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Lynne Kaye


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2020 Olympic Format, Part 2: Can Figure Skating Show Eventing the Way to Fame & Fortune?

This year at the postponed 2020 Olympic Games, we’ll see some major format changes at play on the international stage. What lies in store, and what does it mean for our sport? Lynne Kaye discusses the topic in a two-part series that was originally published on EN in 2018. If you missed Part I, read it here

Photo via Wikimedia Commons.

In 2018, the FEI released and began testing its new competition format for the 2020 Tokyo Olympics. In the midst of preparing for the 2018 World Equestrian Games, the FEI’s activities barely made a blip on the radar screen. Once the Games had concluded, it was full steam ahead to test the new formatting in earnest.

The new format allows more nations to qualify eventing teams through regional championships such as the Pan Am Games as well as through the Nations Cup Final. With Japan, Australia and New Zealand already qualified through WEG, more nations from Asia/Oceania are likely to participate in the Tokyo Olympics which should please the IOC (Editor’s Note: China and Thailand will field eventing teams for the first time this year).

The new format also helps national teams stay in the competition. Unless a team rider is cited for a major violation like dangerous riding, the new format helps teams make it through to show jumping. Hopefully, that will encourage more cross country fans to watch show jumping. Unfortunately, when the FEI went to three-rider teams, they added a format for substitution and scoring that adds a significant amount of complexity to team composition and scoring, making the sport harder to understand. Last, and most importantly, the new format tries to fix dressage through addition by subtraction and does little to make dressage phase more attractive to the audience or broadcasters.

The FEI has quite a bit of time to fix the issues with the new Olympic format, and other Olympic sports can serve as models for broadening equestrian’s appeal. Figure skating provides a particularly apt model. Figure skating changed its format to overcome its reputation as too technical to be interesting to the general public, too confusing to score and too difficult to broadcast. Thanks to its successful format changes, Olympic figure skating is now so popular that during this year’s Winter Olympics it received 12 nights of prime time coverage and its own nightly talk show. Figure skating also had a full complement of online and social media coverage during the 2018 Olympics.

When figure skating was receiving similar criticisms to equestrian, the first phase of Olympic figure skating competitions was quite similar to the dressage phase of eventing. Every skater performed the identical prescribed test, making the phase purely a test of technical skill. The performances were too similar, which made watching them boring. Even avid fans came and went to catch their favorite skaters just as eventing dressage fans do today.

Photo via Wikimedia Commons.

The characteristics that made one figure skating performance better than another were often difficult for the casual audience to discern, especially if they were spectators in the arena. The casual TV audience was only a bit better off. Broadcasters were challenged to communicate the differences between competitors without resorting to the sport’s technical jargon which went over the audience’s head. As a result, broadcasters rarely did more than show highlights of the first phase at the beginning of other broadcasts.

Figure skating competitions concluded with the “free skate,” a phase that was much more popular than the opening round(s). In the “free skate” competitors executed a set of required skills within their own choreography and choice of music. Skaters were also permitted to coordinate their wardrobe with their music and performance. The free skate was popular with diehard fans, the casual audience and broadcasters because every performance was different and each competitor had a way to showcase their unique talents and personality.

Figure skating’s scoring issue was the byproduct of lack of interest in the opening phase of the competition. Much of the casual audience joined the competition at some point during the free skate since broadcasters provided minimal to no coverage of the first phase and corporations who wanted to impress their clients brought them to the free skate. That meant the casual audience missed watching the figure skating equivalent of eventing’s dressage divas — skaters that were outstanding at the technical elements of the first phase.

These skaters sometimes entered the free skate with a sizeable cushion over the rest of the field just as eventing dressage divas sometimes enter cross country with a sizeable lead over the rest of the field. With a sizeable lead, the technically proficient skaters sometimes played it safe in their free skates to ensure they would end up on the podium rather than taking the chance of making a major mistake and sliding way down the leaderboard. In other words, they used the same strategy an eventer with a sizeable cushion does if they take a long route to help ensure they complete the cross country. In contrast, skaters with lower placings often went for broke in their programs in the same way a rider down the leaderboard after dressage takes a difficult short route or rides to be inside the time on cross country.

The skaters’ competition strategies confused the casual audience because it meant that best free skate did not win the overall competition. Since the casual audience only saw the free skate they left confused or thinking the judging was bad or that judges were biased in favor of certain countries.

Photo via Wikimedia Commons.

Whether by luck or skill, figure skating responded to the criticisms that it was too technical, too confusing to score and too difficult to broadcast by introducing a new phase — the “short” program — a shorter version of its already popular free skate. The short program tested the sport’s most important technical elements within a competitor’s own choreography and music. Just as in the free skate, competitors selected their own wardrobe to complement the choreography and music.

The short program was a hit with both knowledgeable and casual audiences because every performance was different. The casual audience responded to competitors based on their personality which came through in their choreography, music and wardrobe selection. The variety in performances also kept knowledgeable audiences in their seats. Most importantly, the more diverse format gave broadcasters a way to connect with the general audience while still discussing the fine details that distinguished one world class competitor from another. Combining the short program with the free skate made the sport diverse enough to attract the general audience and broadcasters. It also went a long way toward fixing the confusing scoring by involving the casual audience in the competition prior to the free skate.

The other change figure skating made to improve scoring for the casual audience was to make the free skate worth a higher percentage of the total score. That way, the winner of the free skate was more often also the winner of the overall competition.

Photo via Flickr/Queen Yuna.

The larger audience and greater broadcast exposure put figure skating on an upward spiral. Bigger audiences meant more media coverage which meant more corporate sponsors, which in turn gave the sport the resources to attract bigger audiences, media coverage and sponsors. Demand for Olympic figure skating is now so strong that the sport added a team competition for the 2018 Winter Olympics.

Based on figure skating’s experience, it seems that the FEI’s format changes would best match its goals if they focused on increasing the popularity of dressage. Figure skating found that making the competition more diverse was the ticket to increased popularity. Once the popularity problem was solved, scoring was a fairly easy fix.

One way to make dressage more diverse would be to allow eventers to create their own dressage pattern covering the key technical elements contained in the current tests. From a Dressage Today interview with FEI judges Axel Steiner and Anne Gribbons: “Musical freestyle has increased the popularity of [dressage], drawing spectators, advertisers and even television broadcasts.  In fact, freestyle is one of the reasons dressage is still in the Olympic Games. To keep the entertainment value high, it is important to allow for creativity among the competitors and keep the freestyle creatively free.  At the same time we must stay true to the technical qualities of dressage.”

Giving event riders the freedom to design their own dressage pattern would mean every dressage ride would be different, and that riders could showcase their horse’s own unique talents (and help hide their flaws). Setting the pattern to music and giving riders the freedom to ride in their personal cross country colors rather than a team uniform that looks like every other country’s team uniform would help even more, although that may be a bit radical for 2020.


About the author: In addition to being a long-time Eventing fan and amateur rider, Lynne is a sustainability consultant with Unison Advisory Group. She helps clients grow credibility and trust with important stakeholders through more thoughtful engagement, stronger environmental stewardship and higher quality business practices. She holds a Master’s in Sustainability from Harvard and an MBA from Duke. She had a brief career as a professional ice skater and is still a fan of the sport.

The New Olympic Format, Part 1: Changes for Tokyo 2020

This year at the postponed 2020 Olympic Games, we’ll see some major format changes at play on the international stage. What lies in store, and what does it mean for our sport? Lynne Kaye discusses the topic in a two-part series that was originally published on EN in 2018.

Photo via Wikimedia Commons.

Since the FEI released the new competition format for the 2020 Olympics, I pulled it up to see what the competition will look like — here’s a link to the update regulations. In a nutshell, the FEI’s most important changes are that each nation’s team will have three riders and teams may substitute a reserve horse and rider combination for a team combination mid-competition. In addition, dressage tests will be shorter and all 65 riders will complete dressage in one day. To view the new Olympic Games eventing dressage test, click here – and to see videos of the test, click here.

A side-by-side comparison of former vs. new Olympic formats:

The FEI developed the new competition format to keep equestrian sport in the OlympicsAccording to FEI President Ingmar De Vos, continuing to be an Olympic sport requires more nations participating in the equestrian competitions, making the sport easier for a casual audience to understand, attracting a younger and larger audience, and making the sport more broadcaster-friendly. (See Lynn’s previous article, “How the No-Olympic Movement is Re-Shaping Our Sport.”

The changes in qualifying will definitely add national teams. What isn’t clear is how much broader the pool of nations with qualifying teams will be. Thanks to Japan, Australia and New Zealand qualifying for the Olympics at WEG, the new rules are likely to add new teams from Asia which is a big plus. However, the Asian teams may be the only newcomers at the 2020 Games (Editor’s Note: Both China and Thailand will field Olympic eventing teams this year for the first time). Neither the U.S. nor Canada finished high enough in the standings to qualify for the Olympics at WEG, so both nations will be aiming to qualify at the Pan Am Games (Editor’s Note: The U.S. secured Olympic qualification with its Lima gold medal, while Canada did not and will instead send two individuals to Tokyo). Russia did not qualify at WEG either, and they entered as a composite team in 2016, so the Russians will be looking to earn the new Central & Eastern Europe, Central Asia (Group C) slot (Editor’s Note: Russia will be sending two individuals to Tokyo).

The FEI tested parts of the new team eventing format at the Strzegom and Millstreet Nations Cups, pre-pandemic. In those competitions, multiple teams lost members due to withdrawals and eliminations, yet all teams completed the competition and received final scores, so the tests showed that the new format kept teams in the competition in spite of these issues. Hopefully, having more teams in the competition will keep convince more cross country fans to watch their teams show jump.

While the Nations Cup teams officially had three members, the tests showed that teams that brought a reserve combination had a significant advantage over those that didn’t. The British team was able to come in second at both Strzegom and Millstreet in 2018 by using its reserve combination. The U.S. team’s experience at Millstreet illustrated the perils of leaving the reserve at home. The team fell from a tie for first to last place when an injury caused Buck Davidson and Carlevo to withdraw after dressage. Under the new format, Buck’s score counted toward the team score and included 200 points for cross country and 100 points for show jumping.

Here are the final team scores from the Millstreet Nations Cup:

As part of shrinking national teams to three members, the FEI eliminated the drop score which it said was confusing to the casual audience. After coaching the U.S. team at Millstreet, Erik Duvander said, “Many people agree that cutting down to three combinations on each team can be OK; however, the rules and thinking around the substitutes do seem to make the sport more complicated and possibly more difficult to understand.” If the drop score was confusing to the casual audience, the new scoring system is likely to blow their minds. It sure came close to blowing mine!

Strzegom and Millstreet did not test the new, shorter dressage test or completing dressage in one day. The new format has the advantage of being true to the name of three-day eventing and limiting competition to three days. It will also bring everyone who wants to see dressage to the venue on the same day. However, based on personal experience and the results of an informal poll of eventers, it is not clear that the changes will increase the popularity of the dressage phase. Have you ever noticed how people move in and out of the stands between dressage tests? Knowledgeable spectators just watch selected rides because watching combination after combination complete the same dressage test gets boring after a while.

Canadian fans cheer on Jessie Phoenix and Pavarotti after their 2018 WEG test. Photo by Leslie Wylie.

As my husband and I experienced watching reining at WEG, if watching riders compete the same test gets boring for a discipline we know something about, it was worse for a discipline we know very little about. My husband was ready to leave reining after about five rides. I convinced him to stay to watch the U.S. riders in hopes we would understand the judging if we saw the winning rides. It didn’t help. We both ended up bored and frustrated. We won’t attend a reining competition again unless we have someone with us who can explain what the test is supposed to look like and how it is judged.

All in all, the new FEI format has the potential to bring a few new nations to the Olympics, and hopefully, to keep fans of cross country watching through show jumping. The changes do not seem likely to make eventing more general audience or broadcaster friendly, and may make the situation worse by making scoring more difficult to understand.

The good news is that other sports found themselves in similar positions and successfully came out the other side, so the FEI has models to follow and time to make improvements. Part 2 will explore how figure skating went from being considered too technical, too confusing and too hard to broadcast to being one of the most popular sports in the Winter Olympics, and whether the FEI could take a similar approach for eventing.


About the author: In addition to being a long-time eventing fan and amateur rider, Lynne is a sustainability consultant with Unison Advisory Group. She helps clients grow credibility and trust with important stakeholders through more thoughtful engagement, stronger environmental stewardship and higher quality business practices. She holds a Master’s in Sustainability from Harvard and an MBA from Duke.

How the ‘No Olympic Movement’ Is Re-shaping Our Sport

Photo via Wikimedia Commons.

Last weekend members of the U.S., Canadian and British teams competed in the only FEI Nations Cup in North America at Great Meadow International. The format used was the one we’re all familiar with: four riders competing for each nation and a drop score. 

But changes are underway in our sport, including a new Olympic format developed for the 2020 Tokyo Olympics and approved by the IOC.  Among other changes (see complete format changes here), the new format includes significant alterations to the traditional team and scoring structures. Most notably, these include a proposal to limit teams to three horse/athlete combinations per nation with no drop score. One reserve combination per team will be allowed, which can be substituted into the competition at the beginning of any phase of competition.

The new format was tested for the first time at the June 27-30 FEI Nations Cup at Poland’s LOTTO Strzegom Horse Trials and will go through further testing in 2019.  Although the new format was only officially adopted for the 2020 Olympics, it is possible that the FEI may decide it has wider application. For example, the FEI will be rebidding the 2022 FEI World Equestrian Games (WEG) this year.  If tests of the new format go well, it is not implausible to imagine the FEI switching to the three-rider format for the 2022 WEG.  

Equestrian sport is bending over backward to make itself as attractive and low-maintenance as possible for the IOC, and the trickle-down effect that will have on our sport remains to be seen. Could this signal the beginning of the end of an era in eventing?

The Problem(s) With the Olympics 

To understand the motivation behind equestrian sport’s sweeping Olympic format changes, it helps to look at the “No Olympics Movement” and the trouble the International Olympic Committee (IOC) is having finding Olympic hosts, as there are some striking parallels between this and the FEI’s struggle to secure WEG venues. 

Our story begins in 2009.  At that time, Chicago was all-in for hosting the 2016 Olympic and Paralympic Games (the “Olympics”).  The city spent over $70MM on its bid, and thousands of Chicagoans attended a downtown watch party fully expecting to see their city awarded the Games.  As we now know, it was not to be. The International Olympic Committee awarded the 2016 Summer Olympics to Rio de Janeiro, Brazil.

By the time the 2016 Olympics rolled around, Chicagoans’ felt very differently about losing their bid to host the Olympics.  A headline in the Chicago Tribune proclaimed, “In retrospect, losing 2016 Olympics to Rio a big victory for Chicago,” and the article itself stated “the IOC saved Chicago from itself.”  While the article may have been partly sour grapes, it also reflected Chicago’s participation in the “No Olympics Movement.”

The No Olympics Movement is a grassroots movement aimed at saving communities from the negative effects of hosting the Olympics.  Citizens who join the movement point to the damage done to host community’s reputations and finances by the eye-popping amounts spent hosting the Olympics, to the ill-suited, under-used and abandoned facilities left behind, and to studies that suggest hosting the Olympics offers relatively few benefits.  By keeping communities from bidding to host the Olympics, the No Olympics Movement is putting tremendous pressure on the IOC to improve its image and to make the Games less expensive and less complex to host.

Photo by Shannon Brinkman.

Case Study: Boston’s Bid for 2014

A group of citizens in Boston joined the No Olympics Movement when they awoke to the fact that Boston’s bid to host the 2024 Summer Olympics might succeed.  The citizens worked hard to convince other Bostonians that hosting the Olympics amounted to writing a blank check to the IOC and putting Boston’s reputation at risk.  They succeeded, and on July 27, 2015 Boston withdrew its bid to host the Games.

The chart below helps explain why a majority of Bostonians came to believe hosting the Olympics was bad for Boston.  As the chart shows, the host communities for the past four Summer Olympics spent more money hosting the Games than the Games brought in.  In the cases of London and Beijing, the host communities spent billions more than they brought in, yet the IOC did not lose money on the Games.  The host governments provided guarantees to the IOC that meant the governments were on the hook for the entire shortfall.


Based on a study by Oxford University, a great deal of the shortfall was due to cost overruns.  The study looked at every Olympics from 1960 to the present and found that actual costs virtually always exceeded the host’s budget, sometimes by astronomical amounts.  The study concluded:

If perversely one would want to make it as difficult as possible to deliver a megaproject [the Olympics] on budget, then one would (1) make sure that those delivering the project had never delivered this type of project before, (2) place the project in a location that had never seen such a project or at least not for the past few decades so that any lessons learned earlier would have been forgotten, and (3) enforce a non-transparent and corrupt bidding process that would encourage overbidding and “winners curse” and place zero responsibility for costs with the entity that would decide who wins the bid.  This, unfortunately, is a fairly accurate description of the playbook for the Olympic Games, as they move from nation to nation and city to city, forcing hosts into the role of “eternal beginners.”

Not surprisingly, guarantees are a key target of the No Olympics Movement.  In withdrawing Boston’s bid for the 2024 Olympics, Mayor Martin J. Walsh stated, “I cannot commit to putting the taxpayers at risk. If committing to sign a guarantee today is what’s required to move forward, then Boston is no longer pursuing the 2024 Olympic and Paralympic Games.” 

Overwhelming Venues …

The No Olympics Movement also takes aim at the IOC’s facility requirements because meeting the requirements often means building facilities that fit the Olympics, not the community.  Athens is the poster child for abandoned Olympic facilities. Twenty-one of the 22 venues Athens built for the 2004 Olympics sit abandoned. Many of Rio’s Olympic sites suffer a similar fate as do some of Beijing’s.  Abandoned facilities are more than eye-sores. They also drain the community’s economic resources through ongoing debt payments.

London tried very hard to avoid creating abandoned or under-used Olympic facilities.  The community used existing venues and temporary facilities whenever possible. Yet, even existing venues cost money to rent, and temporary facilities cost money to assemble and disassemble, particularly in the middle of a city.  The temporary equestrian center built at Greenwich Park cost approximately 2015 US$98MM and had to be specially designed because it was on an environmentally sensitive World Heritage Site.

The IOC requires Olympic Stadiums that seat at least 80,000 and have a unique design to accommodate the track and field events. Once the Olympics are over, these huge stadiums are among the most problematic facilities for communities to deal with. London’s Olympic Stadium was designed with 25,000 permanent seats and a removable top section that brought the stadium to the IOC’s required capacity.  Despite the innovative design, it cost £274MM ($427MM) and took three years to renovate the stadium and lease it to a new major tenant.

Michael Jung and La Biosthetique Sam FBW at the 2016 Rio Olympics. Photo by Jenni Autry.

… and Underwhelming Revenues

Many supporters of the No Olympics Movement feel that the IOC’s revenue arrangements add insult to the injury of guarantees and specialized facility requirements.  The IOC controls the two most lucrative Olympic revenue sources — the TV contracts and the TOP program for major sponsors such as Coca-Cola and Bridgestone. For the period 2013 to 2016 which includes the 2014 Sochi Winter Olympics and the 2016 Rio Summer Olympics, the IOC earned $5.2 billion from TV contracts and TOP sponsors.  The IOC shared a total of $2.3 billion of these monies with Sochi and Rio through its lump sum “IOC Contributions to Support the Games.” 

The host communities were responsible for generating the remainder of the Olympic revenue, primarily in the form of ticket sales, local sponsorships and licensing. London sold an incredibly high 97% of its available tickets and worked hard to secure local sponsorships.  As a result, London holds the record for Olympic revenue generation. Despite holding the record, between London’s own revenue and the IOC’s support contribution, London brought in less than 2015 US$4 billion. This amount was well short of what London, Rio, or Beijing spent to host the Games, which calls into question whether it was possible for a host community to earn enough revenue to cover the costs of hosting the Games.

A No-Win for Host Cities

The IOC relies on the theory that showcasing the host community during the Olympics provides a boost to the host community’s reputation, tourist spending, and business growth that more than makes up for high Olympic costs and low Olympic revenue.  Academic studies and books such as Circus Maximus:  The Economic Gamble Behind Hosting the Olympics and the World Cup, raise doubts about whether the IOC’s theory applies to major cities that already have well-established international brands and active tourist and business sectors. (These are typically the same communities that are big enough and wealthy enough to host the Olympics.)  The IOC’s reputation and the Olympic brand have been hurt by a series of scandals related to everything from bribery and doping to environmental damage to social justice issues. As a result, the No Olympics Movement disputes the IOC’s theory, and suggests hosting the Olympics has far fewer follow-on benefits for communities than the IOC suggests.  

In many cities, the general population is paying attention to the No Olympic Movement’s concerns.  Citizen opposition led Stockholm, Sweden; Oslo, Norway; Munich, Germany; Lviv, Ukraine and Kraków, Poland to pull out of the final round of bidding to host the 2022 Winter Olympics.  These withdrawals left the IOC with the choice of Beijing, China or Almaty, Kazakhstan. Strong citizen opposition also prompted Boston, USA; Hamburg, Germany; Rome, Italy; and Budapest, Hungary to withdraw from the final round of bidding for the 2024 Summer Olympics.  That left the IOC with the choice of Paris or Los Angeles. The IOC chose Beijing for 2022 and took the unprecedented step of awarding the 2024 and 2028 Olympics simultaneously. Paris received the 2024 Games, and Los Angeles received the 2028 Games.


Agenda 2020

The IOC is responding to the No Olympics Movement through Agenda 2020, a strategic plan with 40 recommended changes to its Olympic processes and procedures.  The recommended changes include a number aimed at making the bid process easier and making the Olympics fit host communities better. The recommendations are also aimed at increasing the IOC’s revenues, potentially, in part, so it can provide host communities with larger support payments.

Agenda 2020 impacts eventing because eventing is an Olympic sport.  One of the Agenda 2020 recommendations is that host communities use existing venues whenever possible to reduce costs and environmental impacts. To meet this recommendation, Tokyo moved eventing dressage and show jumping from a new, temporary equestrian venue to Baji Koen, the same equestrian park that was hosted the 1964 Olympic equestrian events.  According to the Tokyo 2020 Candidature file, the original budget for the equestrian center was 2015 US$41MM. I could not find the cost of renovating Baji Koen. It should be lower. Cross country will be held at a new, temporary course being built on Umi-no-Mori, an island created from a landfill in the Tokyo Bay. The 217 acre island is being covered with trees and designed as an environmental project that aims to clean the city’s air, reduce the heat island effect and carry cool ocean breezes into the city.  Tokyo budgeted 2015 US$24MM to build the temporary cross country course on Umi-no-Mori.

There are also a variety of format changes for 2020 Olympic eventing aimed at controlling costs while simultaneously increasing revenues from broadcast and media coverage, sponsorships and ticket sales.  Eventing entries will be capped at 75 riders to help manage venue size and control costs.  The team competition will include just three riders per country rather than the traditional four riders.  The smaller team size will allow the number of countries sending teams to grow without increasing the total number of eventing competitors. All three riders’ scores will count toward the team score in an effort to make scoring easier for the general public to understand.  Finally, since dressage is the least televised and attended phase of eventing, all 75 dressage rides will be held in one day. 

The first test of the 2020 Olympic Eventing format took place in late June at the LOTTO Strzegom Horse Trials in Poland.  FEI Nations Cup teams representing seven countries used the format. More tests will take place between now and the Olympics, including the test event in Tokyo next year.

The main WEG stadium in Normandy 2014. Photo by Leslie Wylie.

The WEG That No One Wants

The No Olympics Movement is more than just a problem for the IOC, and by extension, for Olympic eventing.  It also has major impacts on WEG by publicizing the problems communities face when hosting mega sporting events, and by making citizens leery of putting their tax dollars at risk to host these events.  While WEG is much smaller than the Olympics, it still attracts over 500,000 spectators and receives international broadcast and media coverage. WEG was the sixth largest international sporting event in 2014, and it is expected to be the fourth largest international sporting event in 2018.

The FEI solicits bids from potential host communities and awards (or tries to award) WEG through an auction process.  The FEI’s auction process has been ineffective. Normandy was the only bidder for the 2014 WEG. Bromont pulled out as the original host for the 2018 WEG and had to be replaced with Tryon.  Šamorin pulled out as the original host for the 2022 WEG, and the FEI is in the process of finding a new host for those Games.

The stumbling blocks that prevent potential WEG hosts from bidding in the FEI’s auctions are very similar to the stumbling blocks encountered by potential Olympic hosts.  The most important stumbling block is the FEI’s requirement that the host community provide guarantees that shield the FEI from any WEG cost overruns or revenue shortfalls. Normandy spent €77.9MM (2015 US$103.4MM) on the 2014 WEG and earned €39.4MM (2015 US$52.4MM). At least some of the shortfall appears to have been planned, and the vast majority of the difference was made up by a combination of pre-arranged local and national government funding.  An economic, environmental and social impact study showed that Normandy received a €1.25 benefit for every €1 of government funding devoted to the Games.  Yet, many WEG stakeholders are not enamored with the guarantees or the possibility of incurring a financial shortfall. A National Equestrian Federation CEO told consultants conducting a WEG strategic review, “[w]e are one of the largest, best funded, best supported and most successful Federations in the world … and we cannot afford to host this event.”

The FEI also has extensive facility requirements that fit WEG, but may not fit host communities.  The Kentucky Horse Park spent 2015 US$87MM on improvements for the 2010 WEG including expanding the Rolex outdoor stadium and building the new 5,520-seat indoor Alltech Arena.  The scope of the improvements exceeds the Park’s ability to use them on an on-going basis. As a result, the Park needs a subsidy from the State of Kentucky to service the debt it took on to make the improvements.  To help make ends meet, the Park is deferring a significant amount of maintenance. Maintenance is so far behind that the Kentucky Horse Park withdrew its bid to host the 2022 WEG. The Park’s situation is very disappointing because serving as a repeat host for WEG should be one of ways to make meeting the FEI’s facility requirements feasible for host communities.

Potential host communities also view the revenue split with the FEI as a stumbling block.  The report from the FEI’s strategic review of WEG states that “[t]he FEI needs to decide what other contributions it is able to make through further host revenue retention or direct Event investment.”

Tryon International Equestrian Center under construction for WEG 2018. Photo by Leslie Threlkeld.

A Way Forward? 

The Sports Consultancy’s A Strategic Review of the FEI World Equestrian Games, A Significant Appetite and Need for Change includes a fairly lengthy set of recommendations for making WEG more appealing to hosts.  The recommendations include shortening WEG to nine to 10 days, reducing the size of the competitor field to reduce costs, requiring fewer venues and making the Games accessible to more fans.

Key recommendations such as a shortened schedule are not incorporated into the 2018 WEG.  The 2018 WEG will follow the same schedule as other recent WEGs with a 13-day long competition that includes opening and closing ceremonies.  Eventing will be run in the traditional format with four member teams, two days of dressage and a team drop score. Mark Bellisimo and his team have a tremendous amount of success hosting top level equestrian sports, so hopefully they are creating the secret sauce that will allow the 2018 WEG to overcome the issues associated with past versions of the Games.

Once the 2018 WEG is over, the FEI has some work to do to find a new host for the 2022 WEG.  Considering the strength of the No Olympics Movement and the resulting low level of interest in hosting WEG, the FEI is likely to need to make changes to WEG to attract a host for 2022.  The new 2020 Olympic eventing format addresses many of the issues raised in the consultants strategic report on WEG.  The FEI already has the results of the first test of the new eventing format from Strzegom, and the FEI will gather additional results as the format is tested in competition during 2019.  If the FEI likes the format, it would be logical for the FEI to adopt the new three-rider Olympic format for the 2022 WEG.  Could the format changes trickle down even further, such as to FEI Nations Cup team competitions? It seems possible that the 2018 WEG marks the end of an era in eventing, although only time will tell.

While we are waiting to see what the future brings and how it affects our sport, there are only two things to do.  Enjoy the traditional eventing format at the 2018 WEG in Tryon and Go Eventing!


Footnote1: The cost figures in the chart represent the operating costs of holding the Games as well as the costs associated with the physical venues. Operating  costs include items like security, IT, medical services, medal ceremonies and administration. Physical venues include the Olympic Village, the media center and the international broadcast center in addition to competition sites like the equestrian center.  Proper accounting practice suggests that the cost of physical venues should be amortized its useful life which would normally be ten to 30 years. However, virtually all Olympic venues need to be significantly reconfigured, are under-utilized or are abandoned. Consequently 100% of the cost of physical venues is included in the figures.  Revenues include the host community’s estimated support payment from the IOC as well as revenues from hosting the Games such as ticket sales, local sponsorships and licensing.


About the author: In addition to being a long-time eventing fan and amateur rider, Lynne is a sustainability consultant with Unison Advisory Group. She helps clients grow credibility and trust with important stakeholders through more thoughtful engagement, stronger environmental stewardship and higher quality business practices. She holds a Master’s in Sustainability from Harvard and an MBA from Duke.

William Fox-Pitt Clinic Takeaway: Be Affirmative!

William Fox-Pitt came stateside recently and taught a series of clinics, leaving a number of American riders and auditors more educated in his wake! Lynne Kaye sent us this account of a lightbulb moment she experienced while auditing a clinic in Virginia.

William Fox-Pitt teaching a clinic at Great Meadow. Photo by Jenni Autry.

I audited one of the William Fox-Pitt clinics over the weekend, and I want to say “thank you” to a rider who had stops at several fences for being willing to learn in a public setting. I have problems with my horse stopping at fences, too. I learned a tremendous amount by watching you! Most importantly, I learned that sending an affirmative message to our horses is critical to jumping success, and that the message “please don’t stop” gets very different results than the message “please go.”

William repeatedly stated that American riders are too “nicey, nicey” with our horses. He believes we would benefit from telling our horses to “just get on with it” and go forward. He thinks we work too hard at being perfect. In fact, as he believes cross-country riding is about being messy and still getting the job done.

At the clinic, he put his thoughts into action, by asking riders to take their horses through a twisty course of low fences so that the horses had to think on their feet, could make mistakes and would have a chance to start developing “a fifth leg.” William believes it is important to give horses the experience of making mistakes and bailing themselves out when they are young and the fences are low, so they will be able to bail us out when we need them to when the going gets messy on upper level cross-country courses.

So what on earth does saying “please don’t stop” to our horses have to do with have to do with being too “nicey, nicey” and teaching them to develop a fifth leg?

As many people in many different forums have told me, the human brain has trouble processing the word “don’t.” In other words, if someone says to you “walk into that room and have a seat. Oh, and by the way, there is a gleaming white unicorn sitting in the middle of the room. Please don’t look at the unicorn.” What is the first thing you are going to do? Sneak a peek at that unicorn, of course! The human brain latches onto “look” and “unicorn.”

The clinic was a perfect illustration of how affirmative statements relate to jumping a fence. Telling a horse “please don’t stop at the fence”, sends the message “stop” and “fence” to the rider’s body which, in turn says “stop” and “fence” to the horse. The next thing you know, the horse stops. The “please don’t stop” approach is, in Williams words, too “nicey, nicey” because the horse receives the message that it does not need to jump.

Throughout the clinic, William kept urging the riders to send their horses forward, giving them an affirmative message “go forward, go forward and jump, it’s OK to make a mistake.” Telling the horse “please go,” sends the message “go” to the rider’s body, and in turn, to the horse. The affirmative message eliminates “nicey, nicey” and reduces stopping at fences because the rider knows they sent a positive message to the horse and knows that if the horse stops, the horse, not the rider, should be corrected. The riders did a wonderful job negotiating a twisty, turny course under William’s tutelage.

Thank you to everyone involved with bringing William to the States and hosting him while he was here, to the riders in the clinic for allowing the auditors to learn from your successes and, especially from the areas you worked to improve, and, last but not least, to William for taking time out of your busy schedule to share your knowledge with us!

On an affirmative note: Go Eventing!

Craniology, Part II: Ventilation, Helmet Replacement and Future Technology

Lynne Kaye is an adult amateur eventer and groom for her husband at horse trials. Being a glutton for punishment, she is getting a Master’s degree at night and on weekends from Harvard. She researched helmets as part of a class assignment and is kindly sharing the information with EN.

Hannah Sue Burnett and Harbour Pilot at Luhmühlen 2017. Photo by Leslie Wylie.

Part 1 of Craniology covered the basics of what wearing an ASTM-certified helmet will and will not do to protect you. In a nutshell, your helmet will:

  • Help protect your head from being cut by something sharp or jagged such as your horse’s hoof or a jump cup.
  • Slide to give you more stopping distance
  • Reduce the force on your skull on impact, reducing the risk of a skull fracture.

Your helmet will not:

  • Protect you against more than one fall.
  • Protect you against concussions or other traumatic brain injuries.

Part 2 discusses ventilation, helmet replacement, and what to expect in helmet technology in the future.


One of the major differences from one helmet to another is the amount of ventilation the helmet provides. How much ventilation you want in your helmet is a personal decision, and there are plusses and minuses to both unventilated and heavily ventilated helmets. Since helmets influence how warm or cold you feel, they influence whether you feel comfortable enough to deliver your optimal performance.

One of the positives for ventilated helmets is that the vents allow airflow through the helmet which helps cool your head, particularly when you and your horse are in motion. Air moves from high pressure areas which are in the front of the helmet to low pressure areas which are in the back of the helmet.

Anything that reduces the amount of air that can flow in and out through the vents in the helmet impacts how well the vents cool your head. For example, if your hair blocks the rear vents, cooling capacity falls by 8-30%. If your hair blocks the front vents (and not the rear vents), cooling capacity is reduced by even more. If you ride in hot weather, a very lightweight, breathable helmet cover or none at all will allow the best air movement through the vents.

One of the negatives for ventilation holes is that they can impact how well your helmet shields your head from sharp objects. Very large, numerous vents leave room for sharp objects to penetrate your scalp. Ironically, they also reduce your helmet’s ability to shield your head from the sun’s radiant heat. Your head is the body part closest to the sun, so it absorbs the most heat from the sun on a sunny day. A standard baseball cap has tiny vent holes and shields 80% of radiant heat. Bicycle helmets have larger vent holes, so they shield 50-70% of the radiant heat. By extension, riding helmets probably shield somewhere between 50% and 80% of radiant heat, depending on the helmet style.

Researchers have found that humans make measurably better decisions and are more productive when they feel thermally comfortable – in other words, when they are the “right” temperature. For most people, the “right” temperature is somewhere between 65 and 80 degrees Fahrenheit. In a business setting, researchers found that when they made office workers in a Florida insurance company a more comfortable temperature typing errors went down by 40% and the volume of typing went up by 150%. And, these workers were in the safety of their own desks. When you are on a 1,000-plus pound animal with a mind of its own, you clearly want to be as close to the right temperature as you can be.

One of the key determinants in whether you feel the “right” temperature is whether your head is comfortable. Consequently, you want your helmet to have the “right” amount of ventilation – whatever that is based on the range of temperatures you find most comfortable, the weather conditions you ride in and how long and hard you ride.

What to Do With an Old Helmet

As Part 1 of Craniology illustrated, equestrian helmets need to be replaced after an impact even if the helmet shell looks good as new. Consequently, if you fall and your helmet just might, maybe, could have hit the ground, a jump, the wall of the indoor, your horse or anything else, it needs to be replaced.

If you purchased your helmet within the past four years, check to see whether the helmet brand offers an “accident replacement” program for used helmets. If so, the brand may offer a reduced price on a new helmet, and may use the helmet you fell in to study how well their helmets perform in real life falls and how to make future helmets better.

Some brands rely on retailers to facilitate helmet returns while other brands want you to work directly with them on the replacement. Note that in many instances, helmet brands either want you to have registered the helmet with them or the helmet needs to be accompanied by a sales receipt. (I don’t know about you, but I don’t have any sales receipts that are three months old, much less three years old. If you are like me, be sure to register your helmet when you buy it.)

If you are not returning your helmet under an accident replacement program, you need to dispose of the old helmet. The outer shell is probably made of plastic which may be mixed with other materials. The inner foam liner is probably made of expanded polystyrene (EPS), another type of plastic related to Styrofoam. The padding, harness and fastening clip may all be other types of plastic, or they may include leather or other materials. In some helmets, the cushioned liner that is closest to your head comes out for washing, and that is the only part of the helmet that is likely to be easy to disassemble.

Therefore, unless you live in a “zero-waste” city like Boulder, CO that offers special recycling options, it is hard to find a better place to put an old helmet than your trash can. Plastic does not decompose, so the problem with putting an old helmet in the trash is that it will end up sitting in a landfill for at least decades, and probably for centuries.

Hopefully, helmet brands will start offering helmets that have a second life or an entrepreneur will come up a wonderful, new use for old helmets. Giro currently offers the first bike helmet that is made of plant-based foam called expanded polylactic acid or E-PLA and a (at least theoretically) recyclable plastic outer shell. The market for bio-plastics is growing at 20% per year; so hopefully, the Giro bike helmet represents the very beginning of what will become a trend toward “circular economy” helmets that can be disassembled and composted, repaired or serve as sources of material for other products.

Helmet Trends for the Future

While the helmet you are wearing today does not safeguard against concussions or other traumatic brain injuries, it is likely that a future generation of helmets will offer that protection. A significant amount of investment is being made in R&D for traumatic brain injury prevention, and new, improved helmet technology is likely to follow.

A helmet that contains the Multi-directional Impact Protection System (MIPS) is likely to be the first equestrian helmet that claims to reduce the risk of TBI. The theory behind the system is that angled impacts cause the brain to rotate and the rotation causes concussions and other traumatic brain injuries. The technology aims to redirect and spread out brain rotation by inserting a very thin layer of low friction material between the outer shell and the inner lining of the helmet. This thin, low friction layer provides a small amount of additional movement when the helmet experiences an angled impact. MIPS AB, an affiliate of Bell Helmets, owns the technology and licenses it to helmet brands in the same way Intel provides its technologies to PC makers as “Intel Inside.”

MIPS is the hot, new technology in U.S. snow sports and bicycle helmets, and it must be stimulating sales because the number of snow sports and bicycle helmets containing MIPS is mushrooming rapidly. In Europe, the Back on Track EQ3 equestrian helmet contains MIPS. (The Back on Track EQ3 is not ASTM certified and does not appear to be available in the U.S.) Consequently, MIPS equestrian helmets will probably be on the market in the U.S. within the next few years.

Although, MIPS is the hot, new thing in helmet technology, not everyone is buying its benefits. In particular, the non-profit, consumer-funded Bicycle Helmet Safety Institute is not a big fan of the MIPS helmets it has seen. When MIPS equestrian helmets become available in the U.S., if you are considering one, you may want to read the most recent Bicycle Helmet Safety Institute review of MIPS bike helmets and examine how the MIPS layer is added to the riding helmet you are considering. (A number of helmet brands such as GPA, KASK and Uvex make bicycle and snow sports helmets as well as riding helmets, and the materials and manufacturing processes for bike, snow sports and riding helmets are relatively similar.)

The Bicycle Helmet Safety Institute reviews all the new bike helmets that come out each year, so it should have up-to-date information on the state of the technology when equestrian MIPS helmets arrive in the U.S. Today, the Bicycle Helmet Safety Institute’s issues with MIPS helmets are that the effectiveness of the technology has not been proven, the MIPS layer in many helmets only covers a small area and may not actually slide as it is supposed to, and the back of some helmets have a large area without a foam liner, leaving part of the bicyclist’s head less well protected than by non-MIPS helmets.

Other technologies that help prevent TBI are likely to be available in equestrian helmets in the future. At least some of these helmets may use R&D created as part of the Head Health Challenge. The Head Health Challenge is the National Football League’s competition aimed at developing new materials and techniques for preventing concussions and other head injuries. Charles Owen (a leading British equestrian helmet brand) is participating in one of the partnerships funded through the Head Health Challenge.

The Bottom Line

Helmets are a very important piece of equestrian safety equipment. Since helmets influence how warm or cold your head feels, they influence whether you are feel comfortable enough to deliver your optimal performance.

The benefit of vents is that they increase air flow which can help keep your head comfortable on a hot day. The negative aspects of vents are that they reduce your protection from sharp objects and they may reduce the amount of radiant heat the helmet shields. Helmets come with a variety of ventilation designs. The best ventilation design is one that fits your personal thermal comfort zone and riding situation. If you have a vented helmet and want it to work effectively, keep the vents unobstructed by hair or a heavy helmet cover.

If you fall in your helmet, it needs to be replaced. Some of the helmet brands offer accident replacement programs, so if you purchased your helmet within the past four years, it is worthwhile to check. Only registered helmets or those accompanied by a sales receipt are eligible for some accident replacement programs. Be sure to register your helmet when you buy it.

Wearing a helmet can protect your head against sharp objects and skull fractures, but as of today, it will not protect you against a concussion or other traumatic brain injury. New helmet designs that can provide protection against concussions and other TBIs are likely to be coming. The first design that is likely to be marketed to provide protection against TBIs is a MIPS helmet.

A growing number of MIPS helmets are available for snow sports and skiing, and the first riding helmet with MIPS is available in Europe. Not everyone is a fan of MIPS, so if you are interested in a MIPS helmet once they are available, do some research to ensure a MIPS helmet will provide better protection than the one you are wearing. Other technologies to protect against TBIs are likely to be developed. Some of them may come out of the Head Health Challenge.

Helmets do not protect your head against the full range of head injuries, so even when wearing a helmet, it is important to ride following the same practices you learned in drivers’ education class (adapted for horses, of course):

  • Plan ahead for the unexpected
  • Ride a horse whose speed and direction you can control (OK, at least most of the time)
  • Be prepared to respond to other riders, horses and other animals you may encounter
  • Do not expect other horses and riders to do what you think they should do
  • Respect other horses and riders that are sharing your space
  • Be aware of footing and weather conditions, especially when they are changing, and respond accordingly
  • Be alert and avoid distractions such as texting, eating, and watching videos while mounted.

Wear your helmet, replace it if you fall, practice safe riding, and Go Eventing!

Craniology, Part I: What Your Helmet Will (and Won’t) Do To Protect You

About the author: “I am a very low level adult amateur eventer, sometime DQ, “horse wife,” AKA groom for my husband at horse trials, and a huge fan of upper level eventing and other horse sports. Being a glutton for punishment, I am getting a master’s degree at night and on weekends from Harvard. I researched helmets as part of a class assignment and found out how little I actually knew about the round things we wear on our heads. Here’s the information. Hope you find it useful!”

Katherine Coleman and Longwood at Luhmühlen 2017. Photo by Leslie Wylie.

Part 1: The Basics

From a safety perspective, equestrian helmets are designed to do three main things:

  1. Help protect your head from being cut by something sharp or jagged. The hard, although somewhat pliable, outer shell of your helmet is primarily responsible for this part of the protection. In safety tests, the helmet must prevent a sharp object, designed to resemble a horse’s hoof, from reaching the helmet’s lining.
  2. Slide. Your helmet’s outer shell is smooth to allow it to slide along the ground or another surface, giving your head more stopping room if there is some available.
  3. Reduce the force on your skull on impact.
    The inner liner of your helmet is a critical part of your helmet. It is responsible for keeping your skull safe when it hits the ground or another object. The inner liner is made of hard foam (think of a Styrofoam cooler) that crushes when the helmet experiences a hard impact. When the liner crushes, it gives your head an extra .003 second to stop on hard ground, and it provides an extra .007 or .008 of a second to stop on a softer surface like turf. Assuming your helmet meets ASTM standards, the extra stopping time is designed to keep the force on your skull under 300g (or 300 times the force of gravity). 300g is the internationally accepted threshold for serious brain injury. According to the National Bicycle Safety Institute, a force of 300g is approximately the equivalent of your head hitting a hard, flat surface like a wall, while traveling in a straight line at 14 miles per hour – it’s a lot of force.

There are two critical things that equestrian helmets are NOT designed to do: protect your head against multiple falls and protect your head against concussions and other traumatic brain injuries.

The photos below show the foam liner in British Olympic event rider Pippa Funnell’s helmet after she fell from Sandman 7 at the Withington Manor Horse Trials in 2016. The foam liner did its job and protected Pippa’s head. Note how much the foam liner cracked and crushed as a result of the fall. As the photos show, once cracked or crushed, the foam liner inside your helmet stays cracked and crushed. Consequently, the helmet needs to be replaced.

Source:, 2016.

Helmet tests by Dr. Carl Mattacola of the University of Kentucky provide additional insight into how a helmet’s foam liner responds when a rider falls.

Being a rider himself, and knowing that riders sometimes get up after a fall and keep riding, Dr. Mattacola studied how much protection a helmet provides after a fall. In a laboratory, he subjected a variety of cross-country/jockey helmets to a succession of four hard impacts on the same part of the helmet. The next set of photos show a cross section of the liner in the Champion brand helmet (called a pad in the photos) before and after the four impacts. The photo on the left shows what the foam liner looked like before any impacts. The photo on the right shows what the liner looked like after four impacts.

Source: Mattacola, 2015.

After four impacts the pad’s thickness was less than half of its original thickness and the gap between the shell of the helmet and the pad almost doubled in size. This particular helmet would have kept the force on the rider’s skull below 300g for the first and second impacts. For the third and fourth impacts, the force on the rider’s skull would have exceeded the 300g international threshold for serious brain injury.

The table below shows the results of the four impacts on all of the ASTM certified cross-country/jockey helmets included in the tests. All of the ASTM certified helmets met the 300g standard for the first and second impacts. After two impacts, all but one of the helmets failed to meet the 300g standard. A helmet’s ability to withstand more than one impact is important because riders can have more than one impact in the same fall. For example, a rider might hit a jump and then the ground or hit the ground and then be hit by the horse’s leg or hoof.

Source: Mattacola, 2015. Red numbers indicate the force was greater the 300g internationally accepted standard for brain injury.

The outside of Pippa Funnell’s helmet demonstrates that a visual examination of a helmet does not show what happens to the foam liner inside. Aside from a bit of chipped paint, Pippa’s helmet looks fine, yet from the photos above we know the liner is damaged.


Photo:, 2016.

After testing the cross-country/jockey helmets, Dr. Mattacola’s advice was:

  • When you fall off, replace your helmet even if it does not look damaged.
  • No matter how much you love your old hunt cap or any other non-ASTM certified helmet, don’t ride in it. In addition to testing ASTM certified helmets, he also subjected a non-ASTM certified helmet to a single impact. Thankfully, the test was in the lab because the helmet would have allowed the rider’s head to experience over 900g of force – enough force to be fatal.

In addition to knowing your helmet may not protect you through multiple falls, it is important to know that equestrian helmets are NOT designed to protect you against a concussion or other types of traumatic brain injuries. Before concussions started getting so much public discussion, I was sometimes skeptical when I heard that a rider suffered a concussion while wearing a helmet. In the process of trying to convince athletes of the benefits of wearing helmets, the benefit claims were sometimes overblown and a lot of misinformation entered the marketplace.

The reality is that the ASTM does not test helmets for their ability to prevent concussions or traumatic brain injuries (TBI), and scientists are still working to pinpoint the biomechanics that cause TBI so they can design helmets that can influence those biomechanics. It is clear that protecting riders against straight line impacts is not enough to protect them against traumatic brain injuries. As Dr. Mattacola’s work illustrates, ASTM certified helmets are quite good at mitigating even a straight line impact that could result in death without the helmet. Yet, riders wearing helmets keep suffering from concussions and other traumatic brain injuries.

Practicing Safe Riding

While we are waiting for a helmet that protects against more hazards, the best thing to do is follow the same best practices we learned in driver’s education (adjusted for horses, of course).

  • Plan ahead for the unexpected
  • Ride a horse whose speed and direction you can control (OK, at least most of the time)
  • Be prepared to respond to other riders, horses and other animals you may encounter
  • Do not expect other horses and riders to do what you think they should do
  • Respect other horses and riders that are sharing your space
  • Be aware of footing and weather conditions, especially when they are changing, and respond to the changes
  • Be alert and avoid distractions such as texting, eating, and watching videos while mounted.

Wear your helmet, replace it if you fall, practice safe riding, and Go Eventing!

Stay tuned for Part II, which will discuss ventilation, helmet replacement, and what to expect in helmet technology in the future.