Our columnist believes we need to change the date and age limit of the championships, along with the level of coaching and prize money in the sport.
I recently spent four days at a baseball camp with my son. This was his first exposure to an organized sport of any kind.
One of the really cool things at this camp was that the high school players were there to help out. While the young kids went through the basic calisthenics and stretches, the high school kids took advantage of the time to practice. As I watched them, I noticed one kid in particular. He was about 6’4″, had a cannon for an arm, and could hit the ball a mile. I truly enjoyed watching him play, and it was obvious to everyone that this kid was special.
At the end of practice I asked the head coach about him. He said I was right: Ted was exceptional, probably the best prospect he’s ever had. Ted was entering his senior year, but there was a problem: Ted needed a new glove. You see, the glove Ted had was a good, solid one. It didn’t really have anything wrong with it, but it was too small and a bit worn out. If Ted was going to be able to realize his full potential he needed to save up and find a new one.
But Ted’s parents just didn’t have the extra cash to buy that new glove or the money to properly look after it once they bought it. I was shocked. How could a kid who had all this potential not have the ability to fulfill his dreams? Now make that glove a horse. Ted isn’t a baseball player, he is an eventer, and the glove is his horse. At least one kid like Ted lives in every area of our country.
The Adequan/FEI North American Junior and Young Rider Championships happen every year, and I’ve been fortunate to be a part of them for the past several years. Over the course of my time as a coach I’ve watched the competition dwindle in numbers, resulting in only four riders competing in this year’s two-star, which wasn’t even classified as an international championship. The truth is there are likely many reasons for this. Likewise, there are probably many solutions which, when combined, will increase the numbers of kids at the two-star level.
First, the date is too early. Historically NAJYRC has been hosted in mid-August. But the financial burden this competition placed on the organizer was too heavy, and the number of entries just wouldn’t support the extreme costs of hosting the championships. The U.S. Equestrian Federation decided to take over the competition and run it at the Kentucky Horse Park. This solution made sense for so many reasons, and truthfully we all owe the USEF a huge thank you.
The competition was expanded over the years to add reining, vaulting, endurance and para-equestrian to the traditional eventing, jumping and dressage. The kids were exposed to a true championship festival of many disciplines.
Unfortunately, this all came with a cost. Due to calendar issues at the KHP, NAJYRC had to be moved into July. Most of our country is a cold, inhospitable place to train event horses during the winter. Most kids with ambition of competing in the two-star championships have about three months each spring to leg up their horses, train, and get qualified to compete. Even if they start the year before and gain some of their qualifications early, as they should, they still have the daunting task of getting their horses fit and tuned up to compete at a true championship. The solution? No big deal, just enroll in online school and move to the South so they can start their season in January. While that’s the most logical way to get qualified and ready, I question if we get the best. More on that later.
The real solution is for the USEF to find a venue that can host this competition in August. This would give the competitors from the northern areas an extra month to prepare, and trust me that month is crucial.
Raise The Bar—And The Age
Secondly, the qualifications for the two-star competition have recently changed. For many years the Fédération Equestre Internationale granted this competition an exemption to the normal qualifying standards for championships. Ordinarily one must qualify at the CCI** level for a CCI** championship. The FEI granted a waiver that allowed qualification from two CIC**s to count as a CCI**. After years of them telling the USEF this was only temporary, they finally decided to raise the bar.
Honestly, I think that’s a good thing. We as a continent need to do a better job teaching and coaching our young riders. The level of riding at the championships is not good. The solution is not to dumb down how kids get to NAJYRC; it’s to raise their level of riding up to the standard. This will not be an easy task because it involves a solution that will require all of us.
In today’s society of everyone gets a ribbon, it’s difficult to make a change like this. Coaches and trainers rightly fear that if they push their students to achieve greatness those students may just leave them. All too often I watch kids get upset that they are being pushed too hard, or they complain that their coach is mean or nasty. I watch them bounce from this trainer to that trainer all the time. The most important thing a young rider can learn is a consistent program. It’s impossible for them to learn a program if they’re constantly moving from place to place. Likewise, the coaches must make sure they are truly teaching horsemanship and not just lessons. That they spend the extra time teaching the whys as much as they teach the hows.
It’s time to raise the bar for our riders and our coaches. I honestly don’t know exactly how the industry works in Europe. However, I’ve been over many times, and I do have a general idea. First and foremost it’s a much bigger sport throughout most of Europe. If you’re walking down the street in any town dressed in your boots and breeches people instantly know you’re an equestrian. If you tell them that you ride event horses they know what that means. For up-and-coming riders, this means that if they’re good, they have the chance at a career. Many of the under-21-year-old European riders are very busy making a business for themselves competing and selling nice young horses. They’re able to truly focus their lives on the horses from a very young age.
We are not Europe. No matter how much we try to increase the exposure of eventing in America it will never be what it is across the pond. To impose the same rules on our two-star championships as they have in Europe is not only insane, it’s counter-productive. Throughout the years the idea of raising the NAJYRC two-star championship age limit to 25 has come up. Every time this conversation starts it’s immediately shot down with, “That’s not how it’s done in Europe; why can they do it?” argument. Which is ridiculous, as we are a very different culture with our own unique challenges.
Kids are busy going to school until they’re 22 or 23. To expect that we will have enough competent, qualified kids for the championships while they’re also trying to attend university is absurd. Raise the age limit to 25, and I am willing to bet we see a significant increase in entries at the CCI** championships at NAJYRC.
Make The Sport Pay
So now back to that original story about Ted and the baseball glove. I see amazing young riders all the time. Sometimes they have the horse power to back it up, but often they do not. Like it or not, this sport requires money, a lot of money. When I get one of these talented kids without a horse of equal talent in my program, the inevitable conversation comes up. I get a phone call from mom or dad, and it goes something like this:
Parent: “Ted says he really loves this, and we think he is exceptional, so how do we help him achieve greatness in eventing?”
Me: “You’re right. Ted is exceptional, but his horse is not. If he wants to get to Young Riders and take a real crack at being great he is going to need a new horse.”
Parent: “OK, if we can fund a new horse, and he becomes great then he will have a real shot at being a professional event rider?”
Me: “Well not exactly. Once Ted achieves real success in the sport he can try to become a professional. That will mean that he will need to set up a business teaching or training horses. If he is as wonderful as I suspect, he will be able to teach eight hours a day so that he can possibly pay all of his basic living expenses. He would still need to figure out how to fund a horse or two at the top level.”
Parent: “So he won’t be able to make a living competing?”
At this point I don’t know if I should laugh or cry.
Me: “No he would do this for love of the sport and horses.”
Parent: “Ted is really good at baseball too. We should have stuck with that. At least he had a chance of a career that would pay him.”
This conversation may seem extreme, but I’m absolutely serious that I have some version of it very often. How do we encourage families to support the dreams of our future stars if there is no real opportunity to be independent? We need to mandate a basic level of prize money at all competitions at the preliminary level and above. Organizers will say they can’t possibly get this done, but I strongly disagree.
Anyone who wins an event at the preliminary level or above should at least get their entry fee and stabling back. This should become the new minimum across our entire country. This level of prize money will not ensure a competitor’s career, but it will be a start in the journey. It will be a minimum standard that we as a sport can grow from. Just like we need to raise the bar on our riders’ and coaches’ technical skills and horsemanship, we also need to raise the bar on our organizers to search for a way to make a real level of prize money a top priority. This should come only behind safe fences and good footing.
Why will this very basic level of prize money be one more piece of the solution to our problem with young riders?
Here is the very real uncomfortable truth about eventing and prize money: If we want to keep eventing as an elitist sport, then keep prize money out of it. That way only the kids with huge financial backing from their families will be able to succeed. Perhaps they will be the best, but perhaps they won’t.
If we want to encourage all kids from families that may or may not have the financial resources, then we need to offer them a chance at a real life in the sport. To you or me it makes sense to dedicate our lives to this sport no matter the professional outcome. To the great kids I have in my program it makes sense. However, any reasonably intelligent parent who looks at our industry will quickly see that this is not a life they want for their child. That is the real problem with the diminishing numbers we see at NAJYRC.
Instituting any one of these solutions individually will not significantly increase the number of competitors at the championships. It’s going to take a multifaceted approach covering all angles to make a real difference.
Change the date, and give the kids a chance to get properly prepared. It’s dangerous to have riders scrambling just to get qualified when they should be trying to actually be competitive.
Raise the level of coaching in our country. We need to be teaching a solid program of horsemanship without fear of losing our clients.
Raise the maximum age for the CCI** championship to 25. To expect these kids to be balancing everything in their lives while also focusing on this level of competition is unreasonable and not sustainable.
Finally, let’s offer some basic minimum level of prize money. This minimum standard will be the catalyst to start a real industry where the parents of these kids might actually see a future for their sons and daughters.
It’s up to us all to help fix this problem. It is possible, but it will take each and every one of us.
Jonathan Holling has been a mainstay at the top level of eventing for close to 20 years, competing in North America and Europe. He won the 2012 Bromont CCI*** (Quebec) and was a member of that year’s Nations Cup team at Boekelo (the Netherlands). Jon has successfully ridden around numerous four-star events. In addition, he coaches the Area IV young rider team, which has won numerous medals, including two golds. He serves on the U.S. Equestrian Federation Competition Management Committee, Eventing Committee and High Performance Eligible Athletes Committee. He started contributing as a Between Rounds columnist in 2015.