Area VI Lifts All Boats in A Rising Tide of Change

Photo by Tina Fitch Photography.

More than a year of debate surrounded the December 2022 announcement of Area VI’s calendar revisions (For more context from Area VI’s perspective, click here). A new process for the creation of the U.S. eventing calendar had broken ground in April of 2021, the aim of which was to bring “critical structure and overdue stability.” Additionally it would “facilitate a healthy calendar to the benefit of the U.S. Eventing athletes, their horses, stakeholders within the sport, and the U.S. Eventing Pathway as a whole,” Amber Braun, Managing Director of Eventing at USEF, explained.

The creation of three week breaks in Advanced competition came from a new policy from the USEF Strategic Task Force Committee for the new Eventing Calendar Process Proposal: “The Task Force recommends that preparation for all CCI5*-L and CCI4*-L competitions, Games, and Championships should be placed in three-week intervals leading up to the competition in order to ensure optimal preparation and welfare of the horse.”

With concerns that upper level horses were running too often, horse welfare became a top priority. On the East coast, with more than 20 venues across different Areas offering 72+ upper level competitions in one calendar year, that was possible; difficult but possible.

When word came to the Area VI Committee in late 2021, the new calendar seemed possible too. “Honestly I liked it for my upper level FEI horses initially,” said Bec Braitling, member of the Area VI Committee. “The more it went on…the realization of how deep it would impact our national calendar became apparent.”

As the 2023 Area VI calendar began to take shape, committee members realized there were two snags: The Area would have back to back horse shows in order to accommodate the breaks in upper level competition and lose a CCI3*-L in the spring.

A policy that prioritizes horse welfare and strategic planning is something to be lauded and emulated, not condemned. But for Area VI, the consequences of adhering to the new schedule and its resulting loss of international competition had the potential to challenge the health of the sport financially and its ability to hold elite level eventing.

For Bec Braitling, Christina Gray, Teresa Harcourt, and Andrea Pfieffer, members of the Area VI Committee, this meant an intervention was needed.

Bec Braitling and Caravaggio II. Photo by Ride On Photo.

The National Calendar

At first glance, it would be feasible to accommodate three week breaks by extending the California eventing season into the winter. But as Bec pointed out, “We HAVE to run on a two week schedule here, due to weather mostly. The winter is wet and the footing doesn’t allow ‘year round eventing’, the summer is DARN hot in most areas, so we cluster Feb through May and Sept through November — and it’s busy! Once you switch to three weeks, you squeeze out competitions and force some to run back to back weekends. We cannot support this schedule. There just aren’t enough entries to split.”

Mitigating the loss of FEI competition in the spring remained a serious obstacle, but the national calendar ranked higher in the concerns of the committee members and organizers of Area VI. As a whole, they decided that it was more important to keep eventing viable rather than allow any single event to fall away.

“Ram Tap was going to be severely impacted,” Andrea Pfieffer, chair of the Area VI Committee, explained. “Terry [Hilst] last year, she stepped up. She pulled that Advanced together for the Area when we really needed an Advanced at the end of the year… [Terry] did it for the area and did an amazing job.” Terry Hilst, organizer at Ram Tap Horse Park, had also loaned an enormous amount of equipment to the Horse Park at Woodside so that they could run their October horse trials after parting ways with former organizer Robert Kellerhouse. Creating direct competition between any venues was not an option for the committee.

Christina Gray, secretary to many horse shows across the U.S. including Area VI staple Twin Rivers Horse Park, commented that many of Area VI competing members are not professionals. “When we were going to put events back to back and you’re an adult amateur and you’re working or you’re a kid in school, you can’t be gone two or three days out of every week. It’s people enjoying the sport and this is their vacation that they’re taking.”

Olympic rider for Puerto Rico Lauren Billys turns and burns with Can Be Sweet. Photo by Sherry Stewart.

“In fairness to USEF, these proposals were open for comment from riders and there was little to no feedback,” Bec added.

So the work began to try communicating the gravity of the situation. “The people that could make a change jumped onboard,” Andrea said. “We were able to hit it on all sides… Bec being on the [USEF Calendar Working Group] made a huge impact, Teresa Harcourt on the Board of Governors made a big impact, and…I [talked] directly to Rob [Burk], [talked] directly to Jonathan Elliot up at Aspen because he’s on the [USEF Calendar Working Group]…it was a collective group who absolutely made the changes happen.”

Bec stressed the importance of getting involved: “One key point I want to get across is how we perceive governing bodies and how we complain about things that happen, but not many step up to take positive action. I’ve actually never been much of an ‘activist’ type and am usually guilty of being a complainer and not a doer myself! This time…I was able to sit across from Bill Maroney (USEF) himself and with the help of members of the Strategic Calendar Task Force present the facts, the struggles associated with the revised schedule and ultimately develop a solution. That’s so important going forward, we HAVE to be a part of our sport, be advocates for our sport, be INTERESTED in what’s going on and participate…Not nearly enough riders help shape the sport at the governance level, but then complain about things we don’t like. That’s why the newly established USEF Calendar Review Task Force is so important. But riders, organizers and supporters need to give feedback so those concerns can be addressed. Fill out questionnaires, respond to emails asking for feedback. Without it, we can’t change the things we don’t agree with.”

Photo by Sherry Stewart.

The International Calendar 

Twin Rivers Horse Park (Paso Robles, CA) had previously held a CCI3*-L division at their April Horse Trials. Without it, the only other option for a run prior to Rebecca Farms in July meant a 3.000 mile trek (one way) east to Tryon.

For those not well versed in upper level eventing, the absence of a spring CCI3*-L created a challenge. Horses and riders need to complete a national Advanced in addition to two CCI3*-L and one CCI4*-S or one CCI3*-L and two CCI4*-S in order to achieve qualification for a CCI4*-L. No matter which route a rider took, it would have meant either a trip to Tryon in the spring for the first and Rebecca Farms in July for the second OR taking a full year or more to achieve CCI4*-L qualification.

Area VI members are used to driving far. “If you grew up in California, you grew up in a vehicle,” Andrea pointed out. “On the West Coast, you do have to be willing to get in the truck and travel a bit. So getting in the trailer, driving 10 hours to get to Galway? To me, it’s a jaunt.” Rebecca Farms in Kalispell, MT is a 20 hour drive without stops from Galway Downs in Temecula, CA while Tryon is a full 34 hours without taking into account rest and food breaks.

So if an option existed and competitors are used to driving, why was there a problem?

Within the whole Area, just six venues offer 19 competitions, both upper and lower levels, in the calendar year. If you are willing to go farther, three venues outside Area VI in Washington and Montana offer an additional four upper level competitions. Even when taking Tryon into consideration, the proposed calendar operated under the assumption that competition plans would go perfectly.

Amber Biracial and Cinzano. Photo by Tina Fitch Photography.

“If your horse had an abscess and missed an Advanced, there’s not half a dozen in different Areas that I can drive to and go, ‘no big deal we missed this one’. I can drive to Virginia or Kentucky or Florida or Maryland,” Andrea Pfeiffer remarked, a concern echoed by Bec. “Back east, there’s a lot of Advanced events. You can pick and choose. But out here, if your horse missed one, you’re making it so these horses are essentially going to be an entire year behind where you wanted to be.” As we have learned with the recent covid pandemic, losing a year is not an ideal situation for horse or rider.

Enough time remained to make adjustments before the 2023 season was confirmed. Bec explained that, “during 2022, some of the Area VI competitions petitioned for date changes but those were denied…”

One of those denied competitions was the Twin Rivers Horse Park. As secretary for Twin Rivers, Christina Gray put together the modification request for the date change.

According to the 2023-2027 U.S. Eventing Calendar CCI4*-L, CCI4*-S, CCI3*-L, Advanced Policies and Procedures, the request needed to address four primary criteria: high performance sport impact, technical aspects (footing/stabling/management/etc), U..S Eventing team plans, and the growth of equestrian sport in the U.S. Additional criteria can include the organization’s experience, volunteer engagement, benefits for U.S. eventing, participation, local community engagement, media/sponsorship/donor opportunities, along with anything the presenter feels serves the sport’s best interest.

“It was hard..there were a lot of changes going on,” she commented. Twin Rivers had been granted Week 16 but applied for a modification to run on Week 15 instead. “We’ve run on both weekends and so we had a lot of data…which was more financially viable, which was healthier for the area, which was healthier for upper level riders trying to go to Kentucky.”

Source: Christina Gray to USEF/USEA on behalf of Twin River’s bid for modification. In 2013, the spring event moved from Week 16 to Week 15 where it has been placed in the calendar since.

Based on Twin Rivers’ data, Christina could confidently quantify the effect on high performance eventing. “[Week 15 was] drastically more used for people going to Kentucky…when they [Kentucky and Twin Rivers] are back to back weekends, that doesn’t allow for the travel that it takes because if you’re driving your own horses, it’s three day drive, and then if you’re flying your horse, you can only fly on certain days. So a lot of times you have to get a flight the week before.” As she pointed out, “that’s a bit much for horses to fly on Tuesday and jog on Wednesday.”

But it’s not just those horses aimed at Kentucky that were affected by the policy change. “Our upper level events have to have support of the lower level events to survive,” Christina said. “We’re not getting the divisions of forty or fifty at the 4* or 3* level. We’ll run an FEI event and it might have 45 entries total between all the divisions so it really takes having 350 national entries to help fund those FEI levels. And I think people don’t necessarily know that’s how it balances on the West Coast.”

Even if one venue could get an exemption from the three week policy, having events on back to back weekends competing for entries challenged any ability to hold upper level sport at all.

When Christina and Twin Rivers initially presented their desire for the modification to run on Week 15 instead of 16, the response from the governing bodies endorsed a trial year. But “on the West Coast, we can barely fill two [shows] every other weekend,” Christina went on. “That’s with support at the upper levels from all over the west. It’s not just California. You’ve got people coming from Washington, you have Canadians coming down to really fill those divisions. If you’re looking at an event making enough money to continue to run, we can’t afford to lose anything else.”

Photo by Tina Fitch Photography.

The Solution

“It was no easy feat and it really was a team of individuals. It wasn’t one person who carried the load,” Andrea recalled.

After many ears bent, letters of support written, and emails sent, the committee members managed to convey the gravity of the situation to the Eventing Strategic Calendar Task Force. The goal of this appointed group is, Amber Braun describes, “to carefully review the strategic calendar and address any deficiencies as well as consult on the future process.” The Task Force passed it on to the Eventing Sport Committee. Those modifications were then recommended to an Ad Hoc of the Board of Directors.

On January 23, 2023, the press release that accompanied the announcement of the new and approved calendar wrote: “Due to hardships demonstrated for qualification under the current structure and criteria, and to limit the travel to achieve those qualifications in the interest of horse welfare, the following modifications were approved to offer the best preparation for high-performance athletes and horses.”

That one sentence encompasses the work and effort of so many people across so much time. From Area VI committee members to USEF and USEA representatives, from elite athletes to show organizers, it shows what happens when we do the work to engage honestly with each other and to communicate across difficulties even when everyone comes with the best of intentions. However, Bec Braitling, Christina Gray, Teresa Harcourt, and Andrea Pfieffer led the charge for Area VI by doing the work to help resolve the challenges posed by new strategic policies.

In the words of Andrea Pfieffer: “The calendar, as it stands right now, is absolutely, completely workable…If we had another venue in California, that would be really fantastic. But that doesn’t happen overnight — that’s not going to be in 2024 — that’s a big undertaking to find a location…That’s my big dream. but as it stands right now, we have a very healthy calendar..I think Bec said, ‘we might be small but we are mighty.’”

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