Our columnist thinks eventers need to hold true to the essence of their sport—even if it means a future without the Olympic Games.
I grew up in Mequon, Wisconsin, not exactly the equestrian capital of North America. I never watched eventing at the Olympic Games until I was in my 20s. Heck, I didn’t even know the FEI North American Young Rider Championships were happening in Wadsworth, Illinois, less than two hours from my front door.
All I knew was that I wanted to do something involving horses for a career. For a while that passion seemed to be pointing me toward being a farrier. I even had a summer job during high school working for Red Renchin, one of the best in business.
At some point in my early teens I discovered eventing. I had grown up riding hunters at Beezie Maddden’s parents’ stable, which happened to be about 10 minutes down the road. (OK, maybe my hometown wasn’t the equestrian abyss I thought it was.) I wanted to do a sport that was something more. I loved the horse shows, but they lacked excitement for me. The horsemanship was there but somehow not the adrenaline I was looking for as young boy. I heard about a stable across town that did a sport called eventing. It sounded exactly like something I would be interested in. I signed up for lessons and began what would become the greatest adventure of my life.
The trainer there was an amazing horsewoman named Anne Jennings. She was tough and held strong to her beliefs. In her no-nonsense way she began to teach me all about this great sport of eventing. A few months later I went to my first novice event, and I was hooked. I loved everything about it: the true test of horsemanship, the need to be a well-rounded rider, and of course the thrill of cross-country.
A Crossroads At Kentucky
Fast forward about 10 years, and I was at my first Rolex Kentucky CCI. I was entered in the three-star division. This is back in the good old days when “things were right,” and we had roads and tracks and steeplechase. It was without a doubt one of the most influential competitions of my life. I was bad. Not horrible, in fact I was 11th after dressage, but on cross-country day I was not super by any stretch of the imagination. However, the things I learned that day confirmed to me that I was on the path to my future.
I distinctly remember trotting around roads and tracks and galloping steeplechase. The time alone with my horse on phases A, B and C at a major event were some of the most memorable moments of the weekend. My feelings and thoughts were a strange mixture of serenity and complete focus. I remember sitting in the 10-minute box watching my team look after my horse, a finely tuned machine making sure that everything was just right for us to start Phase D. I remember the veterinarian telling me I was good to start cross-country. That feeling of excitement, tinged with fear, is something I will never forget.
We shot out the of the start box and embarked upon the most influential round of my life. Somewhere around the seven-minute mark I remember thinking to myself that this was really hard. Not in a, “Gosh this is physically exhausting” way, but in a, “Do I really want this?” kind of way. “Is this really the life I want to lead?” It sounds crazy, but I honestly knew at that moment jumping around the biggest track of my life up to that point, that this was a crossroads. Do I pull up and walk home defeated? It’s not like I was smoking around up to that point anyway. I could have gone back to school and made an entirely different life for myself. Or do I choose to press on when things are tough and prove to myself that I could get this horse home? I debated this for what felt like 10 minutes but in reality probably took three seconds.
I decided then and there on the Kentucky bluegrass that yes, I did want this. I wanted to be a true horseman. I wanted to be something more than just a rider; I wanted be an eventer. To be fair to the context of this article, as that kid growing up in Wisconsin, I never dreamt of the Olympics. I dreamt of being able to have a career in horses. Even after that first experience at Rolex, my dream was to run a business out of my parents’ boarding stable in Wisconsin so that I could finance one advanced horse.
Since then things have changed for the sport. The days of long format three-day events are gone and will never be back. In fact, I was one of the people who said that was a good thing. I still think that it is far easier on horses in today’s format than it was in the full phase three-day. I honestly and truly believe that more horses are able to stay sound longer now than in the past. That, however, is not the point of this article, so I will save that topic for another day.
Not Worth It
Those who warned of the slippery slope that was being created by the move to what we then called “the modified format” might have been right. We were all told that the change was being made so that the sport could stay in the Olympics. That this was what we needed to do to remain a marketable sport. That the space needed to run our sport was killing us and that we needed to adapt to modern times, or be left behind. Perhaps that was all true. Perhaps if we had not made the change I would currently be sitting in my camper at some jumper competition instead of the beautiful facilities at The Fork in North Carolina, where I’m writing this.
But when is enough enough? At some point we have to decide, as a sport, if it really matters so much to be in the Olympics that we are willing to completely change the heart of eventing. I fear that we are getting dangerously close to that time. We have been given a new list of things that we need to change about ourselves to be able to stay in the Olympics (see p. 164). What’s worse is that many of those things are not even specific. We are for the most part just being told that we need to change and be more marketable and easier to package into the Olympics.
It’s like being in a bad relationship with someone who keeps trying to change who you are. Eventually you realize that they actually don’t like you, and that’s why they keep trying to change you. The funny thing is, once you move on from that person, only then do you realize how miserable they made you. It’s time that we start looking after ourselves. I truly believe that change is a good thing. I believe that many of the changes we have made over the past few years are probably a step forward.
But now it’s time we take a step back and think about where to go from here. As the kid from Wisconsin who grew up with the dream of a career in horses, I wonder if the Olympics are the wrong direction.
You see, that kid from Wisconsin wanted a career, not just a chance at fame and glory once every four years at a competition that doesn’t even truly pit the best in the world against each other. Blasphemy, you say? Well sorry gang, but the Olympics are not a competition of the best riders in the world. They are a competition of some of the best riders in the world, versus a bunch of people who were fortunate enough to be born in a country that needs people to compete in our discipline.
Now we are being told we must decrease the number of participants in eventing to 60 but the Olympic Committee also wants more flags to be represented. The answer? Three-man teams for each country. Now what we are talking about is changing our sport so that once every four years three people per country can go ride in the Olympics. I’m not sure that is worth it.
If we’re going to make changes to our sport let’s do it for the right reasons. Let’s do it because we want to make things better for our horses. Let’s do it so that we can make things safer for riders and horses. Let’s do it so that we all can come together as a sport from the bottom to the top and unite as the strong group of passionate horsemen and women that I know we are.
Foster A Healthy Relationship
Let’s be honest about one more thing. If this sport is going to survive going forward, and we are as a country going to be the best in the world, the professionals have to be able to make a living. I can already hear the moans of anguish from the weekend warriors out there. Here’s my take on it. You guys need the professionals as much as we need you. I know I’m opening myself up to all kinds of Internet chastising, but I think it’s true.
Most of you have regular coaches or go to clinics from time to time for instruction. If you don’t, then shame on you for not getting regular help to make you the best rider you can be for your horse. If you’re involved in the sport at any real level you are probably a fan of some big-time rider. If you’re not, then you should take a closer look. There are some amazing riders out there with some very cool stories and personalities.
At the very least I hope most of you are fans of some of the big time upper-level horses out there right now. They are the real stars of the show. The way those animals attack fence after fence at competition after competition is breathtaking. Let’s make changes to our sport that help these top athletes, both equine and human, be able to make a living doing what they love. Reaching for this goal does not have to destroy the sport that the amateurs, who make up 90 percent of our membership, love so much. I think making it a better sport for the professionals and the top horses will only benefit the amateurs.
Don’t get me wrong. I do dream of representing my country at the Olympics. It’s just that when I do get that opportunity I want it to be in the sport of eventing, not some bastardized derby version of it. I want it, at the very least, to be an improved version of the sport I fell in love with as teenager.
I’ve been fortunate enough to win a few events in my career. I still have some very big goals ahead of me, and I can honestly say that there is no feeling like watching the stars and stripes being raised to the playing of “The Star-Spangled Banner” because you won. I do dream that one day I will get that chance at the Olympics. I work as hard as I can every day trying to make that happen. It is the journey toward that goal that I love the most. The thing is, I’m not willing to destroy our beloved sport of eventing to make that happen.
I would rather have the sport of eventing hold strong to its core beliefs and say to the Olympics that yes, we want to be a part of it, however this is who we are. There are certain things we cannot change about ourselves. Just like that analogy of the relationship, the Olympic Games also need to accept who we are. You know what? I think we are pretty great, and I think the Olympics are far better off with us than without. But in the end that’s not really our choice, is it? It’s theirs, and if they make the bad decision to kick us out then we need to be ready to move on.
We could easily come up with another international team competition every four years to replace the Olympics. Why not a second World Championship? Having that every two years would surely be a great solution. We have limitless possibilities of what we can move on to. I hope that our future is with the Olympics. I truly do. But if not, then let’s progress to a better relationship where we are appreciated and accepted for who we are.
Jonathan Holling has been a mainstay at the top level of eventing for close to 20 years, competing in North America and Europe. He won the 2012 Bromont CCI*** (Quebec) and was a member of that year’s Nations Cup team at Boekelo (the Netherlands). Jon has successfully ridden around numerous four-star events. In addition, he formerly coached the Area IV young rider team, which has won numerous medals, including two golds. He serves on the U.S. Equestrian Federation Competition Management Committee, Eventing Committee and High Performance Eligible Athletes Committee. He started contributing as a Between Rounds columnist in 2015.