A Walk Down an Eventing Memory Lane:
Not to plagiarize anyone’s lyrics, but hearing/reading about the recent pissing, moaning and finger pointing going on amongst various “factions” in our sport, these words keep rolling around unbidden in my head. Where have all the good times (in eventing) gone – if in fact they have gone? And if they have gone, when did they go, where did they go, and why did they go? On second thought, and on a more global scale, what has gone FUBAR with the world we live in? When I see Jimmy Johnson, a winning football coach and NASCAR dude, hawking ExtenZe male enhancement drugs on TV, when I read of bomb threats being levied against members of Congress who voted a certain way, or when dinner time TV ads warn of diarrhea and “oily discharge” associated with certain diet drugs, I realize that life as we knew it in a kinder, gentler age is circling the drain. Yuk!
Over the years, I’ve watched hundreds and maybe thousands of horses and riders leave various start boxes all over the country. Time was when there’d be expressions of excited anticipation and dare I say joy on the faces of so many of these riders. These days, not so much. Riders more often than not look grim, serious, too often scared, stressed and/or exhausted – and toward the middle of the season, horses start looking the same way – burned out and flat eyed. This is not a healthy thing.
Since I began unscientifically making note of the above, I have simultaneously been struggling with the question “Why has this change occurred?” and “When did it start changing?” I keep asking myself this question and keep coming up with basically the same answer which is that the “fun” as we oldsters knew it changed when the sport itself changed. (Which came first, the chicken or the egg, she mused.) Bear with me while I expand on this somewhat pompous statement.
I am a based-in-reality fan of the long format/classic eventing/whatever you care to call it. Emotionally, I believe it is the ultimate in equestrian sport – a test of horse and rider worthy of being designated as a true triathlon. Realistically, however, I realize that at the upper levels of eventing as we have it today, it is dead in the water. (Zipping into my flame retardant suit as I type.) Maybe through the energy created by the Training Three Day and the Half Star it will become a viable sport again at the lower levels. Time will tell – and that would be grist for another discussion down the road. I do believe that the demise of the long format put the nail in the coffin of the whacky, sometimes zany seat of the pants fun that attracted so many of us to the sport in the first place. Galloping a steeplechase course has been likened to feeling the bugs flying into your teeth as you smile your way along. I did an interview with Bruce Davidson in 2008, and he described it as that “put your hands down and get that lovely galloping rhythm and maintain it all the way to the end” experience. Cool, huh?
Around the time that the long format died, and there are a zillion opinions as to why this happened, things started changing. A trend in course design became noticeable. Without the endurance factor of Phases A, B and C, “new” ways to separate the wheat from the chaff evolved in the form of cross country courses with questions of ever increasing technicality. I’ve heard it likened to show jumping without walls. At the peak of this trend, horses gallop like gangbusters between clusters of fences in varying combinations where they are forced to whoa-and-roll back before roaring off again to the next cluster.. This is ably demonstrated in the extensive speed research being done by John Staples and Reed Ayres with some frightening speeds being clocked. Concurrently, a school of thought was championed that because the endurance factor had been softened, horses could compete more often. Another theory was expressed by a trainer friend of mine who said that in the days of the long format, there was a spring three day and a fall three day. and everything in between was regarded as preparation for these events. With these goals gone, every horse trial has become a serious full out life or death competitive entity in itself. Horses are being asked to compete all year long, often every other weekend, and frequently with long road hauls from event to event as qualifications and points are being sought.
OK. So far, this seems to be a valid theory for the competitors who had their eye on the prize of running full format three day events. Why then, you ask, should this have had any effect on those riders for whom completing a Preliminary horse trials was the ultimate goal, those riders who by the way compose the vast majority of eventers, those who pay the bills for the group with higher aspirations and abilities? Well, folks, guess what. It has!
“Back when,” many eventers came into the sport from the hunt field. These intrepid foxhunters had been fairly comfortable showing their versatile horses at the hunter shows in the off season over outside courses and showing off their full drag in Corinthian classes. Starting in probably the late 70’s/early 80’s, hunter shows started up, and our venerable field hunter friends were soon outclassed. We then found a wonderful welcoming home in eventing where the most familiar and most fun phase was the cross country. (Damn that stupid dressage anyway!) As a brand new official in the late 80’s, I evaluated courses as “Would my foxhunter get around clean,” (Pre Training), “Would my foxhunter get around with maybe one stop,” (Training), or “Would my foxhunter just laugh at these questions, unload me, and go home” (Preliminary on up).
Since the aforementioned death of the long format, increased technicality in lower level cross country has trickled down appreciably. Ten years ago, a coffin at training was unheard of. Today, a majority of these courses have them in some form or other along with corners (or corner like substances). Novice and Beginner Novice designers have ramped up their courses as well. It saddens me to hear trainers on beginner novice course walks advising their students to count strides and make note of their meter marks for time checks. Any wonder why Starter/Tadpole/Amoeba divisions have emerged? It is argued that these entry levels have to be made more technical in order to prepare horses and riders for the next levels up. This is valid, but one can also argue that perhaps wisdom and recent history might dictate a return at all levels to more straightforward courses. I think this is possibly starting to become reality in the past couple of years. I hope so.
The change in the demographics of those who participate in our sport has also had an influence on the format of the sport. As open country diminishes, more and more eventers are learning their craft in enclosed spaces. Skill is being taught by (hopefully) knowledgeable people instead of being learned through experience. Quoting Bruce again, when he was asked last year in Reston for what advice he would have for a hopeful four star rider, he responded “Just ride. Spend hours in the saddle Ride.”
I wish I knew how to put the good times back in the sport – how to put joy into the start box again and laughter in the barns no matter how bad the day is going – but I don’t. Things have gotten terribly complicated for everyone involved. Riders worry about making a living in days that don’t have enough hours. Officials worry about doing the right thing and making the right call that will be fair to everyone. Organizers worry about paying the bills and providing good competitions. We have come to demand too much of each other to the detriment of our own feelings and behavior.
In closing, a side note of interest which may or may not be relevant. Hunter classes have gotten ridiculous with their emphasis more on the number of steps a horse takes over the quality of the steps. However, the hottest new trend in the hunter/jumper world is the Derby in which horses are asked to gallop and jump – gasp – straightforward solid fences in lieu of the measured artificial courses in the ring. Not counting the somewhat controversial indoor eventing ventures, could something like this catch on as the next logical trend in eventing, and could it be, at least at first, fun? What a concept!