Our newest columnist sees many improvements in eventing but also a few challenges that yet remain.
I’m sitting at my desk on a Monday afternoon, sore from a fall, the day after the toughest week in Ocala, Fla., has finished. From Feb. 13-21, I had 12 rides at the Florida Horse Park Winter II Horse Trials, three in the Rocking Horse Winter II advanced one day, and 11 more at Rocking Horse Horse Trials in Altoona over the weekend. This past week symbolizes all that is great with our sport, but it also shows how much we still need to improve.
The Florida Horse Park is one of our sport’s success stories, and with some 400 horses at this event, our sport is thriving. Peter Gray and Jon and Jenn Holling stepped up to save this event through their support, and the community has gotten behind their tremendous efforts.
Make no mistake, though, this isn’t a mom and pop organization; the courses are safer and much more thought out than they once were. And there was prize money for all of the divisions. These guys care about our sport! What an accomplishment. The people of Ocala give us hope that our sport—which is also a business for so many—can actually be viable.
A few riders, including myself, started the Professional Riders Organization to represent the concerns of professional event riders and promote interest in the sport of eventing by entertaining and inspiring our fans. PRO is helping event organizers raise prize money and gain spectators and media coverage. We all love eventing, but we need to move forward and grow. The sport is, after all, a sport for the riders. If we don’t take a more active role, how can we complain when we don’t get what we want or, more importantly, what we need?
Another important part of PRO is helping event organizers decide on which officials to hire, and one useful exercise was a poll PRO conducted identifying the best and worst officials. In eventing, we use dressage and show jumping judges to officiate our competitions, so it’s not surprising that the most popular judges actually evented! The least popular judge didn’t event to the best of our knowledge but is quick to pull someone off the course after a few bad fences.
I’m excited to have this organization working to improve our sport because my career and safety are on the line at each event.
We Got It Wrong
It’s much more important that we have safe courses and conditions to ride over than it is for someone to judge if we are good riders. “Policing ourselves” is the coach’s job or another rider’s job. This factor is where the sport didn’t show its best efforts last week.
I’ll start by noting that the technical delegate at Rocking Horse is the best official we have.
I was one of the last competitors of the day to go cross-country in the preliminary division. There had been a few problems during the day that caused the event to run late, so the sun became a major factor. The communication between the riders (me), the course builder and the TD were great, but we got it wrong.
I had a fall while riding a very nice young horse at the second-to-last fence because he couldn’t see the top of the jump. The jump was removed from the course after our fall, but if you ask me, it was too little too late.
There were mistakes on all fronts. I should have slowed way down and jumped on an angle away from direct sunlight, and the officials should have been checking the fairness of the course as the day went on. Sometimes the best-laid plans go wrong, but they are a lot less likely to go wrong if we’re all working together.
Everything has a funny way of working out, though. If I hadn’t fallen I’d be out riding, and this article would be even later!
I do hope, though, that event officials realize their first job is to keep the horses and riders safe—then judge them. Most officials understand this priority, but there are a few who need to join the others on the same page. I wish I’d done something different at that fence because my poor horse didn’t deserve the outcome. Thankfully, he’s fine, and we’ll all do better the next time.
During the fall, I realized I was wearing something that might save me from serious injury one day: the Point Two Air Jacket. I know what you’re thinking, “Here is Buck trying to sell something.” Quite the opposite. I was skeptical to start, but I’m a believer now. I made sure to get my dad and my girlfriend one for Christmas, and now I insist they wear them on every cross-country ride.
This air vest allowed me to walk away from this fall, and the Point Two Air Jacket is the most exciting innovation in a long time in our sport. No one drives a car without an air bag; why not ride with one?
When I was ejected from the saddle, I landed on a pillow of air. What a relief. I was not only able to walk away but also to ride another horse 10 minutes later. Without this new vest, I most surely would have taken a ride to the hospital. I only hope that in the future we can create a system as safe for our horses.
It’s great that we’re trying new things to make the jumps safer for the horses, but we must proceed with caution. Jumps that simply fall down aren’t necessarily the answer. It’s important that all of these “safer” jumps are thoroughly tested. I’ve heard of tables that just collapse on impact—bad idea. Horses will often push off a jump to save themselves, so if the table falls down that could create an even more dangerous situation.
Some jumps fall down if hit at a certain angle, but what if it’s hit at a different angle? Is this now more dangerous? Horses are smart animals. They figure out when something falls down and when it doesn’t. We need to be sure we don’t confuse them.
I must commend Kyle Carter and Mike Winter for their thorough testing of the PRO logs. They’ve spent lots of time and money on research and development, and this is such a boost for our sport. I’m not sure these types of logs are the final answer, but they’re certainly moving in the right direction.
I believe the answer to improved safety lies in better riding and better designing. Horses need to see what they’re asked to jump. Give them a fair shot, and they’ll either honestly jump or honestly run out. As my dad says, “Give a horse two options, jump or fall, they will always jump.” The option of “where am I going?” is a recipe for disaster.
This is a great year for the equine industry. Let’s make sure the boost we get from the Alltech FEI World Equestrian Games this fall isn’t lost, and we take this sport to new levels with safety as one of our most important priorities.
Buck Davidson is an event rider based in Riegelsville, Pa., and Ocala, Fla. The son of eventing legend Bruce Davidson Sr., Buck has carried on the family name with major achievements beginning during his young rider career. More recently, he was the alternate for the 2008 Olympic Games in Hong Kong, was ranked No. 2 in the 2009 U.S. Eventing Association national standings and named the Chronicle’s 2009 Event Rider of the Year.