As we digest the results of yesterday’s show jumping finale at the 2018 FEI World Equestrian Games, it’s a harsh reality for the U.S. that the team came within one rail of qualifying for the 2020 Tokyo Olympics. Finishing eighth is still notable for the mere fact that the team finished, a result that eluded the U.S. at both the 2014 WEG and 2016 Olympics, but it’s clear we still have work to do in order to be competitive on the world stage.
EN sat down with U.S. Chef d’Eqipe Erik Duvander to break down the team’s performance at Tryon. Erik took on the role of U.S. Performance Director of Eventing 10 months ago, and since then the overarching goal for the U.S. High Performance program has been to produce the best possible result at Tryon, but first and foremost to qualify for Tokyo.
Erik coached the U.S. in two Nations Cups at Great Meadow and Aachen prior to Tryon, which served as his first championship with the team. (Click here to read his analysis of the team’s performance at Aachen.) In dissecting the team’s outcome at Tryon, Erik echoed the same sentiment: implementing tangible changes in a High Performance program takes time.
“To make changes takes more than 10 months. This year has been about learning about the riders and getting to know them intimately enough to be able to be the best support for them, and also understanding the full structures and what they’re doing in their programs,” Erik said. “You learn a lot about a team at a championships and what the team culture is. It has set me up with a platform for a greater understanding for where we need to go.”
As far as where that direction is, Erik first made it clear that there is a lot going right in the High Performance program. The U.S. team sat in bronze medal position after dressage at Tryon, and Erik said there were a lot of positives to take away from the first phase.
Boyd Martin led the way for the team after dressage in eighth place with Christine Turner’s Tsetserleg on 27.1, a career personal best for the horse across all levels. Boyd also improved on Tsetserleg’s CCI4* debut at Kentucky by 4.1 marks, a testament to his diligent hard work with his wife Silva and dressage coach Scott Hassler.
The U.S. team also brought in FEI judge Christian Landolt to work with the riders at team training camps at Bromont last month prior to the mandatory outing in the CIC3*, as well as the final training camp at Will Faudree’s Gavilan Farm prior to shipping to the venue.
All four of the U.S. team horses improved on their dressage scores from Kentucky. Phillip Dutton also trains with Scott Hassler, and The Z Partnership’s Z sat in 12th after dressage at Tryon on 27.6, a 6.1-mark improvement from his CCI4* debut at Kentucky.
Lynn Symansky and The Donner Syndicate’s Donner also delivered a CCI4* personal best in dressage of 28.3 to sit in 20th place. Erik added: “I thought Donner produced as nice a test as I’ve ever seen him do — nice and relaxed and loose in his body.”
The Conair Syndicate’s Tight Lines is known for being tricky on the flat, but Will Coleman still improved their dressage score from Kentucky by 2.7 marks to sit in 64th place. As pathfinders for the team, their job was not to produce a competitive dressage mark so much as to deliver key intel as the first pair out for the team on Capt. Mark Phillips’s cross country course.
The U.S. team had an early draw as the fourth to go, which meant there was little time to scout out how the course was riding. Colleen Loach and Qorry Blue d’Argouges, the first pair out of the start box, successfully went direct up the waterfall up-bank at Mars Sustainability Bay, but as the day unfolded, more and more horses took a distinct disliking to the waterfall.
As fourth out of the start box, Will Coleman and Tight Lines were early guinea pigs — not just for the U.S. team but for how the course would ultimately ride as a whole. Tight Lines firmly said no to the waterfall up-bank, as well as picked up another runout at 14B at the influential CSX Corners.
“The longer route was easier and didn’t take so much time, but the straight route was jumpable, so it wasn’t impossible. In our sport you see a fence and think we understand the horses pretty well and how they will react. The early draw was not an advantage for us, and we changed tactics after Will had his problem there,” Erik said.
“The pathfinder position is tough to have. Often you send someone out who is good on the cross country and you get the information back, and it’s always good information for the team but it’s not the outcome you wish for.”
(Side note: The gold medal British team riders all planned to take the longer route at the water from the start. Gemma Tattersall and Arctic Soul, who were next out of the start box after Will Coleman and Tight Lines, took the long route there and came home 13 seconds inside the time, and soon after other teams started adjusting their plans to going long.)
Boyd Martin and Tsetserleg were next out for the U.S. team and were going well until Mars Sustainability Bay, when unfortunately they got into the wrong spot at the boat to result in a refusal. Boyd delivered top 10 results for the U.S. at the last two World Championships and was our only rider to jump a clear cross country round in Normandy. The reality is in a sport with as many variables as eventing, even the best in the world sometimes get it wrong.
“Boyd is for sure a championship rider,” Erik said. “This horse is still pretty inexperienced, and when you turn up to a championship with a less experienced horse, things like that can happen.”
(Case in point: Double Olympic champion Mark Todd, two-time World Champion Blyth Tait, 2014 World Champion Sandra Auffarth and 2017 Burghley winner Chris Burton all had jumping penalties at the water on less experienced horses.)
After Will and Boyd both had problems on course, Lynn Symansky and Donner stormed out of the box on a mission and absolutely delivered, coming home 3 seconds inside the time to move up to eighth place after cross country.
“She was always going to be a bit of a banker in that sort of a space because he’s an experienced horse,” Erik said. “Lynn is comfortable going fast, and she delivered on the day and couldn’t have done a better job.”
Phillip Dutton and Z went out of the start box as our anchor pair with orders to preserve the team score and guarantee a clear round for the team. Z went out of the start box breathing fire and wore himself out a bit early on, which caught up to him at the end of the course and resulted in 6.4 time penalties. But Phillip still delivered the clear result the team needed to stay in the hunt for Tokyo qualification.
“At 10-years-old, Z hasn’t got the maturity yet to know how to pace himself, so he uses himself too much when he leaves the stables and going down to the start box. The horse has already done a fair bit of work before he gets to the start box because he gets a bit lively,” Erik said.
“The horse has a slightly aggressive way of going cross country, so it’s tough to settle him in the beginning. I thought Phillip did a brilliant job of managing that and preserving the horse as best he could. The horse never stopped trying for him, but he got tired in the end and lost time.”
The U.S. team cruised through the soggy final horse inspection on Sunday and sat in eighth place going into show jumping — only 5.5 penalties out of seventh place. As Japan already receives qualification for Tokyo as the host nation, as long as the Japanese team finished in the top six, the berth for qualification could widen to the top seven teams.
Having a rest day between cross country and show jumping is something we don’t see very often, but it does happen occasionally due to having the cross country in a different location and the practicalities of transporting the horses. (Side note: EN has been told there will be a rest day at the Tokyo Olympics for this reason.)
Still, Erik said this was the first time in his career he has ever had an extra day in the stables due to a weather delay.
“Our horses would have been happy to jump the following day after cross country,” Erik said. “They were all fit and healthy and happy. That was a real plus to take out of it. The riders had really done their homework and done preparation for quite an enduring track.”
As for whether Erik was feeling optimistic about how show jumping would ultimately go for the U.S. team yesterday: “I never think optimistically or negatively because in the end we just take each day as it comes. You come up to the main arena and it is a fact that some horses get a reaction when they go into these stadiums. We don’t practice in stadiums like these that much as eventers, and it’s something that is difficult to practice because you don’t have that many opportunities.
“A couple of our horses got a a bit of tension in the ring, and that didn’t help them in the jumping. With a tense horse, it’s about managing the situation and getting through it. It was not just our horses that got tense — others did as well. Riding in championships is a definite skill, and you have to be able to get the best out of the horses regardless of how they react.”
Will Coleman and Tight Lines jumped a clear show jumping round at Kentucky this spring and only had one rail down at Kentucky last year, so their past form pointed to one rail or a clear round. Unfortunately, tension got to the horse and three rails came tumbling down. Will was already the drop score for the team, so it was up to Boyd, Phillip and Lynn to produce clear rounds.
“It was an interesting show jumping because you could see a lot of horses having hind-leg faults towards the end of the course,” Erik said, “so the cross country had definitely taken its toll.”
Boyd and Tsetserleg fell victim to this, having the second to last fence down, as well as two parts of the treble combination. While Boyd said after the round that the horse can be difficult to manage in combinations, three down is certainly well above the average for this horse, who has never had more than one down at three-star or four-star level in his entire career.
“If the horse was going to have any faults, it would be what he had, but it was definitely more than we expected. The horse has a unique way of jumping in the ring, and Boyd is a master riding him in the ring, but it didn’t come off this time,” Erik said. “If a horse has any weaknesses they will show up at a championships. It’s always a little bit different — different tension from the atmosphere and all the small variables.”
After Boyd had three down, the pressure was on for Phillip to jump clear with Z. Once again, Phillip proved why he is the anchor of our team and delivered a clear round to finish 13th in the horse’s first major championship.
“I’ve been fortunate enough to work with a lot of fantastic horses, and Z is right up there with the best horses I’ve ever been involved with,” Erik said. “He has come a long way and has more to come. Now it’s about making a long-term plan for the horse. When you get a uniquely talented horse like Z, you have to manage the longevity.”
Alan Wade’s show jumping track continued to shake up the leaderboard. By the time Lynn and Donner went in to jump, they could have one rail down and still secure Olympic qualification for the team. But Donner also fell victim to tension and pulled three rails — well above their average of one rail at this level.
“Donner came in and showed tension, and the way Lynn rode him was trying to nurse him into the ring,” Erik said. “She started off a little bit under-paced, and it’s difficult if you start that way and then try to start moving them up.”
The U.S. team ultimately finished in eighth place, 2.8 penalties shy of qualifying for Tokyo.
“It was a margin of a couple of points, which isn’t huge. But if that is the level we’re at right now in comparison to other nations, we just have to suck it up and get better, work harder and be better prepared for next time. That is all part of my thinking and learnings I’ve had over the last 10 months,” Erik said.
“It’s also been highly valuable for me to go to a championship with the team and see how all of the riders function in that type of scenario and under that type of pressure. From now onwards I have absolute clarity in what we need to do and where we need to go with this team.”
The U.S. must now qualify for the 2020 Olympics by winning the 2019 Pan Americans Games in Lima, Peru. (It’s not an unfamiliar scenario for the team, as the U.S. also had to secure qualification for the 2016 Rio Olympics by winning the 2015 Pan Ams after failing to qualify in Normandy.)
“Qualifying in Lima is not a practical way to go and has its own complexities,” Erik said, “but if we’re in this position in being eighth in the world, then we need to practice more with trying to win. We’ll have to use Lima as an experience that is positive rather than a negative.”
As for Erik’s final takeaways from WEG: “There was a lot of talk about Tryon as a championship venue and the difficulties the venue had in the lead-up, but I thought everyone pulled together and it ended up being a super competition. It was fantastic sport all the way through. When you look at the results and how few horses were eliminated — plus only a few rider falls and no horse falls — it’s down to Mark Phillips’s genius as course designer.
“It’s also very exciting to see nations like Ireland and Japan up there at the top. It’s really healthy for our sport. It’s not an easy sport to win medals because you have many countries now who are good, and that’s the challenge. I’m looking forward to the next two years leading up to Tokyo and improving the U.S. team’s performance so we can be competitive with the best in the world.”
Click here to catch up on all of EN’s coverage from Tryon.