Tuesday, May. 21, 2024

Eventing Must Experience A Culture Shift

Rider responsibility and an open exchange of ideas will help us to better evolve with the sport we’ve created.

I have one wish right now for this column—I hope that this is the last time that I’ll be writing about safety, because we won’t have to.
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Rider responsibility and an open exchange of ideas will help us to better evolve with the sport we’ve created.

I have one wish right now for this column—I hope that this is the last time that I’ll be writing about safety, because we won’t have to.

The U.S. Equestrian Federation and the U.S. Eventing Association held a safety summit June 7-8 (June 20, p. 23) in Lexington, Ky. Though many people were worried that the sport would be dramatically changed for the future, the summit proved to be an excellent two days full of passion, thoughts and moving forward.
What I took away from the summit was the prevailing attitude that the culture of the sport needs to change. Our desire to forge a partnership with the horse is stronger than ever, but the culture of stoicism has to be an idea of the past.

For years the culture of eventing has developed from its military background. We were taught by cavalrymen, and we still lauded the horse that has the endurance and athletic ability to go beyond the
normal and be super horse. Those coaches and horses were fantastic, but they were coming from a different time.

Even Denny Emerson described riding famous horses from the past such as Grasshopper and Plain Sailing as “holding onto a rocket.” The riders and horses back then were in a different game.

The sport has evolved—for better or worse—but it has evolved. For every skill set that has been lost by removing the higher speed and endurance requirements of the sport there have been other skills added.
Therefore, we have to evolve ourselves. Do we recognize, practice and teach the newer skill sets needed for the sport or are we still teaching, practicing and idolizing skill sets that are not relevant to the sport as it stands today?

I’m not a person who looks back to recreate the past; I’m a person who looks forward to figure out how to deal with the present and to see around the corner to what’s ahead. The days of celebrating the “rockets” were fun, and I was glad that I was there to enjoy it. But the future is different and we’re not creating rocket pilots anymore.

The top riders of today are as good as any in history. They are competing in a technically demanding sport and are teaching their horses in a way that makes it easy for them and enjoyable for us fans. 

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So, how do we create the next level of true horsemen, horsemen who put the horse first, themselves second and the competition last? That’s where we are, and that’s what we’re all dealing with.

The first priority has to be that we reduce the number of horse falls in the sport. If we reduce the horse falls we’ll reduce dramatically the horse injuries (priority No. 1) and therefore reduce the number of rider injuries. If we don’t fall down, we don’t get hurt.

The number of horse falls is fewer than most people might think. Only .02 percent of starters have a horse fall. This number is still too high, though.

We’ll never achieve perfection and have no falls in the sport, but that number has to be the statistic that we judge ourselves upon. We’ve heard about rider responsibility for a while now—and I’m a great believer in that—but to me the definition of rider responsibility is the questions you must ask yourselves. Do you have the skills needed to answer the questions being asked at the level that you’re riding? Can you go the speed required and slow down whenever you want? Can you balance your horse at speed? Can you communicate with your horse at all times? If not, then you don’t belong in that competition.

Not long ago, I picked up an article that Meredith Michaels-Beerbaum wrote. The first thing that she said in the article is that you have to religiously practice going faster and slower. Meredith is a show jumper, and she’s saying the same thing that we’re saying. Do you know why? She’s a horseman.

We have to recognize the shift in culture that’s happening. Eventing has changed from a sport that relied on experience to teach us, to a sport that demands a high level of education. We came to eventing from other sports—racing, foxhunting, show jumping—and now we have a great deal of our competitors coming from the ring only. What are the skill sets needed, and how are we going to teach them? How do we teach someone to balance a horse at speed on different types of terrain?

The instruction has to improve dramatically for our own good. There are very good instructors out there and they should be praised, but listen at a warm up ring and you’ll hear the most amazing and downright wrong things being taught.

The Instructor Certification Program is a way to deal with this gap. Sound, thought out horsemanship based on years of experience, techniques and theories are being taught in this program. It won’t solve everything, but it’s an obvious step and one that needs to be supported.

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The other culture shift is the self-regulation of top riders and coaches identifying and speaking with those who are riding dangerously and may not know it. This is a huge change and one that’s being requested by the competitors.

Kim Severson and I were standing out on a cross-country course, and she asked me if I would tell her if she were riding or competing dangerously. It really made me stop and think about the answer.

She’s one of the best. Up to now, I would have been respectful of her ideas and space and would probably not have said anything because I would assume that she’d work things out. But what if she were riding a horse that was showing that it was above its level? Let’s say she was under pressure from within or without and wasn’t realizing that she was on the edge of safety.

Would an outside opinion make a difference in her thought process? I would say something now. That’s a culture shift. Top riders and coaches are being asked to step forward and say the things that are going on in their minds. Many of the recent accidents have happened to riders who we knew were on that safety line. We all say afterwards that it wasn’t surprising. We all saw it coming. Well, we saw it coming and spoke too late. Those in the sport have to shift from turning away, to “we need to talk.”

This scenario actually happens at the elite level because the USEF hires someone to say this to the riders. He’s our team coach. Can we take this system throughout all of the levels? I think we can if we come from the standpoint that we’re trying to make the sport better, and it’s not about the personalities involved.

Personal responsibility is high on the list for the future of our sport because it’s not all about you as a rider. Your responsibility for your horse has to be No. 1. You care for him. You’re responsible for his welfare. If you take care of him, he’ll take care of you. 

David O’Connor



The current president of the U.S. Equestrian Federation, David O’Connor earned individual gold at the 2000 Sydney Olympics. He won the 2001 Rolex Kentucky CCI**** and was the second U.S. rider ever to win the Badminton CCI**** (England) in 1997. O’Connor retired from international competition in 2004 and now trains horses and riders and designs cross-country courses. He started contributing to Between Rounds in 2004.

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