Monday, May. 20, 2024

It’s Time For Eventing To Move On From Its Valley Forge

This writer believes it’s time to bring back the classic format in eventing.

My favorite horse sport—the sport in which I’ve spent nearly 40 years competing, covering as a reporter, and in which our training business is primarily based—is eventing. And over the past decade I’ve watched with dismay as my sport has weathered what some call a natural evolution and what I call change for the worse.
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This writer believes it’s time to bring back the classic format in eventing.

My favorite horse sport—the sport in which I’ve spent nearly 40 years competing, covering as a reporter, and in which our training business is primarily based—is eventing. And over the past decade I’ve watched with dismay as my sport has weathered what some call a natural evolution and what I call change for the worse.

First, let me congratulate Danny Warrington on his moving and introspective Forum “No One Can Fix Eventing Except The Riders” (May 9, p. 44) and say that I agree fully with his assertions, especially that the problem isn’t the sport, it’s the way some people are playing it.

Taking a somewhat longer view, I would submit that Darren Chiacchia’s crash at the Red Hills Horse Trials (Fla.) in March, followed by the deaths of Frodo Baggins and The Quiet Man at Rolex Kentucky in April, were each a direct result of the changes to our sport that a cadre of elite riders (here and abroad) have so vocally supported in the name of “safety.”

I’m talking about the forced change of our three-day events from the classic long (I like to say “correct”) format to the short format. The elimination of the steeplechase and roads and tracks phases at the two-star level and above has removed the speed and endurance aspects and had a “trickle-down” effect on three areas that have dramatically altered the way some are playing the game.

Across The Countryside?

The first effect is on course design. The removal of steeplechase and road and tracks means that precious few horses are actually going across the countryside any more, at home and in competition. Their loss largely removed the endurance factor: Usually for better, but certainly sometimes for worse, the horse you started with on cross-country at a three-day event was not the same horse you started with on cross-country at the horse trials that led up to it.

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The result is that riders are making stupid decisions, usually going too fast. I don’t think Frodo Baggins would have been going as fast as Laine Ashker was pushing him had he already done roads and tracks and steeplechase.

Without those phases, it’s completely up to the course designer to determine the winners. And they’ve ingeniously created all kinds of tests, tests that were unimaginable as little as a decade ago. And those new tests have filtered down to horse trials at all levels, because those same designers create horse trials courses too, or other designers mimic them.

Now, the past decade of course design—which emphasizes rideability and striding, or “technical” competence—has already had a direct effect on the types of horses eventers are riding, buying and breeding.

Elite riders like Darren are looking for horses with more of a dressage-horse mentality, with a temperament that allows the rider to put their neck, their hindquarters or their feet in exactly the right spot, every step, all the time. A temperament that waits to be told what to do, instead of doing what needs to be done. It’s a
temperament that suits today’s advanced dressage test, which now requires four flying changes and serpentines in counter-canter, plus show jumping fences that are 4″ taller than the cross-country fences.

But the heart of our sport is still cross-country, and cross-country is a place where horses have to make decisions, a place where the horses must have the agility and strength to recover from mistakes, a place where they must have courage and the heart to stand up and go on to the next challenge. And you only rarely find that heart, that drive, that agility combined with a willingness to be completely directed. Winsome Adante had that combination, but he’s a glorious freak of breeding.

The second effect of the short format is in training, teaching and over-competing. As the places where we can ride become more limited, we’re seeing more event riders (even at advanced level) who have little real experience riding across country. They’ve never gone hacking for hours, never foxhunted, never galloped steeplechase horses or done an endurance ride. So they can’t react instinctually to changes in elevation, in the ground, in the horse’s balance. And, often, neither can their horses. So one or both falls down when something unexpected happens.

Third, I believe too that event riders have been conned into believing that the short format allows you to compete your horse more often. I hope that some equine researcher will do a study on this, because I don’t believe it. Horses still have to be as fit as ever to do three- and four-star events because they have to go so much faster between fences.

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And the courses are mentally exhausting. Plus, you have to take your horse all over the country (or across the Atlantic) to qualify to compete at that level, and that adds travel stress that’s often overlooked.

On From Valley Forge

But it all comes back to personal responsibility—in eventing and in all of our horse sports. You can’t protect people from themselves, and as U.S. Equestrian Federation President David O’Connor has said many times, “We can’t make horse sports safer than life itself.”

We riders and trainers, in all horse sports, have to be certain that we, our horses and our students are thoroughly and properly prepared for whatever competitive challenge we point them for. There is only so much we can assure with qualifying requirements. We have to be able to honestly look ourselves in the mirror and say, “Yes, this horse/rider is ready for this.” And if necessary be able to say, “No, they’re not,” no matter how much money someone’s already spent.

Three years ago, after talking with Kevin Baumgardner (who’s now the U.S. Eventing Association president), I wrote a Commentary in The Chronicle of the Horse called “It’s Like Valley Forge For American Eventing.” I observed that, like those soldiers in that horrible first winter of the American Revolution, we were hunkered down, just trying not to be exterminated, hoping for a break in the weather, waiting for marching orders. Well, we’ve now gotten our break in the weather and our objectives have become clear.
It’s time to break camp, to leave our 21st century Valley Forge, to form up in ranks and take back our sport by bringing back the classic format. Lead on, Gen. Baumgardner! 

John Strassburger



John Strassburger, of Healdsburg, Calif., was the editor of The Chronicle of the Horse from 1986 to 2006. He has won preliminary and intermediate horse trials and in 2006 completed the Jersey Fresh CCI**.


In The Forum, horsemen are invited to express their views and offer constructive criticism on any topic relevant to working with and enjoying horses. The opinions expressed by the writers are entirely their own and not necessarily those of
The Chronicle of the Horse.

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