Tuesday, Jul. 23, 2024

Rules Can’t Replace Good Judgment

The author suggests education is more constructive than “politically correct” rule changes.

At least two divergent dynamics have helped to create the current challenges we face in the sport of eventing.

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The author suggests education is more constructive than “politically correct” rule changes.

At least two divergent dynamics have helped to create the current challenges we face in the sport of eventing.
First, the need to be competitive internationally has resulted in changes in the design and requirements of U.S. cross-country courses. The U.S. Eventing Association Course Advisor Program, led by Capt. Mark Phillips since 1993, has been responsible for standardizing courses at the upper levels. This program has helped to educate U.S. course designers and has been successful, as measured by the success of U.S. teams in international competition.

A second dynamic has arisen from other USEA initiatives. By adding the beginner novice level to recognized events and requiring minimal qualification at the American Eventing Championships, the USEA has lowered the bar among our eventers. In an attempt to gain new members and to satisfy membership services, the USEA leaders have failed to educate their membership adequately about the true merits of the sport.

The sport is about riders developing relationships with their horses through the development of their horsemanship skills, the overall training and development of horse and rider in progressive basic horsemanship. This training is measured against a standard. You should not be competing against other riders but against a standard.

As the USEA has attempted to attract new members, this message has been lost. The AECs, Area Championships and so many annual awards within levels have no real meaning. The emphasis appears to be on providing scaled-down divisions for lower-level riders who worry about where they placed, rather than about fostering a true understanding of the sport.

A Few Solutions

I have several suggestions that might help put the sport back on its path. The issue isn’t safety. The issue is horsemanship—the understanding of specific skills, their application and their execution. True horsemanship produces many desirable traits, among them, good judgment.

It is not the mission of the USEA to teach horsemanship. However, it should be its mission to educate all its members about the skills that are required at each level in eventing. I think it would help to develop simple, one-page guidelines for each level to identify the skills riders should be able to demonstrate before competing at that level. In addition, events should be structured to encourage riders to develop certain skills that will further their horsemanship.

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For instance, if understanding galloping pace is a skill, we should develop it and reward it. From beginner novice through preliminary level, competitors should not be allowed to wear watches.

A scaled penalty system should be developed that would reward those closest to the optimum time and penalize those going much faster. Almost anybody can read a large watch while galloping. Learning to feel the correct pace is a different thing entirely.

Trainers should ensure that their students do not put themselves on courses where they don’t belong. Just because someone wants to compete at a particular level and is qualified according to the rules does not make that person competent to do so. I frequently hear riders claim that they are intermediate or advanced riders because they have competed one horse at that level. Riding at a level doesn’t make you a rider at that level, and the professionals need to address this.

No Knee-Jerk Reactions

Finally, new rules should not be passed under the politically correct guise of safety. Since the accidents at Rolex Kentucky in April, U.S. Equestrian Federation committees have contemplated and/or passed rules that I don’t believe have made the sport any safer—and may actually make it less safe.

How could the new rule eliminating a rider for one fall on cross-country increase safety problems? Consider this instance. We all have seen riders and horses with ditch and water phobias. At the Plantation April Horse Trials (Pa.), a rider on my horse came down to the last preliminary fence in front of a home crowd of parents, friends and a big cheering section. At age 15, she did what we all have done, which was to slightly chase to the jump whereby the horse added a stride, jumping her out of the tack. She remounted quickly and jumped the fence.

Fast forward one month to the same rider coming down to the same jump, and you know her attention was focused. She jumped into the water flawlessly and finished the course without penalties. With the new rule in place, what would that rider be thinking? “Oh I fell here last time and got eliminated?” Her focus would not be on riding well but on what might happen again. Why did they make the new rule? There has been no evidence presented that riders who have fallen and remounted have sustained additional injuries.

In our efforts to make a safer sport, we also need to make sure we always put our horses first, especially our older campaigners. It is very sad to see animals lost in competition. Several horses have died as a result of pulmonary failures on course. Are there any better preventive measures available for horses, such as those we currently use in human medicine? What is typical in pulmonary failures in horses? Can they be predicted or prevented?

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There is one fact that I do know: if you have an upper-level horse above a certain age and you keep competing him one of three things will happen. First, he might go around his course without trouble. Second, he could embarrass himself and his rider because of his diminished skills. Third, he might suffer a major injury and break down or drop dead. As hard and cruel as this may be, it is a fact that if you deal with horses in competitive stress, you must face these possibilities.

Keep Improving

It is sad to see the current race to pass rules to make eventing safer when these rules have not been identified as fixes to any problems. It takes strong leadership and management to do nothing until cause and effect relationships can be established. As horsemen we need to keep evaluating our relationships with our horses and clients.

As an organizer of six horse trials a year where approximately 1,200 horses go through the start box, I am always aware of the potential safety challenges we face. We review our human and equine medical arrangements at each event.

We try to troubleshoot each and every possible scenario. We identify, sometimes in the dressage phase, rider and horse combinations who are not going safely. The officials watch for any potentially unsafe situation and intervene when warranted. There will always be falls and injuries. At the end of the day, all we can do is to make sure that we have taken every possible precaution.

Rules are not a substitute for judgment. They cannot replace skills that have been honed through years of exposure to training animals that we love and want to protect. A horseman puts his horses first. A horse allows us to extend our capabilities. We go further, faster and with more enjoyment when we journey together. Alone we are only people. 

Denis Glaccum


Denis Glaccum, who rode in his first three-phase competition in 1956, has been competing longer than any other eventer in the United States. A trainer of event and show horses for 40 years, he has been involved with every aspect of eventing. Owner, breeder, trainer and coach, he is a founder of Fair Hill Equestrian Events, Inc., Fair Hill International, and the American Horse Trials Foundation. His summer base is Unionville, Pa., where he runs the Plantation Field Horse Trials; winters find him at his farm in Aiken, S.C. He has six horses currently competing on the circuit.

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