Jim Wofford: Anticipating Consequences of Changing the Sport of Eventing

This column is adapted from remarks that Jim recently addressed to the 2016 International Eventing Forum in Gloucestershire, England.
Event riders on the 1952 Helsinki Olympics podium were harbingers of the changes the sport would undergo in the next half century. Previously, all the men would have been in military uniform. Post-World War II society was able to devote more time to recreation with a corresponding increase in civilians’ competitiveness in leisure activities. The individual gold and team medal winner from Sweden, Baron Hans von Blixen-Finecke (shown here top center), was the first event rider in Olympic history to come close to the optimum times in the steeplechase and cross-country phases. As the emphasis in eventing turned from completion to competition, speed became an increasingly important factor after World War II. To take advantage of the edge that speed provided competitors, all three members of the U.S. Team were mounted on Thoroughbreds for the first time. | © PMG Pictures/Poudret

When it comes to eventing, I long ago crossed the line between hobby and obsession. My obsession with eventing is total. It has been my constant companion for well over half a century. It has served as a steady source of learning about our beloved horses, a guide, a goal, a stimulant and—occasionally—a scourge. In February, my research for a speech I gave at the International Eventing Forum caused me to look back over the history of our sport with thought-provoking results.

A New Millennium’s Challenges
We have all heard the somewhat shop-worn axiom that we must study history in order not to repeat the mistakes of the past. I think we agree that eventing has changed and that it will (and should) continue to do so, but those modifications must be carefully considered. Occasionally, we have made these changes with the best interests of humans in mind, and our horses have come out second-best. If wisdom is the anticipation of consequence, then we must pray for wisdom as the new millennium unfolds before us. Our horses are silent partners in this endeavor, and for their sakes we must give serious consideration to the consequences of future change.

The sport of eventing, now a century old, has shown an ability to change and adapt that it will need in the coming years when the sport will be challenged as never before. Strong societal forces are demanding an increased emphasis on the welfare of our horses, demands that I personally welcome and support. The safety and welfare of our riders have also come to the forefront of recent discussions. Eventing has received a chilling warning that neither rules nor mastery can entirely guard us from risk. We all wish for a speedy and complete recovery from the life-threatening injuries suffered by some of the most adept and elegant practitioners of our art.

Rules Tell a Story
The rules of any sport define its requirements and provide a level playing field for our athletes, two-legged and, in the case of equestrian sports, four-legged. Eventing’s regulatory bodies—national, international and global—are currently increasing the rigor and complexity of the rules that guide us. Because the changes in our rules reflect the evolution of our sport, it is an interesting analysis to track the rule changes that have occurred over the past century, determine the reasons for them and observe the resulting impact.

Eventing has been part of the Olympic movement for more than a century. Although eventing was on the Olympic calendar at Stockholm in 1912, my review begins with the 1924 Paris Olympics, the first to use the format that we now refer to as the “Classic.” By this I mean a dressage test, followed by a five-phase speed and endurance test (Phase A, roads and tracks; Phase B, steeplechase; Phase C, another roads and tracks; Phase D, cross country; Phase E, cool-down), culminating on the final day with a show-jumping test. This basic format would remain in use for the next 80 years. Also of note: The rules and format for the competition as a whole remained basically unchanged from 1924 until 1948 while the dimensions and speeds used for the cross-country tests have remained unchanged for a century.

Civilians, then Women On the Podium
Our next date of interest is the 1952 Helsinki Olympics where, for the first time, some of the men on the Olympic podium were in civilian rather than military attire. The reasons were obvious. The global conflagration of World War II was over, military budgets were shrinking and the unsuitability of horses for modern combat had become apparent, even to army generals. The essential character of eventing also began a gradual change at this time. At the sport’s inception, completion—as opposed to winning—was the competitors’ primary goal. Why? Commonly referred to as “The Military,” eventing was designed to train young cavalry officers and horses. Carefully prepared and thoughtfully ridden, the Classic event horse was capable of strenuous exertion yet could remain in service after the completion of the event

However, the competitive nature of mankind began to influence the sport with predictable results. I view it as a harbinger of what was to come that all three members of the 1952 Olympic U.S. Eventing Team were mounted on Thoroughbreds as opposed to the cavalry remounts that had typically been used before. Eventing originally used a ratio of 3:12:1 as the basis for the relative importance of the scores for the three disciplines: Dressage comprised three parts of the total score while cross country was 12 parts and show jumping only one part, signifying that its main purpose was to show that a horse could complete the competition yet remain serviceably sound. Riders and trainers gradually recognized that the ability to ride at speed had a marked effect on their competitive results, and the Thoroughbred offered speed as well as endurance.

From 1924 until 1952, the optimum times on both the steeplechase and the cross country were viewed as unobtainable goals. The individual gold medal winner at the 1952 Helsinki Olympics, Baron Hans von Blixen-Finecke, riding for Sweden, finished the cross-country phase with only three time faults. By 1956, however, several competitors at Badminton, including Col. Frank Weldon and Sheila Willcox, finished the speed and endurance test without penalty. (Sheila’s performance is especially noteworthy; at the time, army generals and colonels considered women too weak and timid to be successful event riders. Little did they know.) 

Speed and More Speed
The 1960 Rome Olympics provide interesting illustrations of the effect of changes in the rules; teams were now increased to four members with the three best scores to count. This change naturally increased the average speed of the steeplechase and cross-country phases. Team strategy of the four-rider era consisted of sending your slowest, most dependable horse and rider first; if they were successful, the next pair would ride closer to “maxing the course,” which in those days referred to obtaining the maximum bonus points available on both steeplechase and cross country, and so on. At the Rome Olympics, we saw the first double-clear cross-country ride when Laurie Morgan of Australia, riding Salad Days, won the individual gold. The Australian team won a gold medal based in part on their discovery of a legal “short-cut” on Phase C, which allowed them a considerable amount of time to recuperate before the Phase D start times. This was an advantage because there was no scheduled rest time before horses and riders started Phase D, the cross-country test.

By 1963, a mandatory 10-minute veterinary examination before the start of the cross-country test was required. As eventing became more and more of a speed competition, the pace of change increased as well. Women were first allowed to compete in Olympic eventing in 1964, when U.S. rider Lana DuPont won a silver team medal at the Tokyo Olympics.

The Influence of Television
In 1967 Phase E, the cool-down phase, was removed. That same year, the stadium jump-off rules were changed to more dramatic and suspenseful “reverse order of placing” in recognition of the growing importance of television coverage. This rule change also continued the trend toward increasing the technical expertise required for success in the sport.

Before 1964, the generals and colonels who ran the sport of eventing were convinced that women were too weak and timid to ride in the Olympic Games. But glass ceilings are meant to be broken, and United States competitor Lana DuPont, seen here riding Mr. Wister, became the first woman in history to compete in the Olympics when she galloped through that glass ceiling on her way to a silver team medal at the 1964 Tokyo Olympics. You can tell from Lana’s breeches that she fell on the cross-country course but that she remounted, determined to complete her trip and help her team stand on the podium. | Courtesy, FEI

Meanwhile, steps were taken to simplify a scoring system that had always been insanely complicated. The old bonus-points system was changed. Now the entire competition was scored on a basis of penalty points, a change whose results again illustrate the Law of Unintended Consequence. Before the scoring system change, the optimum steeplechase speed to avoid penalties was 600 meters per minute with maximum bonus points awarded for 690 mpm; the cross-country optimum speed was 450 mpm with maximum bonus points awarded for 570 mpm. However, the new system required average speeds of 570 mpm to avoid time penalties. This strongly influenced riders’ attitudes toward the steeplechase and cross-country tests. In the mid-1970s, the penalty points for a show-jumping knockdown were raised from five to 10 and the ratio of the influence of the tests was changed to 3:12:2, thus slightly increasing the influence of the show-jumping test. (This is in contrast to the current ratio of 1.5:1:1. Again, these changes reflect the ever-increasing levels of technical expertise that eventing requires.)

A Test of the Best
Among the next decade’s many changes, the most influential followed the 1984 Los Angeles Olympics, when the International Olympic Committee opened the Games to professional athletes. Although the introduction of a profit motive drove competitive pressure to new heights, this change at least had the virtue of honesty. The Olympic movement had existed in a state of hypocrisy from its beginning, and the removal of artificial barriers between amateur and professional athletes reflected the opinion of society at large: The Olympics should be the best competing against the best.

For the next two decades, the Law of Unintended Consequence was alive and well in our sport. For example, increased competitive pressure caused an ever-growing emphasis on speed. One result was improved conditioning of the event horse, resulting in more competitors who were able to complete the speed and endurance tests without time faults. At the same time, in an attempt to slow the perceived extreme speed of cross-country riding, the complexity and technicality of course design were increased. The result was to emphasize the flexibility of the horse’s stride with a concurrent boost in the importance of dressage for the event horse. However, many observers argued that the trends in design were causing, rather than alleviating, the disastrous series of fatal accidents that occurred with distressing frequency throughout this period. This discussion has kept bartenders busy around the world and is one that continues to this day.

New Format, New Consequences
From 1924 until 2004, our format remained essentially unchanged. However, eventing revolutionized itself when the 2004 Athens Olympics utilized a new shortened format, one that contained only dressage, cross-country and show jumping. The numerous reasons for this include a desire to remain on the Olympic calendar, to lessen the space required for the cross-country course and to provide a format in which horses could compete more often. I mentioned earlier that the Law of Unintended Consequence rules our sport, and this revolution of our format provides a plethora of illustrations.

In my opinion, one could trace a straight line from the IOC decision in the mid-1980s to open the Games to professionals to a desire for more competitive opportunities from modern-day professional riders and their horses. During this time, the same professionals raised the bar of technical expertise to new heights. Our new short format emphasizes competition rather than completion, and our riders and trainers have risen to the new challenges posed by changes to our rules. During the decade since the revolution of eventing, our best horses and riders have attained admirable levels of performance.

In the fall of 2014, the IOC issued an agenda for changes to be implemented by 2020. This document is commonly referred to as the “2020 Memo.” (It can be found at http://www.olympic.org/Documents/Olympic_Agenda_2020/Olympic_Agenda_2020-20-20_Recommendations-ENG.pdf.) I was going to say that this memo provides the prism through which we must look as we attempt to guide the future. However, the apparatus we look through is in reality a kaleidoscope; every time we change some part of our sport in an attempt to accommodate ourselves to the IOC’s imperatives, the Law of Unintended Consequence awakens.

Part of the 2020 Memo refers to downsizing, IOC-speak for cost-saving measures that will be required of various sports if they wish to continue to be included in the Olympic calendar. One of the cost-saving measures suggested for eventing is to cut the size of the team from four to three riders with all three scores to count. (It is ironic that, in order to modernize, we should reinvent ourselves as we were 60 years ago when three-member teams were the standard.) The reason for the change is simple: money. National Olympic Committees provide funding for their various Olympic teams based on team results, and when all three scores are to count, members of teams with three riders are told to finish at all costs. A weak showing at this year’s Olympics may very well result in a reduction in the team’s funding during the next Olympic quadrennial. Reducing the size of the teams will certainly save money for the IOC and the organizing committees involved, but it will also dramatically reduce the speed that riders use during the cross-country competition. After 60 years, the emphasis will once again be on completion rather than competition.

Eventing in Today’s World
As we continue to interact with the IOC, we must look at the world as committee members see it. The IOC has become one of the largest and most successful entertainment businesses in the world. In 2014, the IOC put $3 million back into global sport every day of the year. The main source of this fabulous wealth, of course, is television. The IOC measures every sport on the Olympic calendar by several metrics, including “universality” (does the sport occur the world over or only in certain places) and television ratings. If your sport does not fit into television’s parameters, it will either have to change or it will be dropped from the Olympics. This explains the success of eventing’s change to show jumping in reverse order of placing—because the winner is not determined until the last competitor crosses the finish line.

Allowing civilians to compete in a sport that was originally called “The Military” and women to compete on an equal basis with men were evolutionary changes. But the change from the Classic to the short format at the 2004 Olympics was revolutionary. With the removal of endurance as the essential aspect of the competition, eventing became a test of technical skills. Our elite riders have developed those skills to such a degree that amateur riders juggling careers and families with their passion for horses are turning to the few remaining Classic events. Time constraints have turned the Classic into the amateur event rider’s Olympics. | © Charles Mann

Beginning with the 1972 Munich Olympics, I worked as a television commentator for more than 40 years. During this time, I have asked some senior and knowledgeable people in that industry what could make our sport more television-friendly.

First they suggest changing the competitive attire so our athletes don’t look like a character from ThePhantom of the Opera. Then simplify the scoring system. By this, they do not say that we should produce different winners but rather that our system should be easily explicable. Television is a distressingly compressed medium, and your time for commentary in each segment of the program is quite short. It is too short, in fact, to explain our current system. Basically, you put a graphic up on the screen and hope your viewers are recording it so that they can review it later.

Finally, TV experts will add, “While you are at it, change the name.” I can hear you groaning from here; this topic is a hardy perennial and to date no satisfactory name has emerged. Still, the TV experts are right. Sports such as golf and tennis have succeeded with nondescriptive names, but participants in a boutique sport such as eventing do not have the luxury of universal recognition.

If I had unlimited time, I could continue at length, describing the ramifications of various proposals for change. But our discussions should consider the essential question: What is our future to look like? Will we make every effort to remain in the Olympics? The answer to this question will determine the path that eventing takes through the 21st century. As an aside, when he was a newly elected U.S. senator, John F. Kennedy remarked, “At some point, a man’s political party can ask too much.” In our context, we must continually consider if the IOC has asked too much of our silent partners. I do not think we are at that point yet, but we must remain committed to the idea that our horses mean more to us than the Olympics.

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

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