Jim Wofford: The View from Here

Jim Wofford's take on some current trends?the Classic format, course design and more.

One of the nice things about my job is I get to see the sport at all levels and all around the country. This gives me an opportunity to spot trends and notice changes, and several things have caught my attention this spring.

The thrill and challenge of the steeplechase is a big part of the reason Classics are making a comeback. Galloping down to a soft brush fence faster than you have ever gone before is already the thrill of a lifetime. To have your horse jump it in stride and land looking for the next fence is the icing on the cake. Your horse will easily rise to the challenge because of the extra time and effort you put into conditioning him. The sensation of pride and accomplishment you feel as your horse gallops across the cross-country finish line is far better than any ribbon. | ? Hoofclix.com

The Classic Is Alive and Well
First, it looks as if the Classic format will survive and flourish. (A Classic includes roads and tracks and steeplechase, in addition to cross-country.) This is a change in my thinking. (However, I am not alone in my renewed optimism. John Strassburger had some interesting comments in his recent blog post on the same topic at www.horse-journal.com/john-strassburger-blog/.) For several years I have been quite concerned about the loss of Classic Preliminary events, several of whose organizers dropped the competition for the simple reason that Classic events in their area were not drawing entries.

In the past, Classics were organized as a labor of love. We were so fortunate that Neil Ayer fell in love with eventing in the early 1970s and put on the legendary Led?yard Horse Trials at his farm in Wenham, Massachusetts. He went to endless trouble and expense to build and host a world-class event there, and the sport is forever in his debt.

However, for the Classic to survive as a sport into the 21st century, it must find a business model that works.

The first thing that has to happen is that organizers need entries. The following statistics from our ever-efficient U.S. Eventing Association office explains the relationship between entries and competitions offered.

This table shows the total number of starters at Training Classics over the past four years:
2008: 211
2009: 274
2010: 217
2011: 245

Contrast those with entries at Preliminary Classics over three years:
2009: 3
2010: 20 (7 CCIw-Galway Downs)
2011: 20 (7 CCIw-Galway Downs)

The “CCIw” designation signifies that the competition was held under the ?International Equestrian Federation (FEI) rules as both a short format competition (with no steeplechase or roads and tracks) and a Classic (thus the “w” denoting “with steeplechase”). Due to a change in FEI rules, riders can now qualify for further FEI competitions while participating in a Classic. This has helped maintain the number of Preliminary entries, but it has not proven to be a panacea for maintaining entry numbers. The reason is that many participants in a Classic are not involved in climbing the FEI qualification ladder and are drawn to the Classic by the inherent challenge of it. They view the Classic Preliminary as a destination, not as a stepping-stone to further competition. At the same time, many riders with upper-level aspirations do not want to compete in a Classic because that format is no longer used for Intermediate and above. This is the natural outgrowth of the dichotomy in the sport I mentioned in my earlier column on a professional/amateur split that is forming in eventing. (Read it online here or in the August 2010 issue.)

The Training entry numbers are ?interesting because they show a steady involvement in Classics during some extremely difficult economic times. The number of Classic participants represent roughly 2 percent of USEA membership. It is worth noting that USEA is gratifyingly and completely in favor of the Classic format, and indeed my worst fears would have come true without USEA’s support and the vision of the few remaining Classic organizers.

To support the efforts of our organizers, the USEA committees involved might consider encouraging entries at higher but attainable numbers over the next few years. If riding in a Classic is going to become part of the r?sum?s of USEA members, then we would hope that at any time about 5 percent of our members take part in a Classic every year. Naturally, the makeup of those entries would change from year to year due to new horses, changed circumstances of jobs, school and so on, but 5 percent would be the overall goal. This does not seem to be a very large number, but it is more than double the current participation.

It will be interesting to watch the future of the Classic develop. Short-term, I think we will see a plateau of entries at Preliminary level and a slow, steady growth at Training level?there are 12 Training Classics currently scheduled for 2012. The new Novice Classics are a step in the right direction, and they seem to have found quite a clientele. We also still have several Preliminary Classics scheduled, despite low entries over the past few years. It may well be that in years to come we will realize that, just as the Irish monks preserved civilization during the Dark Ages, our organizers will have preserved the Classic format with their persistence.

We must admit that after the change in the format from Classic to short in 2004, the Classic hit rock bottom. It is taking time to rebuild the sport, but the numbers are impressive and improving. If the Preliminary level competitions can hang on for a few more years, the clientele will catch up to them. Classic competitors are still learning their trade, and right now they feel sufficiently challenged at Training. However, they are going to set their sights higher in a couple of years, and the demand for Preliminary Classics will start to grow again. This is a long-term answer, but I am sure it is possible. You must think in long time frames when you are training eventers, and this is even more so when developing Classic horses and riders. It is a difficult sport, but that is the good news. If it were easy, any idiot could do it, and most of them would.

More than once, successful Classic riders have told me they viewed the competition as the high point of their riding career. “Oh, Jimmy,” said one, “this is my Olympics.” Many riders have taken a cold look at the lifestyle required of the modern ?international eventer and decided it is not for them. Professional sport in the 21st century requires total commitment, and many riders are not able to provide that, not from lack of desire, but from the ?requirements of school, jobs or families.

Yet the Classic remains within their reach in terms of time, expense and expertise. All this brings me to my major point about the future of the Classic format: If you believe in it and want it to survive, then you have to do it. Classics are a little bit like the weather ? everybody talks about it, but nobody does anything about it. If you have a horse currently competing at Training or Preliminary levels, a Classic this fall is possible?if you start now. The conditioning required for a Classic is part of its charm, but your horse needs time to strengthen and improve.

If you are between horses but have a Classic on your “bucket list,” call the nearest Classic organizer and volunteer while you develop your next horse. Watching from behind the scenes is one of the best ways to understand the inner workings of a Classic, and your time helping will be well spent.

Course Design: A Welcome Trend
Of course, the cross-country course is the heart of any event, either Classic or short format. This brings me to the second trend?in my opinion a beneficial one?I think I see developing in the sport: a new trend in cross-country design. For years, international riders complained behind the scenes that courses were getting too technical, too artificial and too “narrow.” For a time, cross-country courses were an endless succession of narrow-corner-angle-chevron questions. Course designers lost sight of the fact that we never were, nor ever should be, “show jumping at speed.” The reason is inherent in the name of what we do: We go across country. A simple show-jumping exercise becomes very difficult when it is placed on undulating terrain, rather than in a level arena.

Newer designers, most notably Derek di Grazia and Ian Stark, are aware of this and are building courses that go across country rather than complex puzzles placed on level ground. I welcome this trend, because our sport must do everything it can to retain our connection with the natural world.

An Old Fad Resurfaces
Trends are interesting and need to be examined on a case-by-case basis to determine whether they are beneficial. Fads, on the other hand, are usually detrimental to good riding and training. I define fads in our world as anything that deviates from classical riding. (I secretly love fads because they are usually inefficient, which gives classically trained students an edge.)

The latest fad I have noticed is not really new. I first heard it in 1959, and it lasted about a year before falling into disuse, only to resurface in the 21st century. I am speaking of coaches telling students to “spread your hands, form a chute, and drive your horse into it.” This is usually said to students whose horses are behind their legs. Well, a major cause of a horse being behind the rider’s leg is interference from the rider’s hand. Therefore, telling the rider to spread the hands while closing the legs will cause the motion of the hands and arms to increase, sending ever more conflicting signals to the horse. As the length of the pendulum increases, the movement of the arm of the pendulum increases.

I watched this fad in practice recently, and to me the rider’s arms looked like an octopus falling out of a tree. The poor horse agreed with me, and the situation deteriorated from there. I finally left. I see enough inefficient riding by accident; I did not want to watch inefficient riding by design. The reason we want a straight line from the elbow to our horses’ mouths is not aesthetics but efficiency. The correct connection of the rider’s hand to the horse’s mouth is the subtlest, most sophisticated connection that exists, and we must maintain it to the best of our abilities.

There are several other fads surfacing, and I will return to them in future columns. In the meantime, I will continue my perennial rant against color-coordinated everything. I admit that I smile when I see some 12-year-old skinny little urchin, completely hot-pinked out. But I hope that as she matures, yet another rider will learn the eternal and essential lesson of the true horseman: It is not all about us, it is all about our horses.

This article originally appeared in the May 2012 issue of Practical Horseman magazine.

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