Olympic rider Bobby Costello believes an old grudge is still dividing the sport.
The United States lost a fierce equine competitor on cross-country day at the Pau CCI**** in France. Boyd Martin’s mount Crackerjack fractured a pastern while galloping into the main stadium to negotiate the final two fences on the 11-plus minute course.
Boyd reacted immediately and pulled up Lucy Boynton’s beautiful gray within just a couple strides of feeling something go wrong. Crackerjack’s groom, the U.S. team veterinarian and support staff attended to him within seconds. They alleviated as much pain and discomfort as possible, so “Crackers” could be transported to the nearby veterinary hospital, where X-rays confirmed he couldn’t be saved.
It’s sobering to witness the round of the day turn to tragedy in the blink of an eye. People tend to show their true selves in times of adversity, and Boyd and Lucy showed class and quiet strength, which was sobering in a more positive way.
But in the hours immediately following the event, folks back home started firing up their computers and iPhones to begin the now familiar weighing in on the latest tragedy on social media. While most comments offered condolences and words of support, others were not so kind and used this sad event to air grievances on a number of things in the sport including safety, the U.S. team, the event, the training, the preparation, the loss of the long format, the evils of the short format—and the list goes on.
A Schism Begins
A schism exists within the U.S. eventing community. It’s not always on display, but all it takes is a tragedy like Crackers’ death at Pau to bring it to the surface. I’ve seen this same movie play back over and over again. And I think I can pinpoint the moment this schism began to form: It was late autumn in the year 2000.
The U.S. Three-Day Event Team had just come off a successful run at the Sydney Olympics, bringing home team bronze while David O’Connor won the first individual gold in eventing for the USA in almost 25 years. The sport at home was strong. We were feeling proud of our coach and our riders. We loved our sport and were bullish on its future.
This feeling of calm contentment lasted all of about two months. By the end of the year the Fédération Equestre Internationale leadership was quietly but quickly maneuvering toward a new concept: the short-format CCI (which would go on to gut the core of what made the three-day event stand out from any other competition—the roads and tracks and steeplechase).
Support for this new format mostly came from Continental Europe. The perceived change from the emphasis on speed and endurance to dressage and show jumping suited not only their horses (who were more of the warmblood variety), but also the strong cultural shift in attitudes toward horse welfare. There were dozens of other second-tier arguments for the change (cost, land availability, broader participation, to name a few), but those were just distractions.
From the beginning, the U.S. stance (in concert with the other eventing powerhouses of Great Britain, Australia and New Zealand) was clear and firm: There was NO WAY we were going to let this happen. I sat in on many of the meetings and calls in which the strategy for opposing the FEI’s plan was developed. We were united in our opposition to the proposed new format and put forward every argument to save the traditional sport. At the time, it seemed impossible that this new format would be implemented; we were all so passionate about it staying exactly as it was.
Alas, I was young and naïve enough then not to appreciate something that remains true to this day: When the FEI wants something, they usually get it. We were just shouting into the wind.
In those days before things went viral on Facebook, it was harder to spread the word and get people involved. In the beginning of the fight for the preservation of the long format three-day event, there frankly wasn’t a lot of backup or support from the U.S. eventing community. This isn’t a criticism. I genuinely think folks never thought it could or would happen. Perhaps today with the instantaneous ability to rally the troops on social media, we might have had a chance at thwarting the FEI’s plans for a while longer, though it probably would have been temporary.
As it happened, change came faster than anyone could have predicted. I rode in the last long-format team championship at the 2003 Pan Ams at Fair Hill (Md.). Eventing fans in the United States were starting to understand the long format was in peril, but there still wasn’t a groundswell of anger directed at the changes that were coming just around the bend.
By the spring of 2004, Kentucky offered the short format for the first time, so our riders could prepare for the Athens Olympic Games. By that summer the long format at championships was out, and the short format was here to stay. The Athens Olympic Three-Day Event was a completely different competition from Sydney just four years before. The door had been flung wide open, and more and more changes came barreling down the highway. By that time, vocal opposition among the masses had taken hold, but it was too late.
The saying, “You never know what you’ve got ’til it’s gone” was dead on. Within a few years, not only was the long format gone at championships, but it was also gone from international competition for good.
There is a sector of the eventing community that has never forgiven the leadership within the U.S. Equestrian Federation, U.S. Equestrian Team and U.S. Eventing Association for their failure to save the long format.
While social media didn’t really exist in time to prevent the change, it provided a platform for people to vent their frustrations after the fact. The grumbling that might have evolved into resignation, acceptance and moving forward if it was only taking place inside tack rooms instead began to take on a life and narrative of its own on internet “chat rooms.”
The story became: Everyone involved in the Eventing High Performance Program just rolled over and let the FEI have their way. Upper-level riders were an elite group of eventers who didn’t really care about the sport. They were only interested in getting more owners, more horses and running those horses in as many of these short-format events as possible to make as much money as possible, even if it meant taking our sport down into a hole to do it.
This false narrative was tough to stomach. Those same riders were fighting for the sport early on when not many others were. The thing was, as angst over the long format kept growing, the game had already changed. Other countries were accepting this. We could either pine away about it, or get on with figuring out how we were still going to win now that the sport had made this huge shift.
And suddenly there was this split between the eventers who decided to make the best of a bad situation and learn how to play this new game versus those who refused to accept that, like it or not, the decision had been made, and there was no turning back.
I think a lot these days how lucky I was to have competed for many years in both formats. I was able to experience the good and bad in both. What I didn’t appreciate then but can now is how unsettling and difficult it would be to try to still feel the same way about a sport that had become for many, unrecognizable. People were mourning the loss of their identity within the sport. I now get that.
Really, though, the sport has been changing—at times dramatically so—since it first appeared in the 1912 Stockholm Olympic Games. (Dressage was held the last day!) Every four years from those first Games, the three-day event saw significant change. Then interestingly, from 1952 until about 1996 the sport witnessed only minor changes. That was a long time for people to get comfortable with the “way things were.”
Healthy debate, even when it’s uncomfortable, isn’t a bad thing. We don’t all have to agree on everything! Alternative viewpoints—based on facts—on any subject are natural. If you only talk to people or only read material shared by people who think the same way, then the divide will continue to deepen.
But if you feel passionately about something, the most productive way to make your voice heard isn’t online. U.S. eventing is guided, by and large, by countless volunteers who all possess a passion for the sport. Every single one has only the best intentions to make the sport better and stronger. If you don’t like what is happening you have to get involved. If you’re not already, volunteer at any level you can, whether it’s local, regional or national. Attend the USEA Annual Convention and be counted. Sit in on meetings. Listen. Ask questions.
We must move past the battle that has only driven a wedge between eventers for the past 15 years and counting. We as a community must coalesce and agree to work harder in seeking common ground on the issues dividing us. I’m hopeful and optimistic that we can do this, but at the end of the day that is not a strategy. We all must get to work.
Robert Costello has been an active participant in all things eventing since his early days growing up in the tall shadows of the sport’s greats in South Hamilton, Mass. He has represented the USA at the 2000 Sydney Olympics (eighth) and the 2003 Pan Ams (team gold), along with securing multiple top finishes at Fair Hill (Md.), Kentucky and Burghley (England). He has chaired the USEF Eventing Active Athlete Committee and Eventing High Performance Committees, and he currently serves as chairman of the USEF Eventing Selection Committee. Robert runs his business ROC Equestrian out of Winter Book Farm in Southern Pines, N.C.