Publicly, at least, the eventing community's opinion is split about the change to a CIC format (no Roads and Tracks, no Steeplechase) for the 2004 Olympic Games. When the FEI (International Equestrian Federation) suggested the change to the IOC (International Olympic Commission) as an alternative to a proposal to eliminate eventing from the Games, U.S. individual gold/team silver medalist David O'Connor and Canadian veteran Stuart Black supported the idea in these pages; but British Eventing board member and World Equestrian Games 2002 course designer Mike Tucker described it as a step backward, reintroducing speed risks that eventing had just spent two years working to reduce. Now that the format has been adopted for Athens, we asked Jim Wofford-a four-time Olympic event competitor, Team and Individual silver medalist, coach to many current and rising stars, and technical advisor to the Canadian eventing squad-for his assessment.
This decision changes the nature of the sport. Endurance is no longer going to be at a premium; that means that horsemanship and all-around knowledge of horses are no longer going to be at a premium. Preparing a horse to gallop around a course of thirty-five jumping efforts spread over 3 1/2 miles is no great feat of horsemanship. However, preparing him to do that same course immediately following the first three phases of a full-scale three-day event is a horse of a different color. And that is why so many riders and trainers are so firmly committed to three-day eventing, in the format that we classically know it, as the ultimate test of horse and rider.
I walk a lot of courses, with a lot of people. When we start the course-walk of a three-day event, I always point out that the Speed and Endurance competition begins when you start Phase A. It does not begin when you start Phase D. If you get to Phase D and you have ridden your horse stupidly in the previous phases, you are not going to be as competitive as someone who has ridden very intelligently in those three phases.
What's the difference? Awareness. Awareness of the interaction between weather, footing, terrain and your horse in those phases. And awareness of what his limits are: of how much energy he has left in his tank and whether it's enough to complete the endurance section of the course successfully, with no jumping faults and few time faults. Developing that awareness is largely a function of experience.
As you dumb down the sport, you dumb down the horsemanship it develops. If you make the requirements average, you get average riders and trainers. You don't get Mark Todd and Mark Phillips.
You also get average horses: average in terms of endurance and in terms of those intangible qualities of heart and desire and drive. In eventing, as in racing, we've seen any number of horses that just refuse to get beat: horses that won't lose, that just won't let it happen. They rise above the level of competition and impose their wills on the outcome. Those are the horses I'm afraid we're going to lose with this format change.
When you remove the endurance aspect from the Olympics, you open up the potential for successful completion to a different kind of horse. There are horses around the world that have been bred for movement and power but have been less than successful in the classical eventing format. These horses are non-Thoroughbreds; they lack the ability to gallop at speed for long distances.
As for safety--going to a CIC, getting rid of Roads and Tracks and Steeplechase, which are warm-up and recuperation phases, is not going to improve the safety of eventing at all. If anything, it's going to increase the pace over the cross-country course, because all of the horses will be fresh. That means the course designers are going to have to build more difficult combinations in an attempt to slow riders down. But all that will happen is that the riders will go more slowly over increasingly difficult combinations, then race away in an attempt to catch up to the clock--many of them, very likely, on horses bred not for speed but for power, movement, and submission. In my view, this is a prescription for dangerous riding-and dangerous riding produces falls and fatalities.
How We Got Here
I think the reasons the FEI went for the change to a CIC format in the Olympics are twofold: One is a reaction to criticism from animal-rights groups in Europe. The other is subtle but very strong pressure from the sporthorse breeders in western Europe. I think the FEI folded and accepted the change so quickly because for ten years they've been getting pressure from the western European nations, led by the Germans and supported by the Dutch and Belgians. And the big reason is money: There's an enormous amount of money involved in the prices these sporthorses are going for.