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Ema Klugman

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Galloping at Packy’s

Photo courtesy of Ema Klugman.

For nearly seven years, I had the lucky fortune of being able to hack ten minutes over to my late coach and mentor, Packy McGaughan’s, farm for lessons. The geographical proximity made it natural for me to train with him, and for all those years I didn’t really appreciate how lucky I was to work with him so regularly. As his working student during most summers, I learned so much about the sport and about producing young horses. I also galloped my horses in his jumping field, which was a playground of show jumping and cross country fences where we trained many horses. On days when we weren’t jumping, I would often gallop in that field on my own during the lead-up to three-day events.

Packy died in 2020. Without him, I have done my best to train as if he were watching. But I would be lying if I said I didn’t feel lost without him, and sometimes still do. There are reminders of him everywhere I look, but maybe my favorite way of getting closer to him is to go up to his jumping field and gallop my horses every week. The land has stayed in his family, and I am very grateful to be able to still ride on it.

Packy’s field is gently rolling. The left half of it is flatter than the right, and although most of the jumps are gone, a few ditches and a mound remain for you to dodge during your fitness work. It takes about 7 minutes to make three laps around the field at preliminary speed. If you wake up early enough, and come up the more gradual hill tracking clockwise, you get to experience the magic of what feels like galloping straight into the sunrise. When you go counter-clockwise, on the left lead, you can teach a horse to accelerate up the steeper hill and then maintain their power as the terrain levels out. You might feel the horse take a big, deep breath there, which is where you let them pause for a minute, pat them, and then urge them on to dig a bit deeper.

Ema Klugman and Bendigo. Photo by Shelby Allen.

It was over a decade ago when I first had lessons up in that jumping field. Packy would arrive in his battered golf cart, with his little Jack Russell, Bandit, riding shotgun. I’d normally trot on the way over to make sure I made it there in time. He first taught me up there on my rocket-ship Morgan pony, who I seldom got on the bit. Then he helped me for years with a quirky horse called Bendigo, who went on the bit sometimes, and, more importantly, taught me how to jump big jumps. With a lovely thoroughbred named Joker’s Win, he helped me refine my galloping position and taught me how to navigate terrain. Bronte Beach jumped her first logs in that field, and now, several years later, she has successfully contested a number of four-stars. We started them all there. I also rode lots of his young horses up in that field in my capacity as his working student.

On one occasion, Packy decided that he wanted to see if Bendigo jumped better in a hackamore. It was a hot, sticky, summer afternoon. There was one problem: we didn’t have a hackamore up at the field (it was miles from the barn). Packy reached into the back of his golf cart and pulled out a halter and lead rope. He took off Ben’s bridle, put the halter on him, tied the lead rope to each side of the halter, and handed me my “reins.” Off we went, to jump the same 4 foot course we had been schooling with a bridle. After I finished, he said the horse had jumped a bit better, but I needed to work on my turns. Of course, all I was thinking was that I was lucky that Ben hadn’t galloped off back home to his paddock, because I wouldn’t have had much say in the matter!

Ema Klugman & Bronte Beach Z. Photo by Abby Powell.

On another occasion, I rode Ben over for a jumping lesson to prepare for Great Meadow 4*. It would have been an ordinary school—we were just crossing t’s and dotting i’s in preparation for the event—but for the fact that just the day before, I had suddenly lost a promising young horse after he broke his leg in the field. I arrived at the lesson and there wasn’t much of me there, just a shell. But I knew that continuing to ride would help me get through such a horrible time.

Packy was nice to me that day —- he didn’t yell, as he often did. We just jumped through some exercises, and he told me that we looked prepared. At the end of the lesson, he said to me that I’d now experienced what every horseman and horsewoman has to deal with at one point or another: the loss of a horse. It is inevitable to lose one in this sport if you’re doing it for long enough, he said. But, as he told me, that didn’t mean it was easy. He knew how to do that—how to put a figurative arm around your shoulder when you needed it, and also how to give you a kick up the ass when you needed that, too.

On yet another occasion (as you can tell, I have so many memories in that field, but I’ll end with this one), Packy worked with me and Ben on our cross country accuracy and lines. He had set exercises on forward distances, which tended to be hard for Bendigo and me. His stride was not very big, and he often jumped too high to cover the ground between the jumps. I remember that it took us a couple of attempts, but eventually we completed the exercises as prescribed. At the end of the school, he said that it was encouraging to see our improvement, but that Ben would not be a five-star horse. He would not have the scope or the gallop for it. Still, it was good, he said, that I was getting experience at the Advanced level on this horse.

Photo courtesy of Ema Klugman.

A little over a year after Packy died, Bendigo and I had a clear cross country round at the Kentucky Three-Day Event. It was one of the best rounds I’ve ever had in my life. It was my, and Bendigo’s, first five-star. The distances were not too long; he had the scope. Packy wasn’t wrong about many things, but he did turn out to be wrong about that one.

Whether it’s an early morning or a late afternoon, galloping at Packy’s brings me both peace and confidence. I know that it’s the place where I can get a horse fit for a big three-day event. But it’s more than a field where I do three interval sets to get the horses’ lungs blowing and their muscles working. It’s somewhere I go to remember all those things he taught me—whether in loud admonishments or in letting me make a mistake and learn from it. And it’s a place I go to remember to take a big, deep breath—just like we ask the horses to do—and then to keep digging a bit deeper when it gets tough.

Learning to Trust the Process: How and Why Alexa Gartenberg Made the Leap to England

Photo by Matt Nuttall.

No one in Alexa Gartenberg’s family rides horses, but from a young age she told her parents that she wanted to have horses and ride. She first tried riding at an overnight summer camp, and soon after, she started regular riding lessons. Growing up just outside of Philadelphia, Alexa began eventing with Susie Beale when she was based at Radnor Hunt Stables.

“I didn’t even know it was called eventing, I thought it was called field-riding!” Alexa explains. Her lack of knowledge about the sport did not deter her from trying it. Alexa started eventing at the beginner novice level on her first horse, who had been a lesson horse. It wasn’t exactly a fortuitous start: “I am pretty sure I got 45s on the flat and got eliminated at several of my first events,” Alexa said. Soon enough, however, she was getting the hang of the sport.

In 2016, Alexa moved to Matt and Cecily Brown’s barn to continue her eventing education. They were based at Boyd Martin’s facility, Windurra USA, at the time. The program required serious commitment from Alexa, not least because the barn was located over an hour from where she lived. “I would get out of school at 3 pm, change out of my uniform at red lights in the car on the way to the barn, and then ride before going home and starting homework,” Alexa explained.

Alexa, now 24, graduated from high school in 2018. She only applied to one college: the University of Delaware, and she did so because it was closest to the barn. She was admitted to the honors program and lived at school, studying business. She graduated in 2021, and then took the real estate exam to receive her real estate license.

“I wanted to work in real estate because you can make your own hours,” Alexa remarked, noting that horses require a flexible schedule, especially for FEI competitions. She had created a plan to be able to ride and work, and she had a couple of lovely horses at the upper levels, including the late Louis M, who took her to her first Advanced.

Alexa Gartenberg and Louis M. Photo by Abby Powell.

Then, in 2022, she went out to dinner with her parents and they made a suggestion that would change her life: that she should move to England to ride. Alexa was excited by the prospect of basing in the busiest and most competitive eventing country in the world. She asked Matt Brown, who had now been her coach for nearly six years, what he thought about the idea. He was very supportive, and suggested that she work with Australian 5* rider Kevin McNab.

Kevin, it turned out, had also hosted and trained fellow American riders Jacob and Cornelia Fletcher, as well as Avery Klunick. Cornelia connected Alexa with Kevin, and a quick phone call later, and the plan was hatched: with the support of her parents, Alexa could move to England with her two horses and train with Kevin for the 2023 eventing season.

“My single goal was to get better,” Alexa said simply. “Everyone was asking me which events I wanted to do, and what specific things I wanted to accomplish, and it was just more of an overall goal to improve and become a better rider.” This approach required some humility and a willingness to really work on the basics.

With her two horses, Frame Shamrock and Cooley Kildare, both of whom she had competed at the 3* level, Alexa started back at the Novice (U.S. equivalent is Preliminary) level at the beginning of the year. While a lot of people go overseas with a particular goal in mind, like a big three-day event, Alexa’s approach was more about putting the building blocks in place to educate herself and her horses for the long run. And it is starting to pay off: she has notched several consistent top 3*S finishes in the past couple of months, and now her focus is turning toward getting back to the Advanced and 4* level.

Photo courtesy of Alexa Gartenberg.

So what is Alexa’s day-to-day like that has allowed her to get better? One of the secrets has been that she watches a lot of horses getting worked in Kevin’s yard, and she sets rails for jump schools. “I’m like the rail girl,” she laughs, noting that every time someone heads to the arena at home to jump, she leaps at the chance to set fences and watch.

Alexa has also had opportunities to ride horses other than her own, and she has two jumping lessons per week with Kevin to hone her skills there. Finally, Alexa remarked that even just being at competitions is a learning opportunity. “You look to your left and there is Tim Price, and you look to your right and there’s Ros Canter,” she notes (both recent World #1 riders themselves). “It’s just very cool to be around people you read about and admire,” she explains.

Alexa’s time abroad hasn’t come without its unexpected learning curves, however. Every place does things differently, and Alexa tells a funny story about her first event in England, where she made a somewhat embarrassing mistake: “In England, at the national competitions you have to wear a back number for dressage. At my first event, I walked a very long way to the dressage from the parking, and I did not have a back number. Luckily, my American accent saved me, and they let me do my dressage test without one!”. Lesson learned, and Alexa now makes sure to have her back number on for dressage at national events.

Reflecting on her experience in England, Alexa says that everyone is in some ways more laid-back than eventers are in America. She has a type-A personality, which has sometimes worked against her in the past. “In 2022, I was singularly focused on getting to Fair Hill 3L, but I wasn’t having the season I wanted,” she explains. The wheels started to fall off a bit, and Alexa was so driven by that one goal that not getting to Fair Hill was a real blow.

Photo courtesy of Alexa Gartenberg.

Now, in contrast, she feels that mentally she can take the events one by one and be flexible with her plans. She has gotten exposure to some of the biggest events in England and across Europe, including in Ireland and France. Each time she shows up to compete, she is simply trying to get better. It might be a lesson for all of us—to focus less on the results and more on the incremental improvement, because then we might find that the results just fall into place.

When asked about her future plans, Alexa admits that “I was supposed to stay for only one year, but my visa is good for two years, so I’ve decided to stay for an additional year.” While she misses home and seeing familiar faces at shows, the opportunities in England are too great to pass up. Eventing in England is also much more competitive: the divisions easily have 100 people in them, compared to the 20-50 entries that we usually get in the states in each division. “I like the competition —- I think it makes me strive to be better,” Alexa muses.

As for her future plans, she is still taking things one weekend at a time, but hopes to move both of her horses up to the Advanced level next year after getting to their 3*L goals this year. In the meantime, she will just focus on getting better.

Alexa Thompson’s Commitment to Learning Has Brought Her to France: Allez, Allez, Allez!

Alexa with Maxime at a recent jumping competition.

It’s a question almost all young horse professionals come to face as they make the jump from the young rider ranks to the professional world: how to improve their own riding while also running a business.

Alexa Thompson, an Advanced event rider who I met back in our Pony Club days, recently took a leap to focus on herself, and she’s still managing to keep her business running as well. She moved from her farm in Lexington, Kentucky all the way to Dénezé-sous-Doué (near Saumur), France to base with French team rider and five-star winner Maxime Livio. She brought three horses with her: her three-star horse called Just to be Clear, and two homebreds named Parlez Clear and Clear Candidate.

It hadn’t been on Alexa’s radar to go to France, but when Maxime came over to America to compete at the Land Rover Kentucky Three-Day Event in April of this year, Alexa hosted him for a clinic at her farm and really enjoyed his help.

Alexa explains that she has always had a ton of responsibility at home, which has made it hard to focus on herself. Thus, she has always thought that leaving and going abroad would be beneficial because she could separate herself from her business, and really hone in on her own skills and riding. After jokingly making a comment to Maxime about whether he took people to come train with him, she then asked more seriously about it after Kentucky (where Maxime finished 6th). He got back to her with a yes, and then it was up to Alexa to figure out how to hatch a plan to actually make it all work.

The yard at home in France.

The Big Move

“Well, I don’t speak French!” Alexa admits in addressing the challenges of the trip — but that didn’t stop her from making the move. Alexa sold her grey 3* horse, Curraghgraigue Clear Future, in the spring to help fund the trip. She had developed that horse from the beginning of his career, but ultimately decided to sell him.

“It was like giving myself a grant to go overseas,” Alexa explains, noting that she also tragically lost one of her young horses in January, which made her rethink where she wanted to invest her time and money. After putting together all of the numbers in a spreadsheet, thinking about the ideal amount of time for her horses and herself to spend in French bootcamp, Alexa headed over to France for a four-month stint to do one thing: get better at the sport.

“I’ve been good, but I’ve felt very average,” Alexa admits. She was competitive as a young rider, but has felt that she was hitting a ceiling when attempting to develop proper FEI horses. She knows that she can take a young horse from scratch up to the mid-levels of eventing quite successfully. What she wanted was the education, and the system, to get her seven to nine   year old horses up to the top of the sport.

Alexa and her horses arrived in France at the end of July, and so far, it’s been all she hoped for. She cannot speak highly enough of the program.

“There’s no one else that I’ve ridden with that has made my horses better every ride—especially because I have three very different horses!” Alexa describes the team as genuinely caring about each person in the program.

The Training System

“The system matches the theory, and the results match as well,” says Alexa of Maxime’s training style. Even in her first lessons with Maxime, she felt her horses really improve.

“The flatwork theory translates directly to the jumping,” she explains, describing the way her horses are jumping as “mind-blowingly different.”

If you look closely, you can see that the diagrams in this chalkboard next to Maxime’s arena depict school figures and the shape of a horse’s body.

So, what is this system? I was curious to know more about it. Alexa relayed that these riders have a deep understanding of the biomechanics of the horses. They are always riding from back to front, they are tactful about applying pressure to the horses, and they are adamant about truly finding correct bend through the whole body and finding straightness. In her experience, Alexa found that “in America we’re so stuck on the picture and the end result, and the frame, so we tend to not ride the horses through enough.” The French are known for their forward cross-country riding, and Alexa explained that the jumping philosophy is all about the canter and the turn, and maintaining connection and impulsion.

The training philosophy extends outside the arena too. Alexa described some people’s trot sets as “just mindless trotting,” whereas the trot sets that she has learned to do in France are much more thoughtful about working and training the horses. She described the focus on balance as they trot up and down giant hills in two-point, and the connection between flatwork in the ring and all work outside of the ring.

Maxime has a facility split across a road, with his students’ horses on one side of the road and his own horses on the other side. Alongside having individual students to teach, Maxime is also the coach for the Thai eventing team. He has several other professionals at the facility who back him up—for example, his partner, Mathilde Montginoux, is a Grand Prix show jumping rider, and there are several other coaches and riders who compete at the 4* level. This kind of atmosphere brings everyone to a higher level and breed collaboration in training.

Maxime’s system is also “exceptionally well-organized,” Alexa says. Each night, all riders and staff get an Excel document for the next day listing which horses are doing what and with which coach. Every “t” is crossed and every “i” dotted. Alexa’s description of the command of detail that Maxime has over his horses and the whole program reminded me of an interview I watched with McLain Ward once in which he described his ability to win as being directly related to his superior way of staying extremely organized.

Alexa’s education is not just riding lessons. She notes that getting to watch Maxime produce his own horses is hugely educational. For example, watching how he is bringing along a horse aimed at the Paris Olympics next year. The other benefit of being based in France is that riders can travel to different places in Europe to compete.

“Different countries have different styles of events, so we can really tailor our schedule of events to the horses,” Alexa explains. Alexa recently competed in her first event abroad, and she jumped clear in both XC and SJ at Arville 3*S with Just To Be Clear. She also competed her younger horses at a subsequent event: her eight year olds finished 4th (25.5) and 7th (28.3) out of 84 in the 2*L at Salieu last weekend. Needless to say, it seems that the training process is already translating into excellent results.

The Future

At a recent dressage show, Alexa describes coming out of the ring after a test that did not go entirely to plan. She walked over to her coaches: Maxime was talking to the Ecurie Livio dressage coach, Serge Balbin, in French. Alexa said “you aren’t allowed to talk about me in French!” Maxime explained: “okay, we were just saying that we had our work cut out for us with you!” They laughed. That’s why Alexa is there: to focus on herself and her horses and to get better.

Alexa’s plan is to compete at Strzegom in October at the 3* and  4* level. Her longtime groom and manager, Hannah Warner, will fly over to France for that event.  Montelibretti and Le Pouget are part of the plan for November. After that, Alexa plans to fly back home with her horses at the end of November.

Alexa admits that she has struggled with feeling guilty for leaving her clients, but she is still managing it from afar, including doing Pivo lessons. Of course, Hannah is on the ground at home keeping everything running smoothly as well. Hannah knows the barn inside and out and has been working for Alexa for four years.

The most exciting part is that Maxime will come back to do clinics and also teach Alexa remotely once she is back in the States. Alexa underscores just how grateful she is for the support she has, and for the wonderful opportunity this is. Allez, allez, allez, Alexa — we are so excited to see what your career has in store for you.

Kentucky Warm-Up? Competition Nerves? Listen to Ride iQ’s Equestrian Mastermind for Insights!

I have often wondered what is going through a top rider’s head when they head out of the start box in pole position, or how they maintain complete focus in the dressage arena as they reach the end of their test at a championship to maximize points. While eventing is undoubtedly a physical sport, it is even more a mental game. You can have all of the physical and athletic qualities as a horse and rider pair, but if your mind is not in it, you cannot succeed. So what do top riders think as they are walking courses, warming up, and on course at a competition? How do they handle mental blocks, pressure, and fear?

Ride iQ’s newest podcast series, “Equestrian Mastermind,” gives us some answers to these questions. Tamie Smith, Will Faudree, Jon Holling, and Sinead Halpin Maynard joined sports psychology coach Natalie Hummel for four sessions to speak about the mental side of the sport.

The first two episodes focus on “Visualizing Greatness” and “Relationship with Fear.” In the first episode, Natalie prompts the group to talk about the visions they have for their career and what might stand in the way of their success. They discuss various topics related to inner and outer goals and the steps they must take to achieve those goals, including:

• What would they want out of the sport if fear wasn’t a factor?
• What challenges do professionals face in their personal and professional lives?
• What are the next steps to get past any roadblocks and closer to a goal?

The first episode also includes a visualization exercise that gives clarity to what type of support each athlete needs. In an amazing twist, that visualization exercise actually comes to life about a month later in competition for one of the riders—but you’ll have to listen to figure out which one, and what big event they are referencing. In the second episode, the riders discuss various topics related to their relationship with fear and learning to embrace it. One of my favorite moments from this episode was when the riders were talking about what they fear when they are competing. Will Faudree stated eloquently that he does not fear failure; rather, he actually thinks that he fears success. This insight was perplexing. Isn’t success the point? Why would someone fear success? But the idea made sense: with success comes expectation, and thus more pressure. I understood exactly what he meant.

The final two episodes are titled “Window of Capacity” and “Mastermind Finale.” There is a section in the third episode when Tamie frankly and transparently explains what it was like to have two rails down at Aachen in 2021, and what she did to change her plan and strategy so that when she warmed up at the Kentucky Three-Day Event this spring, holding the lead, she could jump a clear round. Her analysis of the mistakes she made was incredibly humble. In the finale episode, the riders reflect on their experience of doing these sessions together. Each rider receives feedback from all of the other riders in the group, as well as Natalie.

Tamie Smith and Mai Baum at Kentucky.

A number of times as I listened to these podcasts, I stopped and thought, “wow.” Hearing how top riders struggle with their emotions is grounding. Hearing how open the riders were with each other (and with the public, knowing that these episodes would be available to everyone) was unbelievable. Listening to them process questions, feelings, and challenges made me realize something: they are just like us. These riders are just people. They are business owners, they are parents, they are partners. They are struggling, they are learning, they are winning, and sometimes they are losing. While their goals happen to be things like winning five-stars (a goal Tamie achieved between episodes 2 and 3 of these podcast recordings, which was an incredible touch), in the end they are only human. They talk about how they don’t feel good enough, how they need to adjust their systems to do better, and how financial constraints are impacting their ability to perform. They admit that they can lose their cool in certain situations. The people we look up to also have challenges, doubts, and mishaps. The Equestrian Mastermind podcast humanizes them.

You can listen to the Equestrian Mastermind podcast for free here or on Ride iQ’s subscription-based app, which also provides hundreds of audio lessons from top coaches to its members. Thank you to Tamie, Will, Sinead, and Jon for their candor and thoughtfulness throughout the Mastermind sessions. It is a privilege to learn from the best in every aspect of this sport.

Galloping and Shortening Your Reins at the Same Time: Navigating the Devon Horse Show (and Life!)

Ema Klugman and Bronte Beach. Photo by Abby Powell.

A couple of months ago, I competed in the Arena Eventing class at the Devon Horse Show. It is always a privilege to ride in the storied Dixon Oval, and I try to target the class each year if I have a horse or two who is qualified to do it.

This year, I took two greener horses: RF Redfern, who recently stepped up to 4*, and Slieve Callan Alpha, who just did his first couple of Intermediates. Neither of them had done the class before, but I thought that if I rode them well, they could be competitive, and even if they made mistakes, I would learn about them through the experience. The class is unique in that it is a mix of cross country and show jumps between two large arenas. There is no terrain, but there are lots of tight turns and related distances.

I asked Mary Lisa Leffler, who occasionally helps me out in the show jumping, if she could coach me in the class. I knew she would be at Devon anyway, and I thought that maybe she would give me some useful tips, especially in the jump-off. She has won dozens of Grand Prix, but to my knowledge she has never done any eventing. Needless to say, when we got to the crazy angled jumps and skinnies, she basically told me: ride these like you do in eventing. She, wisely, did not want to mess me up for the parts of the course I already knew how to ride. She gave me useful pointers on riding the show jumps, and also noted places in the first round where I could save some time.

The plan we hatched when walking the course proved to work: both of my horses were clear in the first round and qualified for the jump-off. We had the opportunity to walk the jump-off again, so I headed back into the arena with Mary Lisa to find the tightest lines.

Near the end of the jump-off track, there was a long gallop from one end of the arena to the other. Mary Lisa turned to me and said, straight-faced, “can you gallop and shorten your reins at the same time?”. I had never thought about it. I replied, “yes, I think so.”

“Good,” she said. Her point was that in order to be competitive, I needed to recover from the prior fence and make up time simultaneously. I couldn’t do one thing, and then the next: I needed to multitask. And this was a race: fastest wins at Devon, and if you waste time, you can go from competitive to mid-pack in about half a second.

The plan didn’t quite come off when I came back on my first horse. Slieve Callan Alpha, who we call “Blizzard” in the barn, had an awkward jump at the beginning of the course when I mis-rode a skinny, and I found myself with not only long reins but only one stirrup for the majority of the rest of the course. Needless to say, I was in survival mode rather than competitive mode. He was a very good boy to finish clear, but we were not fast. (He ended up finishing in eighth place nonetheless.)

Back for a second time, I was determined to be more accurate, smoother, and faster. RF Redfern, known affectionately as “Fern” to her friends, really seemed to eat up the crowds in the first round, and I was hopeful that she would be competitive in the jump-off. She felt quite good in the warm-up area. I jumped one bigger vertical in the final stages of my warm-up, and she overjumped it. I know she is a horse who thrives on confidence, so I had my team lower it by three holes, and I jumped it again to ensure she was happy and not feeling too tested prior to going in. Then we were ready to go.

Sometimes when you have a good round on a horse, you don’t remember the details all that well -— you just remember the feeling. When I got to that section of the course with the long gallop up the middle of the arena, I promptly galloped and shortened my reins, as instructed. Fern was with me, and I was with her. It was a great feeling to be clear and fast, and to have the support of the crowd all the way through the finish line. I gave my mare a pat and told her she was a genius.

In the end, we were fifth in the class. Hopefully one day before I’m too old, I’ll win it! But more than the result, I was happy with our partnership. The course at Devon can feel like you’re in a tumble-dryer, and maintaining a connection with your course throughout the whole thing is really special.

I have been writing this little column for Eventing Nation for a few years now. My articles have been rather sporadic at times, but I have enjoyed sharing my experiences of being a top-level eventer and a “baby lawyer” with you as my audience. I’m now entering my final (!) year of law school, and I recently accepted a clerkship for a judge in DC following graduation. All of the things are somehow fitting in, although sometimes I wonder how I’ll keep juggling them as I enter my professional (non-horse) career.

Like a magical round on a magical horse, all of this feels like it’s happening at once fast and slow. I’m trying to remember that to be competitive, sometimes you have to gallop and shorten your reins at the same time, ever-ready for the next hairpin turn.

Maryland International Offering $1000 Scholarships for July FEI Event

Photo courtesy of Erin Gilmore Photography.

One of the biggest barriers to access in eventing is the sheer cost of competing a horse. Even at the national levels, the costs associated with boarding, training, shoeing, and competing a horse are high. The FEI levels are even more expensive because of the costs that competitions accrue from hiring FEI stewards and judges. FEI events are almost always held across multiple days, so riders have to pay for stabling their horses as well.

Increasing access to our sport is something Eventing Nation is passionate about. We were excited to see that the Maryland International Equestrian Foundation (MIEF) is awarding four scholarships that are equivalent to $1,000 to riders competing at the 1*, 2*, 3* and 4* levels at the July Maryland International in Adamstown, MD. The scholarships will assist by covering entry fees, stabling, as well as rider and groom/grounds person accommodations.

The applicant criteria is as follows:

• Applicant must be a current member in good standing with USEF and USEA

• Horses and riders must be sound and capable to compete at the level of scholarship they are applying for.

• Open to riders and horses who have never competed at 5* competition

• Rider must never have competed outside of North America.

• Horse and rider combination may not have competed above the level for which they are applying.

• Funds are to be used for the 2023 Maryland International.

• Members of the MIEF Board of Directors and members of their families are not eligible. Family members or current clients of the Scholarship Award Committee are not eligible.

• The Board and Selection Committee reserve the right to award scholarship to an alternate rider in the event of injury or illness to horse and/or rider.

Applications are due by May 1, with decisions made by June 1. There is a preference given to U.S.-bred horses, which is part of MIEF’s mission statement.

To find out more about the applicant criteria and apply for a scholarship, click here. To learn more about what the goal of MIEF is, click here. View the omnibus listing for the Maryland International H.T. here.

Go Eventing.

Ian Stark’s Newest 4* Challenge: Coming to the Maryland International This Summer

On July 7-9, 2023, a new 4*S and Advanced horse trial will hit the American eventing calendar at the Maryland International, located in Adamstown, Maryland. I got on the phone with the course designer, Ian Stark, as well as the venue’s owner and organizer, Carolyn Mackintosh, to ask about their plans for the new 4*S in the heart of Area II.

“An Educational Track”: Ian Stark’s Plans for the Course

Ian Stark has designed cross country courses around the globe. In trying to assess his approach to designing at this event, I asked him what other 4* in the world he would liken it to. “It’s not a huge acreage, so I would compare it to Tattersalls [Ireland].” Tattersalls, which was a destination event in Ireland, was on a fairly small property, and Ian got the experience of making the best use of a smaller venue. The trick, he explained, is “trying not to pull horses around.” Thus, he tries to avoid anything twisty. His plan with the Maryland 4* is to make the track open and flowing. Ian has designed the courses at the Maryland Horse Trials for a number of years, including for their 2*S and 3*S courses most recently.

“It will be designed as an educational track for the first year or two,” Ian expounded, noting that the space in the calendar that the 4* occupies will be ideal for horses and riders getting going in the mid-summer, or perhaps for pairs new to the level building on their spring campaigns.

The Maryland Horse Trials team, including course designer Ian Stark, as well as the venue’s owner and organizer, Carolyn Mackintosh, are working hard to continue developing the venue for the Eventing community.

As for the plans for the track itself, Ian described some exciting additions. “We have built a new 4* coffin, a new leaf pit, and a new bank complex at the big water which can be used for lots of different levels.” He also noted that they have made a specific camber track through the woods for the 4*, which will ensure that they are running on exactly the terrain he intends. Finally, the team has built up an area down behind the arenas which will make it more suitable for the course to run through.

Hard ground is often a concern for riders in the summer months. I asked about this issue, and Ian noted that the course is getting new top soil and new grass planted. The team works tirelessly on the ground, watering and aggravating it to ensure that the horses can run on the best ground possible.

In all, Ian is excited about the new track and hopes it will be educational and exciting for horses and riders. Given its place in the calendar, it will fill an important gap because there are no other events at that level in the month of July on the East Coast.

The course will provide an educational opportunity to fill a gap in the east coast competition calendar in July.

The Woman Behind the Scenes: Carolyn Mackintosh

“Everywhere we go to design courses, we joke that we should bring Carolyn, because she is so good at making grass grow!” Ian laughs.

Anyone who has been to the Maryland Horse Trials in the past has probably met Carolyn Mackintosh, the owner of the venue. She is a force of nature, and she is good at not only making grass grow. She organizes all of shows with a trusted team of secretaries, course designers and builders, and of course an army of volunteers. I often see her running scores or organizing fence judges, but she is never too busy to stop and say hello.

In January, Ian Stark recounts visiting the venue and making some plans for the summer event. He gave Carolyn four new ideas for projects on the cross country course, some of which involved a fair amount of earth-moving. “I thought she’d take a couple of years to complete these projects, but I visited the venue last week, and she was already done with them!”. If that story doesn’t describe Carolyn’s zealous approach to running and improving her events, I am not sure what does.

With a dedicated and driven team, the course’s progress has been coming along quickly.

Carolyn herself describes the new 4*S with excitement. Her latest investments in the venue include an upgraded hospitality viewing area above the main arena, which will provide a view not only of the arena but of the entire cross country course. The cross country course will run in and out of the arena twice, making it a fun up-close experience for spectators.

With a ground jury of Marilyn Payne, Gretchen Butts, Peter Gray, and Bobby Stevenson, competitors are sure to have a great experience at the event. Carolyn has also brought on Joanie Morris to help her run it. The venue is still looking for sponsors and would welcome any contact from those interested.

Carolyn also indicated that scholarships will be made available for select entrants in the 1* through 4* classes, who will also receive a cash grant for the weekend. Details about the application process for these scholarships and grants will be forthcoming.

Looking Back, and Looking Ahead

I attended some of my very first events at the Maryland Horse Trials. They were unrecognized shows, and my brother and I were just learning about the sport. We undoubtedly made mistakes, and probably went off-course and fell off a number of times. But those starter events (which the venue still runs regularly) are what hooked me on eventing. They are the events to which I first took my now-5* partner Bendigo, when I was 14 years old and he had never been to an event before in his life.

This is all to say that the Maryland Horse Trials is special because it caters to everyone. And this sport is, really, about everyone. It’s about the new-to-eventing families who are getting a taste of the sport, just as it is about the Advanced horses and riders who now have a new 4* on their calendar. Looking ahead, the venue will continue to serve everyone in the community. I hope you will put the Maryland International in July on your calendars, whether it be to ride, spectate, or volunteer. Go eventing.

Chatt Hills to Offer $35,000 in Prize Money at Spring 2023 Events

Andrew McConnon and Bossinova at Chattahoochee Hills. Photo by Liz Crawley Photography.

Chattahoochee Hills is a stunning eventing venue in Fairburn, Georgia — so stunning, in fact, that rumor has it that it was one of the filming locations for the iconic movie Black Panther. Needless to say, it’s a fantastic venue with big, scopey cross country courses, and it has a special place in my heart, too, as I galloped around my first 4*-S there with Bendigo several years ago.

This spring, the venue is offering $35,000 in prize money at its spring events, which should attract top competitors from around the country. The spring events are March 11–12, which is running BN-A as well as the 2* and 3* levels, and March 31–April 2, which is running BN-I in addition to a feature A/I division, which will offer the 5* dressage test and a big, technical show jumping test.

I caught up with Hugh Lochore, course designer and organizer of Chatt Hills, to get an inside scoop on his plans for the spring events — and his views on how the eventing calendar has changed recently. Lochore has been designing at the venue for eleven years, and he explains that the FEI eventing calendar in America has been up in the air over the past couple of years. The FEI awards dates to eventing venues based on the levels they offer and what other events would like to run on those same dates. Especially of interest for competitors at the Advanced/4* level is the timing of 4* events throughout the year as they prepare for their long-format competitions in the late spring and fall — but another crucial consideration is that if two popular events run on the same weekend, both venues will suffer in terms of entries. The reality is that riders and horses cannot be in two places at once, even if they love both venues!

After the announcement of the cancellation of Red Hills from the eventing calendar last year, many riders wondered what the first feature 4* of the year would be on the East Coast. The early March Red Hills date went to Chatt Hills, but the venue will not be running a 4* — instead, the feature class will be the Advanced division, which will have $10,000 in prize money up for grabs. Lochore mentions that this new date is desirable because it does not clash with the Bruce’s Field Eventing Prix, and he expects lots of entries there.

The second Chatt Hills event is now the first weekend in April. Lochore spoke with enthusiasm about hosting an A/I division with the 5* dressage test, 5* show jumping track, and a championship-style cross country course. That class will have $25,000 prize money and is designed especially for horses heading to the Kentucky Three-Day Event.

“I have always thought that choice was a good thing,” Lochore explains, remarking further that when riders have the ability to tailor their calendar to their horse’s needs, they not only produce horses more thoughtfully but also drive up competition between venues, pushing all of the venues to make improvements to attract more competitors. However, there are drawbacks to having too much choice: entries can suffer overall if they are divided up among too many shows. For example, Lochore explains that previously, riders bemoaned the fact that Chatt Hills and The Fork fell on the same April weekend. This meant that the entries for both venues were reduced, and riders who would have liked to benefit from running at both venues could not do so, at least not in the same season.

“The new calendar does mean that people have fewer options [of where to run their horses],” Lochore says, but he also notes that there is always a push and pull with the calendaring process, which will be under review again after this year. There is another drawback to having less choice on the eventing calendar. When there are fewer events, there is less competition among events, so they have less incentive to offer prize money. Whether riders choose events based on prize money is hard to say, especially because of the dearth of prize money in eventing generally, particularly compared with show jumping. However, it is always an attraction for riders when a venue does offer generous prize money.

Chattahoochee Hills will provide exciting incentives for competitors in 2023. Php

A lot of riders are starting to understand the complexity of calendaring changes and how that affects their schedules and the dynamics of producing horses. While there will always be benefits and drawbacks to any changes that occur, it is important to think about the amount of planning that goes on behind the scenes to put on these top-tier events.

“The economics of the show are in the lower levels – we don’t make money off of running the 4* level,” Lochore expounds. Venues are often known for their upper-level divisions, which provide the greatest spectator draw and media interest and attract the ‘star power’,  but the reality is that the costs associated with building these big, technical courses and hiring the officials to run FEI divisions often exceed the entry fees that they bring in. Thus, when venues plan their budgets for these events, they depend on the lower-level entries. One benefit of having upper-level divisions is that the riders competing in them will often bring their young horses and students with them to the same shows, so while they may pick their venues based on what works best for their upper-level horse, that will also determine the additional entries they bring in for those shows.

An analysis of the economics of eventing venues is perhaps the subject of a different article, but it is notable to say that Chatt Hills runs 32 horse shows per year (including jumping and dressage shows), as well as seven full events per year, so they do bring in considerable entry fees. The facility is permanent, with hundreds of stalls on site. This high number of shows means an overall total of several thousand entries per year, which does give them the flexibility to offer prize money for their feature events. Furthermore, the venue hosts music festivals during the summer months, so it is a versatile property that makes great use of its space.

Another reason that Chatt Hills can offer prize money is that Lochore himself works for free — he designs the courses purely for the love of the sport, and thus, the venue does not have to pay for his course designing. Other venues have different business models, but it is worth thinking about how venues plan their own calendars and investments in jumps, facilities, and the like to stay viable.

Just as no horse person gets into the eventing industry to make big money, it is also true that no venue gets into the eventing industry to make money. It is all, in the end, about the horses and the competitors.

“We want the positive energy,” says Lochore, whose enthusiasm for the venue and for the sport is palpable. He emphasizes that they are always making improvements to Chatt Hills’s facilities, and he continues to imagine and build more diverse cross-country courses for competitors.

With the discontinuation of the fall Tryon CCI-L event, which has run in November for the last couple of years, the eventing calendar has also shifted further south. Now the Terranova Equestrian Center will host the fall CCI4*L championship in November, and Chatt Hills has stepped in to host a 4*S as a preparation event for that long-format show.

The opening date for the March Chatt Hills event was January 24, so you can send your entries in now. The April date opens on February 14.

 

Five Years On: The Impact of the New Modified Level in Eventing

Katie Malensek & Lion’s Share compete — and win — at Modified. Photo by Lisa Madren.

‘Modified’ was first introduced by the USEA in 2017, and that year, there were just 28 starters at the level — but five years on, has it developed and fulfilled its intended purpose? It would appear so: in 2022, there were 1555 starters at the Modified level across the United States, according to data from the USEA. This sharp increase in numbers is likely due to the investments that eventing venues have made in cross country courses so that they can hold Modified divisions, as well as the realization from riders that the Modified level is educational, challenging, and highly useful because it is less challenging than Preliminary.

I admit that I was skeptical of the Modified level when it was first introduced. Why did we need a level in between Training and Preliminary? Shouldn’t riders and horses be able to make the jump up to Preliminary without a level in between? 

A few years later, I have completely changed my mind. I have ridden three different horses at the Modified level, mostly for brief periods of time (one or two events) as they were making their way up the levels. Introducing them to a higher level through the half-step between Training and Preliminary was educational and encouraging for both me and them, and each of these horses was able to get their feet wet jumping bigger jumps and slightly more technical courses without having their eyes pop out of their heads moving up directly to Preliminary from Training level. Where a Prelim cross country question may have been a big table on a bending four-stride line to a brush corner, the Modified equivalent would be a smaller, ramped table on a softer, bending six stride line to a corner. The Modified variation would be kinder and with a broader margin for error, while still testing the same concepts. The confidence that the runs at the Modified level gave my horses was wonderful, and it also informed me of the areas of weakness I had to work on before introducing them to Preliminary. 

The jump from Training to Preliminary is widely regarded as one of the biggest move-ups in our sport, because the technicality and size of the jumps increase considerably at Preliminary. Horses and riders who can successfully navigate Training level may find themselves thrown in the deep end when they attempt Preliminary. It’s impossible to know for sure, but it may be that the introduction of the Modified level has made cross country safer overall. Pairs that would have moved up to Preliminary instead try their hand at the Modified level first. If that proved challenging enough for them, they may stay at the Modified level. 

The Modified level has had the impact of reducing the overall number of both Training and Preliminary starters across the country. The data confirms this. According to the USEA, the Modified Level currently makes up 5.1% of national HT starters (BN-A). For comparison, Advanced makes up 1.0% of the national HT starters, Intermediate makes up 4.4% of national HT starters, Preliminary makes up 12.5% of national HT starters, and Training makes up 22.9% of national HT starters.  

Rewinding back to 2016, before the Modified level was introduced, at year end Advanced made up 1.1% of national HT starters, Intermediate made up 4.8% of national starters, Preliminary made up 15.8% of national HT starters, and Training made up 27.3% of national HT starters. 

The difference in the number of Preliminary starters (15.8% to 12.5%) and Training level starters (27.3% to 22.9%) from 2016 to 2022 suggests that some of those Preliminary and Training level starters were displaced by the Modified level starters. In other words, people who would have been going Preliminary and Training were going Modified instead. Overall, this is probably a good thing. Pairs that may not have had the skills to do Preliminary but wanted something more challenging than Training level benefitted from the Modified level. 

Fiona Hazel and Menue Rendezvous. Photo courtesy of Joan Davis/Flatlandsfoto.

One issue with introducing a new level is that it takes time for venues to invest in the infrastructure to cater to that level. Not every venue has Modified level events on offer. Area II, where I’m based, has a plethora of Modified events compared to other areas — but still, fewer than half of the venues in Area II offer the level. The expenses associated with procuring a new set of cross country jumps for a Modified course are not small– and while it’s true that some Modified courses share jumps with Training and Preliminary courses, venues must still make an investment in many new jumps to hold divisions at the Modified level. 

It’s difficult for venues to spend tens of thousands of dollars on new jumps if they don’t have the assurance that their investment will pay off in the form of enough entries at the Modified level. But organizers should be encouraged by what the data is saying about the popularity of the Modified level. If you build it, they will enter. The number of Modified level starters has increased considerably year over year. There were 28 Modified starters in 2017, 321 in 2018, 564 in 2019, 791 in 2020, 1410 in 2021, and 1555 in 2022. So although the initial investment may be large, over time the corresponding increase in entries should prove to pay off that investment. 

Another benefit of the Modified level is that it prepares horses and riders for FEI competition, especially with the introduction of the one-star level at international competitions. There were almost 60 entries in the CCI1*-L division at the November Tryon International Three-Day Event, with entrants ranging from teenagers and amateurs entering their first FEI event to established professionals giving their younger horses FEI experience. A few years ago, there was no CCI1* level at all, anywhere in the world — or at least not at this height. The FEI levels began at the 2* level, which was originally named the 1* level, but is equivalent to the national Preliminary level. Now the 1* level is well-subscribed and popular — largely because it’s more accessible for juniors and amateurs and creates a positive, tangible goal that’s realistic for many more competitors. 

Overall, the introduction of the Modified level to U.S. Eventing has been met with support, and it appears to have many benefits. I’ll continue to use it to help my young horses move up the levels confidently and to introduce my students to the upper levels in an educational way. I encourage other event riders to do the same, and eventing venues to hold the Modified level. 

Thanks to the USEA for providing the data for this article.  

 

How It Started and Where It’s Going: Catching Up with Ride iQ Founders Jessa & McKinsey Lux

Photo by Sally Spickard.

Jessa, 32, and Kinsey Lux, 28, are sisters. They grew up in Minnesota but spent most of their high school years in Ocala, FL riding and being coached by Kyle and Jennifer Carter; Kinsey even transferred to an online high school to live next door to the Carters. Jessa and Kinsey both competed to the 2* level before going to college, which marked a big transition: they sold their horses and pursued careers unrelated to equestrian sports. Jessa landed in Denver and Kinsey in New York City.

Kinsey worked for five years at Blackstone, a large hedge fund in New York City, on a real estate trading desk. Jessa was most recently the Community Manager for a digital design agency in Denver, and prior to that was a Marketing Director at a commercial real estate company for five years, and a website designer for a tech company.

In January of 2021, when the Covid-19 pandemic turned the world on its head, Jessa and Kinsey scratched an itch — the itch to discover a business opportunity within equestrian sports. Their experience working in the business world drove home an understanding that the best business ideas do two things: address consumers’ needs and add value to consumers’ lives.

They knew from experience where shortcomings existed in riders’ experiences, but they needed to hear from others to understand where to focus. So they talked with countless riders, the vast majority of whom they didn’t know. They’d have one phone conversation and end the call by asking who they should talk to next. A lot of “shortcomings” surfaced through those discussions, but the ones they felt most excited to address were the shortcomings that exist around independent riding.

One of the shortcomings of riding alone is that it can be hard to feel motivated and make progress. Whether you’re mindlessly riding in circles or finding yourself frustrated by something you don’t know how to solve, there’s definite room for improvement in independent riding. I find this to be true myself: my horses always go better when I am riding them in a lesson, whether it’s on the flat or over fences.

According to Jessa and Kinsey, people ride alone 80% of the time; some riders are lucky to work with an in-person coach once a week, and some once a month or even less frequently. Riding lessons are expensive, time-consuming, and often require travel to a coach’s facility. Jessa and Kinsey identified the lack of quality, consistent coaching as a major issue for many riders.

Their conviction was that riders were ready for this status quo to be disrupted.

How to address the opportunity came quickly after that: people need quality guidance while they ride and they need to be able to afford it as often as they want. These are simply boxes that FaceTime lessons and educational videos can’t simultaneously check. Jessa and Kinsey decided that the best way to address these needs was with on-demand audio lessons taught by top coaches. Like Nike Run Club for runners or Headspace for meditators, this solution allows riders to get guidance while performing an activity.

From here, the plan for what is now known as Ride iQ formed: to create a lesson, they would have a coach record themselves while riding a horse. The coach would explain what they were doing while riding (i.e. “to create bend around this circle, I am closing my inside leg at the girth and keeping my outside rein steady, while keeping my eyes up and looking around the circle”). This audio file would then be uploaded to an app, where Ride iQ subscribers could click “play” as they started riding their own horse and follow the patterns and directions of the coaches. The idea was simple, and they hoped that it would work.

At this point, Jessa and Kinsey called the Carters out of the blue. Having been students of the Carters growing up, Jessa and Kinsey knew they wanted Jen and Kyle to be on their team as they worked on building this business. Jessa and Kinsey went to Florida, where Kyle, Jennifer, Leslie Law, and Jon Holling were the first coaches to record lessons so the concept could be tested.

Fortunately, Jessa and Kinsey’s initial discovery calls had left them with lots of contacts who were willing to help at this stage, and 50 of those people (all ages, locations, disciplines, and levels) agreed to be official test riders. Jessa and Kinsey sent the beta version of the app and lessons to this group, and over the course of eight months they adjusted the product according to feedback, built an app, and recruited more coaches across both eventing and dressage.

Ride iQ was founded on the principles of loving the horse, and that better-educated riders make better horse people. Photo by Sally Spickard.

It was in the early summer of 2021 that Jessa and Kinsey approached me and asked me to be a coach on their app. I was intrigued; this sounded like one of the exciting ideas that my smartest friends in undergrad would have come up with for a startup. I was also struggling, as all of us were, to create a new normal in the pandemic. I jumped at the opportunity to record lessons for them. I have done recordings on all of my horses, from my 5* partner Bendigo to my young horses.

Ride iQ officially launched on August 17, 2021. Although test riders were enjoying and frequently using the app up to this point, there was much to learn during the earliest days after launch.

Were riders ready to embrace a new way of doing things? Would they embrace a brand-new concept and the use of technology in day-to-day rides? After launch, all the signs pointed to “yes!” — the equestrian market was eager to adopt a tool that made riding alone better. Ride iQ exceeded its first month’s membership goals within the first few days, and the Ride iQ community has continued to surpass expectations over the past 16 months.

Since its inception, Ride iQ:

  • Grew to 19 top coaches across eventing, dressage, Pony Club, sports psychology, and groundwork
    • In 2023, Ride iQ will have coaching teams in other countries including the UK and Australia (official announcements coming soon!)
  • Has members in 50 states and 40 countries; members span a wide range of disciplines, levels, and ages.
  • Established official partnerships with USEA, USPC, and RRP
  • Hosted a virtual anniversary party on Zoom with lots of members in attendance from all over – including plenty of members tuning in from horseback as you might imagine!
  • Won Denver Startup Week’s pitch competition, the largest free entrepreneurship event in the world open to companies in all industries
  • Hosted 70+ live events (one every week without a miss!) with guest experts including U.S. team veterinarian Dr. Lisa Cassinella, equine nutritionist Dr. Katie Young, World Championships ground jury member Peter Gray, and many others
  • Launched the In Stride podcast, hosted by Sinead Halpin Maynard. In Stride has had over 40 episodes and guests have included top riders (such as David O’Connor, Liz Halliday Sharp, and Will Coleman) and professionals in other areas (like sports psychologist Dr. Jenny Susser and freedom-based training advocate Elsa Sinclair).

But the most important highlight, Jess and Kinsey tell me, is that they continue to hear from members every day about how Ride iQ has positively impacted their riding, their relationship with their horse, their enjoyment of the sport, and their connection to others.

The impact piece is incredibly important to the Ride iQ coaches, too — it’s special to them that Ride iQ is a way they can help a lot more people. Members made a year end video for them at the close of 2022 to express their gratitude.

Some things to look forward to in 2023 for Ride iQ include:

  • Taking on new coaches from around the world and new disciplines
  • A new in-app and website experience, just launched on January 5
  • Growing their team (if you’re looking for an awesome job within equestrian sports, send them a note at [email protected])
  • Continuing to release lessons and programs to support members in everything they do
  • Participating in an elite 13-week accelerator for emerging companies, Techstars, beginning on January 9th

How can you try out Ride iQ? The best and easiest way is to download the app in the app store on iPhone or Android and start a two-week free trial. You can cancel anytime and still have access for the full two weeks, and you can have access to all 400+ lessons. The other perk of starting the free trial is getting full access to membership perks beyond the lessons: you will be invited to join the private Facebook group with members and coaches, be invited to a live Ask An Expert event every week, and get access to all of Ride iQ’s exclusive podcasts (like Hack Chats and Conversations with Coaches).

Alternatively, those interested in Ride iQ can search “Ride iQ, A Preview” on Spotify, Apple Podcasts, or any podcast platform – there, you can choose from a handful of full-length lessons plus a couple of examples of full-length Ride iQ podcast episodes.

Go Ride iQ. Go Eventing.

Preparing for Cross Country Like Preparing for an Exam

Practicing for high-pressure competition starts with the fundamentals of preparation. Photo by Shelby Allen.

For the first two weeks of December, I was taking my final exams of the semester in law school. The timing works out well in the fall semester because the exams are in early December, so there’s no chance of a horse show distracting me.

Even though I wasn’t horse-showing during those weeks, I couldn’t help but thinking about how exam preparation is similar to cross country preparation. In law school, the final exam in a class generally counts for 100% of your grade in that class. You are responsible for digesting all of the material, lectures, and cases over a four-month period, and then you have to sit down for two or three hours one day and write essays to demonstrate that you’ve mastered it.

It’s broadly terrifying.

Horse shows are the same way. No one sees the day-to-day, week-to-week, month-to-month training. The judge doesn’t know that it took you six months to persuade your horse to go on the bit in the canter departure or three years to figure out how not to be crooked on the centerline.

All they see is the finished product, and you have five minutes in the ring to show off your training. In the case of cross country, you have a few minutes on the course to put your training to the test. Does your horse have the balance required to navigate terrain questions? Do you have the adjustability to bring her back for a technical combination? Does she understand skinny and corner fences? All of those questions and more are what the course designer asks of you — and they are the test of whether your training was on point.

On an exam, the professor cannot possibly cover all of the material that you’ve learned over the course of three months. We study hundreds of cases in these classes; asking about all of them would be impossible in a three-hour exam.

In the same way, the course designer cannot put every conceivable question she wants to put on a cross country course. She can cover the main bases for the level — at intermediate, for instance, a drop into water, a couple of corners and skinnies, and some terrain and adjustability questions — but she cannot possibly throw the whole book at you.

So how do you prepare for a big exam? Do you try to guess what the professor is going to ask, and focus on those areas? Or do you study as though any one topic could be the main essay question, going in-depth everywhere in the hopes that you can be an expert on every conceivable question the professor might ask? I do a little bit of both.

I try to cover all of the major topics so that I am prepared for anything. If you try to guess what the professor is going to ask and guess wrong, you could be very unhappy on exam day. However, it does pay off to think about what the questions could be, given what the professor tends to emphasize in class and the connections that have come up again and again during the semester.

How often do you replicate “high pressure” in your practice? Photo courtesy of Ema Klugman.

So, how do you prepare for a cross-country test? Do you guess what the course designer is going to put on the course and focus on that, or do you try to comprehensively cover everything so that you will be prepared for whatever ends up being on the course?

Again, it’s probably a case of doing a little bit of both. As a long-term approach, the latter idea is best because you want your horse to understand cross country inside and out, no matter who the course designer is. But if you are preparing for an event where you know there will be a hard coffin, or a sunken road, it is probably smart to school those types of questions in the weeks leading up to that event, especially if they are unusual or relatively new to your horse.

It’s not a bad thing to study strategically, but in the end, you need to be able to have the tools to conquer anything the course designer throws at you. That means that the basics are a priority, and all of the themes of cross-country riding that any good designer tests are key: balance, adjustability, turning ability, and accuracy.

The analogy applies another way: when you prepare for an exam, you have to flex your muscles in a way that resembles the test itself. I have made the mistake of reading and re-reading study materials for hours on end but never actually taking a practice exam. I might have all of the right ideas in my head, but if I cannot produce them in a time-pressured setting, they are useless.

The same can be said for cross country. We can school the questions all we want, but if we don’t practice in a time-pressured, adrenaline-filled way every once in a while to prepare for the show, we may not be able to produce the best results in competition.

For example, if you always jump corners from a slow, controlled canter and give your horse walk breaks after each combination you practice during a cross-country school, you aren’t replicating what you are going to face in the actual competition. You and your horse have to know the feeling of being a bit on the muscle, or a bit tired when it comes to the end of the course, and still make it work.

That’s not to say that there’s no time for slow, methodical cross country training — of course there is. But if all we do is re-read the cases and never take a practice exam, the feeling of sitting down for the test (or heading out of the start box) can be totally foreign.

The cross country test of eventing is unique. Although we know the dressage test in advance, and we know the basic range of possibilities that will be tested in the show jumping in advance, we don’t really know what the cross country course will throw at us. Thus, the preparation for this phase is crucial.

Studying different kinds of courses and the trends of course designing can help, but in the end being well-rounded in all of the subject matter will produce the best and most consistent results. (That, and going to class, of course!)

Research is a Good Thing: On the Virginia Tech Helmet Lab Study

Allison Springer was the first five-star rider to don a helmet in the first phase of eventing competition. Leslie Threlkeld Photo.

This editorial was co-written by Ema Klugman and Elena Perea, MD.

We have come a long way in the last several years in terms of helmet safety in our sport. In 2010, Allison Springer rode in a helmet in her dressage test at the Kentucky Three-Day Event — the first-ever rider to ditch her top hat in the first phase at that event. Less than 15 years later, the helmet has become not just the norm but the rule.

While it is wonderful that we rarely see an event rider on a horse without a helmet now, we can go above just wearing any helmet —- we can try to wear the most protective, best fitting headgear we can.

In December of 2022, Virginia Tech released the results of its study on equestrian helmets. The VTHL ratings reflect “impact tests” the lab used to “evaluate a helmet’s ability to reduce linear and rotational acceleration of the head from a range of head impacts a rider might experience”. Virginia Tech publishes ratings for a range of different sport helmets, including football, hockey, and whitewater rafting; this research has, as a result, influenced the landscape of helmet safety in each of those sports.

It’s important for us as equestrians to protect our heads. We each only get one of them, and we are bound to fall off at some point and hit our heads! The results of the Virginia Tech helmet study were not what some riders or companies were expecting, particularly when helmets that had gotten top ratings in another study conducted in 2021 by Swedish insurance group Folksam were ranked much lower in this study. More expensive helmets did not necessarily perform better in the VT study; indeed, the #2 ranked helmet costs less than $100. Manufacturers defended their products, and there were a whole range of different reactions from riders online.

We need to remember that we need this data, because research is a good thing. Preventing catastrophic brain injuries is a good thing; protecting against the more common concussion is also a good thing. Really, the most surprising thing about this study was not necessarily its results, but the fact that it has taken so long for independent research to be done on the efficacy of equestrian helmets.

It wasn’t so long ago top hats were still the norm for event riders. As of 2021, head protection is compulsory in eventing competition. Photo by Tilly Berendt.

It’s a realization that sparks a larger question: do equestrian consumers buy research-backed products? How much independent research is out there for equestrian products, especially for those we depend on to keep us safe?

This is not to say that there are no standards. The ASTM/SEI standards, which apply to North American helmet companies, have been in place for decades with respect to equestrian helmets. However, those standards act as a floor for safety focused on catastrophic injury such as skull fracture -— once the product has met those standards, suppliers do not necessarily have an incentive to make their helmets safer. Research requires funding, and while some helmet manufacturers have dedicated Research and Development arms, not all have the resources (and, yes, in some cases the gumption) to dive into the improvement cycle. An independent rating system creates competition among suppliers and pushes all of them to produce the safest helmets possible, and could also lead to stronger funding for further development.

I spoke with Elena Perea, MD, an amateur eventer guest writer for Eventing Nation, about this issue. She has emphasized that, in general, we have a lack of data backing up our products in equestrian sports. Lola B. Chambless, MD, who has consulted with USEF and the FEI, wrote to us in an email that there is a similar problem in air vests:

“Equestrian air vests were designed to reduce injury during a fall from horse, and these products may have undergone internal testing during their design phase. However, to my knowledge, no company producing this equipment has made public any data that shows that they actually reduce injury frequency or severity in any way. Even more worryingly, no data has been produced to show that they do not actually INCREASE the risk of injury. No independent product testing has been performed or published, and unlike conventional body protectors and helmets, there are no safety standard in place to ensure this equipment is working as marketed.

While it might seem reasonable to wear an air vest with the mindset that ‘it can’t hurt and it might help’, this unfortunately isn’t true. Many safety interventions have failed because of unintended consequences the designers did not foresee. As an expert in the biomechanics of the brain and spine, I can hypothesize several ways that deployment of an air vest could potentially worsen a neurologic injury. Performing studies to clarify this issue is absolutely feasible, but doing so would require that equestrians demand this evidence to support the use of air vests before they make a purchase. Riders deserve the same investment in their safety equipment that is seen in much larger sports like football or cycling, but we will have to hold our product manufacturers to a high standard if we expect results.”

What can data like this do? First, it encourages companies to create better products. The primary investigator from the helmet study, Dr. Barry Miller, gave an hour-long lecture on YouTube in which he pointed out that when Virginia Tech released the initial football helmet test results, there was only one helmet that got a 5 star rating. However, in reaction to those results, football helmet manufacturers improved their products. Now, every football helmet on the market has a 5 star rating. Similarly, Dr. Miller anticipates that these equestrian helmet ratings will drive a rapid improvement in helmet quality in the horse world.

There have certainly been some defensive reactions to this data from helmet manufacturers. For instance, MIPS, which is not a helmet manufacturer but rather a provider of the MIPS safety system to several different manufacturers, released a statement following the results noting “room for improvement” on some aspects of the test and Virginia Tech’s rating methods. Charles Owen criticized the study because it “focuses on just one potential cause of concussion”. To some extent, defensiveness and criticism is expected: every company wants to protect their products and their processes. And to be certain: further advancement in the research itself means these tests should continue with future iterations. Meanwhile, other companies have also been receptive to the VT study and have welcomed the innovation that its results will surely drive.

No one envies the job of a helmet manufacturer. There are umpteen different ways that a rider can fall off of a horse, get rolled on, get kicked in the head, or sustain a head injury in some other way. Designing a helmet that will protect riders in all of those situations is undoubtedly difficult, and it’s important to note that not every helmet will fit every head — a good fit should still rank on your criteria list.

Despite these challenges, we as an industry should, similarly to our counterparts in other sports, welcome and encourage independent research that tests the efficacy of our safety equipment. The Virginia Tech Helmet Lab will be performing research on body protectors in the coming years, which will hopefully inform improved development in that area as well. Research drives innovation, which in turn drives evolution. We should demand (and push to fund) more of it.

Know Your Helmet Research!

There are several resources available to help you conduct your own consumer research for the best helmet. While each study conducted may result in varying conclusions, each research effort helps us to better understand what makes a safe piece of equipment and how it should function. The following link list reflects information, opinions, and analysis on the topic of helmet research from a variety of viewpoints.

[Virginia Tech Expands Helmet Ratings to Equestrian]
[Virginia Tech Reveals Research Behind Upcoming STAR Ratings]
[Virginia Tech Helmet Ratings]
[MIPS Welcomes VA Tech Helmet Ratings, Warns Tests May Fall Short]
[Folksam Test of 12 Riding Helmets]
[MIPS Protection System Equestrian Helmets – Facebook Group]
[Folksam’s Test of Equestrian Helmets Shows Major Differences]
[Ride EquiSafe: Virginia Tech Helmet Study Initial Results]
[Ride EquiSafe: Virginia Tech Helmet Study, Part 2: The Aftermath]
[Ride EquiSafe: Where Do We Go From Here?]

Taking Risks and Showing Up: The Incredible Story of Young Rider and Cancer Survivor Jordan Riske

Jordan Riske celebrates more than a few achievements at Tryon International. Photo by Shannon Brinkman Photography.

Upon winning the CCIY3*-L championship last month at Tryon, Jordan Riske had perhaps the biggest smile on her face of any winner that weekend. The 20-year-old who hails from Manchester, MI had conquered not only her and her horse’s first 3*-L competition, but also a severe form of cancer.

This time last year, Jordan was undergoing chemotherapy and unable to ride.

The story begins in the spring of 2021, when Jordan was training in Aiken, preparing for the upcoming season. It was then that she noticed a swollen lymph node in her neck, and soon found another one next to her throat that seemed to be growing. Jordan’s farrier, Dawn Rammage, also a nurse who works on an infusion floor for cancer patients, recommended that she get it checked out.

A biopsy revealed cancer cells, but the doctors could not determine the source of the cancer. Jordan subsequently underwent multiple CT scans, PET scans, and an MRI, which showed nodules on her lungs and behind her nose. It was Nasopharyngeal cancer, which is not at all common in her age bracket. The cancer tends to affect elderly men who smoke heavily, but somehow, Jordan had gotten it.

“It would have spread to my lungs next, and that was pretty terrifying because they said it was not really curable if it spread to my lungs,” Jordan explained.

The doctors instructed her to start treatment as soon as she could. But there was one thing she wanted to do before starting treatment: she wanted to run a 3* with her longtime partner, Redemption Song. That she did, finishing just outside of the top ten at the Hagyard Midsouth 3*-S in October of 2021.

Jordan Riske and Redemption Song. Photo by JJ Sillman.

Then it was time to tackle the cancer. “Before I started my treatments, I reached out to Jess Halliday, and she gave me really good advice,” Jordan said. The much-loved late Jess Halliday, known for her advocacy apparel line Buck Off Cancer, passed away from colon cancer in October 2021. “I didn’t know Jess, but I had heard her podcast on Major League Eventing.” Ever-generous, Jess spoke with Jordan about the challenges of cancer treatments and how hard it is to spend time on the sidelines.

“I can’t let this define me.” Jordan told herself this, and that she would get through the cancer treatments. She and her family kept positive attitudes throughout the process. She did three rounds of chemotherapy, had one month off, and then seven more weeks of chemo and radiation. These weeks were intense: the treatments happened five days per week, for seven weeks straight. This started before Christmas of 2021 and continued through the spring of 2022.

“I would just think about the hospital and get sick,” Jordan explained. She developed association sickness, particularly because of the manner in which the treatments were done. Because the cancer was behind her nose, she had to lie on a table and wear a mask that was bolted to the table through which the radiation was administered. “It really made me have a good mental game, to stay strong through that.”

She said that she felt okay physically, but the treatments made her exhausted. “By the end of the treatments, I could hardly do anything I was so weak.” She spent the majority of her time resting.

There was another challenge to undergoing such intense cancer treatments: Jordan could not ride. Her friend Kristen Rozycki agreed to take Redemption Song (known in the barn as “Breezy”), on for a while down in Aiken to keep her going. “I had never been away from this horse for longer than a week,” she explains.

The mask Jordan wore during her treatments.

Indeed, Jordan’s whole life had been consumed with horses. “I grew up helping out with beginner lessons and my mother’s horse camps,” she explains. She and her mother, Amy Riske, buy young horses and train them up the levels, which is how she ended up with Breezy. They also have a small breeding program, with several thoroughbred mares and a warmblood stallion. She has also been awarded her traditional A rating from Huron Valley Pony Club in the Great Lakes Region. Thus, a disease that pulled her away from the horse world was difficult.

Jordan finished treatments on March 11, 2022. “My birthday was March 14, so that was an amazing birthday present.” Soon after that, she went down to Aiken to pick up Breezy from Kristen. She recalls having a jumping lesson and feeling like she could get right back into action. Her doctor approved, but he was surprised that she had so much energy so soon after the treatments.

Jordan and Breezy competed at River Glen in the Intermediate/Prelim six weeks after her final cancer treatment. She then groomed for her coach, Robin, at the Lexington 4*-S at the end of April.

In May, Jordan went in for another PET scan, from which there were still some found to be spots of cancer evident, but in August she had a clean PET scan. She was cancer-free and is now in remission. She’ll continue to have scans done regularly, given the increased risk of recurrence.

Still, Jordan is not slowing down. If anything, she seems to be putting down the accelerator. Having recently finished her Associate’s degree in Business Administration at Washtenaw Community College, she is hoping to transfer next spring to Eastern Michigan University. Alongside her studies, she works for 4* rider Robin Walker, who spends the winters in Ocala. She is also hoping to move up to the Advanced level next year with Redemption Song.

Jordan Riske and Redemption Song. Photo by Shannon Brinkman Photography.

“She absolutely loves her job, she will jump the moon for me,” Jordan smiles as she describes her now-3* horse whom she purchased for $1800 in Indiana when she herself was only 14 years old. “She was the first horse that I bought myself,” she explains, adding that they have had a few bumps along the way, including a broken splint bone and an old injury to the SI ligament. It seems that both of them are fighters.

At Tryon, Jordan and Breezy came out on top of the young rider 3* division, and her combined team of Areas V and VIII also won the team competition.

If you had told her a year ago that she would have produced such a great result in Tryon, Jordan would have smiled humbly, but I think that she would have believed you. She’s the kind that has the self-belief to make it happen.

The “Quiet Eye” and Mental Performance

Could a quiet focus be the key to sporting success? Photo by Tilly Berendt.

“I’ve won most of my matches – probably all of my grand slams – because of what’s upstairs, not anything else,” Serena Williams told Sports Illustrated in 2015. Regulating emotions, staying calm, and maintaining focus are essential skills for athletes. Recent research into the “quiet eye” phenomenon shows that this mental performance may be connected to an athlete’s eyes and vision.

You may have seen it if you’ve set jumps for a rider in the warm-up area — the look in a person’s eye in the last few strides before a fence. Up close, you can see it: there is a quietness, an extreme focus, that occurs. This look in the eye is one that seems incapable of being distracted. You might also see it in the moments before a rider slips their reins to jump into a water jump, or before they come down to a final halt on the centerline. The look is one of extraordinary focus and stillness.

Scientists call this phenomenon the “quiet eye.” The ability to focus intensely, but also calmly, has been shown to occur in conjunction with this particular “look.” It is likely what gives Serena Williams and other top athletes their edge.

As David Robson writes in an article for BBC Future, the “quiet eye” phenomenon is correlated with a “sensation of effortless concentration, in which your mind is clear of everything except the task at hand.” Kinesiologist Joan Vickers has studied the quiet eye by hooking up athletes to a device that tracks their eye movements. Her finding is simple: better athletes tend to focus longer on a particular point. For example, with golfers, she found that the better players had a longer and steadier gaze on the ball just before, and then during, their strike. Less experienced golfers, on the other hand, shifted their focus between different areas.

So what is happening during this moment of the “quiet eye”? Crucially, in the most stressful part of a game, the athlete is slowing down their mental processes, rather than speeding them up. Researchers have also found that in this moment, athletes have lower heart rates. This seems to suggest that the quiet eye repels distraction and calms the athlete during the critical moment.

Have you ever lost focus during a dressage test? Felt stressed during a show jumping round? Struggled to stay calm and focused during a cross country round? (I have.) The idea of maintaining focus by honing in on a particular point makes a lot of sense for riders as well as other types of athletes. Instead of getting distracted and flicking our eyes between lots of different things in the arena, we are likely better served by focusing on one thing, whether it be the letter toward which we are riding as we trot across the diagonal, or the line on which we are trying to stay as we navigate a combination of jumps. Instructors often encourage riders to look where they are going, but the idea of looking, and really seeing, sometimes eludes us. That focused vision provides not only clarity of direction, but also focus.

Can you teach the “quiet eye,” or is it innate? Research suggests that the skill can be learned. The same researcher, Vickers, tried to train the quiet eye into a group of university basketball players. She attached them to eye-tracking devices so that they had heightened awareness of their eye movements as they practiced free throws, and over the next two seasons, their performance improved by 22 percent. Their free throw average after going through the study exceeded that of the NBA average. The control group, who had not undergone the quiet eye training, only improved by 8 percent. While most athletes probably do not have access to eye-tracking devices, being aware of eye movements and practicing control of the gaze can, it seems, lead to improved performance.

Riding is a physical sport, but it is unique in that the primary athlete is not the human. The horse is the one doing the dressage movements, galloping the distance, and jumping the jumps. The rider is orchestrating, balancing, signaling, improving, and helping the horse, but the horse is ultimately the one moving his feet and making the task at hand happen. In such a physical sport, it is easy to focus on the physical aspects: the fitness, the scope, the agility, the suppleness. But just as many sports commentators still focus on physical rather than mental strength of athletes, as riders we also tend to overlook the mental side of things. The mental capacity to focus, to improve a performance that is not going to plan, and to stay calm in moments of extreme anxiety is what may matter most.

The research finding that expert athletes actually slow down their thinking at the crucial moment in competition is instructive. I sometimes come out of the show arena thinking “that course happened to me.” Rather than a feeling of my own riding and plan executing the course, I feel as though the course was just happening and the jumps were coming so quickly that I was doing triage. This feeling is probably a result of my brain (and likely my horse’s brain) moving too quickly. We all do it; we all succumb to stress. But knowing that there is scientific research behind the idea of athletes slowing down their mental processes in these stressful moments shows that ability to slow down really is something we should all strive to achieve.

Uniquely, in our sport, there are two athletes. So do horses have the “quiet eye” as well? It may not be backed by scientific research, but anyone who has watched a top horse study its jumps in the final strides of their approach might agree that there is some aspect of a quiet eye phenomenon occurring in the equine athlete as well. It may be what we have customarily called the “look of eagles,” but in fact, it could be an amazing athlete honing their focus.

Canadian Young Riders in Full Force at Young Rider Championships in Tryon

Canada’s young riders are out in force in Tryon – and making a serious impression as they tackle the competition. Photo by Ema Klugman.

It’s Friday morning, and a roar goes up from the spectator section in the Tryon main stadium. You would have thought a well-known four-star rider was finishing their dressage test, but no — it’s more likely to be a young rider in the 1* division with a full cheering squad. That’s the magic of team competitions like the Young Rider Championship this week: the riders are here not in an individual capacity, but rather as part of a team unit. And their enthusiasm is boundless.

I spoke with several members of the Canadian teams competing here this week to get their perspective on the competition, the venue, and their journey to get here. Canada is fielding an impressive three teams: an Ontario/Quebec team (competing in the 1 star), an Alberta team (also in the 1 star), and a combined “Team Canada” team (from various locations in Canada, competing in the 2 star).

For most of these riders, this is their first team competition and their first FEI event. More than anything, this weekend is a learning experience for them. They come from different backgrounds and ride all different breeds of horses, many of whom are self-made. For example, I talked with Emma McHugh, an 18-year-old who started riding when she was eight. She first learned about eventing in 2018, and four years later she has two horses in the 1* division here. Both of her horses are thoroughbreds. Lincoln Park and Ricochet are her partners this weekend, the latter of which she got straight off the track just three years ago. She drove two days to get here, and she is studying business in school.

“There’s a big difference compared to the shows at home,” Emma explains. “We liked the jog, and it’s fun having the team experience. It’s also exciting to be here and see the higher levels go.” The Young Rider Championships this year and last year have been integrated with the larger competition at the Tryon Three-Day Event, which also features a 4*-L and 4*-S. The advantage of having the young riders compete in a larger competition is that they can watch lots of upper level riders compete.

Kendal Lehari, chef d’equipe of the Ontario team and co-chair, with Nikki McLellan, of the Ontario under-25 program, won the North American Young Rider Championships in 2006, the final year that it was a long-format event. She now competes for Team Canada, including in Nations Cup events. As she reflected, it used to be three disciplines (dressage, show jumping, and eventing) at the same show, so young riders could watch other young riders competing in the other disciplines. Now, it is siloed, which makes it a different experience for the riders. Young Rider Championships also used to be in the summer (typically in July), but it seems as though it will continue to be in the fall going forward. I asked the riders about this, and they said that it had advantages and disadvantages. The pros were that the later date meant that they had the year to get qualified, but the cons were that the fall event tends to be during or right before exams for those in school.

“There have been big improvements this year versus last year — there is separate scoring for the young riders, separate jogs, and separate events, like a dinner exclusively for young riders, which allowed them to get to know each other,” Kendal explains. The organization around the young riders has helped them really feel like they are at a championship.

“It’s a lot of hours but it’s worth it,” said Megane Sauve, 20, who is competing in the 2* division and also works full-time for Jessica Phoenix in Toronto. She started riding at 13, and her thoroughbred, Nuance, was her very first horse. She got her when she was four years old and trained her up in eventing, and they are now at their first FEI event. Tryon has been different from anything she’s ever done, she explains: “the team ambience is really fun to have. Every day we are together, cheering for each other.”

Coming from Canada, many of these young riders had long journeys to get here. “My GPS said 18 hours but it took about 22 hours,” laughs Cassandre Leblanc, 21, who made the trip from Quebec. Cassandre became a working student for Holly Jacks-Smithers at 18 years old, which is where she got hooked on eventing. She is riding a homebred ¾ TB, ¼ Percheron named Riffel. As she explained, the horse’s mother was saved from a slaughterhouse, so he was not necessarily destined for international eventing. She developed a bond with him because he stopped eating his food, so she would sit in his field and hand-feed him. Eventually, she started riding him, and they are now competing at the two-star level.

“It’s exciting for the sport in Canada to have so many riders qualified and competing,” Cassandre underscores, noting that the U25 program in Canada was just revived as well.

Her team is currently in gold medal position, “and we would like to stay there!” she says with a smile.

Kyle Carter has been an instrumental part of the Canadian Young Riders program – but the riders have shown equal dedication in making their way to his base for training. Photo by Ema Klugman.

Many of the young riders competing here this weekend are in school, so they have had to balance their studies with a lot of travel and taking time off to compete. Their schedules have required real dedication. For example, the Alberta team did a training camp with their team coach, Kyle Carter, in Florida before coming to Tryon. “It took 5 days to get there!” they said, but noted that the experience was invaluable. The Alberta team also emphasized that they did plenty of fundraising to get here, including through silent auctions and a clinic with Peter Gray.

As one of the riders told me, “being able to come here and see all the incredible riders and the incredible facility has been amazing.” Another said, “I just liked riding in the big ring!”. Indeed, for these young riders, learning about jogs, ring familiarization, and all that goes into a successful three-day event is a good experience, not only for them but for their horses as well. Thank you to Tryon and the Dutta Corp for providing this experience for these young riders, and good luck, Canada!

Team scores can be found here.

Meet Hayley Frielick, the U.S.-Based Kiwi Eventer Heading for the Maryland 5 Star

Hayley Frielick and Dunedin Black Watch. Photo by snapshotaustralia.

In July, 29 year-old New Zealander Hayley Frielick bought a one-way ticket to the United States. She traveled across the world from Australia with two horses to base herself in America, quitting her job as an analyst for a bank before the move. She is currently based at Dom and Jimmie Schramm’s farm in Pennsylvania. With her Australian thoroughbred Dunedin Black Watch, she will compete at the upcoming Maryland 5 Star.

Hayley’s parents are from South Africa, and she was born in America but competes for New Zealand. She grew up in Australia but also spent several years living in Scotland, so she is no stranger to moving around the globe. She has competed at the Adelaide 5 Star, but Maryland will be her first 5 star outside of the southern hemisphere.

I met Hayley ten years ago during a brief working student stint I did with Australian eventer Jade Findlay. I was just a kid and I admired how she rode and the way she trained her horses. Fast forward to 2022, and she has come to America to train and campaign her horses. The motivations for the move, she told me, were both necessity and a hunger to improve.

“Really, we were just looking for dry land!” Hayley jokes, describing what pushed her to relocate halfway around the globe. Over the last couple of years, New South Wales, where Hayley lived in Australia, has suffered from severe flooding. Farms have been under water for days at a time, and several events have had to cancel.

Photo by Britt Grovenor Photography.

Hayley has wanted to compete at a foreign five-star for a few years, and after missing out on the chance to run Kentucky two years ago because of COVID, she was hungry to get to a big overseas event. The last straw was the fact that the Adelaide 5 star was announced to not be occurring this year, and has moved from its initial date in November to next April.

In June, Hayley looked into the possibility of coming to America. The problem was that there was a scarcity of flights. “I tried to book flights for my horses, and the agent I spoke with told me that they could leave on a flight in two weeks, but after that, he wasn’t sure when the next flights would be.” It was much earlier than she had planned, but Hayley did not want to miss out on a chance to move, so she put her horses on that flight.

“The journey was crazy. The horses flew from Melbourne to Hanoi to Doha to Luxembourg, and then finally to Chicago.” Luckily, they had ample time to recover once reaching the States, and Hayley joined them in July. She brought over Dunedin Black Watch (aka “Nelson”) and a five year-old homebred called Dunedin My Goodness, who is related to her former five-star horses My Happiness and Class Action LP.

Hayley and co-owner Katie Robertson found “Nelson” in the Australian outback. “He was actually part of a 2-for-1 deal,” Hayley laughs. “We went out there to look at another horse, and Katie said, actually, I really like that black one, let’s get him too.” Taking that chance paid off, and now the horse is headed to his first 5 star.

Since arriving, she has run the horse at the Great Meadow and Unionville CCI-short events to prepare for Maryland. Maryland will be his first five-star. “The track should really suit him,” Hayley explains, noting that having a full thoroughbred should be an advantage at the hilly venue. “He has the biggest heart, and he’s quick,” she notes, adding that she is really excited to have the opportunity to compete another horse at five-star.

“I’m not sure what my longer-term plan is,” Hayley admits, adding that it will depend a bit on how Maryland goes. “Right now, we are focusing on Maryland, and after that we will figure everything else out.” She hopes to go to Florida for the winter months, and may aim for Kentucky in the spring. “I am a U.S. citizen, because I was born here, so that gives me a lot of flexibility,” Hayley points out.

She has the option of staying here in the long-term, which she says she is seriously considering. She is open for business, and enjoys teaching both locally and doing clinics. “There are so many opportunities in America,” she adds, “so I am hoping to have a crack at it.”

What Impact Has the Compulsory Retirement Rule Had on U.S. Eventing? A Look at One Year of Data

Photo by Shannon Brinkman Photography.

On June 1, 2021, the USEA instituted a new policy: at training level and above, a competitor who has 20 or more jump faults in the show jumping phase of an event must compulsorily retire. If you scrolled down the results of an event during the past year, every now and then you may have seen a ‘CR’ next to the final result of a competitor. Those letters describe that situation. The full rule and an explanation of its intent, as published in an April 2021 announcement, is as follows:

EV150 Penalties 

During a round, penalties are incurred for:

20 show jump penalties – Compulsory Retirement

COMPULSORY RETIREMENT

A competitor incurs 20 or more jump penalties in show jumping at the Training level or higher. Enforced at the end of the round unless the competitor retires or is eliminated.

Rule Change Intent: This rule is being presented to reduce risk in the sport of eventing. The reasoning has been that in reviewing the incidence of poor riding at competitions, the performance records of those riders that have died in schooling situations, data from EquiRatings, and other indicators, the USEA Cross-Country Safety Subcommittee views it as important to highlight that poor show jumping performance should result in retirement. They believe this should be equally applied regardless of whether show jumping or cross-country occur first in the schedule of the competition. British Eventing instituted this rule for similar reasons and it would be an additional measure to lessen risk in the sport. Compulsory Retirement (CR) designation was chosen to distinguish the penalty from fall of horse (Mandatory Retirement, MR) for tracking purposes.

Thanks to the USEA providing it, we have access to data about how often, and at which level, these CRs have been occurring. We also have access to data about how often horses and riders have more than 20 jumping penalties in FEI eventing. At FEI events, there is no CR rule. A horse can have five rails, six rails, or eight rails and still be permitted to run cross country. Thus, it provides an interesting comparison to the USEA system. The data is summarized below:

US Eventing
Comp Results with Final Score of CR or
FEI Divisions with SJ Jump Pen 20+
June 1, 2021 to June 1, 2022
All Results              CR or SJ=20+         
Level                  Count Count %
CCI5-L 103 7 6.80%
CCI4-L 110 2 1.82%
CCI3-L 195 5 2.56%
CCI2-L 298 10 3.36%
CCI4-S 433 1.39%
CCI3-S 581 17 2.93%
CCI2-S 550 13 2.36%
CCI1-L 69 5 7.25%
CCI1-S 57 2 3.51%
       
A 348 10 2.87%
AI 113 1 0.88%
I 1426 39 2.73%
IP 105 4 3.81%
P3D 2 0 0.00%
P 4207 58 1.38%
M3D 5 0 0.00%
M 1583 16 1.01%
MT 105 3 2.86%
PT 231 14 6.06%
T3D 91 0 0.00%
T 7728 92 1.19%

There are four main takeaways from the data:

  1. The incidence rate of CRs is very small, at any USEA level. Varying between 0.00% and 6.06%, this means that in a typical division of, for example, 16 horses and riders, there is likely to be on average at most one compulsory retirement. In other words this rule is not affecting many horses and riders. 
  2. The USEA incidence rate of CRs is highest at the IP and PT levels.
  3. The USEA incidence rate of CRs varies by level, and there is a slight trend in the traditional levels (i.e. non-hybrid divisions, so excluding the IP/PT/MT divisions) upward as the levels of difficulty increase (i.e. bigger jumps at the higher levels do tend to correlate with more CRs).
  4.  The incidence rate of would-be CRs at FEI levels is higher (averaging 3.55%) than the actual CRs (averaging 1.90%) at national levels. The highest would-be CRs at FEI are at the CCI1-L and CCI5-L levels. (Would-be CRs are those FEI rounds with more than 20 jumping penalties.)

The purpose of compulsory retirements (‘CRs’) is to reduce risk in the sport. While there are so many factors that can contribute to dangerous falls, the USEA determined that high incidence of refusals and rails in the show jumping phase correlate with cross country falls. Accordingly, they instituted a blanket retirement rule for horses and riders with more than 20 jumping penalties at a show.

This is a ‘per se’ rule, meaning that it is a generalized rule applied without consideration for specific circumstances. The rule is simple and objective. There is no judge who reviews your equitation or your horse’s jumping form or your ability to see a distance. There is just the blanket per se rule: 20 penalties or more, and you have a CR. There are advantages and disadvantages to a per se rule.

Is a horse that can jump with fewer than five rails safer on cross country? Photo by Shelby Allen.

On the one hand, it is transparent and objective. There is no sense that subjectivity is creeping into the enforcement of the rule. Furthermore, there is no responsibility on TDs or judges to pull aside a competitor who has had five fences down in show jumping and explain to them why they shouldn’t run cross country. The rule does it for them.

On the other hand, it may be over- or under-inclusive. In the former instance, it may capture too many horses and riders who have an uncharacteristic round and tap a few rails but would still be safe out on cross country. I know a couple of horses that are careless in show jumping but have perfect cross-country records. These horses would suffer from the rule, and for them it seems to be unfair.

But a blanket rule can be under-inclusive — that is, it may also capture too few horses and riders in the sense that perhaps five rails (20 penalties) is too high of a threshold. Four rails is a lot of rails as well—and there is an argument that some of those horses, if they are jumping poorly, should not be allowed to run cross country.

It is worth noting that in the sport of straight show jumping, you rarely see riders having five fences down, and if they do, they usually retire during the round and save their horse for another day or another class. They may realize the horse is over-faced by the size of the jumps or the atmosphere of the ring. Or they may realize that they have the wrong equipment or tack for the rideability they need in the ring.

Whatever it may be, you see show jumpers retiring more often than event riders in the show jumping ring. Perhaps this is because they only have one phase, but still, a rider should be applauded for making a good choice and admitting that today is not their or their horse’s day.

More data is required to know the effect of the CR rule on safety— for example, since the rule was enacted, have there been fewer cross country falls on average?

It is impossible to do a randomized control trial with a sport like ours, but the comparison of USEA data and FEI data may offer some answers as to whether the CR rule is really reducing risk. This would inform our ability to hypothesize about “what might have happened” in terms of accidents had the riders who got CRs in the past year been allowed to continue to cross country, which is the essence of determining whether the CR rule is doing its job.

Photo by Shelby Allen.

Finally, the CR rule may be working in a different way, which we may not see in the data: some people may have been less likely to enter an event if they suspected that they may have five or more rails. This is a deterrence effect. Events are incredibly expensive, so entering and traveling to one is made less attractive if riders think there is a high chance that they will get a CR in show jumping and thus will not be allowed to run cross country.

While we do not know how behavior has changed, exactly, it is possible that these riders either stopped eventing that particular horse or chose to run the horse at a lower level, at which their chance of succeeding in the show jumping was higher.

The purpose of the CR rule — to reduce risk in the sport of eventing — is laudable. It should be everyone’s goal to reduce risk, and there are many ways to do that. Rider responsibility, good coaching, good course design, appropriate MER requirements, proper safety equipment, and MIM technology on cross country fences are all part of the equation.

Whether the CR rule is helping to reduce risk is difficult to measure because it is partly the Robert Frost problem, which means it involves considering the road not taken. But this rule may have saved lives by prohibiting certain rider and horse pairs from going cross country. This rule may have encouraged riders to work on their show jumping, including their position and technique. This rule may have improved horsemanship. This rule may have made riders and coaches realize that a horse may be suited to a lower level, even though they had hopes and dreams that it would succeed at a higher level.

All of the effects are impossible to know, and some are only ascertainable from anecdotal evidence. The CR rule’s purpose to reduce risk deserves further analysis, but on the whole, its benefits seem to outweigh its drawbacks. What do you think of the CR rule? Is it good or bad for our sport?

Writer’s note: I am not a data whiz, and I am in law school partly because I probably was not the most naturally gifted mathematician as a child. I analyzed this data using basic average and range functions in Excel, but I would welcome any readers’ input on the data and further analysis of it. Thank you for reading!

Reflections of a Baby Lawyer (Plus, Some Horsing Around)

Much can be gleaned simply from watching ringside at the warm-up. What’s the best way you bring your thinking cap to your riding? Photo by Sally Spickard.

“You’ll find that as you start working, you have less and less time to think.”

I have just started my second year of law school. One of my professors said this to us on the first day back in class this semester. He was, of course, primarily admonishing us to read our case assignments and come to class prepared. But he was also reflective about the fact that once you leave school, you may not have time to think about and consider lots of different ideas. You won’t be required to read so much, so you may not read enough because there are more pressing things on the agenda.

He had put his finger on what I like most about school: the whole point is to think. There are subsidiary goals, like performing well on exams and writing good briefs or papers, but in the end the greater goal is to think about stuff, often in a critical way. If you learn how to do that well in school, you can apply that skill to anything later on.

I spent the summer working full-time at a small firm outside of Washington, DC and riding my horses in early mornings and evenings. Learning the law and practicing it could not be more different, and as usual, I have been thinking about how the horses relate to what I have learned. Here are some themes I noticed:

What can be gleaned from well-respected horsewomen such as Ingrid Klimke? Photo by Tilly Berendt.

The thinking happens behind the scenes. Great horsemen and great lawyers have a few things in common: they make mistakes, they use their brains, and they are able to not only work in the dredges of the everyday but also pull back and see the longer view. In short, they are able to keep thinking, even if the majority of their time is spent in the day-to-day of managing the smaller pieces.

One of my favorite things to do is watch the warm-up or practice arena at a major horse show. Watch it as the sun is rising, and you see how the riders prepare their athletes by stretching and relaxing them, or allowing them to have a playful buck on the lunge. Watch closer to the time of the class, and you see how they put the horses through their paces a bit, or school some fences and get the horse ready to perform. When they get to the arena, the “proof is in the pudding,” but getting to watch back-stage means you get an idea of how the pudding is made.

Watching lawyers work—and trying to work like they do—is similar in many ways. We have all seen lawyers on TV, speaking and reacting and presenting at a trial. However, that is just the tip of the iceberg (assuming the case actually goes to trial). Preceding those moments are hours and hours of thinking, revising, strategizing, and researching. Just like preceding the moment in the show ring are hours and hours of training and conditioning and preparation.

Problem-solving, teamwork, and creativity lead to success. I have worked in the barns of two former U.S. Team riders. When you show up to someone’s barn, you know that it will run in a particular way. It will function a bit differently from anywhere else you have been. This is particularly true in a high-performance setting. The owner or head trainer will have philosophies and preferences, whether they be the way blankets are hung, the manner in which manes and tails are trimmed, or the frequency of fitness work the horses do. A law firm is a bit like a high-performance stable: there are specific house rules to follow, and the tone of teamwork and excellence is contagious. Unlike riders, lawyers generally have the luxury of air conditioning, but like great riders they spend most of their time problem-solving and working with a team to figure out how to succeed.

Everyone has their own style. In law school, they taught me how to write like a lawyer should write. Not many frills; lots of formatting and other technical rules; no room for metaphors or even an ounce of humor. Needless to say, I enjoyed writing horse blogs more than legal briefs. But at work, I read and edited briefs that were written in all manner of styles. Within reason, there is room for creativity, as long as it is in the service of being persuasive.

Everyone has their own preferences and method of learning, and there’s nothing wrong with finding the trainer who has the right philosophy that matches your style. Photo by Sally Spickard.

People skills matter. I know some amazing riders who can hardly hold a conversation for over five minutes. They could be the next Michael Jung, but without communication skills to connect with the people to help them get there, it doesn’t really matter how well they ride. Interacting with so many lawyers over the summer—as well as my colleagues and classmates at school—has made me realize that people skills are very important, perhaps over and above anything else. It doesn’t matter what industry you are in: building a relationship of trust through communication, whether it’s with a client or a colleague, leads to new opportunities. That doesn’t mean you have to be someone other than you are in these situations. You should be authentic and true, because people need a feeling of connection to build bridges, and in this sport and this life we can’t get to the places we want to go without those kinds of bridges.

Competitiveness and the “winning feeling” are important, but they aren’t everything. Lawyers are competitive people. Most good riders I know are also competitively-minded. One thing that I have learned from horse people is that if you do the sport to win, you won’t last long in it. Even the best people don’t win all the time. The day-to-day of training and improving has to be motivating to you, because even when you do everything right, there’s a chance that you won’t win. The same is true in lawyering, especially in litigation. There has to be a winner and a loser. Just like you cannot get mad at your dressage judge for giving you an unfair mark, you have to accept the results of a ruling—although you may have the opportunity to appeal it in some instances. The point is that circumstances beyond your control may determine whether you win, and you certainly won’t win every time.

It’s fun to win, and it’s important to enjoy it. But I imagine that relying on that “winning feeling,” whether you’re a lawyer or a rider, is not the secret to longevity.

¡Vamos a Pratoni! Highlighting Mexican Event Rider Daniela Moguel

Daniela Moguel and Cecilia. Photo by Tilly Berendt.

“If we don’t do it, who else is going to do it?”

Anyone who has met Daniela Moguel knows she has a fiercely positive attitude. As the first female Mexican five-star rider ever, she specializes in breaking barriers. When I spoke to her last month about her ideas about diversifying our sport, she was quick to highlight the issues but also committed to finding solutions.

If you scroll down the list of results of any FEI event, you don’t usually come across many Mexican flags. The nationalities of most riders in the U.S. are American and Canadian (sometimes with a rogue Australian thrown in there!) despite the fact that Latinos make up almost one-fifth of the American population. Daniela would like to change this. She wants to “open the vision” to include people from different backgrounds in eventing, from the grassroots to the top of the sport.

For Daniela, this has to start with “changing the vision and changing the stereotypes.” When you hear the words “event rider,” the image that pops into your head is likely to be one of a white woman or man. If you don’t fit that stereotype, it is hard to see yourself in the sport, much less at the top of it. “Exposure is a big part of it,” Daniela says.

“The resources are out there” to support more inclusivity in the sport, especially from a financial perspective. Daniela believes this to be true, but more organization and leadership is necessary to put these resources to work. For example, she raises the idea that professional riders could commit to discounting their clinics so that one or two riders could ride for free. That would mean that those who usually couldn’t afford to ride with a top professional might gain access to an excellent educational opportunity. And you never know—a young rider who meets a professional at a clinic may end up as their working student or full-time employee down the line. The opportunities begin when the door opens.

Daniela Moguel and Cecelia. Photo by Shannon Brinkman Photography.

Daniela also spoke about how eventing in Latin America is really still a military sport. In Mexico, she became aware of the fact that the sport was largely for men only. For example, at the Pan American games, almost all of the riders are in the military, and almost all of them are men.

“As you go up the levels [of eventing in Mexico], there are fewer and fewer girls and women competing,” Daniela notes. She cites the military influence as creating a gender stereotype, and also the fact that many women go into show jumping instead of eventing because there are more opportunities in that sport. Daniela came to America from her native Mexico in 2018. She had reached a point in her country where she could not progress any higher up the levels. For a long time, in fact, she was the only woman competing at the upper levels of eventing in Mexico.

Daniela has since ridden at the Land Rover Kentucky Three-Day Event several times, as well as the 2018 World Equestrian Games in Tryon, North Carolina. Later this month, she will be contesting the World Championships in Pratoni, Italy on the horse with whom she has met all of these previous goals: Cecelia. “My preparation has gone well,” Daniela says, citing her outings in show jumping in Wellington, Florida, and a recent good finish in the River Glen CCI3S. Cecelia is 19 years old this year, so Daniela has tried to keep her fresh and not over-compete her, but she says that she has gotten the horse very fit with the hilly championship venue outside of Rome in mind.

Just a few of the shirt designs available for Daniela’s fundraising campaign!

“Let’s look at the big picture,” Daniela urges. “This is what we can give back to the sport and to the world.” Daniela hopes that her success will encourage more Latina girls to take up eventing. “Women need to have each other’s backs,” she says, “we need to encourage each other.” She notes that she had a student come into her program who said she used to want to go to the Olympics, but now she thinks that goal is too ambitious. Daniela wants everyone to have big dreams, even if it is unclear how feasible they will be. “There is no goal that is too high, you just have to work for it.”

Daniela is selling t-shirts to help fund her journey to Pratoni. Designed by Britt Gillis and Sally Spickard, they display the slogan “Mex-I-Can” in a nod to her country and her optimism. If you would like to support Daniela’s journey, please follow this link to order a shirt or this link to her GoFundMe page for the World Championships. The EN Team will certainly be cheering her on.

Expanding the Horizons of Sport: Meet South African Eventer Vicky Scott-Legendre

Victoria Scott-Legendre and Valtho des Peupliers at Tryon in 2018. Photo by Pierre Costabadie.

When Vicky Scott-Legendre left her native South Africa and arrived in France with the goal of getting to the top level of eventing in 2013, she had one problem: she didn’t speak a word of French. That turned out to be a technicality. Like most event riders, Vicky didn’t let those kinds of small details get in the way of her resolve and determination.

In the ten years since that recent university graduate packed up and moved overseas, she has represented South Africa at a World Championships and an Olympic Games. For riders who are not from countries that are traditional eventing meccas, she is an inspiration. However, her story is also an illustration that in order to reach the top levels of eventing, sometimes it is necessary to leave home and go to those meccas to learn the trade and compete against the best. For Vicky, leaving home has meant that she has the opportunity to fly the South African flag proudly at championships—whether that is Tryon, North Carolina; Rio De Janeiro, Brazil; or Tokyo, Japan.

Vicky grew up Pietermaritzburg, South Africa. The decision to get into horses wasn’t necessarily an intentional one by her family. In fact, they were “totally non-horsey,” Vicky admits. It was rather by chance that Vicky got introduced to horses. Her family’s neighbors had a property that wasn’t being used, and acquired a horse to eat down the grass. Vicky and her siblings asked to ride the horse, and before they knew it they were swinging their legs over bareback. Vicky’s family then purchased a pony of their own. It hadn’t been backed when they got it, “so it was a rocky start!” Vicky laughs. After that rocky start, Vicky began competing and eventually made her way into eventing.

South Africa’s Victoria Scott-Legendre and Valtho des Peupliers at Luhmühlen. Photo by Tilly Berendt.

South African eventing sometimes involves animals other than horses. “One of our events is on a small animal reserve, so there are giraffe and zebra around, and they are always curious about what’s happening. People are having to shoo them away from the arenas.” Vicky describes one occasion on which she had to stop in the middle of her dressage test because there was a herd of zebra sauntering toward the arena. Talk about desensitization!

One of the major challenges of eventing in South Africa — and one of the reasons that Vicky decided to move abroad — is that the numbers are very small. “In a three-star, for example, there might be only four riders in the class,” Vicky explains. It’s difficult to get a competitive atmosphere in a smaller eventing community. It’s also difficult to find horsepower in South Africa, not least because of the strict quarantine requirements for importing horses. Horses coming to South Africa have to spend two to three months in quarantine in Mauritius, which means that they lose a lot of fitness and training time.

After university, Vicky thought it would be good timing for her to move to Europe to pursue her goals more seriously. She sold some of her horses to fund the trip and brought one horse to France with her. All of her family is still in South Africa.

“When I first arrived in France, no one took me seriously.” Vicky had been a big fish in a small pond in South Africa, but in Europe she was not a known entity. Now that she has been to the Olympics and World Championships, she’s gotten noticed more. However, moving overseas has been somewhat of a double-edged sword: although she has better access to training, horses, and competitions, it is difficult for her to stay connected with South African sponsors and owners because she isn’t based in South Africa.

Victoria Scott-Legendre and Valtho des Peupliers. Photo by Shannon Brinkman.

Vicky’s coach is Rodolphe Scherer, a French team rider in his own right who was recently appointed as the cross-country coach for the German eventing team. Vicky initially based at Rodolphe’s yard. She now has her own yard with her husband, Edouard, where they are also raising their two-year-old daughter, Charlotte.

“There are benefits and drawbacks to riding for a smaller country: it’s much easier to get selected for big championships, but there is no financial aid, so you have to pay your own way.” Vicky explains. “However, when you are riding for a big country, you are competing against 100 other riders to get selected for a team!” she admits.

This point—that riding at the top level in an emerging eventing nation means the chances of selection are very high — is a huge deal for an owner who wants to see their horse at an Olympic Games or World Championships. While owning a top-level horse (even a very, very good horse) in America or Great Britain means that an owner has a slim chance of going to a championship with their horse, owning the same kind of horse for a rider from a country like South Africa means that selection is almost guaranteed if the qualifications and preparation go to plan. With an experienced jockey like Vicky in the irons, the chances of making it happen are high indeed.

A good example of that is Vicky’s current top horse, Valto, whom she took to both the 2018 World Championships and the 2021 Olympic Games. “He’s a tiny horse with the biggest heart,” Vicky says. For example, he went to Tryon in 2018 as a relatively young horse and stepped up, despite being Vicky’s reserve horse. However, she has had a string of bad luck with him. For instance, in Tokyo last year he had an amazing clear cross-country round, but injured a tendon. Earlier this year at Luhmuhlen, he again had a fabulous round, but withdrew before show jumping because Vicky’s veterinarian discovered a bone chip in the horse’s leg that needed to be removed. Although her goal is still to qualify and compete the horse at the 2024 Paris Olympics, Vicky knows that she needs more horsepower to remain competitive at the championship level.

“I am proudly South African—coming from a small eventing world, it is very exciting to be on the big stage.” Vicky believes that South Africa needs more momentum to be able to field teams for championships in the future. While the country did have a team for the 2010 World Equestrian Games, they have not had one since. Vicky was the sole individual in Tokyo. She hopes that more riders and owners will be enthusiastic about the prospect of flying the South African flag at the Olympic Games and beyond with her.

Should Eventing Have a 5*-Short Level?

Liz Halliday-Sharp and Cooley Be Cool contest the recently-added 4*S cross country track running concurrently with the Kentucky Three-Day Event. Photo by Abby Powell.

After a dark cross country day at the Bramham International 4*L last month, course designer Ian Stark remarked that the sport of eventing is at a kind of crossroads.

As the current qualifications stand, Ian said, not all horses and riders are ready for the level for which they are qualified. That means that testing the best horses and riders with a tough course can make it prohibitively difficult for those who are just barely qualified but still enter the event. “As a course designer, I now have to figure out if it’s my job to dumb it down to make it acceptable for that level, or if we expect them to get better,” he said.

Ian went on to explain that this problem comes, in part, from a lack of standardization across events. It is possible, for example, to qualify for a 4*L with one 4*S run, and that 4*S can be at a relatively flat venue with a course that is known to be on the softer side. A rider can do that, check the qualification boxes, and head off to a 4*L like Bramham. You can be qualified on paper, but not in practice.

In fact, I did this in 2018. I did two 4*S events that spring, got one qualifying score, and then went to Bromont 4*L and promptly fell off. It was my and my horse’s first 4*L. I was qualified on paper, but I wasn’t ready to go to Bromont, which is one of the biggest and hardest four-stars in North America. That horse and I went on to do our first 5* together successfully after four 4*Ls. We got a lot of experience at the four-star level before trying to go five-star.

What about having a 5*S?

When I was first learning about the FEI levels of eventing, it struck me as strange that there was no 5*S to correspond with the 5*L. Every other level has a short format to go along with its corresponding long format. For example, there is a 2*S level as well as a 2*L level. But there is no 5*S corresponding with the 5*L.

The Lexington 4*S has quickly earned a tongue-in-cheek reputation as a “5*S” track. Photo by Abby Powell.

Starting at the three-star level, it is required that horses and riders do a Short format before they can do a Long format in most cases. These requirements are softened for riders in the higher-level categories (based on their MERs at 3*, 4*, and 5* levels), but in general a minimum eligibility requirement (MER) in the Short format is required for qualification for the Long format at any level above 3*. However, the 5* level does not have a short-format division at all.

Would one solution to Ian’s concerns be to have a 5*S division which was a prerequisite to entry at a 5*L? Ian’s main concern seems to be about people who are qualified to compete at a certain level but probably need more experience at the level below that. This can happen at any level, but it is probably most dangerous at the 5* level because of the lack of margin for error and the sheer difficulty of the cross-country test.

If 5*S divisions existed and were required as MERs to move up to the 5*L level, then competitors would have to show their ability for that level before actually attempting it.

How would a 5*S be structured? One idea is to have the dressage and jumping phases be at the 5* level of difficulty and dimensions, while the cross country could be more technical than a 4*S, but not much longer.

Another benefit of a 5*S would be that horses that lack the endurance for the long courses but have the scope and ability for the 5* fences could contest a shorter course. The 5*S could be like their championship event of the year.

Some have remarked that the 4*S at Kentucky, which has run as a new division in the last two years, is tantamount to a 5*S. Perhaps that should be the standard for this kind of division: it could be held alongside the 5*L’s which are already running (Maryland, Badminton, Burghley, etc.), sharing the same venue and perhaps some of the same fences over a short course. Riders could test their horses over this kind of course, provided they are qualified to do so, before attempting the absolute top level of the sport.

Of course, there is no silver bullet for safety or readiness.

In my previous article, “Most Planes Don’t Crash for One Reason”, most of my discussion touched upon how individuals tend to have the mindset that everything happens for a reason.

Proper, careful practice and preparation are needed to safely contest the top levels of the sport. Photo by Shelby Allen.

However, there are usually a multitude of factors that contribute to or cause a problem or accident. On a broader, sport-wide level, we can also think about accidents in a holistic way. It is very, very sad when fatalities occur in the sport. It is also easy to jump to conclusions about how things should change based on what people think causes accidents. “The courses are too technical” or “the time is too tight” or “the jumps are too difficult” or “the qualifications are too easy to meet” are all arguments made. And while these are all rooted in valid concern and desire for a safer sport, these are often blanket statements that simplify the actual problems. What we need to realize is that there is, in all likelihood, more than one thing that needs to change in order to reduce the number of tragic accidents in our sport.

There may not be a silver bullet, however, one area to direct some focus is a creative way to ensure the standard of riding is up to par with the courses. Cross country is the essence of eventing, and it should continue to be the centerpiece — the ultimate challenge — over the three days of competition. Adding a 5*S division as a qualification for 5*L could be a multifaceted solution to the safety and perception issues our sport faces.

Not all accidents are preventable, and even the best riders in the world have crashes. That is the nature of our sport. However, even though it’s impossible to eliminate all accidents, we shouldn’t take that as reason to throw up our hands before trying harder to mitigate the risks.

Everything Happens for a Reason – but Most Planes Don’t Crash for One Reason

When we leave the start box, a world of possibilities await, including that of something going wrong. Do things go wrong for a specific reason? Photo by Jenni Autry.

In college, I read a memoir titled Everything Happens for a Reason: And Other Lies I’ve Loved. The author, Kate Bowler, chronicles her challenges in facing stage 4 colon cancer. Bowler taught at my university but I never had the pleasure of meeting her. However, the principal lesson of her book — that everything doesn’t happen for a reason — struck me at the time as being both rebellious and freeing.

“Everything happens for a reason” is a convenient mindset, a way of tying up all of the pieces so they make sense to us. But sometimes there is no reason. Sometimes your mentor passes away, or your kid gets sick, or your horse gets injured, or your partner loses their job, or you get in a car accident. And sometimes there really is no good reason. Sometimes it’s unexplainable.

My friend Elena Perea and I were talking about this the other day. She has written guest posts for Eventing Nation, and the most recent ones involve a silly but quite serious accident that she had. She was walking on foot and managed to severely injure her shoulder such that she couldn’t ride her horse for several months. She put the mare in training with a professional, who moved her up to the Preliminary level.

Then, back in the saddle, Elena accomplished her goal of doing her first Preliminary herself on her horse. You could say that her accident “happened for a reason.” Elena’s injury forced her to change her plans, which you could read as the explanation for the injury itself. However, I think that a better mindset is that every setback has a solution if you’re willing to be creative.

Ema Klugman and Bronte Beach. Photo by Abby Powell.

I’d like to propose three alternatives to “everything happens for a reason.”

The first is to say “not everything happens for a reason.” This one applies to those tragic situations in which trying to explain why is just a futile exercise. The second is to say “good things can come from bad things.” This one actually applies to everything, I think, and what I like about it is that it emphasizes agency and forward-thinking. And the third, which is most empowering for me from the point of view of analyzing but also wanting to move forward, is to say that “most planes don’t crash for one reason.”

Are we talking about planes? Not really, but the same logic applies. Someone said this to me the other day as a metaphor: “Most planes don’t crash for one reason. They crash for a number of different reasons.” The point was that if we take too simplistic of a view — that a problem can be attributed to one particular reason — then we aren’t really seeing the whole picture.

The idea behind the plane metaphor is that most often problems arise because of the cumulative effect of several different underlying issues. It can all come to a head at once, which might make it seem like X or Y is the sole reason for the issue, but usually there were lots of other things going on that contributed to the problem.

I’m no pilot, so I’m not sure exactly why planes crash. Luckily it doesn’t happen very often. However, I imagine that a confluence of factors does make it more likely for a travesty to occur. In the same way, accidents in horse sports are not usually attributable to one event.

Photo by Tilly Berendt.

I have been thinking about this concept from both a personal and broader perspective. On a personal level, having had a number of bad falls myself, I have noticed that my reaction to falling off is sometimes extreme. It is easy to throw everything out the window and want to wipe the slate clean when you have an accident. It’s tempting to change the tack, change the strategy, change the training, or all of the above. We have this human urge to explain why things happen, to pinpoint the exact reason, so that we can fix them.

But most planes don’t crash for one reason. It’s pretty hard, usually, to attribute falling off your horse to exactly one thing. You often hear people do it: “I fell off because I was going too fast” or “I fell off because I missed” or “I fell off because I had the wrong bit on my horse.”

There are a whole host of factors that go into making a horse and rider successful, which means that, logically, there can be a whole host of factors that contribute to things going wrong, too. Taking this approach, rather than concluding that “everything happens for one reason,” is a much more practical way of thinking. And it might make us better pilots for our horses, as well.

On Learning: The Application of Knowledge

Photo courtesy of Ella Groner.

Did you miss earlier editions of this series? Click here to catch up. 

“Learning is not getting stuff inside of your head—it’s getting stuff back out of your head!”

These were the words of wisdom of my Property Law professor, an elderly Jewish man who has been teaching the course for nearly 40 years. If anyone is an expert on how to teach—and learn—property law, it would be him.

His point was that doing well in his class (which turned on doing well on the final exam) required us not only to digest the knowledge from lectures, readings, and discussions. That was only step one: the intake. The real requirement was for us to apply that knowledge: to take it out of our heads and put it in an essay or an oral argument.

At the time, I remembered a funny image entering my brain. Property Law was not making much sense to me at that point —- the life estate system of feudal England and its subsequent development into modern law was not the most logical thing I had ever learned about. So when my professor said this, I imagined my head as a jumble of interconnected but random ideas, and I imagined reaching in there with a hand and scooping out a few concepts and throwing them at the wall like spaghetti.

Needless to say, the picture did not fill me with confidence. I realized that I needed to organize what was in my head in order to be able to get out what I needed to apply to the question at hand. I needed to arrange that handful of spaghetti into a recognizable shape.

So how do we get “the stuff back out of our heads”? It’s not easy. When I teach clinics, I often hear this frustration from riders. For example, I will tell a rider that they have a tendency to lean too far forward on the approach to a fence. They tell me that they know this —- in fact, it’s always been their biggest weakness, but they just cannot seem to fix it. The knowledge is in their head, but they cannot get it out to apply it to their riding in the moment. It’s immensely frustrating.

What I usually tell people in a clinic setting is that they know far more than they think —- they just have to apply it. In particular, I believe amateurs sell themselves short when they think they don’t know enough to ride with excellence. Anyone can ride with excellence. Anyone can learn. And most people have the ability to apply their lessons to their riding.

Yes, you might need a reminder every now and then. A well-timed “sit-up!” from someone on the ground can make a world of difference. But at the competition, we are responsible for being that voice in our heads. We are responsible for pulling the information out of our heads and applying it—- not just throwing spaghetti at the wall, but picking the tools that make sense in the moment and using them in the best ways we know to use them.

Another thing this professor admonished us about was that you cannot come up with a solution without identifying what the problem is. “When you’re a lawyer,” he told us one day, “cases won’t walk into your office with a label on their foreheads saying “property” or “contracts” – you have to figure out what silo they fit into and what kind of law to apply, and you have to remember that there is often crossover between different areas, which might require you to think creatively.”

This advice applies no less aptly to training horses. When a horse walks into your barn, she doesn’t come with a label on her forehead or instructions about how to ride her. She’s a horse —- likely with some history —- but just a horse who is a puzzle for the rider to figure out. The process or training the horse involves the rider assessing the problems, going into their inventory of ideas in their head, pulling out the knowledge that might work to solve those problems, and repeating the process again and again.

The process is iterative. The horse will change. The rider will change. But every step is some version of learning —- taking the information, applying it, and assessing what works.

Back to that quote: “Learning is not getting stuff inside of your head—it’s getting stuff back out of your head.” It would be easy to read this simplistically, to think of the process as shoving a recipe in one’s head and spitting it out when it was needed. But applying knowledge isn’t just dusting off an old idea and plastering it on a new problem. It’s figuring out exactly what part of that knowledge matters for this particular moment. That’s the hard part.

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