I spent part of last week at the U.S. Eventing Association convention in Colorado Springs, Colo., where I observed three developments that are pushing the sport forward. Those three developments are: David O’Connor taking over as the U.S. team coach, a new incentive prize for the USEA Young Event Horse Series, and the significant funding for riders provided by the Rebecca Broussard Grant.
The most publicly noted development is the beginning of the David O’Connor era as the coach of the U.S. eventing team. And, believe me, a new day has dawned in the lives of our elite and hope-to-be-elite riders, after 18 years of Capt. Mark Phillips as coach. While Capt. Phillips directed our team to numerous championship medals, his reign ended, unfortunately, with our team’s drubbing at the 2010 Alltech FEI World Equestrian Games and at the 2012 Olympics.
To my observation, David and Capt. Phillips bring a different attitude to the job. Under Capt. Phillips’ leadership, I’d describe the attitude toward these riders and the people who own their horses as this: “The train is about to leave the station. If you and your horse aren’t good enough or aren’t ready to win, don’t get on board. Call me when you’re ready.”
With David, the attitude is this: “The train is about to leave the station. Tell me how I can help you and your horse get on board.”
And that shouldn’t be a surprise to anyone who knows David, as I have for almost 30 years. That attitude is how he made himself into one of the most successful international riders ever (with the 2000 Olympic individual gold medal, the 2002 World Championships team gold medal, three victories in the Rolex Kentucky Three-Day Event, and more). That attitude is also why, in 2004, he was the only possible choice as president of the merged and redesigned U.S. Equestrian Federation, following what I call the “Seven Years’ War” between the old American Horse Shows Association and the U.S. Equestrian Team. And his mindset of “let’s all do this together” is one of the reasons he was able to lead Canada—a team with far fewer top riders and other resources than we have—to the team silver medal at the 2010 World Championships.
David grew up training under the legendary Jack Le Goff, when he was the U.S. team coach, and I can tell you that being our team’s coach has been David’s ambition, his dream, for 30 years. So he brings to this task an overall vision of developing horses and riders in the long term and preparing them for specific championships in the near term, all guided by his total commitment to excellence. His plan and his attitude are the reasons that every elite and hopeful international competitor I talked to was fired up to start the new era.
The development of horses was the second trend I saw. The USEA’s Young Event Horse Series has been underway for about eight years now, and I’ve criticized its shortcomings in this blog a time or two. I don’t completely agree with its goal of identifying potential four-star horses as the best way to promote the breeding of event horses in the United States, but a new infusion of funding is likely to go along way toward making this program a source of the kind of horses David’s teams will need.
Dr. Terry Holekamp, a breeder and owner of international horses, and another breeder have put up endowment funds to allow the program’s top 5-year-olds to move forward significantly in their careers, by funding their participation in the World Young Event Horse Championships, held annually in France. Holekamp said that he didn’t want to just provide the two U.S. championships (one on each coast) for the first time with significant prize money, a la similar championships in the hunter/jumper world. He wanted to encourage riders and owners to continue to develop their horses as competitors; he wanted to encourage the YEH to be a step forward, a means to an end, not just an end in itself. I agree with him completely on that.
So, their funding will provide a top-placing horse in each year’s 5-year-old YEH championship with funding to compete in the World Championship as a 7-year-old, a competition that is a CCI2*. That’s a significant step up from the U.S. championship, which is basically half a preliminary horse trial. Many horses compete in CCI2*s as 7-year-olds (the young horse World Championship usually has 50 or more starters), but you have to have a very good horse and in a good program to accomplish it.
The funding is $17,500 for U.S.-bred horses and $8,000 for foreign-bred horses—because Holekamp wants most to promote U.S. breeding. The horse chosen won’t necessarily be the 5-year-old champion, because that horse may not be qualified for a CCI2* at 7. The YEH committee will go down the list of horses that place in the championships until they get one who’s qualified. And, if there isn’t one, the prize won’t be awarded that year.
I’ve got a lovely 3-year-old filly, whom we bred, with whom I’m planning to give qualifying for this award the old college try. It’s a long shot, because 7 is early for a two-star, but I’ll have it in the back of my mind as her career progresses.
The third trend is one that’s immediately huge to two individuals but of little consequence in the short term to the other 12,000 USEA members. The effect over the long term, though, is much bigger. And it’s how Becky Broussard is pushing eventing forward, even after she’s gone.
Becky Broussard, the founder of The Event At Rebecca Farm, died of cancer in December 2010, and in her memory her family established two grants to help hopeful international riders advance their careers. The “Big Becky” grant is worth $30,000 and is for riders who’ve proven their four-star ability at home and want to compete abroad; the “Little Becky” grant is worth $10,000 and is, basically, for riders who are aiming for the four-star at Rolex Kentucky. In 2012, they offered only the “Big Becky,” and it went to my friend and former trainer Sharon White of West Virginia, and for 2012 the “Big Becky” goes to Jolie Wentworth and the “Little Becky” goes to Tammy Smith, both of whom are from California.
I also saw a fourth development at this USEA convention—a continuing and growing awareness of the need to preserve land for keeping, training and competing horses. But I’ll write about that in more detail in an upcoming blog.