Tuesday, Jun. 4, 2024

The Training Three-Day Event Is Hanging On By A Toenail

Our columnist believes that if we want the classic three-day to survive, we must support its educational objectives at all levels.

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Our columnist believes that if we want the classic three-day to survive, we must support its educational objectives at all levels.

It doesn’t take long for solidly established sets of skills to be forgotten once they’re abandoned from general usage. In 1925, every farm kid in America knew how to stack loose hay into a barn. Running the length of the ridgepole in our old barn in Strafford, Vt., is a track, hanging from which are some large hooks, or tines. If I had to back a team of horses hitched to a wagon piled with loose hay into my barn, and use those hay hooks to unload the wagon, I’d be lost at sea!

Last summer, I was the starter for phase A, the first roads and tracks, at the Green Mountain Horse Association Training Level Three-Day Event in South Woodstock, Vt. Many of the riders were equally unsure and nervous about how to compete in a full three-day event, and yet the classic three-day event was largely abandoned only five or six years earlier, not 80 years ago like my hay hooks.

We’re losing basic horsemanship skills very rapidly in the United States, and one way to preserve them in eventing, at least, is to ensure that some level of the classic three-day event survives.

Virtually all of the major international riders of this era grew up riding in the classic three-day. They learned how to get horses fit, how to pace themselves trotting on phases A and C, how to pace themselves at speed galloping over the steeplechase fences on phase B, and how to use the 10-minute vet box hold before phase D, cross-country, to help their horses recover. They learned how to manage their horses after the long day of what used to be called, “speed and endurance,” and they learned how to prepare their horses for the challenge of the trot up for the veterinary inspection on the morning of show jumping.

In another 10 or 20 years as eventing is now headed, we’ll have a whole generation of coaches, trainers and riders who will have never had to acquire these skills, and will be as ignorant of their usage as I am about how to stack loose hay.

Fighting against the loss of all this knowledge, determined to preserve it for the next generation of eventers, are a handful of event organizers and supporters of the training level three-day event.

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Cindy DePorter told me that about six years ago, as the three-day event was being abandoned, Area II chairman, D.C. McBroom, asked her to find an organizer willing to run a training level three-day. Gretchen and Robert Butts, owners of Waredaca Farm in Unity, Md., offered the use of the farm if the Area II Adult Riders would help to run the event.

The Waredaca success story is the result of that initial contact.

“Waredaca does the courses, builds the jumps, hires the officials, and takes in the entry fees,” said Cindy, “and the adult riders staff the event, provide super prizes down to 10th place, and sponsor all kinds of course walks and educational seminars on every aspect of how to take part in a three-day event.”

Meanwhile, in 2005, Joe Silva, then executive director of GMHA, believed that the training three-day was a perfect addition to the services provided under GMHA’s educational mission, a kind of adjunct for adults to what GMHA’s long-standing Pony Club clinics were to children.

That 2005 event ran at a financial loss to GMHA, so Joe and his committee decided to run every other year, skipping 2006. Then in 2007, a rider donated $5,000 to the event, “because I’ve always wanted to ride in a three-day, and I want there to be one when my horse and I are ready.”

GMHA ran the training level three-day again in 2007 and ‘08, but although it was an enormous amount of work for GMHA, it still barely broke even. Which leads to now.

In Area I, Cindy Strate is the Adult Rider Coordinator, and, inspired by Waredaca, she’s decided to try to do for the GMHA event what the Area II adults have done for Waredaca.

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Cindy is working with Jon Woodhull, the current GMHA director, and they have a dozen initiatives going, ranging from local Area I fund raising, creating publicity and “buzz,” seeking trophies and prizes, contacting qualified riders, and establishing educational seminars to familiarize riders with what to expect and prepare for. There are similar “Support The Three-Day” initiatives currently going on in other USEA Areas as well, but these are the two I know about.

This brings the sport of eventing, one little segment of it at least, right back to its roots, in two ways.

First, the three-day event, with its emphasis on speed, stamina, endurance, conditioning and recovery is the direct link with our cavalry past, something that our new short format has mainly abandoned. But there’s a more direct link with a more recent past, the past 50 years or so, which only a few of us now remember.

In the late ’50s through the ’60s, the survival of eventing in the United States was by no means assured. It was hanging on by its toenails when I first evented at GMHA in 1962 (in a full preliminary level three-day event, no less). There were only three events in Area I.

In fact, the local riders who competed in the event were the same people who built the cross-country course up at Lloyd and Stella Reeves’ Flying Heels Farm. One day I specifically remember the only three workers on that hill were Dr. H.L.M. Van Schaik, Tad Coffin and myself. A big thunderstorm rolled in, and I was holding a big iron prybar. “Denny,” said Mr. Van Schaik, “maybe you should put down that iron bar!”

Back in the ’60s, if we wanted the sport of eventing to survive, we had to personally make that happen. Now, nearly 50 years later, we find ourselves in exactly the same situation with the classic format.

Denny Emerson


Denny Emerson rode on the 1974 World Championship gold-medal eventing team. He served as the U.S. Eventing Association president twice and won the USEA Wofford Cup for his lifetime dedication to eventing. At his Tamarack Hill Farm in South Strafford, Vt., and Southern Pines, N.C., he trains horses and riders and stands stallions. An original Between Rounds contributor, Emerson began writing his column in 1989.

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