Athletes, organizers and administrators, 361 in all, made the U.S. Eventing Association’s Annual Meeting and Convention in Long Beach, California a hit, and Boyd Martin reflected the beating heart of the sport through the Dec. 6-10 event.
As the keynote speaker for Saturday’s annual meeting, the charismatic Australian-born American Olympian shared his ascent in the sport with entertaining candor and charisma. He was a welcome surprise guest in the amateur forum, where he shared strategies for at-home schooling and coming back to competition after a bad fall. And his presence was felt in other sessions where a relatively new topic arose: how exponentially social media can influence public perception of the sport.
Making the sport safer continues as a top priority, stressed USEA president Carol Kozlowski. Perception is critical, too. Events of the last year, including the cross-country injury and subsequent euthanization of Boyd’s four-star partner Crackerjack in October, stirred new levels of social media frenzy, clarifying the need to address its impact. A four-part safety round-table discussion with The Chronicle of the Horse was a good first step, Carol said, and riders must align their actions with this priority.
“We’ve had a bumpy go of it in October and November with the status of safety in our sport and the reaction we were getting on social media,” Carol said to attendees at the Eventing Riders Association of North American meeting. She described the challenge as an opportunity “to get our message out” well beyond the eventing community. “However you choose to publicize what you do, just be aware that you are not always being viewed by your friends and fellow eventers.” She applauded riders for being a gracious and self-depreciating lot, but noted that what eventers might consider and describe as acceptable risks of the sport may be perceived differently. “How that is presented to the public is vital to how we are perceived going forward.”
A call for the use of “best practices” by all resonated at the ERAofNA meeting. “It’s amazing the power people have who aren’t educated about our sport,” said one attendee.
In happier discussions, Boyd answered questions during an unannounced visit to the Amateur & Adult Riders Forum. Asked what's set up in his own home ring, he described a gymnastic or “small playing exercise--cavaletti, bounce, or a grid, as tall as your knee,” then a course segment, five or six fences with a related distance. “See if you can translate what you did on the grid to that part of the course.”
As for recovering mentally from a bad fall, Boyd admitted two advantages. He’s accepted the bodily risks to himself and “gave up worrying a long time ago because it keeps you up at night.” And, “If you fall on cross-country, you have three weeks to be nervous. If I fall, in 15 minutes, I’m riding another horse on cross-country. Very quickly, my bad experience is replaced with a better following round. It’s harder for you guys because you don’t have that quick fix.”
He does worry about his horses getting hurt. “If there was one thing I could change about this life, it’s injuries to the horses. It’s crushing. It’s awful.” His experienced horses often seemed unperturbed by previous incidents, he noted, but with young horses, it’s critical to return them to competition very carefully, often taking them down a level to rebuild their confidence. The fastest training method, he stressed, is “go slow and progressive.” Cross country is “all about confidence and training. It’s not about adrenaline, aggression and momentum.”
At 12,913, USEA membership is back to “pre-recession levels,” said CEO Rob Burk, perhaps partly due to the new mandatory membership at the Beginner Novice level. Although overall starts were slightly down, there were record numbers for the American Eventing Championships and the Future Event and Young Event horse programs. The USEA’s three-year-old Intercollegiate Program is growing nicely and will get a special focus on West Coast participation this year.
On the development front, $230,000 was raised this year to support frangible-fence research, emerging athletes and education of officials. Rebecca Farm in Montana received big kudos for saving the discipline’s North American Junior & Young Riders Championship on short notice in 2017, and for hosting it again in 2018. Its long-term fate, however, is in question, said Carol.
The Volunteer Incentive Program sponsored by Sunsprite Warmbloods is making inroads and the urgent need to grow the volunteer pool came up in several sessions, as it has for the past several years. Event organizers urged professionals to make it a priority with their students. Former USEA president Brian Sabo recalled his Pony Club youth with Hilda Gurney when he was volunteered for public relations work at 17. He had no experience, but was told “If you get the job, do it to the best of your ability.” Making jump judging and other tasks a “non-negotiable” part of students’ education is needed more than ever. It’s critical to events today and to establishing a lifelong involvement with the sport, he said. At Saturday night’s awards banquet, Michael Smallwood of Maryland logged 221 hours as the year’s Volunteer of the Year.
Returning to California for the first time in 10 years, the Meeting coincided with the state’s second bout of terrible wildfires this fall. An all-too-timely disaster preparedness workshop hosted by Area VI reviewed the basics: Evacuate horses at the first of three typical warnings: advisory, voluntary and mandatory; ensure your horses load on a trailer; and practice evacuation plans, with options, before they are needed. Emergency response training is a big asset for individuals and their communities and, above all, forget the idea that “this will never happen to me.”
Presentations from the Fair Hill CCI4* in Maryland and the World Equestrian Games at Tyron International Equestrian Center in North Carolina revealed exciting plans: for the events themselves and the role these meticulously designed multi-purpose equestrian venues look to play in the sport over the long haul.
The USEF’s new eventing performance director Erik Duvander discussed his “success at the top” plan for returning the team to international podiums and making the U.S. program the envy of the world. First up is the WEG, where the U.S. needs a top-six finish to earn qualification for the 2020 Tokyo Olympics. He’s targeting a better result than that, and his plan involves working with prospects individually for the ideal horse and rider preparation. The WEG qualifying period began Jan. 1, 2017 and concludes with the final selection trial in Luhmühlen, Germany in mid-June of 2018.
USET team physician Mark Hart advised all FEI riders to savvy themselves on newly-heightened testing for compliance with human anti-doping rules. All medications, including supplements, should be checked on the World Anti-Doping Agency’s prohibited list, at www.globaldro.org, to make sure they’re permissible. This applies even to those riding at the one-star level and the prohibited list includes marijuana, he noted, even if it’s “legal” in your state.
My only complaint with this meeting is that there was too much good stuff. Sessions were divided into three tracks: events, eventers and equine, and I would like to have cloned myself to attend them all. It was great to see young riders from Area VI soaking up the horsemanship advice and governance knowledge and sharing the spotlight with the sport’s inspiring and accessible elite. The need for common courtesy between riders, officials and volunteers was a recurring discussion, yet I rarely left a meeting room without seeing an attendee take time to thank the hotel staff. Eventers are a uniquely down-to-earth group of people and it was a treat and honor to participate in his informative, inspiring and fun gathering.