Our eventing riders are floundering without leadership—and our new columnist has seen this happen before.
David O’Connor resigned his position as technical advisor to the U.S. eventing team. I will spare you all the details of how and why this happened because I simply don’t know them.
It’s probably fun to speculate about some juicy drama that may have led to his decision, but none of that is very important. I will take David’s statement at face value and move on. I expect David will continue to do good work on all our behalf through the FEI Risk Management Group and by continuing to collaborate with riders and owners to develop winners in the sport he loves.
While I am sad for him and the rest of the eventing community that his efforts didn’t result in a long list of international medals, he and I will continue to enjoy deep discussions about training and the many memories we share of our life in horses so far. I have no doubt that his next act will prove as successful and satisfying for him as his previous endeavors. I’m not worried about David; he’ll be just fine.
I am worried about other things though. David’s departure, although news of some interest, begs a few much bigger questions: Who is going to replace him as U.S. eventing’s technical advisor? Will that person’s job description resemble the one David worked under and include the development of all or just some of USEF eventing high performance programs? Will that person serve as chef d’equipe and provide the necessary guidance to our teams in major championships for them to be successful as a group? Will the riders give that person the respect necessary to be effective in that role, or will they seek further autonomy? Will the Selection Committee work effectively with the new technical advisor to ensure the best teams are developed and supported? Was the structure of David’s job organized to give the technical advisor responsibility for success without the authority to act in ways necessary to achieve it? Is anyone looking at that, and what have we learned over the last few years?
So many questions. In her statement regarding what’s next for U.S. eventing, Joanie Morris, the USEF high performance coordinator for eventing, said many things, none of them all that comforting. We will have to wait to see how the powers that be, whoever they are, handle the restructuring of this position to see what, if anything, they’ve learned from the past eight years.
A System Breakdown
If you’re only now tuning into the telenovela that is the ongoing story of the U.S. Equestrian Federation and U.S. eventing squad, you should know we’ve been here before and for similar reasons. As Yogi Berra said, “It’s like déjà vu all over again.”
Each time our country’s riders look like they are losing ground internationally, each time we have gone more than a full Olympic cycle without a team medal, that failure can be traced back to a breakdown in the systems designed to develop and support the riders representing us. More importantly it shows a dysfunctional relationship between the active riders and the coaches and selection committees responsible for preparing international teams. To put it bluntly, the riders we put forth aren’t winning team medals because the entire community isn’t acting much like a team.
Whether they regard the advice and support given them as incompetent, or whether they simply don’t like being told what to do, it appears that the active riders no longer all are pulling in the same direction. They’ve once again lost faith that the adults in the room have their best interests in mind and know what they’re doing.
They aren’t wrong. For three Olympics now we’ve failed to produce a team medal. Our riders aren’t bad, and they should be winning. We can’t continue to ask them to volunteer for a team that barely shows up. Riders won’t want to waste their time at competitions just to get the T-shirt. Owners and contributors will simply refuse to fund worthless trips. Something has to change, and whatever it is, it’s long overdue.
The “Good Old Days” Weren’t Always Good
Beginning in the 1950s, the USET relied on charismatic European cavalry men whose education, skills and background in equestrian sport far exceeded those of any professional or amateur rider, owner and trainer with American citizenship and training.
Tasked to lay the groundwork for international success, they made use of militaristic attention to detail in every aspect of their training. The two best known of the USET coaches, Bertalan de Némethy and Jack Le Goff, proved themselves to be equal to the task, and from their efforts, equestrian sport has grown steadily as the generation of riders they developed are now themselves inspiring a second, third and fourth generation of international competitors.
In hindsight, the legacies left by Jack and Bert seem unassailable. These were the good old days. We won a lot. The horses were amazing. Standards were the highest. Life at the USET was glamorous. The riders were amazing, and all of the medals were made of gold. Except they weren’t.
Jack, a brillant horseman, could be sadistic. He played diabolical mind games, often pitting rider against rider in his quest for mental toughness in his own real life equestrian version of Survivor, Lord Of The Flies style.
Larger than life and with no shortage of confidence or ego, Jack was the only star allowed to shine on the eventing team, and he took criticism for running the program like a petty dictator. While Jack is almost certainly responsible for creating riders like Bruce Davidson, Tad Coffin and David O’Connor and guiding them to Olympic and World Championship wins, many riders, myself among them, came to feel they would never be good enough, withering under the weight of his taunts, with many of us giving up. But as quickly as riders washed out, new blood was always ready to move in and take up residence at the training center, eager to absorb whatever Jack was handing out.
Eventually over time, Jack’s success became his undoing as riders built successful programs of their own and no longer tolerated his authoritarian style of teaching and team management. At some point in the late 1980s, American riders decided they no longer needed to listen to Jack Le Goff.
They rejected his mercurial, sometimes abusive coaching style and rebelled against any policy that favored veterans over rookies. They wanted a truly level playing field. They had won their medals and earned respect from their peers and, they thought, no longer needed to be led to the podium.
Beginning with Jack, the riders grew suspicious of the people in charge, instituted a purely objective team selection process, discounting the advantage of experience and making dumb luck a much bigger factor than it needed to be in team selection.
Teams went to competitions with no real coach and a series of well-meaning chefs who worked with their teams only briefly before major championships. Teams were selected purely on results, in particular selection trials, often months prior to the team event. Riders were not held accountable in the preparation for major events.
With no one overseeing the program, horses arrived at events lame and unfit for competition. Under this system the results were predictably bad. We failed to complete teams at the 1988 Seoul and 1992 Barcelona Games, and only our most experienced competitor, Bruce Davidson, earned an individual bronze at the 1990 Stockholm World Equestrian Games. Sound familiar?
In revamping the entire system, the USET established new selection criteria and once again hired a charismatic military man to oversee the teams and coaching. Capt. Mark Phillips already had the respect of the riders and possessed a less confrontational style in his coaching that got immediate results. Together with Karen Stives running the Selection Committee, they put American teams back on the podium. There must have been something magic about Karen and Mark’s collaboration. We continued to have success for three Olympic cycles, with many individual and team medals, several of them gold. We didn’t know it at the time but, like the Le Goff era before, these too were the good old days. Only when Karen retired from the committee did we begin a long slow decline in our results.
For the first time in half a century, not one of the riders active in the sport today came of age under Jack Le Goff’s direct influence. That’s an important development. It means that the riders active today don’t share a common experience in their journey to become team members. We have no centralized system for developing team riders like we did at Gladstone and South Hamilton.
Not surprisingly, our team is dominated by an Australian transplant who knew nothing of the history of the sport in America before he arrived and a cross-entry from the grand prix jumper ring who thought eventing looked like fun. Unburdened by the history, Phillip Dutton and Marilyn Little seem focused solely on what it takes to win. And they win because they are each on their own working to improve their horsemanship, exercising the same attention to detail once the hallmark of the USET training centers. They win because they are better horsemen. There are others who share this trait, certainly. But they are few and far between. By contrast, most other domestically trained eventers seem lost in the forest, searching for help to find their way out. These riders will benefit most from the effective leadership of a good technical advisor and chef d’equipe.
If we’ve learned anything from the past eight years it’s that we cannot force people to get better. Just because we wish it doesn’t make it so. They must choose to get better. Providing access to skillful and effective coaching is one of the most important resources they need urgently.
But improving in competition doesn’t guarantee that all riders will pull as a team when asked to run in the traces as a unit. When the chef asks a rider like Marilyn or Phillip to sacrifice an individual medal to ensure a good team result, they had better have the standing required to get the rider to sign onto those orders. Given that any number of variables and strategies can put even the most unlikely of teams on the podium, the chef must possess sufficient gravitas to properly refocus the members onto a team result.
I believe we have many competent coaches in America. I can’t name publicly a single person who possesses the skills and demeanor to be chef d’equipe. This is a big deal.
As an enthusiastic supporter of eventing in America, I am hopeful that the questions I’ve raised about who will serve as technical advisor are being answered by the folks at headquarters and the riders they serve. I have my ear to the ground but hear very little. Perhaps we can find another charismatic leader for our guys to follow into battle. But I’m guessing the position will no longer resemble the Le Goff model. Perhaps all that’s needed is a reasonably organized mid-level bureaucratic functionary, leaving the riders autonomy to select their own coaches with no real chef operating to guide them.
Joanie Morris and Will Connell could do that job, but I don’t think that works when the chips are down in the fog of war. Whatever happens, the riders are the ones in control for now. I hope they’re addressing this issue with the respect and creativity it deserves. I so want to be heading into the good old days again.
Patrick McGaughan was rider in residence at the U.S. Equestrian Team from 1981 to 1982. He graduated from Duke University (N.C.) in 1987 and from the University of Maryland School of Law in 1991. A team gold medalist at the 1987 Pan American Games aboard Tanzer, he is now “a reformed lawyer spending my time teaching, riding and training horses” at his Banbury Cross Farm in Clarksburg, Md.