High performance eventing should keep pushing into the 2016 season, with eyes on the Olympic Games in Rio de Janeiro and an increased focus on unity among all disciplines.
The goal in 2015 was winning gold at the Pan American Games in Toronto, and we did that. It’s always exciting when you win a team gold medal, and that qualified everyone for the Olympics, which was a great thing.
Things seem to be going in the right direction for the high performance, but at the same time, everybody is hopefully realistic. If we get too high on ourselves and think we’re doing great, that won’t be a good thing long term. If we think we’re not getting better, that’s not a good thing either.
I hesitate to say, “We’ve got it,” because we sure as heck don’t have it. In this sport, as soon as you think you’ve got it, you’re in trouble. We have to keep putting our heads down and keep working, but there are some nice horses coming up. Some of the younger horses will come out improved this season. There’s still lots of improvement needed in every way, but we’re all out there fighting and trying to get better, and that’s what we’re going to need to do.
We went through a stage where the horses in this country really weren’t good enough, but I want to clarify that it wasn’t because we didn’t have enough money; there was just a lot of money spent on some horses that weren’t very good.
Now there are a lot of people with some good horses, and the improved economy helps—that people are able to enjoy the sport by owning horses. There are a lot of benefits for owners now. There’s much more focus on the owner hospitality, getting the hotels for them, getting all the owners to know each other, which in turn makes it more enjoyable for them. Samantha Lendl has been unbelievable for the U.S. Equestrian Federation Eventing Owners Task Force, and Joanie Morris has done a great job in her role as manager. It really is the whole community coming together.
Getting Behind Team USA
The thing about [U.S. Eventing Chef d’Equipe] David O’Connor’s program is that it really hasn’t changed much from when Mark Phillips was here. David’s done a good job as far as coaching, but basically there hasn’t been that much of a change.
The riders have taken a more active role in running the sport lately. Before, no one was on conference calls or in the meetings, and we’re part of it now. Everyone is working toward the same goal.
Bringing [USEF director of sport programs] Will Connell in was major—having someone like that with a winning background is huge. The old guard and the status quo have gone away a little bit. That, “Oh, this is how it’s always been” attitude has faded, and that’s a really good thing.
But if we do great it’s not because of David, and if we do badly it’s not because of David. He’s a cog in the wheel. If everybody does his part, it’s not a “look at me” situation, it’s an us situation.
I remember being in a meeting with Will, and somebody said, “When people donate money, we have to make sure it’s earmarked for eventing.” He said, “That’s bullsh*t. When we become Team USA, not Team USA Eventing or Team USA Dressage, we’ll end up better.” That really made sense to me and to everybody else. That’s the attitude that’s going to make every discipline better. We’re going to be stronger together.
Looking Toward Rio
There were some good wins and some almost wins for U.S. riders in 2015, which is exciting. But the team that wins the Super Bowl doesn’t rest on what they did Week 10. I think it’s all about pushing along and getting better in the spring season—sort of stepping up, putting it all out there, and going into Rio with some momentum.
Confidence is big in sports, but last year is done, and now it’s time to look to 2016. Hopefully the best four riders get to go to Rio with the best four horses. But in reality, injuries with horses and riders are part of it.
Some of the other countries have had big injuries to horses and riders. Internationally, the bottom is coming up, and the top may be coming back to earth. It should be an exciting year.
There are a lot of great riders out there, a lot of great teams, but the one thing that’s unique about our sport is that it really only takes three. There are a lot of great horses and riders from all around the world, but the United States has some great riders and horses too.
I don’t think there’s any one country I’d be worried about. We just have to do the best job we can possibly do. We know who the great riders and horses are, and there are going to be new great riders and horses who come onto the teams this year.
Michael Jung is No. 1, and he had a fantastic year, and that’s a credit to hard work and determination, but who knows who it’s going to be next year?
Rio is a Pierre Michelet cross-country, and I’ve heard it’s kind of twisty and turny, and there are some hills on it. But as Dad always says, it doesn’t matter where you are, the best riders and horses are going to go and succeed there.
You put the guy playing the best and on the upswing on the team. There are enough good riders and horses now that we’re going to have to be pushing it the whole time. But competition is always good, and in the past we haven’t had enough, so you relax, and you sit back and rest on your laurels.
In football you have teams that are 13-0 or 14-0, and they have nothing to play for then. All of a sudden they lose in the first round of the playoffs. It’s the team that had to win to get into the playoffs that keeps the momentum and pushes through.
If you’re not getting better, you’re getting worse. You’re not staying the same.
We’re going to have to keep fighting to get into the playoffs, so to speak, and then hopefully we’re ready to go this summer.
Safety Continues Improving
In this country, there were no rider fatalities in competitions last year, which is a huge step forward.
The events and course designers are going in the right direction, and the horses are therefore safer too, which is a big priority. We’re hoping to keep improving in that direction.
Hopefully the level of riding is getting better, but we can sort of fool ourselves with that a little bit. Everyone thinks they’re getting way better, but the top is still going to be the top, and the middle is middle, and the bottom is still going to be very bad.
That’s a big burden on course designers and builders, but we should tip our hats to those guys; they kept us safe last year. If we’re safe, it’s great for the sport. Then people want to come out and see it, and we can all go home at the end of the weekend.
The amount of time event managers are putting into the ground is great, and the better the ground is, the better the horses are going to jump, and the safer it’s going to be.
I’m not excited about the Fédération Equestre Internationale changing some of the rules every five minutes, but I agree 100 percent with the new rule that says riders have to do two three-stars now before they do a four-star. That’s a big, big deal. There are too many people who went around a three-star and barely got that qualifying score, and then they think they’re going to the Rolex Kentucky CCI****.
Kentucky is the major leagues of the sport, and it’s not for everybody. It’s where we get the most media and attention, and we owe it to the sport to put on a good show, and any accidents are going to be magnified in that situation. I’m really, really glad about the new rule from a fan standpoint, a trainer standpoint and a competitor standpoint. The less experienced people don’t know yet what they don’t know.
To have to validate that first three-star and do it again—not only is it good for the riders and their skills, but it’s also good for their horsemanship. If they didn’t do it properly the first time, some people are going to try to hold the horse together to get the t-shirt at Kentucky. They’ll learn a lot more from having to do a second three-star, and then they can keep going up the levels.
The Sport At Home
It’s exciting to have new events like the Ocala Jockey Club CIC*** and Three Lakes Horse Trials in Ocala, Fla. The Nutrena USEA American Eventing Championships moving to Tryon, N.C., is also exciting. Texas did a very good job hosting that, and the Texas Rose Horse Park is a great venue, but even though it was as central as we could get, it was really far for a lot of people.
The FEI Nations Cup CICO*** at Great Meadow in The Plains, Va., is a perfect place to showcase our sport. It’s right outside the nation’s capital. The horse enthusiasts in that area will really come out and support it. That should be a great event, and then we have the other events that keep stepping up and improving—the Cloud 11-Gavilan North LLC Carolina International in North Carolina has done an unbelievable job with prize money and live streaming, and Plantation Field (Pa.) is great too; the whole sport is growing in that way.
At the high end, horse sales are getting more and more expensive. For a little while, that $15,000 to $35,000 horse—the horse people would get off the track and work with and be able to sell it in that range—sort of went away. That $200,000 one was still selling, but the middle-of-the-road one wasn’t. It’s not great for numbers in eventing when that happens, but it’s definitely come back.
The quality of horses is certainly going up, and the Holekamp/Turner Young Event Horse Lion d’Angers Prize and Grant is a huge incentive. [The grant gives the highest scorer of the USEA Young Event Horse 5-Year-Old Championships, both East and West Coast combined, a cash prize to travel to the FEI World Young Horse Championships at Le Lion d’Angers in France for the 7-year-old two-star.] That award really makes people dream and get excited.
Christine Turner, in her short amount of time in this sport, has done a lot. Without people like her, those things aren’t possible, and that’s exciting because producing young horses is the only way we’ll be able to stay competitive and relevant around the world. It doesn’t matter how much money you have, that horse you have to have isn’t for sale. We’re going to have to make them.
Just from my experience riding a lot of horses every weekend, the level of volunteers is going up, as is the level of their knowledge. There are more people volunteering, and I always try to say, “Thank you,” and, “We couldn’t do it without you,” which is totally true. I’m getting way more responses like, “Thank you, what a beautiful day! We really enjoyed it.”
Eventing is a community, and it’s coming together even more. The sport is run on volunteers. Without them, the sport doesn’t go.
From that side of it, Seema Sonnad passing away last year was just horrible. She was such a smart woman and a great person, and she helped so many people nobody even knew about. She really loved and epitomized the sport of eventing. It’s tragic to lose her, but eventing was lucky to have her.
Buck Davidson is an event rider based in Riegelsville, Pa., and Ocala, Fla. The son of eventing legend Bruce Davidson, Buck has carried on the family name with major achievements beginning during his young rider career. He was a member of the Land Rover U.S. Eventing Team at the 2010 Alltech FEI World Equestrian Games (Ky.) and at the 2014 Alltech FEI World Equestrian Games (France), and he won team gold at the 2011 Pan American Games (Mexico). He was third at the 2014 Rolex Kentucky CCI**** and won the 2015 Jersey Fresh CCI*** with Ballynoe Castle RM. He began contributing to Between Rounds in 2010.