The Rolex Kentucky CCI**** gave us a chance to take a first look at what the future of our sport is going to look like, at least for awhile, since event director Janie Atkinson ran both the regular four-star CCI and the new CCI without steeplechase on the same weekend. And we`ve now completed the spring season–with two one-star CCIs, two two-star CCIs, and one three-star CCI in Virginia, Colorado, New Jersey and Georgia.
The Federation Equestre Internationale`s leaders have been struggling with the sport`s direction for the last few years, thanks to the International Olympic Committee`s adamant insistence that we had to make changes to stay in the Olympic games. I really feel that this was a tall order.
The answer that was agreed upon was that the Olympic Games would be run without a steeplechase phase, at least in 2004 and 2008. In addition, the conditions of the site at Athens dictate that the cross-country course would have to be unusually short. The Athens course will be around 10 minutes, compared with a 13-minute course in Sydney (that`s a difference of just a few meters under a mile).
Because we know it`s going to be really hot in Athens, we may be glad the course is a lot shorter. But it also prompts another issue: How many efforts should we have on the course, at Athens or elsewhere?
A normal four-star three-day has 45 jumping efforts over a course that is supposed to be 12- to 13-minutes long. Should a course that`s two to three minutes shorter still have 45 efforts? That`s the key question.
Keeping those 45 efforts will make the course ride faster because riders have shorter distances between fences to make up for their adjustments before the fences, so making up the time becomes the name of the game. It means we end up riding faster than we normally do. This provokes a multitude of questions, from safety to proper warm-up.
I think we learned some extremely valuable lessons from our experience at Kentucky-he only four-star event that will run the new format before the Olympics. We had the opportunity to run over the same terrain and basically the same track as the regular CCI had run that very morning.
The first lesson, from my point of view, is that the riders as a whole underestimated the fitness required to do the new format. I think that riders felt that since there was no steeplechase, less fitness work was needed. They were proved wrong. The realistic lesson is that the horses need to be as fit for a three-day without steeplechase as they are for one with steeplechase. The horses might even need more wind work than they need for a longer track.
The riders also tended to ride far too fast at the beginning of the course, because for the past year everyone has been worried about how to make the time. This winded the horses and didn`t allow them to finish strongly.
Course designers have figured out that there should be a ratio between the number of jumping efforts and the distance. For example, a full 12-minute course could and should use a full 45 efforts. If the designer uses a 10-minute course, then maybe only 40 efforts should be used. If we use a ratio of four fences per minute, no matter what the level, it would keep the tests as similar as possible all around the world, at all levels.
Warming up for the modified four-star was also another uncertainty. The warm-up at Kentucky was heavily regulated, with a phase A and limited entry into the schooling area before cross-country. And there has been talk of making it more organized in the future. There`s even talk of a formal speed phase before the start of the cross-country, but I feel this is overreacting.
All athletes, in any sport, learn to warm up properly for the test involved. Track athletes have a rather set routine that they follow, as do swimmers and gymnasts, or even football and baseball players. Let`s not over-analyze the situation. Let`s let riders do their own warm-up, which probably involves jumping some warm-up fences, both solid and adjustable, and a place to trot for a length of time and a place to gallop for a short distance–all adjusted to the horses they`re riding.
Besides, a formal warm-up negates the idea of a three-day event without steeplechase. I know the riders will adjust and make proper decisions for their horses.
All new ideas need a time for adjustment and a time for learning. That`s the time we`re in right now. No one knows for sure what the future will bring, but I do know that the future lies in the fact that we`ll have to compete in this format at many events for the foreseeable future.
The FEI has made a good decision in allowing organizers to decide if they want to run their three-day events with or without steeplechase. For example, I know that Brian Ross, the organizer of the Virginia CCI* (p. 7), where I design the course, definitely plans to keep the steeplechase as part of the competition. But other U.S. organizers may opt for the other track.
There is flexibility because, under the FEI`s rules, a horse doesn`t have to completea CCI with steeplechase to move up to the next level. But this could lead to a situationin which a horse (or rider) encounters the steeplechase for the first time at his first four-star, and he may have a hard time coping with this new challenge. This may be a serious cause for concern.
For now, though, we`re heading down a new road. And we`re going to have to deal with whatever obstacles or curves are in the way because the FEI`s leaders aren`t going to suddenly or quickly change their minds and go back to having just CCIs with steeplechase. We`ll just have to learn and promote these new ideas and adjust to the new way of preparing for this similar but different way of competing our horses.