Monday, May. 20, 2024

Four Issues That Dominated 2007

Our columnist identifies areas of concern in eventing that he believes should be addressed as the sport moves ahead.

Usually these year-end reviews rehash the significant events and programs of the year, such as Rolex Kentucky, the American Eventing Championships, the Pan Am Games, the North American Junior and Young Rider Championships and the Young Event Horse and Future Event Horse Programs.
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Our columnist identifies areas of concern in eventing that he believes should be addressed as the sport moves ahead.

Usually these year-end reviews rehash the significant events and programs of the year, such as Rolex Kentucky, the American Eventing Championships, the Pan Am Games, the North American Junior and Young Rider Championships and the Young Event Horse and Future Event Horse Programs.

Because these competitions have already been thoroughly covered in these Chronicle pages and elsewhere, I’ve decided to focus on four areas of concern and challenge that U.S. eventing needs to seriously address—safety, cross-country course design and construction, runaway expenses, and a real or perceived sense of disconnect between the top levels of the sport and “everybody else.”

Safety And Cross-Country Design

It’s probably impossible to address safety separately from cross-country course design, although the two aren’t always linked.

The year 2007 was a deadly one for riders and horses, not only in the United States, but also around the eventing world. Everyone’s talking about it, but there don’t seem to be ready solutions. Rotational falls appear to be a main cause of the worst accidents. This type of fall happens when the horse’s forearms hit the jump, stopping his forward momentum, which causes the horse to somersault, sometimes landing on his rider.

This fact unleashes a host of questions. Are these falls caused by uneducated or inept riding? By the wrong kinds of jumps? By too much speed? By riders or horses not ready for the level? By fatigue? Other?

There’s a sort of Murphy-like “law” called “The Law of Unintended Consequences” that postulates that whenever a new course of action is determined, there will always be future consequences that are unanticipated and unintended.

When the Fédération Equestre Internationale changed the Olympic Three-Day Event to the short format, it set off a chain reaction that transformed our whole sport from one primarily based on cross-country speed, stamina and endurance to one based on greater technical expertise in all three phases.

Since horses were no longer being tested so much by speed and distance, many cross-country course designers began to create harder and harder technical “questions,” such as very narrow fences, sharp
angles, corners, and difficult combinations, to winnow out the best riders from the chaff.

The speeds, though, that were established decades ago when courses were more straightforward, galloping tests, remained the same. This decision was made despite the well-known fact that when horses have to sprint, slow down to negotiate a technical combination, sprint again, slow down again, they get tired and tend to lose their focus.

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So what will eventing cross-country become? A glorified “show jumping in the open” over solid fences, perhaps with slower speeds? Or will it return to something more like the cross-country courses of years past?

Runaway Expenses

If your grandfather inherited the Amalgamated Widget Company, if you are sponsored by someone who did, or if you are a shrewd financial wizard, runaway expenses don’t apply to you. To everybody else, they do.

Another “unintended consequence” of the shift to the short format is that the old “iron warrior” type of galloping Thoroughbred that you could buy off the track for $5,000 is less likely to end the day taking a victory lap with a ribbon hanging on his bridle.

The fancy dressage mover who can go clean on cross-country, within the time, and who can leave all
of the rails up in show jumping–that’s the new horse of choice. These “do it all, no weak links” horses are rare. So, the high demand, low supply law kicks into play, and prices have risen for the special event horses.

Then there’s the gasoline or diesel costs to travel to events. Consider the costs of everything that has to be transported by vehicles paying the new fuel prices, such as hay, grain and bedding. Determine what it costs today to buy a truck and trailer. Add in the cost to enter the average event, plus, perhaps, overnight accommodations. Finally, add in the escalating costs of board in a country with runaway population growth leading to dramatically accelerating real estate prices.

This is why so many eventers have to struggle and budget to be able to enter five or six events a year with one horse, which leads to a real or perceived sense of disconnect between the average U.S. eventer, and the elite riders at the top of the U.S. Eventing Association leaderboard.

A Sense Of Disconnect

I took the time to add up the number of horses ridden by the top five riders on that USEA leaderboard, and I also counted the number of placings they achieved to gain the points they needed to get them to the top. (This doesn’t count the times they competed but didn’t place).

Collectively, the top five riders in the United States in 2007 placed in the ribbons 553 times on 115 different horses.

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What’s happened, increasingly so over the past 10 to 15 years, is the creation of a professional elite of talented, hard-working riders with sponsorship savvy and sharp business skills who have collectively amassed large strings of top event horses. I think the Walt Disney-esque myth of the young girl riding out of the dawn on an undiscovered magical horse to win a gold medal is, sadly, now only a myth.

Some friends and I were questioning for whom, specifically, those dramatic FEI changes to the format were made.

Let’s say there are 200 riders who ride at least once in a U.S. advanced event, about what happened in 2007. Maybe 100 of them might be considered true advanced-level riders.

Of these, perhaps 60 might, with the right horse, have the requisite skills to complete a four-star event. Of these 60, perhaps 25, again with the right horse, might have a valid chance of getting on a U.S. team for a four-star championship, the Olympics or World Championships. Of these 25, perhaps eight or 10 might have that elusive “star quality” needed to be medal contenders.

So, 25 out of a sport of 25,000 translates to one rider out of 1,000. If the changes that the FEI made to our sport were oriented toward those 25 riders, that’s a pretty tiny tail wagging a pretty big dog.

When the U.S. Equestrian Team still existed as a separate entity, its sole responsibility was to administer the top levels of the sport. But now, with the merger of the former American Horse Shows Association and the former USET into the U.S. Equestrian Federation, lines of responsibility to the various constituencies are blurred.

Perhaps, as some suggest, there should be a two-track system with the USEF administering the advanced, or perhaps both the advanced and intermediate levels, and the USEA administering everybody else?

Or, as others have advocated, a three-track system, the two already mentioned, plus a huge, loose, informal alliance of unrecognized, unlegislated, inexpensive local events catering to entry-level riders? Or can the present cooperative arrangement between the USEF and the USEA be modified enough to satisfy everyone?
At this point, there appear to be more questions than answers, but these are some of the issues and questions that our sport needs to address as we enter the waning years of the first decade of the 21st century.

Denny Emerson



Denny Emerson rode on the 1974 World Championship gold-medal team. He served as the U.S. Eventing Association’s president twice and won the USEA’s Wofford Cup for his lifetime dedication to eventing. At his Tamarack Hill Farm in South Strafford, Vt., and Southern Pines, N.C., he trains horses and riders and stands stallions. An original Between Rounds contributor, Emerson began writing his columns in 1989.

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