Jim Wofford's History of Eventing: From Completion To Competition

Jim Wofford's analysis of eventing’s century of evolution shows a shift of emphasis.

From the 1912 to 1964 Olympics, women were considered too delicate and weak to compete in eventing until Lana DuPont Wright came on the scene. Well, if you are going to be the first woman to break through a glass ceiling, you might as well win an Olympic silver medal while you are at it, which Lana did at the 1964 Games as a member of the U.S. team. Lana is shown here aboard her Olympic mount, Mr. Wister, on her way to finishing 10th at the Badminton Horse Trials in 1961. Lana would go on to represent the U.S. as part of a gold-medal pairs team at the 1991 FEI World Driving Championships. Women and men compete in eventing on an equal basis these days, but 50 years ago it took a courageous and talented young lady to make history. | Courtesy, USEA archives

I was recently a member of a panel that discussed eventing’s “Past, Present and Future.” It was such an interesting discussion that I want to share some of it with you. 

 Naturally, I spoke of the first part—eventing’s past—because of my interest in history in general and in our sport’s historical beginnings in particular. (Speaking of the past, I have always thought that any successful endeavor has both feet on the path to the future and one eye on the past.)

Horse sports go far back in time. According to the International Olympic Committee, the ancient Olympics, which took place between 776 BC and 393 AD, featured both chariot and mounted races. In an amusing (almost) parallel with our present state of affairs, the chariots and horses of the ancient Olympiads were driven and ridden by professionals but it was the owners who became Olympic champions. Fortunately for our team riders, modern owners do not stand on the victory podium.

Although the 1900 Olympics in Paris included horse sports, none from that time (for example, polo) have survived to the present day. We mark the beginning of Olympic horse sports recognizable to us with the 1912 Games in Stockholm, Sweden, the first to feature eventing. Now, just over a century later, we can look forward to eventing at the 2016 Olympics in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil.

Our sport has not been static during this past century, however; it has evolved through several phases.

Military Era
The first period is the Military Era. From 1912 until 1948, Olympic eventers were all men and all in military uniform. At this time, all Olympic athletes were required to be amateurs. Eventing competitors were all commissioned officers; noncommissioned officers and women need not apply. Noncommissioned officers were, by definition, not “officers and gentlemen,” and women were obviously not gentlemen either. This was true of show jumping and dressage as well as eventing.

During the Military Era, when the competition was often referred to as “The Military,” eventing served as the complete test of a young officer’s charger. The dressage was designed to train mounted officers and men to maneuver on the parade ground. These parades were a necessary part of a cavalryman’s training because the same commands and formations would be used to control and direct mounted troopers during combat. The speed and endurance test was designed to show that a young officer could ride at speed and, after a period of recuperation, gallop and jump over cross-country obstacles.

It is important to note the internal composition of the speed and endurance test during most of the Military Era. It had five phases:

• Phase A—Roads and Tracks, ridden at a maximum speed of 240 meters per minute, a speed slightly faster than required for roads and tracks in later eras

• Phase B—Steeplechase, ridden at an optimum speed of 600 mpm up to a maximum bonus speed of 690 mpm. (Stay with me, I will explain in a minute.)

• Phase C—Roads and Tracks, ridden at 240 mpm

• Phase D—Cross Country, at an optimum speed of 450 mpm up to a maximum bonus speed of 570 mpm

• Phase E—Cool Down, ridden at 330 mpm.

At the Olympic level, after an early version of what we later termed the Classic format became the standard around 1924, these five phases totaled more than 20 miles. When horse and rider completed the entire speed and endurance test, they would have covered about 12 miles of roads and tracks, 2.5 miles at steeplechase speed, 5 miles of cross country and roughly a mile in the final cool-down phase. The phases’ very sophisticated and symmetrical relationship to each other speaks to the purpose of The Military and to the deep knowledge of career cavalry officers from around the world concerning the capabilities of horses and riders. 

The phases had internal relationships to each other—for example, Phase C was roughly twice the length of Phase A, and Phase D was roughly twice the length of B. The true value of the various tests lay in the ability of both horse and rider to undergo such a physical and mental examination and then to remain “in service.” At this remove, we tend to forget that the original purpose of the event was not competition but completion. Cavalry horses and the young officers who rode them had to be tough. 

The scoring system in use during the Military Era was insanely complicated. Each phase had a required speed, as noted above. Competitors who exceeded the time allowed would be penalized per second, but the penalties were different in each phase. If the competitor was slow on A, C or E, he was penalized one point per second. If he was slow on Phase B, he was penalized .8 per second while the penalties on Phase D were .4 per second. (Again, note the symmetry of the phases. Phase B was only half the length of D, but the penalties were twice as severe.) 

Remember I told you the scoring was complicated? You have no idea! In addition to the different penalties, competitors who completed Phases B and D faster than the optimum time were awarded bonus points. These points were expressed in positive numbers while dressage scores, time faults and jumping penalties were expressed as negative numbers. In theory, riders could finish the competition with positive scores if they—in the jargon of the day—“maxed the course.” However, most riders aimed for the optimum times and speeds rather than the much faster maximum bonus speeds on steeplechase and cross country. Riders of this period viewed the maximum bonus speeds as setting an unobtainable standard; they rode to complete rather than to compete. 

Foxhunting Era
This attitude gradually changed, however, during the Foxhunting Era that succeeded The Military. In 1948, the 10th Duke of Beaufort attended the Olympic Three-Day Event at Britain’s Tweseldown and subsequently remarked that eventing was a perfect training ground for a foxhunter. At his direction, the Badminton Horse Trials were first held in 1949 on his estate and continue to the present. The Foxhunting Era lasted from 1952, when Olympic eventing included men in civilian competitive attire for the first time, until 1984. During this era, women were first permitted to compete in Olympic eventing in 1964, and Lana DuPont Wright was part of the U.S. silver-medal team in Tokyo that year. It became more common for riders to earn bonus points or even max the course in the 1960s with better horses, better courses and more consistent riding at the top levels.

Although competitors showed improvement in their performances during this era, full-scale three-day events were still rare. Eventers of this period usually took part in other horse sports. They were often experienced foxhunters and many rode in steeplechase races. Eventing continued to evolve during this time with improvements in cross-country design and construction and the introduction of the 10-minute halt between Phases C and D in 1963. Phase E was removed from the format in 1967, the same year in which, beginning at Badminton, competitors began jumping the stadium round in reverse order of standing. The scoring system was changed from plus and minus points to all penalties in 1971, and in 1977, the faults for a show-jumping rail were halved from 10 to 5.

Professional and Technical Eras
The Professional Era of eventing began after the 1984 Games in Los Angeles, when the IOC opened the Games to professionals. In 2004, eventing changed from the Classic format to the short format, which was in use at the Pan American Games last July and will be used at the Olympics next year. This was a revolution in the sport because it removed the endurance aspect of eventing and placed all three elements—dressage, cross country and show jumping—on an equal basis.

Our present era is the Technical Era, in recognition of the new format’s increased demands on horses and riders, who must now excel in all three disciplines. Eventing in the Technical Era is not so much a complete test of horse and rider as it is a competition of three highly technical parts. (Although the three parts are theoretically equal, in international competitions, dressage is currently 50 percent more influential than cross country or show jumping.) 

As you can see, one result of the change from Classic to short format was to finalize the change in emphasis from successful completion—showing that the rider’s horse had been correctly prepared and ridden for a Classic test of horse and rider—to successful competition—showing that the horse has been trained in three separate but equal technical tests. I have mixed emotions about this. On one hand, we rarely see riders pressing tired horses. This is a welcome change from some of the unfortunate things that happened during Classic competitions when horses and riders were not prepared for the challenge. However, it also explains the withdrawal of horses and riders during cross country if they have any sort of jumping fault. When the point of the exercise is competition rather than completion, it makes sense to walk home and compete again the following weekend.

Eventing has been around for more than a century now and has continually reinvented itself. It is a very different sport than The Military of 1912, but the wonderful creatures that take part remain and continue to fill us with wonder and amazement as we watch them gallop past.

This article originally appeared in the October 2015 issue of Practical Horseman.