How To Save The Preliminary Three-Day Event

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When I rode in the Morven Park Three-Day Event (Va.) in 2004, there were 60 or 70 horses competing at the preliminary level, a typical number for that event and for other preliminary three-day events then. But at that time three-day events were undergoing a profound format shift, caused by a group of influential people at the Federation Equestre International. They wanted to cut out the first three phases of the second day, leaving only the cross-country phase, and the 2004 Athens Olympics were the first international championship to run in what came to be called the short format. Within two years, all FEI-sanctioned three-day events, at all four levels, were mandated to be in the short format. But a handful of U.S. organizers held on, grimly vowing to continue to hold preliminary three-day events and supported by a cadre of riders and trainers and leaders of the sport. But now there are only four of them left (and Morven Park isn?t one of them), it's news if 10 horses start in any of them, and many of us are scratching our heads trying to figure out what we can do to keep the flame of the classic format burning. In 2009 the leaders of the U.S. Eventing Association combined the preliminary three-day events and the new but more numerous and well-supported training three-day events into the SmartPak Equine USEA Classic Series (http://www.useventing.com/competitions.php'section=classic). They hoped this would promote the classic format, and they've put together some really nice prices as an added incentive. The winners of each event receive a SmartPak Wellfleet leather halter and engraved lead shank, a Five Star Tack bridle, a pair of FITS Breeches, an entry into the year-end drawing to win a year's supply of SmartPaks, and an entry into the USEA?s year-end drawing to win a Stackhouse saddle. Also in 2009, a small group of true believers got together to form the Long Format Club, whose mission is to support the USEA Classic Series and individual organizers, primarily by raising money to help with the organizers? additional expenses in running a three-day event. The leaders of both the USEA and the LFC hoped that pairing up the T3DE and the P3DE would encourage riders to ?graduate? from the training level to the preliminary level, but, so far, that hasn?t really happened. Basically, today there are?with a few exceptions?two groups of people riding in these competitions: professional riders, for whom the T3DE can often serve a purpose but for whom the P3DE no longer seems to serve a purpose, and adult amateurs, for whom the T3DE is a comfortable level but the P3DE seems a bridge too far. The largely missing group is teenagers or young riders?for the majority of them either the T3DE is beyond their commitment or the P3DE isn?t part of their higher plan. So last week I talked to Sherry Hevner-Rygh, a director and one of the founders of the Long Format Club, about the situation. ?I can't get a feel for who the average person entering a P3DE is. it's not all professionals, and it's not all adult amateurs. I can't really get a handle on it because the numbers are so small, but it seems to be someone looking for a challenge or for a tradition,? Sherry told me. I asked Sherry if she knew where all the teenagers and young 20-year-olds had gone. She suggested they?d gone the same place as so many of the amateur riders, and that place surprised me a bit. She noted that the USEA?s leaders, in the last decade, had made a goal of making eventing more popular and more accessible, and she suggested that we're seeing an unintended side effect. ?We wanted to make it ?easier? to do the sport, and we did. But this is the downside?you can now do the lower levels without so much effort,? Sherry said. ?To some degree, we may be the victims of our own success. People today want something easy and fun, and the vast majority have no aspirations to ride higher than novice.? So we have teenagers for whom eventing (and riding at all) is just another ?activity,? wedged between soccer, basketball, student government and friends. it's not a passion, a sport they do instead of the others. Or, if they are that committed, the P3DE doesn't fit in for reasons I'm getting to. Still, for some members (probably somewhere between 1,000 and 2,000 of the USEA?s 12,000 members) competing at training level is doable, for them and their horses. The fences aren?t too big (3?3?), the speed isn?t too fast (400 to 450 meters per minute in horse trials, 450 to 470 mpm in T3DEs), and the amount of training and physical conditioning required for horse and rider is moderate. But most of this group views moving up to the preliminary level to be a giant step, a much higher mountain. I've always considered the jump between training level and preliminary as the biggest in eventing. it's certainly where the rubber starts hitting the road, where you separate the wheat from the chaff. Most well-trained and prepared horses and riders can jump around training level, but preliminary requires true scope and speed from the horse, bravery from both, and a considerably higher level of conditioning for both. You have to be serious and committed to ride at preliminary level. You can't sit on your horse for half an hour three days a week and be ready. Sherry did have some suggestions she thought could encourage people to enter their P3DEs. She suggested that they follow the lead of Robert Kellerhouse, organizer of the Galway Downs International Three-Day Event. Robert is a stalwart supporter of the classic format, and He's done two things to encourage people to enter his P3DE in November. The first is that, since 2008, He's also offered at T3DE. That does two things: Since he gets 40 to 45 starters in the T3DE, it makes it worthwhile to him to set up the steeplechase and roads and tracks?and get the volunteers to man those phases?even if he gets only half a dozen entries in the P3DE. And it gives the T3DE riders a chance to see they can do the same thing they're enjoying at a higher level, hopefully giving them encouragement to move up. The second thing is that the Galway Downs P3DE is the only one of the nation?s four that is FEI recognized. it's technically a CCI1* with steeplechase, and that means that riders perform the FEI?s CCI1* dressage test (instead of the USEF?s P3DE test) and that the FEI only counts faults on phase D (ignoring phases A, B and C) and show jumping. The reason for FEI recognition is so that horses that compete in the Galway Downs CCI1* with steeplechase can earn a qualifying score to move up to the two-star level. Kellerhouse believes strongly that not being able to earn an FEI qualifying score at the other three preliminary three-day events negatively affects their entries. Why' Because riders whose goal is to move their horses up the levels will almost always choose the short-format CCI1* over it, because the short-format CCI1* is a qualifying event at all the events where they're run. ?I don't see the support for the P3DE building like we thought it would as a result of the T3DE,? said Sherry. ?I'm just kind of perplexed about what to do, other than putting the two levels together at more events and making the P3DE an FEI event.? For the last year and a half, my goal with my wonderful mare Alba has been to run her in the Galway Downs classic-format CCI1*, and next week I'll talk about that journey and how my commitment to the classic format has influenced my work with her.