We’re Better Than The Olympics Showed

Feb 6, 2017 - 12:38 PM

With a strengthened pipeline, exciting new venues and a hometown championship on the horizon, U.S. eventing is moving forward.

The high performance program is strong and is going in a good direction. That day at the Olympics Games didn’t work as well as we were hoping, but we’re having more successes in international competition than we’ve ever had before. I think the health of the program is strong that way.

The developing program that I started and Leslie Law’s been guiding has produced some benefits. There are going to be some adjustments in the next four years, but the pipeline program has been really important because I don’t think it was ever strong enough during my time as a competitor. You have to think 10 years down the road or else you’re late, especially with the amount of time that it takes to get experience in the sport and be competitive. You really can’t think in four-year cycles. It’s building, and I think Leslie’s doing a great job with it. I hope to increase his role in the future.

At the Rolex Kentucky CCI****, we had a lot of younger riders coming up. Being very competitive on that day is going to pay off in the future. Having multiple horses and multiple chances to be able to play is a big, important part of the future of the sport because you need to practice a lot if you’re going to be a true player. That’s just reality. You’re starting to see riders have that technique to conquer those things. As they build programs with multiple horses those results will be consistent, and those who did well this year weren’t so much of a surprise to me.

The U.S. Eventing Association Young Event Horse program has been very successful for the amount of time that they’ve been running. The quality is very high and getting higher. The 4- and 5-year-olds could compete against anybody of similar quality around the world. It’s a good thing for the breeders; it’s a good thing for us as competitors. It’s been a great program, and it got a lot of traction quite quickly.

Four years ago we thought high performance riders should start, from a strategic point, making a conscious effort to produce their own horses instead of just buying them. We haven’t benefitted from that just yet because those horses are just starting to come on to the scene, but hopefully they’ll come along in the next four to eight years.

Bringing World Class Competition To Our Doorstep

Strategically we talked at the beginning of my tenure about the level of shows in different places; there needed to be more opportunities where athletes could take our sport to different places. The $75,000 Asheville Regional Airport Wellington Eventing Showcase (Fla.) really does that; it takes us into a place where eventing is not seen directly, and it’s become very popular.

Stable View (S.C.) is a good new site for the high performance program. Great Meadow (Va.) is a huge benefit, bringing a Nations Cup and the Land Rover Great Meadow International CICO*** to the United States and having a summer facility that can control its footing with irrigation, which is something we haven’t had before besides Rebecca Farm (Mont.), who put a tremendous amount of effort into their event.

The Ocala Jockey Club (Fla.) is a great new site with a lot of enthusiasm. It’s beneficial as we go forward to have these sites to use for the commercialization of the sport.

Having the FEI World Equestrian Games at home is also exciting. Certainly the Tryon International Equestrian Center (N.C.) will do a great job hosting. For horses and athletes it will be a great facility. It’s a high-end facility—quality is important to them, so it then ends up being important to the riders. It’s another facility that will have great benefit for the sport, for the long term.

I went down to Tryon the week before the Nutrena/USEA American Eventing Championships, and I was very impressed with what they’ve done. With the addition of the new ground over on the golf course for the upper levels and for the WEG, I think that will enhance the property even more for eventing.

Having the WEG here is like having the Longines FEI World Cup Final in Omaha this year—it brings the fan base to the United States instead of having to go to Europe. Any time we have that from a spectator point of view, it’s exciting.

From a competitive point of view, there are pluses and minuses. We don’t really have home field advantage because it’s not a facility we use a lot, but having it here in the United States, for athletes to have the hometown crowd, is always beneficial. As in any sport, you always want to play at home. It will have a great impact, just like the 2010 WEG in Kentucky, where the fan base was pretty cool. It’s an opportunity that doesn’t come around very often, and we love when it happens.

Safety And Technology Innovations

This year we lost Philippa Humphreys in a fall at the Jersey Fresh International CCI*** (N.J.). It’s such a tragic thing, the loss of life of a horse or a person. It’s a reflective moment, looking for what can be done differently. That’s happened around the world. I think everybody’s come together, and that makes you stronger.

I was asked to be part of the Fédération Equestre Internationale Eventing Risk Management Steering Group. I think some good things will come out of it. Is there a magic bullet? No. Are there things we can do? Absolutely.

Frangible technology will continue to evolve. There are going to be changes coming along. When you’re dealing with huge multi-national federations, sometimes it’s hard to get balls rolling.

There are things that have already happened here in the United States, like the new rule about ground lines. A national federation can sometimes react quicker than on a global basis, but it’s being looked at.

I’ve been involved in risk management since 1999. One of the things in 1999 was that we had no way to judge information. You could be doing something, and you might be working on the wrong side of the equation. Creating a system took some time, but now we have 14 years of information to look at. Now you’re able to see what has an effect. The Irish company Equiratings is looking at a new way to analyze statistics, using algorithms and not just pure, blank, yes-or-no statistics, and I think that’s going to have an effect on the sport in a good way.

The engineering side of the frangible technology is going to the next level. There are some things on the near horizon that are going to be effective.

Courses are becoming more technical but actually better for the horses. I thought Mark Phillips’ course at the Land Rover Burghley Horse Trials CCI**** (England) was a fantastic way of going forward.

At a combination of three fences, if you got the question correct at the beginning, then you could answer the second and third one. If you didn’t, you could go around. The long way was not jerky or twisty. You couldn’t answer the question if you didn’t get the first two done in a technical way. I thought that was a wonderful way to separate the competition without being rough on the horses or having horses that didn’t understand the questions.

You either were in the place where you could answer it, or you were put into a place where you couldn’t answer it, and you had to make a quick decision to go around. I think that’s a wonderful way forward for course design.

Changes Coming To The Top Of The Sport

The FEI recently announced that the World Games cross-country course will be shortened to 10 minutes with a maximum of 45 efforts and three-star dimensions. It will feel like a four-star in every way except for being a minute and a half shorter. The only other difference is that the width of a spread fence is 6″ less for three- and four-stars. With 45 efforts in 10 minutes, that still puts the Thoroughbred-type blood horse at an advantage because it’s more intense, and rideability becomes very important.

I’m a big Olympic fan in every aspect, but the World Games have always been slightly different. I would have liked to have kept it as the highest difficulty of the sport. I don’t think the importance of it is going to be less. I think there will be some conversation about how do we tie the four-stars together to keep the sport developing.

The Olympics changing format to a three-person team will have ramifications. I don’t think anybody was hoping it would go there, but the FEI felt pressure from the International Olympic Committee to make the sport more global and have more flags. I can understand that logic and desire, but it has a huge impact on the sport.

I don’t think we’re going to know its effect until afterwards. Three-man teams definitely takes it into a place where completion is a bigger factor all the way around. You have the opportunity to substitute someone in, which is a controversial subject, but that will take you out of any type of medal contention. I hope it works for the public, and I hope it works for the sport.

Olympic Recap And Looking Ahead

Looking back to the Olympic Games in Rio de Janeiro, I don’t believe the preparation was wrong as a whole. There are things you can go back and adjust, but I don’t believe we were in the wrong place. We didn’t end up producing the result on that day, and you always have to look back and try to say where did you miss, from every point—the riders, the program, me. I’m not one to ever throw a rider under the bus for something like that. I never will.

It was devastating not to have a third person finish, but we had two in the top 10 coming out of the team medals. But being able to close it is really important. It wasn’t because of trying to be careful and not having it work. We hammered it. We went at it. You can always Monday morning quarterback, but the guys went there to compete. Everybody will learn from it and come back and be better competitors next time.

It was devastating to me, no question, because I believe the program is stronger than what that result showed, and I also believe these riders are better than those results are showing. I think the world knows our riders are forces to be reckoned with. But when you really get down to it, your markers are set, and we didn’t produce on the day.

We’re developing the plan for 2017 now. The review after the Olympic Games took a long time. The high performance plans are coming to fruition, but obviously the big thing is all geared toward the WEG at Tryon. We don’t have a championship in the off year, so trying to stay involved in the Nations Cup series is quite important because it’s the only way we get to have team competitions. That will still be a strong aspect, but it’s all gearing towards the WEG and preparing the horses that we see either in the pipeline or that are here already.

David O’Connor, The Plains, Va., earned the individual gold medal at the 2000 Olympic Games in Sydney, Australia, on Custom Made. He also won team gold medals at the 2002 FEI World Equestrian Games (Spain) and 1999 Pan American Games (Canada), and he’s represented the United States at multiple other international championships, as well as won the 1997 Badminton CCI**** (England).

After coaching the Canadian team to a silver medal at the 2010 World Equestrian Games (Ky.) and serving as U.S. Equestrian Federation President from 2004-2012, O’Connor became the U.S. eventing team coach in 2012 and has since developed a pipeline of programs for younger riders through the high performance level.

This year O’Connor transitioned from coaching to the technical advisor role for the team, but he’ll continue to coach riders as requested and act as chef d’equipe at international competitions.

Editor’s note: David O’Connor is on the organizing committee of the Great Meadow International, and the Tryon International Equestrian Center and Wellington Eventing Showcase are owned and operated by Mark Bellissimo, owner and publisher of the Chronicle.


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