Tuesday, Jun. 4, 2024

Let’s Keep The Lines Of Communication Open

Honest evaluation will help us avoid any drastic, knee-jerk reactions to the recent tragedies in eventing.
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Honest evaluation will help us avoid any drastic, knee-jerk reactions to the recent tragedies in eventing.

Like almost everyone else in the sport of eventing, I have been watching, talking, listening and competing at events for many years. Over the past year, I have also done a lot of reading of articles written by many competent riders, trainers, course designers and veterinarians. Many times I have almost put pen to paper, but Danny Warrington’s moving and eloquent article in the Chronicle (“No One Can Fix Eventing Except The Riders,” May 9, p. 44) has finally inspired me to do just that.

I, too, feel that I have a personal vantage point that puts me all too close to these issues. Firstly, in the late 1980s and all of the ’90s, I was actively competing with multiple horses for team slots. Secondly, I was either chair or co-chairman of the Active Riders Committee for the first half of the ’90s. Thirdly, I have, unfortunately lost two horses in competition (one at an Olympic selection trial), and in February 2007, our farm lost a student and good friend to a cross-country accident at the Ocala Horse Park (Fla.). I agree with Danny—if you haven’t walked in those shoes, you can’t truly understand and therefore should not feel qualified to crucify anyone.

For the second time in the past few years, I see our sport poised for knee-jerk reaction. I feel strongly that many factors have intersected simultaneously to create the seemingly large numbers of accidents and horse and human fatalities. Each incident has involved its own set of tragic mistakes. I find two non-specific underlying issues that seem to me to have a major impact. There are many more specific factors that come under each of these issues, but these are the two major categories.

Speak Up

First, the historical lack of willingness on the part of riders (particularly upper-level riders) to voice their opinions and concerns in a constructive way to those who have the power to make changes.

Fifteen or 20 years ago, riders finally took charge of the sport for the first time. We formed the Active Riders Committee and pushed to change how our sport was run at the top, pushed to change the personnel in charge and eventually changed the entire selection process, including who would do the selecting and how. We were tired of politically and financially motivated decisions. We wanted a say in our sport. Why have riders let go of the Active Riders Committee tool, which gave them a constant pipeline to the powers that be?

Months and years were spent getting riders from the intermediate level on up to come together at every major event and hash out their concerns and come up with proposals. This was fueled by the fact that Jack Le Goff had left before the 1988 Olympics and riders had virtually no structure. It was a perfect time to start over and cleanse the system.

Out of this came a selection process inspired by the desperate desire to have riders, veterinarians and selectors be in constant open communication about the needs of individual horse/rider combinations. The hope was to eliminate the feeling that every horse needed to run at every event and win every time. We aspired to a situation where concerns of selectors, team trainers, riders and veterinarians could be discussed openly without intimidation or unnecessary pressure.

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Part of this new system also involved avoiding the situation of putting “all our eggs in one basket” as we had with Jack Le Goff. He did amazing things for the U.S. team as it came to the forefront of the sport, but he was in total control. From choosing horses, selecting riders, training horses and riders and then
choosing the teams, Jack wore all the hats. Our original feeling was that riders should be allowed to continue with their own trainers, veterinarians and farriers if they so wished, but that team personnel would be available. Riders and their personal “team” would be expected to work in harmony with the team assets and discuss openly all aspects of their training. This idea quickly evaporated. The openness seems to be slipping away.

We have given Mark Phillips the jobs of coach, overseeing the instructor certification program, and evaluating and/or designing cross-country courses he then uses as selection tools. He also has strong influence over our event scheduling. It is not his fault that we have put him in these positions, but there are serious conflicts of interest.

Early on Denny Emerson came up with the idea of rider representatives at intermediate and advanced events to allow riders to voice their concerns about any aspect of a competition in a constructive and non-confrontational way. It was hoped that officials would be receptive to the opinions of knowledgeable horsemen. In some situations, this piece of the puzzle has been successful.

It is amazing and disappointing to me to see how, over time, riders have slipped back into being what U.S. Eventing Association President Kevin Baumgardner calls “the silent majority.” Although we as a species prove to ourselves over and over again that the only solution to any disagreement or concern is discussion and communication, most riders for some reason are unwilling to voice their concerns until there is a serious problem and they deem it “safe” to do so.

By the same token, those in positions of control find it easier to be defensive and intimidate riders and insinuate incompetence rather than give any weight to what is being brought up. As Danny said, blame is a cop-out. We’re all in this together. We all have (or should have) the same concerns. None of us, no matter what our role in this sport, ever has to do anything. If we’re not comfortable with a course or footing we need to speak up. Don’t ride if too much is being asked or the questions aren’t fair. We all need to do what is right.

A Different Game

Secondly, the sport of today is unrecognizable from the sport of even 10 years ago. Unfortunately, I don’t feel that our thinking has changed. Today, more and more horses and riders gallop cross-country at speeds that are the fastest they have ever experienced.

Bruce Davidson said to me at my first Burghley CCI**** (England), that when I came out of the box on steeplechase, I should feel that I still had another gear to go and that when I came out of the box on Phase D, it should feel like I had downshifted. This was all possible because of the amount and type of fitness and speed work riders did to prepare for a full three-day.

Too many times now I see riders who seem to feel they have to go around cross-country in their fastest gear because they haven’t experienced truly riding at speed.

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I was lucky enough to work galloping race horses for a time; maybe more riders will have to learn about speed outside of our sport. However, that still doesn’t address learning to jump at speed, which is an art unto itself.

Many riders are probably young enough that they have no idea that the real impetus to change our sport came from allowing the Humane Society to intimidate us into believing that three-day events were too hard on our horses. From there, different factions took the ball and ran with it if there were advantages from their perspective. Organizing Phases A, B and C is a huge undertaking in terms of land, work, expense and volunteers.

Getting horses three-day fit also involves lots of work, access to appropriate land, and a good deal of time. Speed can add more danger of injury, but we are seeing that there is an entire sphere of unimagined stress that comes with the new format. Warmbloods are bred for the dressage and jumping ability needed today but don’t have the speed and stamina of the American Thoroughbred. The list can go on and on. Jimmy Wofford made an additional point (one I heard Jack Le Goff make) when he pointed out that pure dressage horses are taught through years of training not to think on their own. For an eventer that can be fatal.

There are many good things that have evolved in our sport over the past two decades. I look at pictures of what I jumped in the ’80s and even the ’90s, and I cringe. The materials and design of fences (as long as they still look like jumps!) has made huge progress. The concept of the frangible pin is fantastic but should be used in all bounces or airy verticals and oxers. Footing is unrecognizable from what we used to run over. Cooling fans and equipment in the vet box, not to mention good jogging surfaces, are all wonderful additions. All-weather footing for show jumping or dressage were almost unheard of back then.

However, all the new equipment available in the veterinary sphere may be a mixed blessing. Does laser, shock wave therapy, stem cell injections, etc., put our horses at risk of competing when we should really be giving our horses more time off? I see riders doing three CCIs and multiple CICs in the same year with a single horse. As Danny said, sometimes when we’re chasing the medals, we lose perspective and take chances we never would otherwise. Total commitment is necessary at that level, but obsession can be blinding.

We all need to step away from the heat of the moment. Drastic, knee-jerk reactions are some of what has brought us to this point. This is not the first time we have endured a spate of tragedies, and, unfortunately, it probably won’t be the last. The key to any solution is to maintain a healthy communication between all parties and not to let it slip away over time.

Eventing is never going to be the sport it was five or 10 years ago, but it can be better than what we have right now. We need to take the positive things we have learned and add them to what has always been so magnetic about our sport. We seem to have a tendency to throw the baby out with the bathwater. We may have done that with the true three-day, and I fear we are on the verge of doing that again. 

Louise Meryman



Louise Meryman operates her Treeline Farm in Pine Plains, N.Y. She was shortlisted for the 1986 Pan American Games and 1988 and 1996 Olympic Games. She has competed all over the world, including at Luhmühlen (Germany), Boekelo (the Netherlands) and Burghley (England). She was head of the Active Riders Committee from 1990 to 1994 and founded the American Horse Trials Association in 1987. She also runs the Millbrook Horse Trials (N.Y.).

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