A few months ago Andrew Ellis, a very experienced competition organizer, jumper judge, and a course designer for lower level classes, contacted me because he wanted to attend a competition as an apprentice designer. It is not unusual to have someone express an interest in learning more about course design, and since I’d been fortunate to work with a number of great designers, I’m only too happy to say yes.
As is usually the case, Andrew and I had to find a week that he’d be free when I was building at a competition. Eventually I said, “How about coming to Cocoyoc?”
“Where?” was his reply.
“Mexico,” I told him. Andrew swallowed hard at the thought of the trip from North Carolina to Mexico City, but he agreed to arrange it.
It’s neither easy, nor inexpensive, to “apprentice” in our sport. Travel costs and time away from business are a hardship for almost everyone. Yet, I know how essential it is if one wants to bring adequate knowledge and skill to an important job. As the recurrent designer at this competition, I had the advantage of knowing what an assistant would gain from the experience.
That’s one of the, shall we say, interesting aspects of officiating at competitions: You never know exactly what to expect with any new venue or organizer.
But it would be my third year at Cocoyoc, and I knew Andrew was in for a big surprise.
Cocoyoc is a destination spot for many of the residents of the hugely overpopulated Mexico City. About two hours from the city, it is located in an incredible “garden district,” where bougainvillea and every other sort of semi-tropical plant thrive in the clean air and wonderful climate. An end-of-January date promises temperatures ranging from the 50s at night to the 70s or low 80s by day. My idea of heaven.
The competition is run at a lovely country club, with two jumping arenas laid out on the grass of the driving range.
Three brothers’all riders and successful businessmen but not “professional” show organizers (this is their only event each year)’have organized the Cocoyoc show over the past three or four years. They make it a matter of pride to hold a wonderful competition that competitors will enjoy, and they do a great job.
Being a professional manager and technical coordinator for a full calendar of competitions at home, Andrew was only too eager to see how someone in a neighboring country tackled the job. I think he was quite amazed by some of the differences, as well as the many similarities.
Traveling to many parts of the world to see how “our sport” actually works in all its different permutations is, for me, one of the most rewarding aspects of being a course designer. I’ve learned that there is no single “right way” of doing things in our sport (or our culture either). No matter where I travel, I find things that are better and things that are not as good. Nowhere is perfect, and we all can learn a lot from each other.
An open mind is the first thing that should accompany every traveler to a new area or country. So prepared, venturing abroad can be great fun’and sometimes quite an adventure.
I feel right at home in Mexico, and now, with almost 15 years of watching the evolution of the sport south of the border through a variety of competitions, I thought that having a colleague along to see this competition with “new” eyes would be fun. This column would be far too long if I went into all the differences between U.S. and Mexican competitions, so I’ll just touch on the things that seemed to most impress Andrew at Cocoyoc.
The competition was far smaller than our major events. Organizers made the decision to cut off entries at approximately 300 horses, even though they had more than 200 on their waiting list. Their venue could provide only two arenas and a stabling area that couldn’t expand too easily. More horses simply would not make their show a better event. Three different competitions (each with a cut-off at 60 competitors) when declarations closed the night before) were the maximum number of classes scheduled in the main arena each day-along with another two per day in the arena with the smaller jumps.
We sometimes forget that hunters and equitation are almost unheard of outside of the United States and Canada. Despite some efforts by some transplanted Norteamer-icanos to introduce them a few years back, they’ve been neither understood nor appreciated’regardless of how important we know them to be to our own industry.
Just two arenas of jumpers relieves a lot of pressure on the time schedule, though. Plenty of jumping, with the luxury of time to get everything just right for each competition, isn’t bad at all.
What a pleasure to arrive at the show grounds each morning with time to have a lovely hot breakfast in the patio restaurant before going out to do a final check of the course we’d built the prior evening. With Thursday and Friday beginning at 10 a.m., and the weekend at 9, this show felt more like a vacation than “real work” to Andrew and me.
The work is very important, however. Having good competition in each class is the goal for the course designer. When competitors are glad they brought their horses (even the ones that didn’t win) and sponsors and spectators leave eager for their next opportunity to watch, the organizer is sure to be happy too. Appropriate courses for each and every competition are always my goal, and never more so than when I’m eager for an invitation to return.
With fewer than 20 individual classes offered over the four days of competition (also the case in virtually every other country where I work, by the way), there weren’t all that many winners. But, winning is truly special at events like this. And the prizes from the sponsors are worth getting excited about, including new cars in two classes (not the grand prix, it had prize money instead), watches, stereo systems, and even a new kitchen.
Now, don’t get the idea that every show in Mexico (or anywhere else) is paradise. Many things are far better here at home. Prize money at U.S. shows on the whole is much, much higher. Plus, having all the divisions we offer sends a lot more people home as champions each week. In most other countries, a rider starting out will have to go to the smaller shows to find classes with jumps smaller than 3’6″‘and 4’ to 4’3″ is the smallest anyone jumps in the main arena at most shows.
Stabling at shows in Mexico, while a far cry from the primitive conditions of the not-so-distant past, still can’t come close to what’s offered at the many facilities we’re lucky enough to have available.
Cocoyoc offered portable stabling at least as comfortable for the horses as that found at many nice shows in our country. But at many of their venues, and especially at Cocoyoc, grooms have to be good-natured about leading horses a significant distance to get from the stables to the arena each day.
One issue that is never far from the mind of riders throughout the world is footing. You don’t need a translator to understand conversations on this topic’they don’t vary much, no matter where you happen to be.
When Cocoyoc’s organizers first took on this venue, they had to deal with the fact that, no matter how beautiful, a golf course’s driving range is not automatically going to serve as an ideal show jump-ing arena for one week of each year. The first year, the ground was much too hard, despite the lovely condition of the grass growing on it.
Impossible to fix on the spot, they made it work out, including being considerate of those who felt their horses would be better off scratching. They asked for advice (from the grass experts at the club and their course designer) and then followed the plan we devised to the letter. Within days of the completion of the show, they’d had sand brought in to “top dress” the whole area and arranged for and supervised a schedule of year-round maintenance (aeration, fertilizing, watering, etc.). Not surprisingly, it was very acceptable footing the following year, and this year it was ideal.
Andrew assured me that he had no regrets from taking a week out of his busy schedule for this busman’s holiday. He met a lot of new people, and observed a lot of new and different ways of doing just what he does every day.
Riding back in to the city and our flights home, we agreed we’re not ready to pack up and leave the great country and great sport in which we’re so lucky to spend our lives in the United States. We have a lot for which to be grateful.
Still, traveling is such a great way to broaden your perspective, to see first-hand that we don’t always have a monopoly on the “right way” or even the “best way” to do things. Plus, I never seem to get tired of the reminder that horsepeople are horsepeople; we just seem to understand each other, regardless of the language.
(Speaking of languages, in case you’re curious, Cocoyoc is an Indian word meaning coyote.)