The last time a woman won the U.S. Eventing Association’s Rider of the Year award was in 1981, when Karen Stives topped the leaderboard with eight results on four horses.
It’s a startling statistic considering eventing is largely made up of women riders, and there have been so many women at the top level in the United States—Karen O’Connor, Kim Severson, Amy Tryon and Lynn Symansky, to name just a few.
These days most professionals who populate the Rider of the Year leaderboard have strings of horses at all levels. Should that award be given based on quantity?
That was the basis for a lively discussion at the U.S. Eventing Association’s Annual Meeting and Convention in New Orleans on Dec. 8, with topics ranging from getting more owners to support women riders to what to do with the USEA’s Devoucoux Leading Lady Rider award, which was won this year by Caroline Martin. Martin finished second in the World Equestrian Brands Rider of the Year standings, 360 points behind Boyd Martin, who rode 21 horses to win.
Karen O’Connor led a panel, with Symansky, Nina Gardner and Jonathan Holling chiming in about the challenges for women in eventing.
When and whether to start a family was at the top of the list.
Gardner, who, along with her husband Tim, has supported riders like Phillip Dutton and Jennie Brannigan, was a pediatrician for 22 years and evented. She noted that when she was growing up, it was expected that even if she went to college, she would get married and have a family.
“In my college class, people wanted an MRS degree immediately after a bachelors,” she joked. “Those of us who defied that were looked upon as being a little strange. It took a lot to prove that we weren’t strange. We were ambitious; we were dedicated; we were determined as the devil, and that was what made a difference. I practiced for 22 years, including having a family. I had to make some changes in my ambitions because I originally wanted to be a surgeon, but that was absolutely closed [to women] in those days. I’ve discovered it’s possible [to do it all], but you have to be very flexible, very lucky and very well financed to do it all. I think that’s relevant to riders at the upper levels.”
O’Connor, 60, who considered herself the next generation, faced a lot of naysayers as she began her eventing career. “I heard many times, ‘Do not start a family until you finish your riding career because you will lose your nerve when you have a child, and you won’t be brave.’ That was my generation until Mary King came along and had a great career,” she said. “She had two kids and went on to ride at the top level. That part of the culture is continuing to change.”
Holling continually joked throughout the session that he is definitely not a woman, but he offered some perspective as a parent and husband to a rider who doesn’t compete much anymore.
“For the most part, if you’re going to have children, the wife is going to be the one that has to sacrifice something,” he said. “We had a kid, and three weeks later I went to Kentucky and rode in the four-star. A woman couldn’t do that. She would have to give that up. Even when you do get back and want to ride competitively, they’re going to get up in the morning; they’re probably the one that’s going to deal with the child, especially if they have a spouse who doesn’t do horses. They’re going to be the one that gets them off to school, and then ride as many as they can. If they’re doing it on their own, it’s probably going to be three. If they have a big barn it might be five or six, but they’re not going to have the sheer numbers.”
Holling, 41, Ocala, Florida, related that for about six months after his son Caiden was born, he asked his wife Jennifer Holling not to bring him near the ring when he was competing because it bothered him.
“I had to get used to that,” he said. “Maybe I’m uniquely sensitive, but what I decided is, you might lose your nerve because you don’t want to do it anymore. One thing that happens when you have a kid is sometimes your priorities change. You realize competing at the top levels isn’t important to me anymore. It doesn’t mean you’ve lost your nerve and suddenly you’re not brave. You decided on your own free will that you had different priorities in your life. I think it’s a fear of the unknown, that you almost feel that you can’t trust yourself before you have that kid that you’re not going to change.”
Tamra Smith admitted it was a huge sacrifice for her to have her career and two children, as well as for her husband David Smith.
“He has a career as a homicide detective who was out in the middle of the night, and I couldn’t maybe go to the barn as early the next morning,” she said. “There’s so many factors involved in having children, but I feel like having children has allowed me to become even more ambitious and to be an example to my children, to show them that you can still have a career and still have dreams and still have goals of being the best you can be in your sport. It’s provided a balance for me because as we all know in this sport, it’s more often heart wrenching. You know if you’re having a very good year or good results that mountains are going to be crashing down in a minute.”
Amateur rider of the year and 2018 Dutta Corp. Fair Hill International CCI*** (Maryland) winner Frankie Thieriot Stutes is mother to two young boys.
“I am more likely to leave the start box kicking like hell than I ever was before,” she said. “For me, it’s done the opposite. It’s made me more brave.”
Stutes, 32, Occidental, California, said she was profoundly affected by Philippa Humphreys’ death at the Jersey Fresh International (New Jersey) in 2016 due to a rotational fall on cross-country.
Humphreys was a new mother.
“I was a very young mother with a child who was six weeks older than her child,” said Stutes. “I had left my child for the first time just a month before that, and she was leaving hers for the first time when she passed away. That was a really big mental hurdle for me. I went home and had to think about it and talk to my husband, and I kind of mentally could have gone either way in that moment, to be honest. I decided instead that I want to set an example for them. As a parent that’s what drives me. To me it’s almost offensive when people are like, ‘You lose your drive.’ I think you go through things in life, whether it’s having a kid or getting married, that change you, and you come to these roadblocks, and you have to decide if your passions are still the same or if they’re different.”
The discussion shifted to a cultural difference in the U.S. versus Europe regarding owners. Symansky said she noticed that whether you’re young or older, owners are less likely to take a chance on you and invest in you if you’re a woman because of the possibility of having children down the road.
“Every owner is different, but if you are a charming guy that is straight in this country, there are women that are going to want to come and support that,” she said. “It’s harder for me to attract that. I went to college and didn’t go down the normal road that everybody else did. I wasn’t sure if I was going to do horses in the end. I started as a 22-year-old not having a real connection in the horse world. You get a little bit lost in trying to meet owners. I hate saying that it’s harder to get support than the guys, because I want to say that we’re equal, but from my experience in this country, it is not true. I think people are going to disagree with me; everybody has a little bit of a different opinion. I think it’s harder as a female as well to go and have a child and find somebody who’s able to step in and do the horses for you, and that’s a business model thing as well. It’s a lot easier if you have somebody that rides as well if you’re going to have a kid.”
“I don’t know if I agree with Lynn that owners are more susceptible to supporting male riders,” said Smith, 44, Murrieta, California. “I think that you have to put yourself out there in an uncomfortable place, and you have to believe in yourself and meet people. When you have a belief in yourself and where you want to go, then all those other things start to fall into place.”
Symansky, 35, Middleburg, Virginia, countered and pointed out that a convention in Europe would probably not be having the same conversation about getting more owners for female riders. She believes since the United States is so big, there are almost two different nations, and maybe the idea would be to figure out a way to bring owners together more.
“It’s not just because you’re a girl or a boy, but a little bit the sport as well,” she said.
As part of her Athletux public relations and marketing business, Stutes has worked on more than 40 syndicates in the last eight years. She works with riders to help them approach potential owners.
“I haven’t particularly noticed that it’s male or female, but I’ve directly noticed that their personal confidence and ability to talk to people and how charismatic they are directly affects if they’re able to get owners or not,” she said. “If you’re an attractive young male, and you have a natural charisma about you, you have a higher confidence in approaching people. I’ve seen female riders who are very outgoing be very successful in getting a lot of owners, and the same for males. Unfortunately that has a bearing on how comfortable you are approaching potential owners. Male or female, it’s a personality trait.”
The group brainstormed ways to rethink how the Rider of the Year award is calculated and whether to abolish the Lady Rider of the Year award.
The Essie Perkins trophy has a long and sentimental history. Donated by June McKnight and first awarded in 1977 to the top woman rider, the group debated how best to repurpose the award while still remembering the meaning behind it.
Perkins was a leader in the growth of the sport and one of the first members of the U.S. Combined Training Association.
Her daughters Beth Perkins and Bea (now di Grazia) competed at the top levels, and the Perkins family bred and trained event horses and ran the Huntington Farm Horse Trials (Vermont). Essie died from cancer in 1978.
The trophy has been awarded 42 times, and only 17 different women have had their name engraved on the plate. O’Connor holds the record, topping the leaderboard 10 times. Only three riders have ever held both Rider of the Year and Lady Rider of the Year titles at the same time—Mary Ann Tauskey in 1978, Torrance Watkins in 1980, and Stives in 1981.
“We have to really think through letting go of a trophy with passionate, enormous history,” said O’Connor, The Plains, Virginia. “If you don’t know where you came from you don’t really know where you’re going.”
O’Connor noted that in England, division sizes are huge, and in the U.S. you can still earn good points in a small division, so should Rider of the Year be based on quality over quantity? She also noted that the Rolex Show Jumping rankings are based on riders declaring a horse for points before the show. Perhaps riders could declare a “points horse.”
Jon suggested a points index. “I think what we really need to be working on is coming up with some sort of formula like a major league batting average,” he said. “When you go out there and have your starts, how competitive are you every single time?
“One of the big things that we sell in this sport is that men and women compete equally,” he continued. “What you’re doing with the Rider of the Year is rewarding the best. Then, the thing that strikes me is that at the year-end awards, we say, ‘We compete equally, but great job Caroline, you won the Lady Rider of the Year.’ I find that a little bit offensive. If you want to keep with that, I think it should be Lady Rider of the Year and Male Rider of the Year.”
Another suggestion was that the USEA follow the FEI system, which ranks riders based on their top six results, although riders with more starts are still at an advantage. The last time a woman topped the FEI World Rankings was Mary King in 2011.
O’Connor’s husband, David O’Connor, who’s chair of the FEI Eventing Committee, stepped in and mentioned that the FEI is looking to revamp the points system. Currently if you compete in a three-star in Chile with four entries or one in England with 100, you’re awarded the same number of points.
Sam Watson of EquiRatings suggested a different point system based on the difficulty of the win.
“I’m perfectly happy with never becoming Rider of the Year, and it’s because my focus is different,” said Smith. “In my program I feel if I ride more than six horses at an event then the quality of my riding dissipates. Having Sam come up with some algorithm to give us a quality versus a quantity would be great. Then it would be great to be Rider of the Year, because I do think it would get you maybe an owner or a little more support.”