A Surrender Before the Battle is Begun?

Eventing coach and former Olympian Jim Wofford on proposed eventing format changes and the speculation that the sport may be dropped from the Olympics lineup. 5/02
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Eventing coach and former Olympian Jim Wofford on proposed eventing format changes and the speculation that the sport may be dropped from the Olympics lineup. 5/02

May, 2002 -- This past fall, after the Sydney Olympics, Western Europe's eventing community went through what U.S. eventers weathered after the Barcelona Olympics. The television coverage at Barcelona was so slanted and inaccurate in its portrayal of the combined training event that there was a great deal of criticism regarding the sport.

?Practical Horseman. All Rights Reserved.

?Practical Horseman. All Rights Reserved.

There were surprisingly few eventing falls at the Sydney Olympics, but those few falls received undue exposure, and created concern and controversy in a few countries. This spring, the FEI (International Equestrian Federation) events committee hosted an open forum on the future of our sport at the Rolex Kentucky Three-Day Event in Lexington. At that seminar, the chairman of the FEI events committee, Wayne Roycroft, was asked if we had received any directives from the International Olympic Committee regarding any changes to the sport that would be imposed by the IOC, or if we had received any notice that equestrian sports in general or eventing in particular were going to be removed from the Olympic calendar.

No, said Roycroft, the FEI had received no correspondence to that effect.

To a horseman who was there attending the equestrian events in Sydney--and the eventing competition in particular--they were a marvelous display with very few falls and accidents. The competition was at an incredibly high standard, and the best teams and individuals won.

However, our sport must have an open mind when concerns are expressed about the humane treatment of our horses, and a realistic attitude towards our public image. If we do not satisfy all legitimate concerns regarding the treatment of our horses, we will deserve the treatment we get from general society. We cannot hide our head in the sand and say that, because we have made some changes, the sport is now perfect. When you look back nearly 100 years, since modern participation in the Olympics began in 1912, you will see that our sport has undergone enormous evolution.

The Ten-Minute Box and Other Improvements

Most competitors cannot remember a time when there was no 10-minute vet exam before starting the cross-country phase-one of the most far-reaching changes the sport has undergone.

At one point there was a Phase E-roughly a 1,000-meter cool-down phase in which you continued at 330 meters per minute for roughly 1,000 meters after you crossed the finish line. That, thankfully, was eliminated.

Recent changes include the removal of minimum weights. At one point the sport was absolutely level for males and females-horses had to carry 165 pounds. That was done away with a few years ago.

Most recently there has been the addition of a 10-minute pause on Phase C to insure that Phase C is doing its proper job, which is to allow the horse to catch his wind after the speed test and to insure that horse and rider start on Phase D in the best possible condition.

The point of all of this is that the sport has evolved over the past 100 years and continues to evolve in a much more humane, systematic and caring manner right to the present day. For this reason, I am dismayed at the reaction of the FEI events committee.

Instead of defending the sport and making the case for the sport, they have basically surrendered before the argument has begun. The FEI Committee has issued a working document that says the future of our sport will "evolve" to that of a horse trials format, rather than a full-scale event as we know it. This was not done in response to any directive from the IOC. This is a self-generated surrender. We are reacting to pressure that is not present.

There is no doubt that the sport is under increased scrutiny by the "humane-iacs" in Western Europe, and indeed around the world. We must be aware of that, sensitive to it, and answer all legitimate concerns raised about the treatment of our horses.
At the same time, statistics show that horse trials are more dangerous than three-day events for both horse and rider. There are probably several different reasons for this.

For example, one aspect is that most riders at a three-day event say that their horses settle in to the cross-country phase better after they have had the warm-up provided by Phases A, B and C, rather than at a horse trials, where there is no formal warm-up.
In addition, many times the cross-country test in a horse trials is the final phase, so a rider might press his horse for more speed than advisable, knowing that there is no vet check or show-jumping test the next day.

The three-day event as presently constituted produces outstanding riders on superlatively trained horses. If we reduce the event to a combination of merely technical phases, we aspire to mediocrity. The speed test is essential because it tests our ability to produce a horse in peak physical condition and requires us to train a horse that is as sound in mind as in body. The fitness and endurance aspect of our sport is what sets it apart. The level of difficulty of our dressage is not as high as the dressage purist would want it to be. The pace required for cross country is nowhere close to the speed required in a steeplechase. Our show jumping course on the last day would not be big enough to even warm up a grand prix show jumper.

It is in the combination of supreme fitness and the technical requirements of the dressage, cross-country and stadium jumping that the event truly becomes the complete test of horse and rider. Our sport competes with all other Olympic sports for worldwide media exposure. For the FEI events committee and staff to tell us there has been whispering about equestrian sport in general and eventing in particular from IOC headquarters should not surprise us, because all the Olympic sports are jealous of each other. The people at the top of each sport understand the stakes involved.

For example, it is common knowledge that many sport-horse breeders in Western Europe are pushing to have the three-day event demoted to a horse trials. The reason is that warmbloods could be more successful in the Olympics if speed and heart were not such a big factor. Olympic event horses command staggering sums these days, and presently those sums are for the most part being spent on Thoroughbreds. Don't think for a minute that this has not occurred to warmblood breeders around the world.

Look to the Past to Find the Way Forward

So, obviously, we are in a muddle. What should we do to find our way forward? The experience of our sport in this country from 1992 to 1994 should serve as the model for the FEI events committee efforts.

After the inaccurate portrayal of the Olympic three-day event by NBC in 1992, the Humane Society of the United States, People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals and other fringe animal rights activists used eventing as a fundraising tool by stirring up controversy. Our sport responded by making the tests safer, more logical, more systematic and more medically defensible than ever.

The success of those efforts can be measured not only in our reduced injury and fatality rates over the past several years but additionally in the disappearance of the animal rights groups from our scene. Most of those people are not interested in the welfare of animals but rather in fundraising; if they cannot create controversy they will move to another sport. It is hard to have controversy with out cause.

Now more than ever, we need the FEI committee to stand up for us around the world. They should be our spokesman and advocate. They should be the guardians of excellence, not the facilitators of mediocrity. We have a sport that has reached a high level of development and consistently produces horses and riders in an incomparable state of training. Rather than doing away with our sport, we should be proud of it, defend it and continue to improve it.

Since retiring, Olympic medalist Jimmy Wofford has turned his hand to training, writing and commentating. The former president of the American Horse Shows Association has served as an officer and developing rider coach of the U.S. Equestrian Team. This Virginia resident is the author of a definitive book on eventing. His eventing column will appear monthly.