Where Eventing Went and How to Get It Back: Some Guy’s Take

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Katie’s article “Where Have All The Good Times Gone” has generated a great deal of discussion here on Eventing Nation and elsewhere.  In our very first post ever, I explained that I wanted Eventing Nation to be a forum for eventing’s great thinkers and ideas, and I want to thank Katie and everyone who has participated in this ongoing discussion for helping EN to be just that.
Eventers everywhere seem frustrated and concerned, even angry.  This frustration doesn’t have one origin or cause, but it has built up gradually over time as people have watched novice riders wheeling their courses, as we have seen professionals running their top horses at as many four-stars as possible until they break down (and then at two more), and as some imported super-mover is ridden in near hyperflexion and extended trot around a training test and scores a 15.  
As I read Katie’s article, and the comments here and on the COTH thread (which the great Denny started), I noticed that a lot of the frustration comes from situations where eventing has been turned against itself through forces well beyond the control of us eventers. Consider some of the conflicts and resulting choices that have made eventing what it is today:
(1) One such conflict arises from the sacrifice of the upper-level long format to appease the Olympics.  As Katie noted, there are multiple opinions and explanations as for how the long format CCI’s faded, and some reasons are certainly better than others, but according to several people very high on the food chain, the ultimate reality was either lose the long format or lose the Olympics.  
(2) Once the long format departed, our sport was once again faced with a conflict.  Without the extreme endurance component to XC, we had to choose between losing XC as a competitive factor, essentially making eventing a combined test, or dramatically cranking up the technicality of the cross-country.
(3) Then, since the upper level courses became more technical, we were faced with yet another tough choice between ratcheting up the technicality of the lower level courses or allowing a massive disconnect to form between the levels.
As a result of these conflicts, eventing stayed in the Olympics, made four-stars more technical, and then started putting corners on novice courses.  I’m not sure that I disagree with any of those choices made at each of the above conflicts, but I’m uneasy when I look at where we ended up.
Another such line of conflicts is leading to a similarly unsettling result:
(1) It starts with the notion that we want to grow eventing and spread our beloved sport, and we’d like to see better mainstream media coverage and recognition.  I’m the kind of person who would like to see a great XC ride in the SportsCenter Top 10 someday.  The professional riders want better prize money at competitions, and better sponsorships, and, considering that Kobe makes more in about 3 preseason games than the Rolex Grand Slam pays, who can blame them?  Heck, with entry fees as high as they are these days, who can blame anyone for wanting prize money at events?
(2) But, as prize money, media coverage, and sponsorship money grows, the incentive to win increases and horsemanship starts to become costly.  Riders start blasting around horse trials at Mach 10 to score year-end award points.  Furthermore, as I watched them hand out checks to the top 10 riders at The Fork, I wondered briefly if $1,000 dollars was enough to make anyone run faster this weekend than they should have to prepare for Rolex.  We offer $350,000 for winning three four-stars in a row and then get appalled when a rider does everything possible to win, including run his amazing horse off its legs.  The dark secret of our sport is that horsemanship and winning sometimes conflict, and for every $1 more in incentives you offer to win, you occasionally make good horsemanship that much more expensive. 
So, as we look back on the choices we have made, we see a vibrant, growing, more popular than ever, more profitable than ever sport, and yet we also see people making absurdly stupid decisions for their horses, and we watch those decisions trickle down to their students.  Perhaps I should have mentioned at the beginning that this is not a happy article.
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After looking back on how our sport has been turned against itself, at how several incremental and possibly correct decisions have led us to frustrating places, we are left with wondering what can be done?  It’s easy to present a long list of complaints , but it’s harder to propose solutions.
Should we run backwards?  Should we return four-stars to that lovely true test over miles and miles of four phases with gallopy and flowing courses, despite the fact that we would probably lose the Olympics?  Should we run the sponsors off and reduce the already paltry prize money in the hope of making horsemanship less expensive?  Even if going back to the good old days was practically possible (it isn’t), I still wouldn’t settle for backtracking because I don’t think we need to.  Now, onto the solutions.
Three changes in our sport that are both practical and pretty simple to implement are:
(1) Increased transparency in the form of better communication of governance and other major issues to the eventing public.  Eventing is an intelligent, tightly-knit community of forward thinkers, and most of our leaders are lifetime horsepeople.   This makes transparency a much more realistic possibility in our sport than, say, between the Congress and the American people.  The eventing “powers that be,” so to speak, should understand that making the public more aware of how major issues are debated and decided upon might be uncomfortable but will ultimately make the public feel more invested in the outcome and less ‘in the dark.’  The next time our sport fundamentally changes, I hope I won’t be writing about it several years later and saying “there are multiple opinions and explanations for how this happened...”
Note: I’m not singling out any particular organization, and I’m not even singling out equine governing bodies in general.  I am saying that any time our sport starts to change, there is value in helping the public to understand what changes are happening and why.
(2) Increased leadership by eventing professionals both by getting involved in the governance of eventing and by communicating their insights to the eventing public.  By ‘professional,’ I don’t just mean professional riders, but anyone deeply involved in our sport, including organizers, officials, vets, farriers, etc.  These professionals need to be as involved as possible in our governing organizations, and in the dialogue of eventing.  Three years ago, the professionals might have been able to complain about not having a voice, but not any more.  Almost every professional has a website, certainly everyone has a Facebook, every third professional has a blog, and many pros are starting to write for major websites or magazines.
As an aside, since not everyone has a blog, and because not every media outlet wants to deal with the tough issues, consider this a standing invitation that any professional who wants to write a well-informed and insightful article about a meaningful eventing issue, I will gladly publish it here on Eventing Nation.  With 2,000 visits a day, and over 3,500 unique visitors a week, and our network of friends in the media, close to half the US eventing public will read what you write.  Professionals no longer have any excuse whatsoever for not being heard.

What’s so encouraging is that if you speak with them in private, many professionals are well informed about the current eventing issues and they have great ideas about improving our sport.  We just need to get them talking to everyone, which will ultimately take more motivation to reach out than most professionals have displayed thus far, but two things that would help professionals in this endeavor are:

Better questions and support from us in the media.  If we just keep asking about how awesome the XC course rode or how many dogs they have, then we are part of the problem and not part of the solution.  

Understanding from the fans, and an appreciation that they are willing to take the risk of making their voice heard, whether or not we agree with their conclusions.  Whether right or wrong, there is a perception among professionals that the few times they have tried to stick their necks out, they have gotten shot down and torn apart.  Dialogue should be intellectually honest and disagree whenever necessary, but it should always be polite and respectful.

(3) A better link between the will of the eventing public and the changes that occur in eventing.  Do you see the progression?  First we need transparency to tell us what is going on, then we need leadership from the professionals to help us decide on the best course of action, and then we need the ability to help that happen. Eventing is a wonderful sport because if you don’t know an influential person (which almost everyone does), you certainly know someone who does, and you will see at least 30 influential people at every competition.  Furthermore, local Area organizations, and even the national governing organizations have relatively straightforward steps for joining boards or getting involved in other ways.  Going to a governing convention (the USEA’s is in AZ this year) is yet another fantastic way to be immersed in the decision making of eventing.  
On the flip side, the “powers that be” should do everything possible to enfranchise the public and therefore invest them in the resulting change.  A lot of the frustrations and anxieties people are expressing about the changes in our sport would be mitigated if they felt like they had been more involved in the decision making.
In summary, I’m asking the most influential people in eventing to keep us better informed about changes in our sport, I’m asking the professionals to give us their honest and straightforward insights, and I’m asking all of us to make an effort to be more involved in the process of reaching decisions.  These ideas are far from perfect, but the best I can ever hope for is that they stimulate thought and conversation.  I understand that working for positive change is always harder than watching things go wrong and then complaining about them.  But, hope remains if you, like me, are filled with the belief that eventers are an inherently special type of people who can, by toughness, mental instability, and a little luck accomplish great things.  I hope that, as you read this, you sense the many other eventers who are also reading this, and that we all, together, appreciate the great responsibility that lies before us as stewards of our great sport.  Go eventing.

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