Monday, May. 27, 2024

A House Divided?

Our columnist sees a rift growing between this country’s upper- and lower-level eventers.

A classic pyramidal structure has a wide base, tapering eventually to a narrow point.  This general configuration is often used to describe any broad-based enterprise, the lower tiers of which support the elite top layer, tiny in comparison to the underlying mass.
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Our columnist sees a rift growing between this country’s upper- and lower-level eventers.

A classic pyramidal structure has a wide base, tapering eventually to a narrow point.  This general configuration is often used to describe any broad-based enterprise, the lower tiers of which support the elite top layer, tiny in comparison to the underlying mass.

U.S. eventing’s levels have been so described, with the great masses of elementary, beginner novice, novice, training, preliminary and intermediate riders, numbering perhaps 20,000 to 25,000 in North America, supporting about 200 riders at the advanced level.

For years this has been the classic symbiotic relationship, benefiting both groups, even as disproportionate in size as they are.  When the U.S. Equestrian Team riders brought home medals from their international forays, the attendant publicity drew young converts into the sport and created enthusiasm and renewed commitment with those already involved.

As the base grew stronger, there were more riders to filter up through the system, more events to train the riders and more horses specifically trained to be event horses.

It was good for all concerned.

In some ways, it still is, but there are cracks appearing in the pyramidal edifice.

It’s hard to say just when and how there began to be the hint of a rift between the elite few and the broad based many, but two possible culprits are, 1) the forced merger of the U.S. Equestrian Team with the American Horse Shows Association/ USA Equestrian, and 2) the demise of the classic three-day event.

A Shotgun Marriage

Once the USET existed solely for the purpose of selecting and training teams for international competition. The “Team’s” focus was, understandably, on no more than 20 to 30 elite riders, all of whom were vying for the chance to be selected to represent the United States at the Olympic Games, World Championships or Pan Am Games.

Everyone knew this; most were OK with it.

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The AHSA, meanwhile, made and enforced the rules that governed the USET few and all of the lower levels, which existed independently of the USET.  There was little conflict of interest, and again, most people understood and accepted that reality.

But when the USET challenged the AHSA and attempted to take over as the national governing body, and the U.S. judicial system forced a “shotgun marriage” on the warring entities to create the current U.S.Equestrian Federation, some of this “live and let live” mentality got lost in the aftermath.

While the USET was clearly elitist, and meant to be, the new USEF is clearly meant not to be.  Some of that old USET mindset, however, found its way into the basic structure of the new USEF, so that an enormous part of its eventing budget, focused interest and general all-around effort, is directed toward the benefit of fewer than 1 percent of its eventing membership. It’s a tiny tail wagging a big dog, and thousands of the lower-level riders getting wagged aren’t too thrilled about it.

I hear many riders suggesting that the USEF should administer the sport for the advanced and possibly the intermediate levels, leaving the great majority of the riders to be led by the U.S. Eventing Association.  This is a nice theory, as most eventers trust the USEA to do right by them, but the USEA is only an educational and promotional organization, with no rule making or enforcing authority.

Later, when the Fédération Equestre Internationale unilaterally decided to kill off the speed and endurance components of the classic three-day event, to accommodate four riders from each country at the Olympic Games, most U.S. upper-level riders enthusiastically embraced the new format, despite a petition signed by several thousand lower-level riders begging for their support in keeping the long format.  Many of these riders, ignored by the top riders, still have a feeling of betrayal.

In addition, as cross-country course designers dealt with the new reality of a sport from which the speed and endurance phases had been removed, one response was to create clusters of more technical “questions,” groupings of fences with related distances, difficult angles and narrow faces, requiring highly accurate riding.

There has been an inevitable trickle down effect of this heightened complexity into at least the preliminary-level cross-country courses, and some say as far down as into the novice levels.  Many riders who were used to more open, flowing, galloping courses find this inappropriate.

Sport Vs. Business

In addition to these two specific instances, there has been a fundamental shift in the attitude of upper-level eventers, away from eventing as sport into eventing as business. 

It may be naïve to say that 30 or 40 years ago competing at Ledyard (Mass.), Burghley or Badminton in England was a grand and glorious adventure, but it seemed so at the time.  Today our new
professional elite riders, with their shiny tractor-trailers and strings of wonderful horses, talk about “clients” and “owners,” and seem to take flying around the globe to compete as business as usual, something to add to their resumes that will attract new customers.

They certainly have every right to do so, but it does widen the gap between them and everybody else.
Then when all the furor about horse and rider fatalities hit the headlines earlier this year, and it became pretty clear that the bulk of the problem was happening at the intermediate and advanced levels, it was simply another reminder that there are two eventing “sports” in the United States in 2008, one in a degree of crisis, the other not.

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If you go only to the local horse trials held all across the country on any given weekend, basically you will see hundreds of riders having fun and smiling and enjoying their horses.  The picture, basically, is about the same as it was 10 years ago, or 20 years ago, only with lots of new faces.

It’s not as though lower levels are free from risk, but the higher speeds and bigger jumps that we’ve come to associate with rotational falls are not basic components of the training, novice and beginner novice levels.

The point that many rank-and-file eventers feel is not being acknowledged by the upper-level riders is that the consequences of dangerous riding at intermediate and advanced levels are apt to be much more severe, and that those riders need to openly accept that and act to repair their own levels.

For those of us who came of eventing age in the 1960s and ’70s, there was very much a sense of, “We’re all in this together; so let’s all pull together to make eventing into a great sport.”

I think, looking back, that perhaps we took that attitude too much for granted, not realizing how much this “together” mindset was nurtured and fostered by our “founders.”  Names I remember, admittedly with an East Coast bias, from 30 to 40 years ago, include Mackay-Smith, Burton, Ayer, Winthrop, Harris, Fritz, Le Goff, Whitehurst, Haller, Treviranus, Perkins, Pingree, Collins, Wofford, Gray, Clark, Coles, McLaughlin, Glaccum and Gould.  There were dozens of others.

There was little sense of “us versus them” in those days, and what I now realize is that it was because those individuals and families, some whose names I’ve just listed, consciously fostered the “one big family” mentality.

I think the current friction between the several hundred riders at the top levels of the sport (about 200 advanced riders in 2007) and the perhaps 20,000 to 25,000 riders in the rest of U.S. eventing is because there seems to be no leadership at the USEF level articulating what was formerly an all embracing joint vision.

For example, the final mandatory outing for the selection of the U.S. Eventing Team, July 11-13 at The Fork (N.C.), was—for the first time in anyone’s memory—banned to the public, a situation unimaginable during Neil Ayer’s all-inclusive leadership.

This rift isn’t irreversible, but someone needs to speak for these upper-level riders.  This job should not be thrust upon USEF President David O’Connor.  He has the entire USEF as his province, not just the eventing segment. One thing is certain: The top 200 riders need the other 20,000 much more than the 20,000 need the 200. 

Denny Emerson



Denny Emerson rode on the 1974 World Championship gold-medal eventing team. He served as the U.S. Eventing Association president twice and won the USEA 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 column in 1989.  

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