Monday, May. 20, 2024

Latest Area I Loss Reflects Eventing’s Shifting Business Model

PUBLISHED

ADVERTISEMENT

When Kent Horse Trials in Kent, Connecticut, announced last week that it will stop running after 44 years, local eventers in Area I flocked to social media to share their memories of galloping across Skiff Mountain.

It was sad to lose another long-running event in Area I, said Lynn Guelzow, who has organized the horse trials since 2019. Financial challenges ultimately ended it, a common thread among cancellations seen across the country.

“It’s going to leave a big hole in Area I. We’ve lost so many events,” Guelzow said. “Everyone has their own unique stories on why they didn’t survive, but the two common threads are access to land and the unprofitability of running an event.” 

But Area I leaders see this as more of a shift in the business model of eventing, and for the region, than a reason to sound alarms.

The Birthplace Of U.S. Eventing

Area I encompasses the New England states and New York. The U.S. Combined Training Association—the predecessor of the modern-day U.S. Eventing Association—was headquartered in Boston for most of the first three decades of its existence, and combined training was considered a niche sport until Neil Ayer hosted the first major international competitions at Ledyard Farm in Hamilton, Massachusetts, in 1973.

Ayer played a role in founding the classic three-day event in America, helping to create U.S. Equestrian Team training facilities in Hamilton and leading the USCTA through a time of rapid growth in the 1970s and ’80s. USCTA’s headquarters remained in Area I until the 1990s, when they moved to Virginia, recalled Carol Kozlowski, a former USEA president who currently organizes the Genesee Valley Riding & Driving Club Horse Trials every June and August in Rochester, New York. Kozlowski also sits on the U.S. Equestrian Federation’s Eventing Sports Committee.

“Area I is afflicted by its history,” she said. “We are the birthplace of [American] eventing, the powerhouse of eventing, and the reality is that our demographics are changing. Because of the numbers that go to Florida and other areas [to compete], we just can’t get the same number of entries that Area II and III can get. The events in Area I are passionate, but as the generations change, the people competing these days don’t have the same memories of these long-running events.” 

“Area I is afflicted by its history. We are the birthplace of [American] eventing, the powerhouse of eventing, and the reality is that our demographics are changing. Because of the numbers that go to Florida and other areas, we just can’t get the same number of entries that Area II and III can get.”

Carol Kozlowski

The USEA Area I calendar includes 21 events from April to October this year, after Kent’s cancellation. Kent was one of two horse trials held in Connecticut, the other being Town Hill Farm Horse Trials, a one-day event held on Aug. 25 in Lakeville. To help fill the gap Kent leaves, Larkin Hill Horse Trials, which runs June 29-30 in North Chatham, New York, has expanded to offer a recognized starter division on Saturday and extra beginner novice and novice divisions on Sunday.

The Kent Horse Trials hosted up to 120 entries for a one-day competition in June, offering starter through training level divisions, according to the USEA.

“We’ve heard from a lot of people in the eventing community who have been very supportive in sharing memories but are sad,” Guelzow said. “Kent was a very welcoming lower-level event. For many in the area, it was often their first USEA-recognized event. It was a great starter or move-up venue, and had a long history of hosting camps and rallies with the U.S. Pony Club.”

Formerly known as the Kent School Horse Trials, the venue has run USEA-sanctioned events since 1980. The decision to close came after Michael Page, a local supporter and longtime national and international competitor, retired from his involvement with the school.

ADVERTISEMENT

“Not to belabor the point, but producing horse trials is a surprisingly complex and expensive undertaking, and it has become increasingly clear over recent years, particularly since the retirement of local, national and international eventing legend Michael Page, that Kent School’s heart just was no longer in it enough to provide the multi-year commitment of their incredible natural facility needed to ensure that the Organizers could finance and construct the much-needed capital improvements that riders and their horses expect and deserve,” organizers wrote on their Facebook page last week.

The announcement also pointed to renovations the venue needed to keep going, like restoring a bank jump on the cross-country course, managing stream crossings and fence lines, and a new water complex.

Dwindling Numbers

The USEA reported a 9.3% decrease in the number of events held in 2023 due to reasons including property sales, organizer burnout and death, at its annual meeting in December. In Area I, there’s been a 32% drop in the number of sanctioned events over the past decade, from 31 that ran in 2014 to 21 on this year’s calendar. Some of the most recent cancellations include Groton House Farm in South Hamilton, Massachusetts, and Mystic Valley Hunt Club in Ledyard, Connecticut, both of which still offer schooling events or other types of horse shows.

Over the past five years, one new venue has been added to the Area I calendar: Apple Knoll Farm Horse Trials in Millis, Massachusetts, which runs in June and October this year.

Area I has 12 venues operating events, but there were interruptions during the COVID-19 pandemic.

“Before the pandemic we had 25 actual events held, in the pandemic it dropped down to 11 competitions, and post-pandemic we have returned to an average of 21 events held per year,” said Rob Burk, CEO of the USEA.

Officials in Area I and in national leadership said this isn’t a phenomenon only affecting Area I.

“Area I was built on the backs of privately held land. In the mid-Atlantic and other parts of the country, about 50% of events are running on public land,” Burk said. “Maybe that’s what we’ll see in the future for Area I. There’s also a pretty healthy unrecognized event environment happening in Area I, and those grassroots efforts are still feeding into the sport.” 

Burk said USEA is focused on keeping programs and events viable, from continuing rider programs to developing new funding mechanisms. The U.S. Eventing Association Foundation is in the process of setting up a disaster relief fund to help venues during extreme weather events and other emergencies. 

Drawing Comparisons ‘Isn’t Productive’

Current USEA President Lou Leslie weighed in on the loss of Area I events.

“Area I has long been a hub of fervent eventing activity, and while it remains so, it’s undergoing changes to align with the shifting demands of modern eventing. It wouldn’t be wise for national leadership to swoop in and impose a one-size-fits-all eventing model on this unique local community. Instead, it’s essential to heed the insights of Area I’s leadership and allow them to shape eventing in a way that resonates with their community,” she said.

ADVERTISEMENT

“Drawing comparisons between past and present eventing cultures isn’t productive. Throughout the country, the USEA is witnessing the sport’s evolution as it strives for improvement. Looking ahead, there’s an opportunity to cultivate the next wave of leaders and eventers from Area I. While it has been a hotbed of eventing, it’s evolving to meet the sport’s changing needs, making it unfair to judge its past venues against today’s standards,” she added.

“Looking ahead, there’s an opportunity to cultivate the next wave of leaders and eventers from Area I. While it has been a hotbed of eventing, it’s evolving to meet the sport’s changing needs, making it unfair to judge its past venues against today’s standards.”

Lou Leslie, USEA president

Local officials also said the demographics of riders in Area I has changed greatly over the years.

About 33% of USEA members in Area I are young riders, which USEA Area I Chairwoman Judy Rossi described as healthy. Around 47% of the rider population are ages 49-54, making the adult amateur category strong and vibrant, she said.

“We’re not losing riders. Many of our excellent riders have moved south to be more competitive but they haven’t lost their roots,” Rossi said. “I see Area I as still producing really good horses and really good riders who go on to do great things around the world. We have that fundamental excellence in the area, and we have a passionate group. There is a shift in our demographics happening, we’re in a lull right now, like any business. But I see our business model changing with this shift.” 

Rossi said that future model could be finding access to more public lands, similar to shifts seen in other regions. She said that could include working with local governmental entities to consider preservation areas or land trusts for future venues.

Rossi also said she believes adding the new recognized starter division in Area I will give entries a boost.

“There are a lot of people attracted to that level, and it’s a good way for many people to get into the sport,” she said. “It’s really early, but I’m curious to see how things work out with that. I think it will have a positive impact.”

Guelzow said she hoped the news of the Kent Horse Trials’ demise will inspire more riders to enter events and to volunteer when they can.

“If you want to save events, you’ve got to enter them. If you can’t, then volunteer. The volunteer base in our area is getting pretty old. We desperately need new people to come along,” she said. “It’s such a difficult thing to pull together. Eventing must be the least profitable equestrian sport. It feels like everyone is just hanging on by their fingernails.” 

With the shifting of rider demographics, Kozlowski said that need for volunteers is dire. “We have to beg,” she said.

Meanwhile, local riders have flooded social media to share fond farewells to the Kent Horse Trials.

“So the Kent horse trials ends its run, at least for now, with neither a bang nor a whimper, but just fond (or at least mostly fond) recollections of horses jumping over stone walls and fording running streams, dogs (and occasionally a horse) running loose amidst the trailers,” read the somber announcement of the horse trials’ demise, “and (we just have to add) riders wondering as they drove their trailers up onto the mountain whether they would be greeted by rain, fog, sleet or sunny skies—one never knew for sure quite what to expect up on Skiff Mountain.”

Correction: An earlier version of this story stated the USCTA was founded in Boston in 1959. The organization was founded during the 1959 Pan American Games in Chicago and briefly headquartered in Virginia before moving to Boston, where it stayed until moving back to Virginia in 1996.

Categories:

ADVERTISEMENT

EXPLORE MORE

Follow us on

Sections

Copyright © 2024 The Chronicle of the Horse