Tuesday, May. 28, 2024

Professional Eventers Must Shape Their Own Sport

In The Forum, horsemen are invited to express their views and offer constructive criticism on any topic relevant to working with and enjoying horses. The opinions expressed by the writers are entirely their own and not necessarily those of The Chronicle of the Horse.
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In The Forum, horsemen are invited to express their views and offer constructive criticism on any topic relevant to working with and enjoying horses. The opinions expressed by the writers are entirely their own and not necessarily those of The Chronicle of the Horse.

There was a time when being a professional event rider was just barely a career, limited to the few riders who represented the United States in international competitions. In the past few years, however, eventing professionals have come to more closely resemble professionals in other sports, both equine and non-equine.

There is a growing gap between riders who make their living at eventing and those who enjoy it as a hobby. While there is considerable overlap between the two groups and many common goals and expectations, there are also considerable differences.

In its brief existence, the Professional Horseman’s Council, with which I am involved, has worked quietly to enact reform through rule changes and dialogue among professional riders and others involved with the sport.

Speaking on my own behalf, not that of the PHC, in my opinion an introductory list of items need to be examined as they pertain to professional event riders. These include the lack of prize money in our sport, poor decision making by officials, inadequate leadership from our national organizations, a consistent lack of high-quality events and our failure to embrace and use the media effectively.

Put Your Money Where Your Mouth Is

It is in the interest of professional riders to advocate for prize money. The mandatory inclusion of add-back classes would be a good first step and a way for riders to invest in themselves. The thinking herein is that it is inappropriate to ask others to contribute prize money if we aren’t willing to invest it ourselves.

A second good step would be to pressure the U.S. Eventing Association at novice and training and the U.S. Equestrian Federation at preliminary, intermediate and advanced to match any prize money that an event offered. How either organization chose to fund such a program would be left to them. Obvious sources of funding include additional member or starter fees as well as significant corporate sponsors.

An event that raised $10,000 in prize money for four levels of competition through add-backs would immediately become a $20,000 event with matching funds from the USEA and USEF. Event organizers would also be in a position to ask potential local sponsors to match the prize money, turning an event that once awarded riders with ribbons and halters into a “$30,000 Classic Horse Trials.”

But riders cannot expect the USEA, USEF or potential sponsors to invest in our sport if we aren’t willing to ourselves. Add-backs are the place to start.
 
Speak Up!

Our sport is run by humans, and humans aren’t perfect.

We as riders have a vested interest in topics like scheduling and rule changes, yet we lack a unified voice to represent our best interests. This speaks to the need for the Professional Horseman’s Council or other riders’ associations to keep tabs on and consult with the USEA and USEF in multiple areas, including rule changes and scheduling, hearing processes and task force findings.

With such an association in place it is possible to imagine that events like the Jersey Fresh CCI (N.J.) would be held in more appropriate times of the year than June, as Jersey Fresh has been for the past few years.
 
Had a riders’ association been consulted it is not impossible to imagine that instead of drug testing of horses at all levels, funded by an entry surcharge as we currently have, we might instead have had a surcharge that funded prize money, footing research or promotional campaigns, all of which would be more useful.

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On a more microcosmic level it is also possible to see the value of riders enjoying greater empowerment at a competition. The only current influence riders have on ground juries at competitions is through rider representatives, who enjoy only as much influence as the ground jury grants them. Quite often a ground jury member has less experience than most active, professional riders.

Perhaps a better system at the CCI level would bring questions and concerns at major events to a vote of the riders. In this scenario, if riders asked for a change and the ground jury refused to enact the change, the riders could overrule the ground jury’s decision through a vote at the riders’ meeting.

Who’s In Charge Here?

There is no doubt that countless talented individuals work with and for the USEA and USEF, both as paid staff and volunteers. It’s hard to think of more appropriate individuals than David O’Connor and Jo Whitehouse for their respective jobs.

But where is the leadership of either organization as a whole? Where are our leaders who can think outside of the box and act on those thoughts?
 
Supporters of the status quo will be quick to point to programs like the American Eventing Championships and Young Event Horse classes and ask “Don’t you see what we’ve done?” But a better question would be “What more can we do?”

For starters the USEF and USEA could offer low-interest loans to events that want to improve their venues or add additional levels of competition. Funding to research ideal footing for galloping would be useful, as would a comprehensive effort to attract and keep major sponsorship. A comprehensive effort to develop the hardware and software to provide fast, accurate scoring would go a long way to show that the USEF and USEA are in touch with the needs of riders and organizers at all levels.

Public opinion research, used by every major corporation to market and finetune their products, has yet to be employed by eventing.

And what exactly is the mission of our national organizations?

The USEA appears to remain focused on the grassroots levels, and the USEF’s mission statement pertains largely to regulating and sanctioning our sport while fielding teams for international competition. Not exactly thinking outside the box.

To date it is hard to see any clear vision being presented by either organization. And while the USEF tends to the needs of Olympic athletes and the USEA remains committed to the lower levels, where does that leave the majority of professionals who are not going to the Olympics but do make their living by riding and training event horses?

It is time not only for a clear vision of the future, but also more importantly, it is time to ask, “How are we going to get there?”

Building Better Mousetraps

We need better events. And perhaps we also need a better way of thinking about the events we do and don’t have. Many organizers believe that they are better off running unsanctioned horse trials. Instead of resisting this trend, this may be a positive direction worth encouraging at the lower levels as it meets the needs of organizers who want fewer impediments to running events and the needs of amateur riders who want lower entry fees.

The current scheduling system is designed to protect events that already have dates, but that means we lose the benefits of economic competition. What would happen if two events were allowed to run the same levels of competition on the same date in the same geographic region? Would pandemonium break out or would both events be forced to improve their product in order to attract customers?

Right now we have a protectionist scheduling system that allows average events to stay on the calendar without any pressure to improve, and we prevent new events from coming on the calendar due to a lack of available dates.

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This is not to diminish the challenges facing organizers. One problem organizers have when they seek to build a new cross-country course is that there are significant upfront costs, but the return on the investment doesn’t come until entry fees arrive.

It can also be difficult to explain the value of a cross-country course to a loan officer. But the USEA or USEF could offer short-term, low-interest loans. In turn the USEA and USEF could require events that want to be sanctioned to invest a percentage of their annual gross back into the venue. And the previously discussed items—prize money, better officiating and more active leadership—would go a long way to making every event better.

The Fourth Estate Isn’t Your Vacation Home

The media has been called the fourth estate for its ability to identify and frame issues of public concern and policy. The importance of a free and independent press was so crucial to our founding fathers that they wrote it into the Bill of Rights, what we know as the First Amendment.

In eventing we have no fourth estate, no free and independent press. We have in-house magazines from the USEA and USEF that are uniformly glossy and uncritical, but we have no watchdog on the USEA, the USEF, or our sport as a whole. This publication, The Chronicle of the Horse, does an excellent job reporting on our competitions but falls short in holding eventing accountable on a larger level.

We don’t know how to use the mainstream press, our local newspapers, radio stations and TV stations, to our advantage. With few exceptions, riders and organizers don’t know how to write press releases.
Would-be fans of our sport have no real media outlets to turn to for access to our sport. Worse yet, when a rider has the worst day of his or her life at an event and suffers the loss of a horse, we have no ability to frame or control the issue because a home movie on YouTube beats us to the punch.

The USEA and USEF would do them-selves a favor by embracing the idea of an ombudsman to investigate and report on the interests of the sport outside the normal administrative hierarchy.  If we as a sport don’t take control of the press, be it to promote ourselves or investigate our weaknesses, it will take control of us, and we will all lose.

Make It Happen

We as professional riders, both within the context of the Professional Horseman’s Council and without, need to learn to present our concerns without being drowned out by the limitations of our leadership,
acquiescing to the demands of organizers, or being held hostage to the goals of other constituencies within the sport. None of the other actors identified herein will make that happen for us. It is for professional event riders to do.

Simply talking about these topics while riding around the warm-up arena isn’t good enough. We must identify issues, study them, and make recommendations for a course of action. These recommendations must then carry the weight of all professional riders speaking with one voice. Administrators, officials and organizers don’t know our sport the way we as professional riders do.

As we search for a way forward, professional riders must be the ones to shape the trajectory. None of this is being done. All of it can be done. And our sport at all levels will benefit.

Craig Thompson is a professional event rider and trainer based in Aiken, S.C. He coaches and competes at every level of eventing throughout the year. In 2004 he started the Surefire Horse Trials (Va.), in 2006 the Maryland Horse Trials and is currently organizing the 2008 Aiken Event Horse Sale. He can be found on the Internet at craigthompsoneventing.com.

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