I envy you guys, I really do. Shakespeare called jealousy the "green-eyed monster," and that's me these days. The reason I am so jealous is that some of you reading this are going to take part in rebuilding our U.S. Eventing Team from the ground up.
I never had that experience. When I joined the team as a rookie in 1966, it was a well-oiled machine?and in many ways a colder, more impersonal environment than we are used to these days. The U.S. Equestrian Team owned many of the horses, and riders were merely plug-and-play cogs. (I might be the only U.S. rider ever to be off the team, on the team and off the team all in the space of four days.) That was the way it was. We just shrugged and did not worry about anybody taking care of our needs. The way I figured it at the time, any fool who joined a team made up of Mike Plumb, Kevin Freeman and Mike Page was going to get a medal. All that fool had to do was show up for work every day, take care of business and learn as much as possible from watching these pluperfect players of the game, all future U.S. Eventing Association Hall of Famers. Remember, this was before Jack LeGoff had even arrived as our coach; he was the icing on the cake for us and a big reason for the U.S. team's dominance of the international eventing scene for another 15 years.
Ups and Downs
But that was then, and this is now. Any sports franchise goes through highs and lows, and our present situation?no medals at the 2010 World Equestrian Games or 2012 London Olympics?is as low as the U.S. Eventing Team has fallen in a quarter-century. While our decline was as swift as it was precipitous, it is not the only time it has ever happened to us. We finished with team gold and Karen Stives won the individual silver in 1984 at Los Angeles; we were at the top of the eventing tree??admired, respected and imitated around the world. But we went from the top to the bottom in one Olympic cycle. Only two years later, our team finished in disarray at the 1986 World Championships in Gawler, Australia, and we failed to even finish a team, much less medal, at the Seoul Olympics in 1988. That's the way Olympic-level sport works: Sometimes you are the birddog; sometimes you are the fire hydrant.
Then the cycle started all over again. First the upside?Dorothy Trapp Crowell's lone individual silver medal in 1994 with the incomparable Molokai. Next came team silver and Kerry Millikin's individual bronze medal at the 1996 Atlanta Olympics, then team bronze at WEG in 1998. David O'Conner won the individual gold medal at Sydney in 2000 and led us to a team bronze medal. At the 2002 WEG in Jerez, we won team gold. Then Kim Severson and Winsome Adante won a silver medal and the team won a bronze at the 2004 Athens Olympics, the late Amy Tryon and Poggio earned an individual
bronze at the 2006 WEG in Aachen and Gina Miles won an individual silver medal at the 2008 Olympics in Hong Kong on McKinlaigh. After that, though, no medals were earned at the 2010 WEG, and our team finished well down the line at the recent London Olympics. We have been riding shotgun down the avalanche, and now we are here at the bottom ? again.
Let's Come Out Swinging
We are in what baseball players call a "slump." There is no denying it. While it is not what we wanted, it is what we have got, and we need to deal with it. I once asked Troy Glaus, MVP of the 2002 Baseball World Series, how he dealt with slumps. He said two very important things??listen carefully, folks?to get out of a slump: "You go back to your basics," and then he said, "You swing your way out of a slump."
This is pretty important advice from someone who knows something about battling back from adversity, and we need to think about it. To get better, the first thing to do is to recognize we are not good enough. That's a fact. You have to admit something is wrong before you can fix it.
The next thing to do is to look at your competition and figure out what they are doing that puts them, not you, on the medal ?podium. If you do that, you ?notice that each successful team has a system and their riders all ride in a similar fashion. If form follows function, medals follow form, and we need to match our methodology with sound basics. Taking a look at your competition will tell you how they are currently doing things and will inform your return to your basics.
It seems to me that in many ways we have written the book but lost the plot. In the past, the style with which our eventing teams rode reflected our systematic, sound, clear and consistent basic technique. I realize that any system beats no system, but if we are going to go back to our basics, we must first examine those basics. Before we start exposing our horses and riders to a certain progression of requirements, we should question those requirements ?
? Phase by Phase
Is the dressage Training Scale (rhythm, relaxation, contact, impulsion, straightness, collection) still relevant in the 21st century? I have firm opinions about that, but I am not afraid to raise the question and listen to the debate. For example, horses are now being bred specifically for international competition, and some of the results are spectacular?especially in dressage, but certainly across the board. Given that European sporthorse breeders have consistently been ahead of sporthorse breeding here in the United States, should we assume that the European horses we import, being more purpose-bred, can start their competitive career farther along the Training Scale than in years past? Again, I have firm opinions, but we need to ask the question. Moving from the horse needed for international eventing to the rider, what position do we teach
our riders? Do we have a nationally accepted technique? Does it closely resemble the position taught to our major competitors or are there variations? Are those variations constructive or destructive?
The international dressage world is as competitive as the eventing or show jumping at a similar level, and you can bet that experts in that discipline have hotly debated these questions and many others. It makes sense to me that we should avail ourselves of these discussions and apply the results to our program where we think it would help us.
International eventing's emphasis on show jumping makes it essential that our horses and riders can produce clear rounds under pressure. Other teams do it, which means we can, too, but we need to study it. What are the essential elements taught to successful event riders by their show-jumping gurus? Are those elements the same as ours or are there material differences? How long does it take to develop the skills needed? We need time pressure on our riders to improve, but that pressure must be realistic.
Speaking of time, do other successful international eventing programs keep the same guru for long periods, or do they rotate gurus on a regular basis to obtain a fresh outlook on their programs? Our tendency in the past has been to continually seek fresh opinions about our show jumping (and dressage, come to think of it). Is this typical of successful programs? Is our approach working or do we need a different approach?
We definitely need a new way of riding across country because our present results are not good enough. Very few U.S. riders go abroad and finish "inside the time." Because other international riders consistently finish their cross-country courses within the time allowed, either on their home grounds or abroad, one cannot argue that we are competing against an impossible standard. If other countries' riders can do it, we can, too?we used to do it! Our past domination of the international eventing scene was based on swift but stylish cross-country rounds.
Again, we need to go back to ?basics. What does the North American ?Racing Academy say about galloping at speed? What length of stirrup does it recommend? What about the difference between a single bridge in the reins and a double bridge? Do steeplechase riders "set up" for their jumps? Where do they sit when they jump Becher's Brook, one of the most fearsome drop fences in the world, during the English Grand National? Although steeplechase riders jump much faster than we do and do it in safety and comfort, our event riders seem unable to go as fast across country as our foreign compatriots. What are we doing wrong, and what do we need to do to fix it? I firmly believe we can get back to the top of our sport, but we first have to take a hard look at how we ride, which will determine how we place.
Ready to Compete
Of course, the only way we will get back to the top is to "swing" our way out of it. In this context, we have to show up at the competitions ready to compete, not just to complete. We need depth on our "bench"?which means our up-and-coming riders will need to compete abroad. Every dog is brave in his own backyard, and every horse jumps clean in his own arena. Our new international riders need to compete on level terms with the best in the world, even knowing their first experiences will be less than optimal. That is part of the process. The first time I competed abroad, I got beat like a carpet. But I learned, and others can learn?and become competitive?at the highest levels as well. International eventing poses very severe questions these days, and we must be able to answer them.
In closing, I realize this column poses more questions than it answers. However, I think we first have to make sure we are moving in the right direction. The only way we will know if we are right is to have these discussions and debates. The U.S. Equestrian Federation has ?recently appointed a blue-ribbon panel to examine our high performance ?results and to suggest improvements. The appointment of such a committee is an admission of failure, which is the first step to recovery. I eagerly look forward ?to the reports of their discussions and their recommendations.
We have been the best in the world in the past, and we can be again. There will be a lot of hard work between now and then and some heartbreak along the way. That is all part of the process. Still, when the U.S. national anthem once again plays in a foreign land due to your efforts, it will be the proudest moment of your athletic career and the fulfillment of our dreams. Some of the people reading this column are vowing to make that dream a reality, and I am green-eyed with envy of them. From where I sit, green looks gold to me.
Reprinted from the January 2013 issue of Practical Horseman magazine.