This Year’s Reality Check Will Only Make Us Better

Jan 27, 2014 - 1:19 PM

Our columnist considers how to best find and support owners, horses and riders for the future.

I commented this time last year about the enthusiasm and excitement event riders felt at the 2012 U.S. Eventing Association convention for U.S. Equestrian Federation eventing coach David O’Connor’s new ideas and approach for getting our nation back on track and winning on the world stage.

The feeling I got at the 2013 USEA convention was that there has been a bit of a reality check. We’ve had one season under David’s guidance. A lot of horse and rider combinations were funded to go overseas, and, with a few exceptions, the performances were not competitive on the international scene.

I think the realization has hit home that to be consistently competitive at the international level, a lot of improvement is needed. This reality check is a good thing for the future. A lot of riders will be training very hard this winter!

The new group of selectors has let everyone know through their choices that every combination is on a level playing field, and experience and past performances do not matter for selection. This has given a lot of up-and-coming riders a chance to get a funded trip overseas to prove themselves and their horses, and it’s understandable that a lot of these combinations didn’t measure up. It will be interesting to see in the future if combinations have to prove themselves a little more here in this country before USEF dollars are spent on them for overseas trips.

The management and support team that David has put together in just one year is very impressive. Joanie Morris, as eventing director, was born for this job. Mark Revenaugh had big shoes to fill, taking over the job of chief veterinarian, but he’s done a great job of getting an excellent veterinary team together. They are cutting edge and rider friendly. Steve Teichman as head farrier in many cases is better than most veterinarians.

David has made a real commitment to up-and-coming riders to try to guarantee our team success in the future. In the first year, he and the selectors set in place an elite list of riders for the under 18 and under 25. He’s also providing coaching sessions for them. This potentially augurs well for the future; the key, however, is selecting the right riders onto these lists. In a sport where the average age of an Olympian is closer to 40 than 20, it’s nearly impossible to select which riders will develop the talent, persistence, desire, ability to get supporters and backers, horse-selection skills and business skills needed to succeed in this highly competitive sport.

Many riders look really promising on one horse or while their parents are supporting them, but who will shine and be consistent through the long haul is very hard to predict. In other more lucrative team sports, such as the National Football League or baseball, year-round talent scouts are employed. They follow potential talented athletes on a weekly basis, analyzing every move before they make recommendations regarding in whom to invest.

What is crucial for the next generation to prosper is a competition environment that, over time, will push the riders to strive to be the best. There’s no doubt that the best inspiration for the next generation is a successful U.S. team.

The Eternal Horse Hunt

Finding event horses for the future is a constant challenge. The sport horse breeding industry in this country is still in its infancy and so is pretty hard to rely on. There is a constant stream of horses arriving from Europe; however, having experienced this process myself, it can be expensive and not very efficient.

The U.S. Thoroughbred isn’t seen as much at the four-star level as it was in the past. Certainly, from my point of view, this hasn’t been a deliberate change. Today’s competitive four-star horse is a very talented animal. Movement, endurance, bravery, carefulness and a sensible nature are some of the traits needed. These are hard to find in any breed.

With nearly 25,000 Thoroughbreds foaled every year in this country, it’s hard for me to imagine that there aren’t a lot of potential four-star horses born here every year. Unfortunately, there is no structured way of buying and trialing these 3-, 4- or 5-year-olds. There are some sales geared toward the young Thoroughbreds, but there isn’t an opportunity to ride and trial them, which is imperative. It seems to me that the system of claiming races here in the United States keeps a lot of horses racing longer than they should, as the horses gradually drop down further and further in the quality of races.

The Jockey Club has recognized the importance of a life after racing for Thoroughbreds and has given money to sport horse classes in different disciplines for the highest-placed Thoroughbred. The support of the Jockey Club for the use of Thoroughbreds in other sports is imperative and a great start in the right direction.

What if the Jockey Club took out insurance for a $1,000,000 bonus for any U.S. Thoroughbred competing in the Olympics? If nothing else, it would get people seriously considering a Thoroughbred when horse shopping.

Supplying More Owners

Bringing more owners into the sport is crucial for our sport’s future. I’m sure I don’t have to explain this point.

Unfortunately, the cost of competing an upper-level horse without much prize money is a hard sell for riders trying to bring in new owners. The owners now involved truly believe in the sport and their riders. There has been huge improvement over the past few years where horse trials are making a much bigger effort to make owners feel welcome.

The USEF Event Owners Task Force, headed by Mark Hart, is doing a lot of work advising riders and helping to put syndicates together. Syndicates are suited in a lot of cases where it makes ownership much more affordable. Unfortunately, there’s not much being done by the USEF or the Event Owners Task Force to bring new faces into the sport.

With a supply and demand situation in place, most top riders don’t have enough owners to make ends meet by just riding. Therefore, they become “part-time” riders because they are teaching, traveling to teach clinics or doing something else to help pay the bills. Our riding standard would improve dramatically if this supply and demand were corrected.

The standard and quality of events has drastically risen in the past few years. The attention to the cross-country footing at most events is improving. The Professional Riders Organization, headed by Samantha Lendl, has worked hard with event organizers to bring in crowds and make events more exciting for the casual horse enthusiast.

Cross-country design is constantly changing worldwide, and the trends need to be kept up with so that horses and riders are properly prepared. I feel our CCI cross-country design is at a world standard, but the horse trials could do more to prepare and educate horses and riders.

Overall, it is a very exciting time to be involved in the sport of eventing. Each and every one of us who call eventing “our sport” has a role to play. From volunteering at your local horse trial, promoting your local event or pony club to upper-level riders who are striving to make a team, we are all ambassadors for the future.

Happy New Year and best of luck in 2014!

Phillip Dutton moved to the United States from Australia in 1991 and won two Olympic team gold medals for Australia before becoming a U.S. citizen in 2006. He’s represented the United States at the Pan American Games, winning a team gold in 2007, the Olympic Games and World Championships. He has been the U.S. Eventing Association Rider of the Year 12 times and was Fédération Equestre Interationale World Event Rider in 2005. He’s a founding member of the Professional Riders Organization and has served on the U.S. Equestrian Federation Safety Committee and the USEF Board of Directors. Phillip is currently chair of the USEF Eligible Athletes Committee Eventing Committee, as well as a member of the USEF High Performance Eventing Committee and the USEF Athletes Advisory Committee. Also a top international coach, he lives in Avondale, Pa., and trains out of True Prospect Farm in West Grove, Pa., and Aiken, S.C.


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