Did you watch this summer’s Olympic Games, hoping to see a glimpse of the equestrians? Were you shocked and disappointed that we came home empty handed? Are we losing our status as an equestrian power?
Well, John Strassburger, Performance Editor of Horse Journal, looks at why we did so poorly and offers suggestions for us to regain our strength. John is a seasoned competitor and trainer and, during his two decades as editor of The Chronicle of the Horse, he covered many Olympic trials and Olympic Games. Read on for a fascinating perspective:
At this summer’s Olympics, none of the three U.S. teams or 12 U.S. riders in the equestrian events came home with a medal—the first time we’ve been completely shut out of Olympic medals in more than 60 years. So it wasn’t surprising that this week John Long, the chief executive officer of the U.S. Equestrian Federation, announced the formation of a nine-member panel that’s supposed to figure out what’s wrong with U.S. high-performance training and competition.
The release said that “Long formed the panel in an effort to review every aspect of the U.S. Olympic teams, including development and training programs, selection procedures, incenting greater owner participation, and all factors contributing to better positioning the United States in a changing global sport landscape. Long views the outcome of the recent U.S. Olympic effort as ‘a wake-up call.’”
The panel—which includes former U.S. Olympians David O’Connor, Anne Kursinski, Anne Gribbons, Robert Ridland and Robert Costello—is charged with making “a series of recommendations that will be presented to the Federation’s International High-Performance Working Group and the USEF Board of Directors. The suggestions will also be presented at the USEF Annual Meeting in January 2013 and to the USOC Sports Partnership Division in February 2013.”
Based on my 30 years of relatively close observation as a reporter and public-relations person, I think the issue revolves around two factors: finding top-quality horses and training horses and riders. That may not sound like a revelation, but if you’ll read on, I think you’ll find I’m not going where you might think.
Let’s start with finding quality horses. The key here is that it’s plural, not singular. No one, in any of the three Olympic disciplines, can be internationally competitive any longer with just one horse. If you don’t have a stable of good horses, you don’t get the high-level training and competitive time you need, especially at the highest levels.
If you don’t have a bunch of horses, you simply don’t get to compete enough to be sharp enough to win against the best. Our European competitors compete internationally nearly every week, or at least twice a month. Thanks to geography, once a month is a busy international schedule for an American, and often “international” means only that it’s an FEI-sanctioned competition with a few Canadians, a Mexican and a Brit who lives here—none of whom is a team candidate for their country.
If you have only one horse, that means you have very limited opportunities to prove to yourself and to the selectors or the coach that you can “play with the big boys,” that you can ride into the ring or on course and get the score you need.
But a stable of quality horses must come from somewhere: Either you have to breed and produce them or you have to buy them as prospects or as proven horses. Either way takes money and a program or a system. Breeding them and producing them yourself means smaller increments of money, but it’s probably about as costly over time, and you have to have a farm where they can grow up, you have to be able and willing to start and develop them, and you have to be able to accept (mentally and financially) that probably 80 percent aren’t going to make it to the international level, either because they don’t have the ability or the temperament or because they get hurt. Results are more likely, and the turnaround is faster, if you can purchase proven, or relatively proven, horses. But, in all three disciplines, you have to have six figures to spend on each horse, and for jumpers it better be closer to seven figures. Where does that money come from?
The trick with training to become or to maintain your status as an international rider is that you also have to make a living, usually. If you’re not rich, your choices are generally to sell horses (usually on commission), to train lower-level riders and horses, or to do both. If you spend six or eight hours a day giving lessons or riding clients’ horses, who may or may not be talented and may have significant problems and are likely not affording you training at an international level, you’re not using your training time as effectively as you need to. It’s kind of like preparing for the SAT math test by practicing addition and subtraction. It’s not a long-term waste of time, but it’s not pushing you forward right now.
So, for American riders to return regularly to the top, they’ll need to be—somehow—financially supported for training and competing. The “team concept” has become more and more popular among elite riders, but it’s generally non-training support that is just making training and competing more possible, not paying for it. Most elite riders have a support system—a barn manager and staff, parents or friends who handle accounting and cooking and travel arrangements, assistant trainers or working students who ride young or difficult horses, maybe someone who drives the rig.
But let’s compare that to the NFL. Unlike a football team, the rider is both the head coach and the quarterback. The rider is finding the personnel (both equine and human), is calling the plays (for all the horses) and is also on the field making those plays. An NFL quarterback like Peyton Manning or Eli Manning spends training time practicing his passing technique, practicing pass routes with his receivers and practicing snapping the ball with his linemen. He’s not teaching his linemen how to block, he’s not creating a strategy to defend against the opposing quarterback, and during the game he’s not the one deciding when to call a time-out or to try an on-side kick. And he’s definitely not meeting with team officials to figure out how to sell more tickets or how build a new stadium.
This, though, is essentially what elite riders, and wannabe elite riders, do almost every day. American elite riders have to be great athletes, good administrators and great salesmen or showmen, and that’s a tough combination to be.
Our European competitors train and compete in an environment where most of these non-riding distractions have been removed. Their competitions have excellent prize money, travel costs them less because the distances are much smaller, there is a sponsorship culture and sponsors get more bang for their buck because the non-horse sports world is smaller (they don’t have to compete against the NFL and college football, for starters). Plus, their equestrian federations are historically and culturally more focused on the elite riders than has what’s now the USEF ever been. Plus, their competitions don’t offer classes from the lowest national levels to the highest international levels, like most of ours do. So the elite riders don’t have to juggle coaching a half a dozen or more students while they’re trying to win an international competition.
I’m going to suggest that for U.S. riders to be as consistently competitive internationally as they once were, it will require the leaders of the USEF and of the USET Foundation to make available many times as much money for rising and current elite riders as they ever have.
I’m suggesting that they should fund for a far more extensive training program than is currently available in all three disciplines, for hopeful younger riders all the way up to current team candidates. I’m suggesting increased funding for travel to domestic and foreign competitions. And I’m even suggesting, in fully documented circumstances, funding to pay for the purchase and/or care of top-quality horses for riders the coaches believe are worthy because of their ability.
If we want our best riders to win medals, they have to have top horses to ride, and if we agree that’s a priority, we should step up and help them find and train those horses.
But, to those of us who aren’t elite riders, how much of a priority is having our best riders mounted on top-quality horses and winning medals?
I think that’s part of our uniquely American challenge relative to our European competitors. To most members of the USEF—and also to the vast majority of members of the Olympic-sport affiliate organizations (the USHJA, the USDF and the USEA)—Olympic medals are low on their priority list. It’s far below their own riding and competing; it’s far below things like footing, course quality and stabling at our own competitions; and I suspect that few would be willing to pay an additional fee (even $5 or $10) that’s earmarked for “international competitor support.”
I’ve ridden in three California horse trials since the Olympics (at one of which I was also the chief press officer), and I don’t remember hearing even more than a passing mention of our teams’ Olympic failure. In late August, I also spent a week at the Hampton Classic in New York working in the media office, and, once again, I don’t recall more than a passing mention of the Olympics that had happened only a month before, even though half a dozen Olympians were competing there (including two riders from the 2012 team).
At none of these competitions did I encounter anyone wringing their hands about our dismal Olympic performance. I would submit that it’s yet another a sign of how fractured our whole culture has become, as we all face so many pressures and distractions. It’s hard to get us unified behind anything—even a presidential election. So I think that the USEF’s new committee, and the elite riders it’s trying to support, faces an uphill battle. But maybe this USEF panel can come up with some brilliant new ideas. I’ll be waiting to hear.