Thursday, Apr. 18, 2024

Looking Back And Thinking Ahead

The 2008 season was full of emotion, viewpoints, good competition and its share of unwanted publicity. The self evaluation of a sport is always a good thing in the end, though. Whether you believe in the outcome or not, it’s still healthy to look at where our sport is and consider what can or should happen in the future.

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The 2008 season was full of emotion, viewpoints, good competition and its share of unwanted publicity. The self evaluation of a sport is always a good thing in the end, though. Whether you believe in the outcome or not, it’s still healthy to look at where our sport is and consider what can or should happen in the future.

I think what’s different this time is that the outside world looked into our sport and had a viewpoint that we had to take seriously. The national and international media—especially television—showed us, I believe, what the world thinks of us. And we realized that it was time to make a few changes.

When we look at our sport from the inside, most of the time I believe we are quite honest with ourselves. We see changes that need to be made and make them. It’s rare when the non-horse world looks as deeply into what we do as they have in the recent past, but horse and rider fatalities have made worldwide headlines.

I believe the outside world was impressed that we took our issues so seriously, though, and were willing to make prompt changes to minimize the risks in the future. We want to have spectators interested in the sport on many levels. If we sell a ticket for competition, then we have to recognize that the spectator has a say in the sport. We may not want to hear it, but if public money is important to the future of eventing then we do have to listen.

The overwhelming lesson we learned is that everything that we do has to work toward reducing the number of horse falls. Education, qualifications, course design, coaching, veterinary science, rider responsibility all have to lead to the end product of a safer sport for the rider and horse.

The number of horse falls will be the primary statistic by which we’ll judge ourselves. No doubt it will go down or up each year, but we can use this information to determine whether or not the changes implemented over these past few years have had an effect. We don’t have a large number of horse falls each year, but these numbers can still come down. Some people say that statistics can be used to say anything, but this one statistic can dramatically say whether the changes are positive or negative.

As we look back at 2008, we can’t forget the excellent competition that did happen. The great performance of Gina Miles and McKinlaigh, the Chronicle’s overall and eventing horse and eventing horseman of the year (p. 12), at the Olympic Games will be a moment that we’ll remember forever. In addition, the special moments that each of us had in competition, where we were so proud of our horse, student or just the moment of being there, are also highlights to the year.

In The Year 2019 Every few years I like to try and look five or 10 years into the future and guess what’s coming, and this American Horses In Sport issue is the perfect place to blend the past with the future.

This exercise is good for me because the game is always changing, and I ask myself, “Am I ready for what’s coming?” Sometimes I’m right, more often wrong, but it gets me thinking outside the box—that’s the rider/trainer side of me.

Even if the changes are different than what you know, or even want, I believe that you have to prepare yourself if you want to be good.

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I have also started to compete again a little bit, and with no real goals except to give my horses the best experience that I can, I’m doing a self test of the changes in the sport that have come about and are coming in this next year. I’m not thinking that I’m going to ride in a four-star event again, so I’m enjoying the other levels.

So my first thought is that the levels below preliminary are not really going to change in their level or intensity in the next few years nor should they. This is where 80 percent of the people around the world compete, for many different reasons. Yes, a small number of these riders are professionals bringing their horses through the ranks, but for most competitors this is the level they like, are comfortable with, and these are their goals for their horses and themselves. Perfect.

We’ll Grow

Although I believe that eventing is going to grow in the next 10 years, I think in the next few years the numbers in the sport may actually decrease. This will be in part because of the economy and partly due to the changes in the sport. I believe this is a good thing as the sport’s leaders reevaluate eventing’s position in the world and decide how big a sport it should be.

This may sound anti-eventing, but I think that horse sports are going to grow as a whole but eventing won’t keep pace. It’s more specialized, and I’m personally not afraid of being more exclusive because of the difficulty level that our multi-phased sport demands.

There’s no question that the sport has changed from cross-country riders who learned the other two disciplines (dressage and show jumping) to a sport in which you have to strive to be an expert at all three phases.

This emphasis is a shift in thinking over these past 10 years. The first aspect that changed was actually the increase in the demands of the show jumping. The dressage phase followed, and the cross-country has changed to be more focused on rideability of the horses. It’s different but still the test of the overall horseman.

So, those who compete at the levels from beginner novice to preliminary should be comfortable and enjoy galloping and jumping their horses over nice inviting fences. They should not be too technically demanding.

The pendulum swings that every sport experiences will of course affect eventing. The pendulum will take us back and forth from courses being too technical (as we are now) to not challenging enough. It will swing back and forth in the future but will always return to a sensible path for people who enjoy the art of galloping horses across the country and jumping.

This in itself will allow the professionals the ability to prepare their young horses and, more important, allow the other competitors to enjoy the levels.

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We’ll Improve

The problem we must aggressively deal with is our size relative to our cost. We are a small sport but one of the most expensive to run. Unless we find a way for organizers to pay for the incredible cost of building a course, we’re not going to have enough places to compete.

Many people complain that we have too many officials, and their subsequent costs (and other myriad expenses involved in running a competition) add up. But realistically the largest expense for an event is the capital cost of building, preparing and maintaining a cross-country course.

I see fewer and fewer different competition sites running events and more sites running multiple competitions a year. Many of the horse parks around the country will be a big part of our future. There are attractive sides to this in that competitors can go to one place and compete more often for less money. The down side is the lack of unique qualities that every new site brings to the cross-country course. Unfortunately, this situation may be the reality that we have to deal with in the future.

The top tier of our sport is like an elite club. Only 2 percent of competitors in the world compete at this level, and it’s not for everyone. Riders are inspired to join this club for the quality of riding that it demands and the for the horses that love the game so much they’re willing to exhibit unbelievable levels of athleticism to play.

Sometimes that inspiration will come from the stark reminder that life itself isn’t fair, and no matter how we want to control everything, we find we can’t. This inspiration drives us all to be better at what we do. It drives us to promote the welfare of our horses above all other things. It reminds us all that we are playing a dangerous game, and we have to take care of our horses first.

We take care by preparing them, and ourselves, so well that no matter what happens we can handle it. I believe we will be better riders in the future. We may not practice all of the skills that some of the riders practiced in the past, but the riding will continue to improve as it has in the past decades.

These stars of the present and the future will continue to be the riders whom we all want to be and inspire us to go home, hone our skills, take care of our horses and celebrate this sport of ours.

Celebrating the past year and entering a new one is an opportunity to refresh our outlook, to decide what’s really important to us. We can’t recreate the past, only learn from it, but we can decide to promote our sport for the future. There’s no doubt the sport will grow, the question to be asked is: “Are we, as individuals, going to grow with it?” 

David O’Connor


The current president of the U.S. Equestrian Federation, David O’Connor earned individual gold at the 2000 Sydney Olympics. He won the 2001 Rolex Kentucky CCI**** and was the second U.S. rider ever to win the Badminton CCI**** (England) in 1997. O’Connor retired from international competition in 2004 and now trains horses and riders and designs cross-country courses. He began contributing to Between Rounds in 2004.

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