Like being a superhero, being able to fly or travel through time, competing in the Olympics is something almost everyone has dreamed about. If you’re passionate about a sport, at some point, “I want to win a medal at the Olympics!” enters your mind.
Imagine walking out during the opening ceremonies with a rare few of your fellow countrymen, while the rest of your country watches and cheers. I can say from experience: The pride and excitement of being on the world stage makes every hardship leading up to that moment seem right and worth it.
At all of my clinics, I ask what people’s goals are. “Go to the Olympics,” used to be the only answer the younger riders gave (once they were brave enough to verbalize it). I encourage that dreaming. I always tell them to go for it but to aim for Kentucky, Badminton (England) or Burghley (England). Because although riding for your country is a worthy dream, in the end, it’s not your decision. It is a decision made by a selection committee, dependent on other people’s opinions.
Olympic team selection involves lots of opinions: first, the opinions of the selectors, and later, inevitably, the opinions of the fans and followers of the sport. I’ve been reading lots of those online, in the wake of the U.S. Olympic Eventing Team selection announcement, some of which demonstrate misunderstandings about how a team is selected. With an eye to the pending selection of the dressage and show jumping teams, let’s take a look at how the eventing team is picked; some of this might be useful for the next announcement.
Perhaps your favorite rider didn’t make it this year. Maybe the team doesn’t look the way you would have chosen. Why? There are many factors going into this moment that we are not privy to, factors known only to a small, select group of people. Additionally, there are plenty of widely known factors that might still disrupt the Olympics or any country’s performance.
So, what does it take to make the leap from top athlete to team member? That’s multi-faceted question with many answers.
First, there is the question of which team we are talking about. Eventing Nation Cups are basically practice to familiarize the riders with what it’s like to compete on a team. (I used to think that was the purpose of Young Riders, but few successful young riders seem to make the leap to senior team competition. We have failed to connect the transition at that level.)
Then there are Pan American Games, which now are held at the three-star level. This should be a great place to get less-experienced riders’ feet wet in proper senior team competition. For a country like the United States, the Pan Ams are an opportunity for first-timers to step into the true-life pressure of the selection process and, subsequently, representing their country. It’s a great learning experience for the athletes, and it gives selectors a chance to determine how those riders manage the pressure.
Ideally, a team would have one or two reliable, seasoned veterans to create stability and a couple of newcomers. In a perfect world, those newcomers would be successful already at a level above the three-star level so they come away with the best experience possible and start to believe in themselves, which is very important for future morale.
However, because the Pan Ams are an Olympic qualifier, if a country hasn’t earned an Olympic berth already, it may leave the newcomers behind and instead send a more veteran squad to help achieve the necessary placing. Because, if you don’t qualify a team for the Olympics at the Pan American Games, you’ve got one other opportunity: the world championships, the World Equestrian Games. And that’s not so simple.
World championships are tougher because they are held at a very different level with a very different type of cross-country. The cross-country is typically a proper five-star event, plus one round of show jumping instead of two, as is required at the Olympics. Usually, the competition is held at an established equestrian venue, more conducive to horse sports than the Olympic venues, because the world championships are a standalone events for equestrians.
Because of that, strong cross-country horses and reliable riders are a necessity, and the competition itself a truer representation of what top-level eventing is about. The competition uses a scoring for teams and individuals that is different from what is used at the Pan Ams or Olympics. Still here? Good, let’s continue.
The Olympics are their own beast. The cross-country is held at the four-star level of difficulty, while dressage and show jumping are at the five-star level. But, as the Olympics often take place at sites that are hot during the summer, over courses built just for the competition—Tokyo being no exception—cross-country often plays out to be more difficult than it looked on paper. Often, the whole site is designed poorly, and it makes for a different sort of competition. The cross-country is often really fast with lots of twists and turns. It’s almost artificial, which doesn’t suit every rider or horse.
To succeed, countries need horses that are very good on cross-country, plus really good dressage, and they’ll want to add great show jumper to the mix, especially if they want to win individual medals as well as team in that second round of show jumping. Easy, right?
The selectors pore over competition records and veterinary histories, as well as full lameness exams, and discuss those factors privately. The best horse in the country might not be the best for every competition, and the same goes for the rider.
At the last World Equestrian Games, after Boyd Martin had a stop on cross-country, he took full responsibility. I personally didn’t think he needed to, but he showed how he would be accountable. That makes it easier to trust him as a rider. Showing up repeatedly and successfully, like he has, is huge, but accountability checks a different box for selectors, a big one.
Phillip Dutton has done nothing but prove his value in team competitions, so including him on this year’s U.S. Olympic Eventing Team was kind of a no-brainer. He won individual bronze at the Rio Olympics and has done nothing but produce results for 25 years. He’s answered every question asked on cross-country hundreds of times and is someone who can advise at that level. For his value as a resource, you want him there. I suspect every rider there feels the same. Is that not enough? Well, he’s still trying to earn the individual gold, so he’s not resting on his past achievements, and if he did you couldn’t blame him.
Liz Halliday-Sharp is a known quantity, and she’s been very successful at every level on multiple horses. In the past six months, she has been more than a successful competitor; she’s become a rider who can pull herself out of trouble. That’s huge.
Doug Payne, selected as the team’s traveling reserve, is calm, focused and a proven team member at the Pan Am level. Plus, he brings the added dimension of being a successful show jumper who wins at the grand prix level—kind of a useful talent.
Now take in to account that, because the International Olympic Committee wants to see more flags represented in equestrian disciplines, changes have been made to how the competition is run. These changes—including eliminating drop scores, and adding a system for replacing riders eliminated during competition, but only under certain circumstances, with their traveling reserves—will make sense to no one. The new format was tested at the 2019 Nations Cup at Boekelo (the Netherlands) and, at the end of the day, no one was pleased with the changes.
When I look down the road, I am excited by what riders are coming up and will be the future veterans. At the moment, there are good reasons to look where the U.S. is now and be highly optimistic about a potential medal. It might be bronze, but I believe that there will be such success. I believe these riders understand the job ahead and will rise up to get it done.
Now, if we look at the sport at large, there are countries with obvious line-ups that should prevail, such as England, Germany and New Zealand. No dynasty is forever, though, and maybe we are seeing a new one on the horizon. Support your favorites and be part of something special.
An Olympic veteran for Canada, Kyle Carter also earned team silver at the 2010 Alltech FEI World Equestrian Games (Kentucky) and the 2007 Pan American Games (Brazil), as well as placing second in the 1999 Rolex Kentucky CCI4*-L. Carter currently holds the record for
coaching the most gold medalists at the North American Youth Championships, and he served as coach for the Guatemalan and Venezuelan eventing teams. He and his wife, Jennifer Carter, run Five Ring Stable in Citra, Florida.