule says] you can’t move up because you have to do five more, that’s the end of it. It does take the trainer off of it.

But here’s another thing that people should look at: If you can’t get it done, if you can’t get your MERs done, maybe you need to get a new trainer. Maybe you need to look in that mirror if you’re struggling to get your MERs done.

Yeah, OK, you’re going to have to drive a little farther; you’re going to have to take a little more time off work, whatever that is. But if you’re struggling, you need to take a long hard look at your program and why you are being unsuccessful instead of saying, “If I only had to do four, I could move up. If I only had to jump five cleans instead of six cleans, I could move up.”

Well, yeah, but that shouldn’t be the way you should look at it. You should look at it as, “Why can’t I jump around clean and fix that problem?” Because it doesn’t get easier when we move up; it gets harder.

Someone could reasonably make an argument that a rider could get more education out of schooling cross-country, taking a clinic or taking more lessons than they would by running at a competition. Is there something specific about a competition that makes it a more valuable experience? Or is the focus on the number of competitions just because a competition record is the easiest way to objectively document experience?

You can go school, but the only way we can measure that you’re schooling the proper things is that you’re running at a recognized event that is brought to par. For example, the whole idea of the CIC was started so that at the international level, people were competing across the field at the same level. You couldn’t go to Peru, say, and run around an advanced track [at a national horse trial] that was the size of a prelim, and they call that advanced, and then you get qualified for the Olympics. That was the whole idea, right? The competition creates the bar.

One of the things that really upsets me about this is people say, “It costs money, it costs money, it costs money.” You might be in the wrong sport then. You know, it costs money to play lacrosse; it costs money to be in a club team to get your kid a scholarship to college. It cost me $2,200 to get a crown the other day for one of my teeth. I don’t care.

If you have horses, don’t tell me it costs too much money now because I have to do four more events. Then it’s going to take you longer, right, and you’re going to be safer. If it’s money you’re worried about, you think about that one fall that you stop, that you don’t break your collarbone or break your arm or the horse gets loose and gets hurts and saves the vet bill. Just think about that.

You mentioned that the preliminary level has gotten significantly more difficult in the last couple of decades. Is it just an unrealistic goal for most amateurs to compete at preliminary?

You know, I love the short format—I am not an advocate for the long format. I always thought the long format was a very tough, very brutal question. However, I believe very strongly in the training three-day because I thought that was a fair distance and a very fair question for horses of all sort of levels and stature and all that, and that would be a truly good goal for the adult amateur—to do a long-format training level three-day.

I was involved for a long time with the Waredaca training three-day (Maryland) for the first couple of years after it started, and then life obviously kind of moves on, but I’m still a huge supporter of that program because I think that program feeds so much information, so much education.

Red Hills (Florida) is a big goal. It doesn’t matter if you want to go preliminary at Red Hills or you want to do the four-star short—it’s big, and it’s real. That’s like me wanting to play in the NBA. You’d better practice every day; that’s not just something that you come out and do.

Preliminary is an FEI level, right, so that means it’s a professional level. It’s recognized by the international federation, so it’s real. It’s not a hobby; you need to practice. You need to work. It’s different than going novice; it’s different than going training. It has a standard, the standard is created by the FEI, and there are reasons why the rules are there, why the CIC is put in place.

[Preliminary is] a goal, but it’s not a goal that is maybe as easy as it once was. You sort of thought of foxhunting like a day at preliminary back in the day. But I wouldn’t take a horse out and run it at prelim off of foxhunting anymore; it wouldn’t quite be ready. Where 25 years ago, we would do that! You hunted a bunch of times, and it could go and jump around [preliminary], and it would be all right. Now you have to graduate through the levels.

I don’t think that it’s an unrealistic goal, but I don’t think that the understanding and the emphasis on the work that it takes to do it and to do it well—I don’t think it’s given enough credibility.

What do you think about some of the reaction and backlash to the proposed changes?

I hate the internet. I started LandSafe four years ago, and I had to read all the things that people had to say about me and our program, and we’ve proved ourselves quite successful and quite valuable.

If you don’t understand why we’re doing this, then you’re part of the problem, not part of the solution. And I’m sorry, I’m not trying to be difficult. I’m not trying to be politically correct and hold your hand. But somehow, some way, we need people to spend more time learning the skills to become better riders, and this is one way of doing it.

This is a big step, and it’s a big step in the right direction. Safety is not something that comes easy.

Don’t tell me it’s too much money because I don’t want to hear it. Don’t tell me it’s too hard because then you’re not ready to move up anyway. Look at it as a positive—we’ve made a positive change. No one is doing this to stop you from competing and achieving your goals. We’re doing this as a positive to save people, to create better riders, to create a better quality of riding, to create a better experience for everyone, right?

So is it a little more expensive? Yep. Is it a little bit longer? Yep. Is it a good thing? Absolutely!

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