Jim Wofford: The Future of Horse Sports in the Olympics

There are upsides to the possibility that eventing could soon lose its Olympic status.
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There are upsides to the possibility that eventing could soon lose its Olympic status.
Eventing has a gratifying way of reinventing itself to adapt to the 21st century. If horse-welfare rules are rigorously enforced, I see opportunities ahead that will explode if the seemingly inevitable  removal of eventing from the Olympic list of competitions occurs. Our sport will be free to develop new formats. Professionals will find it easier to compete in the new series of elite invitationals such as the Asheville Regional Airport Wellington Eventing Showcase, won this year by Boyd Martin and Blackfoot Mystery. At the same time, the Classic format will be available to amateurs as their own “Olympics.” The future for eventing is exciting, but we must embrace change rather than avoid it. | © Amy K. Dragoo/AIMMEDIA

Eventing has a gratifying way of reinventing itself to adapt to the 21st century. If horse-welfare rules are rigorously enforced, I see opportunities ahead that will explode if the seemingly inevitable removal of eventing from the Olympic list of competitions occurs. Our sport will be free to develop new formats. Professionals will find it easier to compete in the new series of elite invitationals such as the Asheville Regional Airport Wellington Eventing Showcase, won this year by Boyd Martin and Blackfoot Mystery. At the same time, the Classic format will be available to amateurs as their own “Olympics.” The future for eventing is exciting, but we must embrace change rather than avoid it. | © Amy K. Dragoo/AIMMEDIA

I rode a nice 4-year-old the other day—Greenbean (“GB”), an off-the-track Thoroughbred who had been turned out for a few months to remember how to “just be a horse” and had recently been started back in work. I don’t ride many 4-year-olds any more—I am suspicious of anything that can move faster than I can think. But I was assured GB would be a safe conveyance for a geezer, so away we went. When he seemed to adjust to the extra weight on his back after a few minutes, I started to think that maybe he wasn’t going to buck me off after all.

Of course, as soon as I relaxed, I started thinking about how to improve GB’s state of training, so we began with learning how to do turn on the forehand. Logically this led to leg-yielding at the walk, and the next thing you know, GB and I were getting 4s and 5s on our introductory dressage work from an imaginary Russian judge. The lateral work increased the engagement of GB’s hind leg, which improved his canter. Because he was allowed to go forward at the canter, when we returned to trot work, the swing was much better, and the leg-yields had made his simple serpentines much rounder. All in all, after about 30 minutes of this, GB and I were feeling pretty pleased with ourselves, so I quit while we were ahead.

Change Equals Progress—Sometimes

Greenbean’s babysitter came and took him away, and I sat down to catch my breath and consider my experiences. It was a nice day, and I had a break before my next lesson, which gave me time to let my mind wander. The first thing I thought about was that even after 60 years of practice, I still get enormous pleasure from riding a horse—any horse. I preselect them a lot more carefully than I used to, but the thrill remains. I was also in a good mood because GB had changed during our session. There were no miraculous epiphanies, but he had made progress. I always figure that all I have to do is make my horse 1 percent better today and then train him for 100 days in a row.

Next thing I knew, I was waxing philosophical about the role of change when we train our horses. Horses and humans are alike in that they fear change. They would really be happier staying the same. The way they have always done something feels safer than trying something new. (Anyone who has ever served as a change agent knows that change is stressful. If you don’t believe me, just watch a presidential campaign.) Change is necessary for progress, however, and where horses are concerned, it is better when change is gradual, educational and achieved by education—not by compulsion. 

For the Wrong Reasons

This train of thought led me to a far more important topic than presidential campaigns: Eventing is changing at a rapid pace and the stresses are evident throughout the sport at every level. This has been on my mind for a while and at one point I noticed that many of the changes are being imposed on eventing by outside forces. I even looked up the process and got a new $5 word out of my research: exogenous. Webster’s defines exogenous as “introduced from or produced outside the organism or system.” That’s what is going on in eventing—outside forces are imposing change.

When you examine the ways in which eventing has been changed over the past few years, you will find that very few alterations have been designed to ensure a more equitable and level playing field for competitors and even fewer have been made to improve the welfare of the horses. The vast majority of the changes have been imposed by an international alphabet soup of organizations with the formidable array of acronyms and jargon typical of bureaucracies the world over. A daily dose of IOC/FEI/USEF-speak (International Olympic Committee/International Equestrian Federation /U.S. Equestrian Federation) is like Chinese water torture, a drip-drip-drip of directives and revisions to previous regulations that is more than most humans can stand.

It stands to reason that any substantive changes to a sport should be made by people actively involved in that sport and who have the wisdom to anticipate future consequences of those changes. Unfortunately, almost every recent change of substance to eventing has been made in aid of some external entity’s attempt to remain on the Olympic calendar. 

One of the most significant changes was made in the mid-1980s, when the IOC opened the Games, meaning that both amateurs and professionals could compete in the Olympics. Since then, a generation of riders has been in the fortunate position of making their avocation their vocation. But these same professionals keep a careful eye on changes to their business model. Professional riders know that adding “Olympic” to their resume can kick-start their careers and they are understandably reluctant to change something that is working to their benefit.

Welfare of Horse and Rider, Remember?

This explains the actions taken to continue eventing’s place in the Olympics. However, our actions are taking us farther and farther from our sport’s original intentions—that by careful and skillful preparation, a well-trained horse and rider could complete a speed and endurance test yet remain capable of jumping again on the following day.

If we use fairness, safety and welfare for both horse and rider as our benchmarks for proposed changes, then we must view many of the recent proposals with distaste. For example, one proposal currently under consideration is to run the phases of the event in a different order. Historically, show jumping has been held last. This ensured time for a veterinary examination after the cross country and the jumping test itself served as a further test of the horse’s condition. One of the proposals for change has been to run the cross-country phase last in the reverse order of placing. The proponents of this new proposal argue that the IOC is extremely concerned with a sport’s presentation. This is an IOC euphemism for television ratings. The IOC is in the entertainment business.

Stated bluntly, when we use this sequence of the three phases, we are saying that the entertainment value of our horses is greater than their welfare. Due to the pressure from television producers to provide an instant winner, there will be no time for veterinary examinations after the cross country, which means unscrupulous or insensitive riders can press a horse past his limits and yet be successful. Any time a lame horse can win an event, we have strayed too far from the original intentions of our sport.

Another proposal is to have teams of three riders instead of four as a cost-saving measure. While the intention is to save money, the unintended consequence would be that fewer teams would finish the competition. A recent statistical study of this proposal shows that teams of three have a much lower completion rate than teams of four. This is another example of changes that are imposed on the sport in an attempt to maintain our connection with the Olympics.

Time for Alternatives

I have been a proponent of that connection in the past, thinking that the increased visibility the Olympics provided to us was worth a certain amount of compromise. However, I think we are at a point where the welfare of the horse is being sacrificed for entertainment purposes. In addition, we have to look at the situation from the IOC’s point of view. They see a sport that is not universal in its participation, a sport that is expensive to stage and one that has been very slow to shake its elitist image. When the IOC performs its quadrennial review, eventing gets closer and closer to being downsized out of the Olympics entirely. Some concerned observers, myself included, think that our future connection only has eight to 12 years to go and then we will be kicked to the curb.

Change always has its dangers, but it also presents opportunities. Standing on our own four feet might not be the disaster some predict. First, it would allow us to make changes to the sport that kept the welfare and safety of our horses in the forefront of our thinking. There would be a slight reduction of sponsorship at first and a few owners might curtail their involvement, but there are recent developments that should give us confidence. Events such as the Rolex Kentucky Three-Day Event, the Badminton Horse Trials and CHIO Aachen have shown that eventing can draw large crowds and provide excellent television ratings. New concepts such as the Wellington Eventing Showcase, inaugurated in 2015 in Florida, Express Eventing in Europe and Canada, indoor eventing competitions and the new proposed Event Rider Masters Series all should reassure professionals that their livelihood is still possible even though eventing’s connection with the Olympics would no longer exist.

A Bright Future For Amateurs

At the same time, what about the non-Olympic levels of the sport? There has been a renewed emphasis on the lower levels as evidenced by the Sport Summit held last December during the U.S. Eventing Association’s annual convention. The vast majority of the USEA membership will never compete above Training level, and we must create competition goals that are attractive and enjoyable for the amateur rider. Modern life precludes most of us from devoting the time needed to succeed at the upper levels of eventing, but whatever the level, we still get an enormous thrill out of competing with a horse we have trained ourselves. I think this partnership is one of the main reasons we need to make sure that eventing survives and flourishes in the 21st century. The amateur rider spends more and more of her time in a sterile office building, staring at a computer screen in a 6-by-8 cubicle. If an outdoor view is even available, chances are it will feature asphalt and concrete, not green grass and blue sky. As our connection with the natural world becomes ever more tenuous, our time spent in the saddle becomes ever more valuable. What sort of goals should the amateur rider set for herself? If you have any chance at all of riding in a Classic event, I encourage you to set your sights on completing one. Classics are an endangered species, but they still exist. I often say that a Classic is the amateur rider’s Olympics and that remains true regardless of the actions of the IOC.

What will our events look like going forward? It is hard to say, but for certain we will not go back to events where dressage and show jumping have a minimal effect on the final outcome. We know so much more about the training and riding of event horses than we did 20 years ago, and that knowledge will be required in the future. We have to think of ourselves as Alice in Wonderland. “I can’t go back to yesterday,” she said, “because I was a different person then.” We are all different people now. We know more and we have better tools for the care and training of our horses. The only thing that is unchanging is our responsibility for these marvelous creatures.

This article originally appeared in the June 2016 issue of Practical Horseman.

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