Jim Wofford: Top Eventers’ Catch-22

The modern business model forces professional riders to spend more time out of the saddle to support ?themselves financially.

Modern eventing professionals must balance preparing their clients with preparing their own horses for major ?competitions. The mental and physical energy required to train clients could instead be directed toward doing the best possible job with their horses. There is a great deal of hand-wringing going on behind the scenes in our eventing organizations and committees about “Where Is Eventing Going?” Silverbacks who are mentally stuck in another century are asking, “Can this sport be saved?” In my opinion, however, we are well past this stage. We need to take a deep breath, figure out the ramifications of the changes we’ve already made and evaluate where we are now. Once we do this, we can get an idea of where to go next.


Yogi Berra once said, “When you come to a fork in the road ? take it.” It seems to me that we took this particular fork without knowing it was there, and we now have to deal with the results of having created a two-track sport. I have written extensively about the Classic event. Always a big fan of this format, I am possibly an even ?bigger fan now that eventing’s dichotomy is more apparent. But I want to devote this column to the professionalization of the FEI (International Equestrian Federation) levels and what that means for us going forward.

Most of us have noticed the two-track system that is developing in the sport of eventing. The FEI levels of the sport?three- and four-star events?are moving farther and farther away from the vast majority of riders, while at the same time the grass roots of the sport are aiming their competitive efforts at the Preliminary (one-star) levels and below.

First track, half-star and one-star Classics: Our general US Eventing Association membership is showing an increasing interest in the series of Training and Preliminary Classic events (long format with steeplechase) that are now available across the country. The numbers?both of Classic events available and of entries?are showing a healthy interest in this format.

Second track, “professional” eventing: The entry numbers for eventing’s FEI levels are healthy as well, but those upper levels are now almost exclusively the territory of professional riders or of riders seeking to become professionals.

Goodbye to the “One-Horse Rider” Model
Of course there are exceptions to this professional trend, even at the four-star level. Horses do not read books or columns, and the occasional amateur-owner still catches lightning in a bottle when her horse somehow intuits how the game is played and away she goes to the top. It is wonderful when this happens, and it always catches the public imagination. Probably the best example of catching lightning in a bottle is that of Mary Anne Tauskey and her horse Marcus Aurelius. In 1974, Mary Anne was a waitress at the ?hotel where the US Equestrian Team squad lodged before the World Championships at Burghley, England. At the time she was just a kid who did not have two nickels to rub together. But she had a nice Intermediate horse and a dream, and two years later she won a gold medal, riding for the US Olympic team in Montreal.

However, one rider on one horse is not the paradigm these days, a big change from the one-horse rider model we used for the sport in the last century.

The New Eventing ?Professional
The first thing you should notice about modern professional riders is how well they ride compared to riders of my era. There is no doubt that the FEI’s increasing emphasis on the technical phases of dressage and show jumping has produced riders who compete at an admirable standard. (Their cross-country and horsemanship skills are slightly less than in years past, but they should not be criticized for adhering to the skill-set requirements of their competitive levels.) One can certainly make the argument that this increased technical proficiency results, in great part, from the increased professionalization of the sport.

The next thing we notice about this new career track is the duration and intensity of these new professionals’ training. It now takes an incredible length of time to make it to the top with skills in all three disciplines honed to razor sharpness.

Jack LeGoff, the legendary Hall of Fame trainer of USET teams, used to say that it took four years to take a rider from Preliminary to CCI***. Nowadays, you can forget that. It typically takes a rider about six years to get from Preliminary to ?Advanced. Naturally, she will be climbing the rungs of the relentless FEI qualification ladder all this time and will have had extensive FEI experience at the one- and two-star levels. However, four-star competition is usually a shock to these young riders. (Young! By the time they get to this level most of them are 25 or 26 years old!)

Four-star competitions are the pinnacle of the modern professional career path, thus the vast majority of riders at this level are well beyond “capable” and are moving on toward “excellent.” It can be demoralizing to a young rider to finally arrive at the four-star level after six to 10 years of training, only to find that she is once again the “worst” rider there; most of the professional riders at the four-star level exceeded “very good” years ago.

Eventing’s New ?Business Model
By definition, a professional is “engaged in a specified activity, esp. a sport or branch of the performing arts, as a main paid occupation rather than as a pastime.” Riding is for sure these top eventers’ main occupation, and most of them are getting paid for it. So for the first time we need to start talking about our professional “business model.”

From my observations around the country, the eventing business model evolves like this:

  • Find a good horse, and don’t screw him up while learning how to ride at the middle levels (one- to two-star). At first, the rider is probably getting some financial help from Mom and Dad while serving an apprenticeship with an established four-star rider. However, the parents have already had the dreaded “talk” with the rider, and the clock is ticking on that first business model.
  • At this point the rider makes the choice to use her parents’ college money to chase her dream of four-stardom. In effect, the parents are the rider’s first sponsors.
  • Along about this time the aspiring rider is developing a local following of low-level students and fans. The rider can no longer concentrate solely on riding. She must now expand her skill base to include running a small stable operation, giving lessons and perfecting the “care and feeding” of prospective owners and sponsors. This is a critical stage in the development of the business model; not all riders are able to make the changes required. Many of them are not able to balance these ?additional requirements while they strive to improve their riding.
  • At this point, some riders may turn to a “competing and sales” model; however, this is a heartbreaking business at best. Riders who make this choice must ride a fair number of moderately talented horses, with the attendant physical risks. Also, to survive financially, they will often find themselves having to sell the very horse who has a chance of taking them to the top. It’s a tough decision when you sell a good horse to pay the bills, while you hope that you will be able to afford the next good horse. Alternatively, you can keep this one good?maybe great?horse, go broke, then move back to live with your parents while you chase your four-star dream. During this time your parents will invariably ask you when you are going to get a “real job.” This might be the most difficult point in a young professional rider’s career.

However, some riders are able to get past this point, and their careers take off in the mode of the new eventing professional. They gather a larger group of live-in students, they teach a considerable number of lessons each week and their sponsorship moves from local to regional and national in nature. By now they are well aware of the relentless pressure on short-format horses, and they are developing what they hope will be their next four-legged stars. Their daily schedule is more than full: After riding two to four horses in the morning, they teach lessons for another four to six hours. Other days may include visits to the vet, shipping to cross-country schooling areas or traveling to look at replacement horses for themselves or for their clients.

The Crucial ?Contradiction
Because the professional eventer has obtained some top-10 results at the three-star level or a solid finish at a four-star level, she is now on the USET training lists. These training sessions are invaluable, but they are also a double whammy. The rider is spending time and money to travel to and attend them, yet losing income at home by not being able to teach her normal schedule of lessons.

If young professionals persevere and their programs get bigger, for a while they go from success to success. One effect of this success is that they become painfully aware of the relationship ?between fixed and variable cost. The business model tends to grow (one might almost say metastasize), but size and profitability are not synonymous.

Thus we arrive at the “Catch-22” ?implicit in the current business model in use by most event professionals. The more successful they become, the higher their visibility and the bigger the collection of students they assemble ? the more time they spend doing things that keep them out of the saddle. There is no doubt in my mind that the current business model used by most of our top riders affects their riding. While they all ride well, they do not ride and compete as well as they are able, due to the demands on their time?these demands that have nothing to do with improving their horses and their riding, but everything to do with financially supporting themselves.

By now, many of the top riders are riding six to 12 horses every day they are “home” (wherever home is at that particular point in the season). They teach away the rest of their daylight hours. Their business model causes them to move their focus from their own horses and their own riding to other horses and riders.

This helps their clients but it slows or stops improvement in their own riding. Due to the dreadful contradiction in our modern eventers’ business model, the riders become prisoners of their own programs. They must have the program to support their competitive efforts, but they cannot focus entirely on their own competitive efforts because of the program’s demands on their time and energy. George Will, the world-famous political columnist, recently remarked: “Money is time made tangible?the time invested in the earning of it.” The business model we have now makes the professional riders invest their most precious commodity, time, in an attempt to support their competitive efforts.

We have professional riders in this country that we can be proud of and look up to. However, the financial ?underpinnings of their business models are sustainable only so long as the formidable energies of our top-level riders do not falter. Going forward, we must search for more efficient ways of providing the support necessary for these riders to take us all to new and even more admirable heights.

This article originally appeared int he August 2010 issue of Practical Horseman magazine.

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