There is a great deal of hand-wringing going on behind the scenes in our eventing organizations and committees about "Where Is Eventing Going?" Silverbacks who are mentally stuck in another century are asking, "Can this sport be saved?" In my opinion, however, we are well past this stage. We need to take a deep breath, figure out the ramifications of the changes we've already made and evaluate where we are now. Once we do this, we can get an idea of where to go next.
Yogi Berra once said, "When you come to a fork in the road … take it." It seems to me that we took this particular fork without knowing it was there, and we now have to deal with the results of having created a two-track sport. I have written extensively about the Classic event. Always a big fan of this format, I am possibly an even bigger fan now that eventing's dichotomy is more apparent. But I want to devote this column to the professionalization of the FEI (International Equestrian Federation) levels and what that means for us going forward.
Most of us have noticed the two-track system that is developing in the sport of eventing. The FEI levels of the sport—three- and four-star events—are moving farther and farther away from the vast majority of riders, while at the same time the grass roots of the sport are aiming their competitive efforts at the Preliminary (one-star) levels and below.
First track, half-star and one-star Classics: Our general US Eventing Association membership is showing an increasing interest in the series of Training and Preliminary Classic events (long format with steeplechase) that are now available across the country. The numbers—both of Classic events available and of entries—are showing a healthy interest in this format.
Second track, "professional" eventing: The entry numbers for eventing's FEI levels are healthy as well, but those upper levels are now almost exclusively the territory of professional riders or of riders seeking to become professionals.
Goodbye to the "One-Horse Rider" Model
Of course there are exceptions to this professional trend, even at the four-star level. Horses do not read books or columns, and the occasional amateur-owner still catches lightning in a bottle when her horse somehow intuits how the game is played and away she goes to the top. It is wonderful when this happens, and it always catches the public imagination. Probably the best example of catching lightning in a bottle is that of Mary Anne Tauskey and her horse Marcus Aurelius. In 1974, Mary Anne was a waitress at the hotel where the US Equestrian Team squad lodged before the World Championships at Burghley, England. At the time she was just a kid who did not have two nickels to rub together. But she had a nice Intermediate horse and a dream, and two years later she won a gold medal, riding for the US Olympic team in Montreal.
However, one rider on one horse is not the paradigm these days, a big change from the one-horse rider model we used for the sport in the last century.
The New Eventing Professional
The first thing you should notice about modern professional riders is how well they ride compared to riders of my era. There is no doubt that the FEI's increasing emphasis on the technical phases of dressage and show jumping has produced riders who compete at an admirable standard. (Their cross-country and horsemanship skills are slightly less than in years past, but they should not be criticized for adhering to the skill-set requirements of their competitive levels.) One can certainly make the argument that this increased technical proficiency results, in great part, from the increased professionalization of the sport.
The next thing we notice about this new career track is the duration and intensity of these new professionals' training. It now takes an incredible length of time to make it to the top with skills in all three disciplines honed to razor sharpness.
Jack LeGoff, the legendary Hall of Fame trainer of USET teams, used to say that it took four years to take a rider from Preliminary to CCI***. Nowadays, you can forget that. It typically takes a rider about six years to get from Preliminary to Advanced. Naturally, she will be climbing the rungs of the relentless FEI qualification ladder all this time and will have had extensive FEI experience at the one- and two-star levels. However, four-star competition is usually a shock to these young riders. (Young! By the time they get to this level most of them are 25 or 26 years old!)
Four-star competitions are the pinnacle of the modern professional career path, thus the vast majority of riders at this level are well beyond "capable" and are moving on toward "excellent." It can be demoralizing to a young rider to finally arrive at the four-star level after six to 10 years of training, only to find that she is once again the "worst" rider there; most of the professional riders at the four-star level exceeded "very good" years ago.