Friday, May. 31, 2024

Will The Classic-Format Three-Day Continue?

The Fédération Equestre Internationale has abandoned roads and tracks and steeplechase, but five dedicated U.S. organizers are doing their best to save the preliminary three-day event.

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The Fédération Equestre Internationale has abandoned roads and tracks and steeplechase, but five dedicated U.S. organizers are doing their best to save the preliminary three-day event.

Eventing came to a crossroads in 2004 when Fédération Equestre Internationale officials decided to eliminate the roads and tracks and steeplechase phases of endurance day at a three-day event.

Although this change caused a furious debate among eventers at the time, the 2004 Athens Olympic Games debuted the new format, and within a few years only a handful of FEI long, or classic, format three-days remained, all at the one-star level and all in the United States.

This year FEI officials tried to put the final nail in the coffin of the long-format three-day event. They took all mention of roads and tracks and steeplechase out of the rules for 2009, which meant that the FEI would only recognize short-format events.

Penny Ross, who organizes the Virginia Three-Day in Lexington, Va., spoke up at the 2008 U.S. Eventing Association Annual Meeting to protest the FEI’s actions.

“I said that if we didn’t do something about it, the long format as we all know and love it would be gone forever. Even if we were to skip a year or two, it would be gone, and nobody would pick it up again,” she said.

Ross is one of five organizers in the United States who still run long-format CCI*s. The others include:
   
    •    Robert Kellerhouse—Galway Downs Three-Day
        Event, Calif.
   
    •    Mary Fike—Hagyard MidSouth Three-Day Event, Ky.

    •    Rebecca Broussard and Sarah Kelly—The Event At
        Rebecca Farm, Mont.

    •    Margaret Good—Morven Park, Va.

These organizers formed a pact to do what they could, in conjunction with the USEA leadership and the organizers of the popular training three-days, to keep the long format alive and create a Classic Three-Day Event series.

“That relationship that a horse and rider have together, and the amount of time and the different things that you must do to get ready for the long format, just can’t be replaced by anything,” said Ross. “The hours and hours in the saddle. The hours and hours that the horse and rider spend together to form that unique bond that’s so different in our sport from any others. I’m not ready to let it go.”

Will They Come?

One of the first tasks in transitioning the one-star from an international to a national competition will be changing the mentality. In the past, the CCI* was the first rung on a ladder that led to a four-star event. In the one-star’s heyday, classes could have 75 to 100 entries, including many professionals on their way up with a young horse.

“It’s going to have to be a mindset, and a whole different group of riders than we’ve seen previously. It’s going to have to be the amateur recreational riders who want to do it because it’s a sport in and of itself. It’s going to be young riders and young horses who want to have that unique opportunity,” said Ross.

The FEI granted U.S. organizers a grace period for 2009, so they could run long-format events as CCI competitions, but only cross-country penalties would count for FEI results, not the penalties from roads and tracks or steeplechase.

In 2010, any three-day with steeplechase will no longer be an FEI event. And if it isn’t an FEI event, then a preliminary three-day finish won’t count as a qualifier for a CCI** or the North American Junior And Young Rider Championships. Riders will be able to use their three-day results to qualify to move up to intermediate, though.

“The professionals will undoubtedly enter a short-format competition, whereas the adult amateurs and the up-and-coming riders, the juniors and young riders, will, I hope, go for that experience at the long-format level,” said Kellerhouse.

As training three-days have grown in popularity—there are 11 scheduled to run in 2009—they’ve also begun to provide an alternate path to the preliminary three-day. The training three-days ran as test events over the past few years, and a big part of the competition was the clinic-like atmosphere. Riders were encouraged to ask questions, and professional riders and officials taught mini lessons about steeplechase riding or how to prepare for the 10-minute box.

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“My hope is that if this classic format mentality holds on, the way to come up would be to do a training three-day with all of its educational components first,” said Fike. “Then the training three-day will give those riders a place to figure out the mechanics of how you do it without being beyond their realm of riding ability and their horse’s scope at that time.

“Then, if it’s in the cards for them to come to the preliminary three-day, they’ll have the mechanics down,” Fike continued. “The step after the training three-day is to refine their skills to meet the level, but they won’t be threatened by all the rest of the stuff they have to do.”

Stepping Off The Ladder

Kellerhouse also hopes to usher in a different mindset about the path of advancement in eventing with the new preliminary three-day.

“So often our sport is so linear—it’s up and down one particular track,” he said. “If you don’t fit in this groove, then you have to stay down a level. The preliminary three-day is another branch of eventing, something special to do at the different levels of the sport.”

Kellerhouse envisions a multi-faceted approach to eventing—each level from beginner novice to advanced would feature some destination events. He’s put this idea into practice by helping to organize the Woodside Preliminary Challenge in California, a horse trial with $30,000 in money and prizes at the preliminary level.

“People should have really special things to do in their comfort zone, whether it’s the Preliminary Challenge, the training three-day, the American Eventing Championships or The Chronicle of the Horse/USEA Adult Team Challenge. All these things are special things for people to do in their own wheelhouse,” he said.

It’s Kellerhouse’s hope that offering events like preliminary three-days will encourage riders to stay at a level for a bit longer before moving up.

“The people trying to compete at the two-star level or the three-star level are like NFL quarterbacks,” he said. “The horses and riders have to be great to compete at that level. You’ve got to get a lot of experience before you can be great at those levels. I felt there was a major hole where people were moving up way too quickly because the sport’s rules were written for a great rider on a young horse as opposed to an up-and-coming rider on a great horse.”

Kellerhouse said that if a rider takes six more months or even goes to four more shows because there’s something else to do at the level, then that extra preparation may be the difference in creating a successful move up.

James Wofford, a three-time Olympian and coach of generations of Olympic eventers, said he’s advocated a two-track system since 1999, one for aspiring international riders and one for everybody else.

“The classic is a track that is uniquely suited to one-horse owners, to amateur riders who have a profession. It’s beneficial to juniors because of the horsemanship skills. The FEI and the [U.S. Equestrian Federation] keep
raising the skill set that’s required for both horse and rider,” he said. “You must realistically expect to be in your 30s now to be successful at the four-star level. That’s not a commitment; that’s a mania. It requires a monomania to undergo the endless, ceaseless, searching for training that these people are willing to submit themselves to.

“Most of us don’t have that,” he continued. “But we have a desire to improve. We’re genetically designed to feel a communion with nature, a connection with the natural world. Horses do that. In the setting of a classic they do that very well.”

Making Horsemanship Sexy

Whether it’s a connection to nature, an issue of horsemanship, or just the love of the steeplechase, all of these elements add up to explain why organ-izers are willing to risk a financial loss to continue holding long-format preliminary three-days.

“I think people should come to the classic because it’s unique, it’s difficult, it teaches good lessons, and it provides a psychic payoff that’s greater than the completion of a short format,” said Wofford. “The classic requires the rider to study all aspects of horsemanship. Not just the technical aspects, but also the conditioning aspects—the musculature, the time that’s involved, the knowledge of the horse that the rider develops. The classic is a competition that’s inherently, intrinsically about horsemanship. For that reason, if no other, then it has value as a sport.”

“We need to make horsemanship and education sexy again,” agreed Fike. “We got so spotlight oriented that it was about the achievement alone, the pinnacle of success. There wasn’t much nod given to getting there. I hope this will get us back to the idea that the process is also part of the achievement.”

Not only is the process of preparing for a long-format three-day important, but it’s also something that doesn’t get easier over time.

“The challenge of the classic isn’t surmounted if you do one. The only reason you were able to complete a classic successfully is because of the pick and shovel work that went into the preparation,” said Wofford. “After sufficient time off you must do that work again. You can’t go to the next one expecting to do as well or better if you haven’t done the work. You must do the work, and the completion is the payoff.”

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And organizers have had evidence that the riders really do want the long-format preliminary three-day to continue.

Kellerhouse has offered a long format and a short format CCI* since 2004. For years, the entries in the long-format one-star continued to drop, but then in 2008, the numbers increased.

“It was the only FEI class I offered last year that actually went up in entries. To me, numbers of people have stabilized. We’ve reached a bottom, and we’ve now started to foster the people who want to compete in the long format versus the people who don’t,” said Kellerhouse.

Kellerhouse was the only one to show an improvement in numbers, however.

The Virginia CCI offered a long- and short-format competition this year under the new rules, and only five riders chose to run the long format versus 28 who contested the short format.

Rebecca Farm ran the first preliminary three-day—a classic format event not recognized by the FEI—in July, and only three riders entered, whereas 21 participated in the CCI*.

When Good heard that the FEI would no longer sanction long-format three-days, she opted not to run one this year at Morven Park and to run a horse trial instead. She made the decision in May when a national three-day was still in the developing stages.

“I’m all behind the classic. We’re losing horse people, true horsemen all of the time because of the short format,” said Good. “But financially we can’t do it.”

Although these numbers are depressing, the organizers certainly aren’t ready to throw in the towel.

“The first year we ran intermediate we had 10 entries. Things have to have a beginning,” said Broussard.

Fortunately for the five organizers of preliminary three-days, they already have the infrastructure in place and the experience of running a long-format three-day working to their advantage. Even Good hopes to run a preliminary three-day in 2010.

“I think it will take a couple of years, but I’m hoping we can hang in there long enough for those riders who say they would love to do it,” said Fike. “We’re not looking at this as a standalone competition that we have to make work. Once again, the novice, training and preliminary riders are helping to support the upper levels.”

But that doesn’t mean the long format will be around forever if riders don’t enter.

“All five of us have gotten hundreds of e-mails from riders saying, ‘Please keep it—it’s been my goal for my entire life.’ Now they have to step up to the plate. The riders who said they want it, we’ve given it to them, and now they have to come through for us and do it,” said Ross.

“I want to see it alive and strong again where we get 50 entries. Hearing the thunder of the hooves and the breathing of the horses and the riders low over the horses’ necks, just taking it all in. What is more beautiful than that?” she continued. “Then seeing them come across the finish line with their fist pumping in the air and a big grin, and the horse’s ears perked, there’s nothing more beautiful.

“Come on riders, let’s do it,” she added. “It’s going to take the entire eventing community to make this work. If they don’t want it, it’s going to die a quick death. But if they want, the five of us are going to do everything we can to give it to them.” 


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