Monday, May. 20, 2024

What Is The Future Of Eventing?

The writer questions the role of the long format versus the short format and how to address the issues he believes are brought on by the change.

The recent tragedies at Red Hills (see March 28, p. 57) appear to be a tipping point in the eventing community. It has driven a return to the same questions that eventers have asked over the past four years, “What is the future of eventing going to look like? Was making the switch to the short format the right thing to do?”


The writer questions the role of the long format versus the short format and how to address the issues he believes are brought on by the change.

The recent tragedies at Red Hills (see March 28, p. 57) appear to be a tipping point in the eventing community. It has driven a return to the same questions that eventers have asked over the past four years, “What is the future of eventing going to look like? Was making the switch to the short format the right thing to do?”

This time, however, there is a discontented majority of eventers who will not accept inaction.
Anytime there is a transformation, there will be those who willingly accept and those who resist the change. Following the change to the short format, the lines were drawn, and people began to take sides.

Lately, far more noise is being made in the camp of those who would like to see the long format dominate the sport than from the camp of those wishing to move to the short format. If the majority of the sport wants a long format, who’s to stop the sport from moving that way?

By its nature short format was supposed to be safer. Eliminate the high-speed, high-stress steeplechase and reduce the overall tax on a horse from the roads and tracks phases. That was part of the intent. Then, anecdotal evidence started coming out suggesting that the long format was actually better for recovery.

J.K. Murray, J.M. Senior, and E.R. Singer looked at this question and chronicled it in their article, “A comparison of cross-country recovery rates at CCI2* with and without steeplechase competitions.” What they found at the two-star level is that the recovery rates were roughly the same. While the long format did have a slight advantage to recovery, it remained marginal. They do admit, however, that someone needs to look at the recovery rates at the three- and four-star levels.

Additionally, and more importantly, the anecdotal evidence also suggested that following phases A-C, the horse had a boost of energy for phase D. Unfortunately for the long format supporters, the quantitative evidence is scant. A look at physiology, however, might shed some light on this. For example, one may start with a look at what happens when a horse runs. There are graduations of heart rates. At the bottom is the resting heart rate. As one moves up the graduations, one will encounter the aerobic zone, the lactic or anaerobic threshold, the anaerobic zone, and finally maximum heart rate. Remember, aerobic simply means “with oxygen.”

When a horse runs slow and long (Phase A and C) they are in the aerobic zone, and their bodies are producing lactic acid at a rate at which their muscles can absorb it. Once the horse crosses over the lactic threshold, their bodies produce lactic acid faster than they can absorb it and use it. This is the anaerobic zone.

Phase B and D are in the anaerobic zone. After Phase B, the horse has been producing more lactic acid than it can absorb for 1-2 miles. Phase C allows the body to start reabsorbing that lactic acid. Now, lactic acid has long been demonized as a bad thing. Recent studies, most notably by Dr. George Brooks at the University of California, Berkley, are confirming that it is actually the most efficient fuel for muscles. The muscles during Phase B are inundated with lactic acid, which continues to “top-off” the muscle through Phase C. By the start of Phase D, the muscles have been fueled-up with lactic acid and are ready to run, this time, perhaps, a little faster than before.

Theoretically, then, it makes sense that a horse could indeed run faster and stronger (and thus safer) during cross-country of a long-format than a short-format event. The conclusion then is that the physiological system receives no benefit from a short-format event.

All About Money


If short format is not safer than a long format (as evidenced by the recovery rates and the results of our gedankenexperiment—or thought experiment), then what is the benefit of it? Only two real arguments remain, land and money.

The land argument goes something like this, “Having roads and tracks used up too much land that is now no longer available; long format also required extensive hacks, trot sets, and gallops. This land is no longer available for training and competition due to urban sprawl. Therefore, we should eliminate the roads and tracks and steeplechase.”

There are, of course, several fallacies in this argument. First, many events already had the land required for long format. It is possible that fewer new events would be created with enough land for a long format, in which case one could say, “Horse trials are a great alternative, existing for a reason.”

The second fallacy is in the training part of the argument. Many riders have already discovered that the short format requires just as much conditioning (and perhaps more if you return to our thought experiment, as a higher lactic threshold would be necessary for horses not receiving their “bump” of energy) as the long format. These horses and trainers are not magically being conditioned. They are out there trotting, galloping, and hacking—just as before. The land argument has too many holes to be truly an effective argument to explain the necessity for switching from the long format.

The second argument boils down to money. The cost of long-format events, however, does not factor into this argument at all. This argument goes something like this, “I’m trying to make my living as an eventer, and I want more horses so that I can shoot for the Olympics. Eventing brings in virtually no money so I will look for sponsorships and training agreements. If I am too busy at an event riding roads and tracks, I cannot compete 13 horses and will thus lose money. Let’s push for short format.”

This, unfortunately, does not have holes in it.

As a corollary, perhaps some of the same people who thought the above regarding money also thought, “I want to ride in the Olympic Games so that people bring their horses to me and I can attract big sponsors. The Olympics are now short format. Why waste time on long-format events?”

By riding at the Olympics, a rider can gain name recognition and press coverage. If their goals are driven by money, then they will steer clear of larger, more prestigious events and focus on the Olympics.

True Transformation

So, here we are with no long format. Within the short format, the technical difficulty has begun to rise. There are a couple of reasons for this. The first is capitalism at its best. Second, there needs to be a discriminator to determine rankings.

Having finite resources, most eventers are unable to travel to every event in their area. Each event has to ensure its own vitality. As such, they bring in course designers who can make the course flashy and difficult, in order to attract more
“customers.” Each event does this, and soon novice courses look like preliminary courses from seven years ago.


With the loss of steeplechase and roads and tracks, the playing field was essentially flattened. In an effort to keep some emphasis on cross-country and still have it matter in the new form, it had to become more difficult. Course designers, consequently, have begun pushing to maximum efforts and sizes of fences. What’s worse, they’ve begun asking questions of far greater difficulty, such as tricky combinations.

These combined effects are what we’re now feeling. Sentiments of, “I really just don’t want to do this anymore,” are becoming more commonplace as competitors realize that the risk of injury has increased dramatically with the increasing complexity at each level. Questions are trickling down the levels, and it is not impossible to imagine the scenario mentioned above where modern novice courses have questions that used to be reserved for preliminary. This is and will continue to lead to overfacing horses.

The Veterinary Journal published an article in 2005 entitled, “Risk factors for cross-country horse falls at one-day events and at two-/three-day events.” Their findings include that the angle and spread of combinations, landings into water, and a history of refusals all significantly affect the likelihood of a fall. Additionally, take-offs from water, drop landings, and other factors also have important effects.

If we are asking these questions earlier and earlier at lower levels, we are only inviting disaster.
As Chernyshevsky asked in his seminal work, “Chto delat?” What is to be done? There are several things that we can do. First, reduce the difficulty of course design. This will lead to the issue of how to discriminate re-arising.

I would contend that a short-term fix would be to weight the phases of an event. Reiner Klimke said in Military or, if you prefer, Horse Trials, “Those responsible have a duty to see to it that all sections of a three-day event retain their proper influence on the final result.” He then proceeds to describe the contemporary Fédération Equestre Internationale regulations that the sections would be worth the points arrayed as follows: Dressage-3, Roads and Tracks-1, Steeplechase-5, Cross-country-8, and Show Jumping-2. Perhaps weighting events as follows would be beneficial: Dressage-3, Cross-country-5, and Show Jumping-3.

The idea of lengthening cross-country is also a good step to returning eventing to where it belongs as the ultimate test of equine athleticism. In its history, eventing used to have cross-country courses that at the advanced levels would range from 4.5-7 kilometers. This is not unreasonable to see again—and is a great start toward rebuilding the long format.

A letter writing campaign directed at leadership within the U.S. Eventing Association is a great idea. First, there is an intimidation factor that can occur when someone walks into his or her office and there is a stack of 200 letters covering all the day’s work. They are physically forced to look at them in order to move them. Secondly, it shows that you are truly passionate about this subject. You have taken the time to write a note explaining your position.

For true transformation to occur, the USEA must take a cross-boundaries approach. A movement to improve eventing cannot be successful without the referent power of the Denny Emersons, Jimmy Woffords, Bruce Davidsons, Mike Plumbs, and Bonnie Mossers. Equally, it will not be successful without the current stars, the up-and-comers, the organizers, and perhaps even outsiders. Each of these elements needs to be involved in the discussion of where eventing is heading.

Finally, if all else fails, the USEA should toss off its connections to the FEI or U.S. Equestrian Federation. What a loud message that would send, when as an organization we say, “You are not good for our sport, for us, nor for our horses. America will take the lead in eventing and control the future of our sport.” 

Capt. Andrew S. Glenn

Capt. Andrew S. Glenn is a graduate of the United States Military Academy at West Point. He is currently stationed at Ft. Benning, Ga., and regularly commutes home to Carthage, N.C. He is the co-owner of Glenbaer Farm, LLC with his wife Andrea St. Hilaire-Glenn.




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