The president of the U.S. Eventing Association explains some of the actions the organization is taking in response to member concerns.
Eventers everywhere are deeply saddened by the accidents that occurred at the Red Hills Horse Trials in Tallahassee, Fla., March 14-16 (see March 28, p. 57).
First and foremost, our thoughts, prayers, and heartfelt wishes for a speedy recovery go out to our dear friend and U.S. Eventing Association Board Member Darren Chiacchia. Darren is an extraordinary horseman who has worked tirelessly on behalf of the sport. We also send our condolences to Jonathan Holling and Missy Miller and those connected with Direct Merger and Leprechauns Rowdy Boy. These beloved horses were the best of the best—they will be missed. Furthermore, the USEA recognizes the excellent work of the Red Hills’ Organizing Committee under very trying circumstances.
The sad news from Red Hills comes at a time when the USEA is taking a hard look at the sport of eventing. During the December 2007 Convention in Colorado Springs, Colo., the USEA reaffirmed its commitment to horse and rider safety as the paramount consideration in the governance of our sport.
The centerpiece of the Convention, the all-day G10 Summit, was devoted exclusively to a full and open discussion of the safety issue among all of the stakeholders in the sport—riders, trainers, coaches, breeders, owners, officials, organizers, parents. A number of positive changes came out of our discussions in Colorado Springs, including the implementation of beefed-up qualification standards at preliminary level and higher that will go into effect this Dec. 1.
Having said that, I remain deeply concerned with the direction the sport has taken over the past several years. It would be unfair and counterproductive at this juncture to focus on any one incident, cross-country course or horse trials. We should never jump to conclusions regarding single incidents, let alone lose sight of the fact that there is, and will always be, an element of risk in any sport involving horses.
I know that my concern that the sport has gotten off track is shared by many of our members, amateurs and professionals alike.We seem to be in an ever-spiraling loop in which the aspect of cross-country that attracted most of us to the sport in the first place, the joy and thrill of galloping rhythmically over jumps
across country, has been replaced with questions of extreme technicality and a proliferation of combinations taken at show-jump speed.
It appears that the driver behind this emphasis on increased technical difficulty is the need to challenge and sort out the elite combinations competing at the highest levels of the sport. The net effect of this shift in emphasis, however, has not been confined to the upper levels. Rather, because of the need for each level to serve as preparation for the next, the sport has been altered all the way to the novice and training levels. This has left a large proportion of our core USEA membership—the 90-plus percent of eventers who will never compete above preliminary—asking whether there is a place left for them in the sport.
And what about our horses? Does the gallop-collect-gallop-collect nature of many of our courses, combined with the rigid adherence to established optimal speeds despite the twistiness of many modern courses, best serve the talents and abilities of our mounts? We owe the highest duty of care and compassion to these wonderful animals—in my view, the bravest and most noble horses in the world.
What Can We Do?
The answer is plenty. To begin with, we need the active participation of our membership. When you are concerned with the direction of the sport you love, it is not good enough to sit on the fence and passively watch events unfold. Get involved!
Over the past several months, Darren Chiacchia has taken a leadership role in terms of looking at how we can modify our national-level courses, particularly at preliminary and training, to better suit the majority of horses and riders competing at these levels. Through his position as chairman of the Professional Horsemen’s Council, Darren worked with multiple USEA committees and spearheaded the development of a “white paper” on potential changes to cross-country courses that was presented to the Board of Governors in Colorado Springs.
Included among the concepts discussed in the white paper were fewer technical questions, more forgiving jump faces, fewer combinations and more realistic optimal speeds. During Darren’s convalescence, I have asked Gina Miles to move forward with the task force’s work on an expedited basis. A number of other prominent figures in the sport, among them Kim Severson, have also volunteered to become actively involved in this effort.
I believe it is equally important that all segments of our membership forcefully express their views on the necessity of the types of changes being addressed by this task force.
On a separate track, the USEA will immediately investigate avenues to work with veterinarians and equine research professionals to find ways to reduce the stressors on our horses and explore the mechanisms of equine cardiovascular failure. If it makes sense to do so, I will ask the USEA Board of Governors to commit funding to this effort. We reaffirm the USEA’s commitment to ensuring the well-being of our equine partners as well as the safety of our riders.
At the Strategic Planning meeting in Leesburg, Va., March 21-22, we scrapped the long-established agenda and spent virtually all of the session on this one topic. It was an intense and emotionally exhausting day-and-a-half. We discussed, debated and argued with uncompromising frankness the issues faced by the sport. We tried to confront head-on the truths that lie right under the surface of those issues.
One of those truths is that eventing is a risk sport—nothing we do will ever change that fact. Another truth is that anyone who gallops an event horse out of a start box must exercise a good measure of personal responsibility. Yet another is that anyone who tells you there is a quick and easy way to resolve the multiple challenges facing the sport is either a fool or a liar (or both).
The issues are complex, and so will be the solutions. For that reason, we discussed a wide range of safety-related ideas (many suggested by members in their messages) including such diverse examples as instituting mandatory competitor meetings before cross-country, increasing minimum ages for riders to compete at preliminary and intermediate, increasing the availability of ICP-certified instructors, funding a study relating to the cause and prevention of pulmonary hemorrhages in sport horses, and finding ways to identify and penalize dangerous riding on a much more regular basis. We also agreed—and here acknowledge—that there are legitimate concerns about conflicts of interest that need to be addressed.
But in the end, we determined that the most pressing immediate need was to deal with cross-country course design and optimal time issues. So we unanimously voted to take immediate action to reverse the trends in course design and to slow down speeds where appropriate. We also unanimously voted on a set of six guiding principles that address our overall philosophy in responding to the member concerns communicated to us.
We did not formulate specific cross-country course design or speed standards (although we discussed those topics at length and came up with some ideas). Instead, we decided that it was appropriate to give the USEA Eventing Standards Task Force a strong directive to develop proposed standards on an expedited basis so that they can be submitted for action by the USEF Eventing Technical Committee at the meeting on April 23.
The specific motion that was the end product of our discussions, first passed on a unanimous vote of the Strategic Planning Group, then immediately ratified and adopted by a unanimous vote of the Board of Governors (a quorum of the Board was present at the meeting), reads as follows:
The USEA Board of Governors, on March 22, 2008, hereby unanimously resolves to:
1) Adopt the six Guiding Principles as a policy statement of USEA:
USEA Guiding Principles
1. We will not wait for the Fédération Equestre Internationale or the rest of the world; we will lead.
2. The sport shall emphasize the success of horse and rider, not a philosophy of elimination.
3. Identifying and implementing appropriate standards of course design and speed at each level.
4. Addressing and respecting our members’ concerns at competitions and in the governance of the sport.
5. Encouraging and developing opportunities for members to participate in all facets of leadership at all levels.
6. In all of our endeavors and pursuits, we affirm our commitment to the welfare of the horse.
2) Direct and authorize the Eventing Standards Task Force to take immediate action to reverse the trends in course design and slow down speeds where appropriate, consistent with Item 3 in the Guiding Principles.
3) Direct and authorize the Eventing Standards Task Force to present rule change proposals in accordance with Item 2 above, to be acted on by the USEF Eventing Technical Committee in its April 23 meeting.
4) Provide the Eventing Standards Task Force with communications received from USEA members to guide them in making these rule change proposals.
So here’s the plan: We hope and expect to have rule change proposals regarding cross-country design and speed standards drafted, approved by the task force and submitted to the USEF Eventing Technical Committee in advance of the meeting in late April.
I am pleased to report that USEF Safety Committee chairman Andrew Ellis has contacted the USEA and informed us that he endorses this effort.
I should emphasize once again that we in the USEA leadership are not losing sight of the other issues identified by the membership, including the need for more two-way communication between the leadership and eventers at all levels of the sport, the need for fostering frank discussion without the perception of intimidation, and the need for introducing “new blood” into the governance of the sport. Nor are we planning on abandoning the many other safety-related ideas put forth by our membership. To the contrary, we plan to address those ideas once this initial expedited push on cross-country course design and speeds has taken place. This will be a continuing process.
And I want to mention one other thing that I believe is crucial to this process: We must not become bogged down in finger-pointing or characterize this issue as “good guys” versus “bad guys.” We are at a crossroads now in the direction of our sport, and all of us, and the sport itself, will be losers if we divert our focus from taking positive steps forward and instead become mired in personal attacks. That is not to say we should avoid standing up and fighting for what we believe in, but to my mind one of the great strengths of our sport has always been the quality of the people involved—all of the people involved—so let’s pull together and move forward as a community.
Reprinted from two articles on the USEA website, courtesy of the USEA.