What do unrecognized eventing competitions have in common with skiing? Quite a bit. The two of us like to ski for fun; we don't have to join the U.S. Ski Association--or know and observe all their rules for downhill competition--to do it. The facility where we ski allows us to enjoy the sport and be safe while knowledgeable people watch out for us.
That's what most riders at the 10 unrecognized combined training competitions Penny organizes yearly (in addition to two USEA-recognized events that the two of us run at the Virginia Horse Center) want to do: safely learn about the sport, enjoy it and improve their skills. It's always been our goal to have riders young and old with horses of every variety enjoying a safe, honest outdoor environment. If some choose to continue to the recognized levels, perfect! But if a rider simply wants to have fun with her horse for a few weekend hours, we're happy she spends those hours with us, enjoying eventing in its simplest form.
As an FEI (International Equestrian Federation) and U.S. Eventing Association judge and Technical D, I (Brian) know some USEA administrators would like to bring unrecognized competitions under USEA oversight--but look what we can offer because they are unrecognized:
Safety measures: Good unrecognized events cover all the essential bases for rider safety and horse welfare. At all our shows--recognized, unrecognized, hunter paces and clinics--we use the same highly certified emergency medical technicians (EMTs). Their four-wheel-drive vehicle gets them anywhere on course fast; it carries a cardiac defibrillator plus equipment to deal with spinal injuries and breathing difficulties. If need be, they can stabilize an injured rider until the ambulance arrives.
The U.S. Equestrian Federation (USEF) requires a veterinarian on the grounds during jumping phases of recognized events. At the Virginia Horse Center, the site of our starter horse trials (our only schooling shows to offer cross-country), the veterinary clinic is one driveway away. At our other schooling shows, veterinary response time is less than 10 minutes: quick enough that (with most entries at Novice or below) we don't feel we need a vet on site.
We require that tack meet the standards set in the USEF Rule Book; so must riders' conduct toward horses and each other. We require ASTM/SEI-approved helmets for all jumping phases; we require safety vests for cross-country and recommend them for show jumping. We make medical armbands available at every schooling show and require them for all jumping phases.
Our cross-country jumps are well built: part of a USEA/USEF-recognized event's course. Our show-jumping arenas are enclosed; all but one of our jumping rings and all but one of our dressage rings have sand footing.
Education without elimination: At a recognized event, a mistake such as your horse spooking and jumping out of the dressage arena means elimination, sending you home with a bad taste in your mouth and a hole in your wallet.
But most unrecognized organizers look for ways to avoid elimination and encourage riders to learn, continue and finish the day, no matter how much time they may take--and to feel they've accomplished something positive. For example, we run events where riders can practice on the cross-country course on Saturday before competing Sunday. One show offers "Fix a Dressage Test"; another offers "Fix a Show-Jumping Round." And riders who feel overwhelmed have the option of moving down, or doing dressage only, or even waiting until day's end and getting help from the judge or their instructor.
Affordability: Riding in an unrecognized event costs $75 or less, compared with $130 to $140 for a recognized one. Organizers can charge less because they don't need to collect the fees and dues that make up $25 or $30 of every recognized entry fee, or pass along the hefty cost of registering a recognized event. They can use officials who are knowledgeable about the sport but may not be licensed for eventing--and who are local enough that their travel and lodging costs aren't high. If you're showing on a budget, you can compete more times at unrecognized. You can save on clothing, too: If you don't have high boots you can ride in half-chaps--and no one will say you can't go in the ring without a jacket.
Year-end goals: Some unrecognized organizers offer their own awards. Many local dressage and combined-training associations include results from unrecognized schooling events in their year-end tabulations. So even participants who stay in the unrecognized environment can have something to strive for.
If the sport of eventing is going to grow, we must create ways and places for new riders to find out if they want to commit to it. I feel that Penny and I are doing our job as organizers of recognized events by also offering unrecognized events where riders can try our sport in an atmosphere that provides them a little help, a little education and lots of fun.
Learn more about Brian and Penny Ross, and about their whole program of recognized and unrecognized horse trials, online at www.vahorsetrials.com.
This article was originally printed in the May 2004 issue of Practical Horseman magazine. In the April 2005 issue, Brian Ross answers a reader's question about what to wear when jogging your horse for the ground jury at an event.