On January 11, 2015, my colleague and I had occasion to travel to Mt. Holyoke College in South Hadley, MA, to attend the Area I Annual Meeting. While our true purpose was to attend the annual organizer’s meeting, held just before the business meeting, an added bonus was to listen to keynote speaker and current eventing chef d’equipe David O’Connor.
As most of the sport’s enthusiasts know, O’Connor has had a long, successful career in the eventing world. An Olympic gold medalist and Badminton winner, he also spent nearly ten years as the president of the US Equestrian Federation before stepping down in 2012. A 3*/4* course designer, O’Connor served as the International Technical Advisor to the Canadian eventing team before “assuming the reins” as the US team coach in 2013.
O’Connor’s remarks ran the gamut, from his predictions for future US team development to remembering his time training in New England with LeGoff to his hope for the creation of more “destination events” to promote the sport. Here, I will provide a summary of some of his key points.
Thoughts on Coaching, Training, and Getting an Education
O’Connor began his speech with an anecdote regarding a cross country trip from Maryland to Oregon which he, his older brother Brian and his mother Sally all took by horseback when O’Connor was eleven. He said that it was on this trip that he really learned how to ride, because it was when he began to understand how horses think. O’Connor says that he feels it is critical for riders to learn about horses before they begin to compete and get specialized. “Riders specialize too early,” said O’Connor. “It is not a good thing. I believe that riders benefit from a multi-discipline base.”
O’Connor says that being open to diversity in training can only enhance your skills as a rider. “You will learn something on a reining horse that will improve your turn on the haunches,” said O’Connor. “Too many riders want to learn to compete before they learn to ride.”
O’Connor says that to be a good event rider, one has to have a balance of education and experience. He encouraged instructors to think innovatively, and to get their riders out of the ring. He also spoke to the fact that he believes that the educational system in the US needs to be stronger. To this end, O’Connor promoted the US Eventing Association’s Instructor Certification Program (ICP). O’Connor feels that it is better for the industry to set its own parameters regarding what makes a good instructor, rather than having those guidelines dictated to them by an outside entity.
“I predict that at some point everyone will need to be licensed, and that this will be driven by the insurance companies,” said O’Connor.
O’Connor made some general remarks regarding the current status of the US High Performance team, who collectively had a disappointing 2014 season. He acknowledged that ideally, the team should be riding American-bred horses, but right now we are in a gap between buying everyone else’s horses and developing our own. He says that within the next few years, there are several exciting younger American-bred horses which should be arriving on the international stage, ready to be competitive.
In addition, O’Connor emphasized the importance of the developing rider programs to help spot and support young talent within the sport. He specifically referenced Ariel Grald, a native Vermonter, as being a rising star.
O’Connor emphasized that in order to become competitive, the high performance squad members must continue to push out of their comfort zone, and ride and compete in new places which many not be comfortable or familiar to them. In a related vein, he remarked that the riders must arrive thinking of themselves as real players, not just as someone who is there simply to compete. It would seem that such advice is relevant to all riders who wish to expand their horizons, not just those interested in high performance!
Eventing, “One Sport”: We are All Under the Same Blanket
New England, and Massachusetts in particular, was once upon a time the epicenter of American eventing. O’Connor called the era of LeGoff, in the 1970’s and 1980’s, a time when the northeast was the “intellectual center of eventing”. Competitions at Ledyard and nearby Groton House, Flying Horse, and others where “the” places to go in this emerging sport.
O’Connor referred to that era as the “philanthropic” era of eventing, because the sport was essentially bankrolled by several wealthy families who were able to turn these competitions into destinations. Today, however, eventing has become a business; O’Connor points out that other horse sports, such as show jumping, have grown even further, from being a business to being an industry. Such growth, while not necessarily inevitable, does contribute towards the long term viability of a particular sport.
O’Connor acknowledged that eventing has been a sport with an image problem, with those outsiders perceiving event riders to be just crazed, adrenaline seeking junkies. The reality is that in our highly interconnected world, bad news travels fast, and global issues can suddenly hit close to home. These remarks were made specifically in reference to several high profile catastrophic accidents which were widely broadcast in the mainstream media. “We are all under the same blanket,” said O’Connor. “Global issues affect us locally and vice versa.”
While he agrees that eventing is not without danger, to train/compete in the sport is to take a “calculated risk”, not dissimilar to that assumed in the sports of skiing or cycling. “Our risk management is strong,” said O’Connor. “And our safety record, especially at beginner novice and novice, is good. This sport is not dangerous but it has a calculated risk that you must respect.”
The more the “business” side of the sport of eventing grows, the greater the angst related towards it, with a rift being perceived between the upper level and lower level riders. O’Connor commented that while we all were sitting in that meeting on a chilly New England winter day, over five hundred horses were competing at an event in Florida. Such an occurrence would have been nearly inconceivable even twenty years ago. O’Connor went on to say that from mid-January until early April, there will be in an event in Florida or Georgia every weekend with four hundred entries each.
In spite of this growth, eventing is still a niche sport. The USEA currently has about 14,000 members, only 9,000 of whom compete. O’Connor says that he looks at the sport as having three levels: high performance, who are the ambitious, almost manic riders who want to compete internationally; the professionals, who are usually under-recognized and under-utilized, but who provide coaching, training and other services to the third category, the enthusiast. The enthusiast is the grassroots, bottom of the pyramid rider/competitor who simply enjoys the sport as a means of recreation; this is not to say that they are not serious about it, but they are not deriving their income from the sport. Often, the professionals are grouped with the high performance riders, instead of being recognized independently for the important niche which they fill.
O’Connor says that due to the overall small size of the sport, we do not have the luxury of being divided between upper and lower level niches. “We are passionate,” said O’Connor. “This [passion] encourages but also consumes.”
O’Connor emphasized that those who care about eventing are entering a critical cross roads. “We are custodians of the sport but we also need critical thinkers,” says O’Connor. “We are hitting the ceiling of a bubble economically. We have to allow all of the levels to flourish.”
Goals for the Future and Olympic Fever
O’Connor closed his remarks with some of his ideas regarding the next steps which eventing must take in order to continue to thrive as a sport. He described events as falling into one of three categories: the local event, which primarily draws off the resident eventing community and makes up the largest percentage of events held; the ‘goal-oriented’ event, which is usually a more prestigious, demanding or upscale event that is being used as preparation for something else; and finally the ‘destination event’. The main crux of his discussion centered on his vision for these “destination events” and what they could mean to the sport.
Essentially, a destination event as defined by O’Connor is one which is meant to be an “entertainment product” and is geared heavily towards the enjoyment of the spectators. Ideally this event should be FEI-sanctioned so that it will draw the major players of the sport. It should be so enticing that it can attract an audience from far away, and induce them to pay for tickets; therefore, its location must be accessible. This revenue can then be turned into prize money for the “players”. “A destination event has the ability to change and support the sport outside of ourselves,” said O’Connor.
In O’Connor’s vision, each area of the country would have its own destination event, enough so that they are available but not so many that they become run of the mill. Currently, events such as Rolex, Carolina Horse Park, the fall Plantation Fields and Great Meadows (VA) all are at or are working towards ‘destination event’ status.
O’Connor challenged the audience to consider where such an event could be held in New England. He emphasized the significance of such an event in that it would draw riders back to New England, the former center of eventing. “It would return New England [eventing] to its roots, the destination events at Ledyard,” said O’Connor.
To make such remarks to an audience who have just heard that their local big city, Boston, has been selected for consideration for the 2024 Olympics, was well calculated, in my opinion. The room was quickly filled with chatter about where the equestrian events could be held in conjunction with these Games, and whether such a site could be tested first by becoming a New England destination event.
Earlier in his speech, O’Connor had reflected upon his own experience as an Olympian, saying that although he won his gold in Sydney (Australia), it was really the 1996 Atlanta (GA) Games which were his “Olympic experience”, because they were held on US soil. “The Olympic Games are the only moment that everyone believes in, when religion, beliefs, etcetera, don’t matter,” said O’Connor. “At the end of the day, only one person gets to stand on the podium, but being part of the process stays with you forever.”
In regards to continued discussion by the International Olympic Committee concerning the long term viability of horse sports in the Olympic Games, O’Connor had this to say. “With horses at [the Olympic level] costing over one million dollars, equestrian is not remaining as a sport which anyone can do,” said O’Connor. “That is a real risk for continued inclusion in the Olympics. At least the sport has historical inclusion on its side.”
For the 2012 London Games, the cross country phase of eventing was held right in Greenwich Park; O’Connor said that within two days of the competition’s conclusion, over 90% of the fences were cleaned up and the park was re-opened. “In this way, we have shown that cross country can be portable,” said O’Connor. “We could hold cross country in Central Park, which would be a great thing for the sport.”
Overall, O’Connor is an engaging speaker, equal parts politician and story teller. It was clear that his passion for the sport of eventing is as strong as ever, and that he is committed to a long term vision for the sport which will allow it to have a more secure niche within the horse industry for the long term.
Blogger’s Note: I hope to not offend the excellent photographer whose work appears in the Area I website’s banner (www.area1usea.org), which I have borrowed here for my featured image. All of the work in the banner belongs to Joan Davis/Flatlandsfoto, an artist who generously compiles and sells an Area I eventing calendar each year to benefit the activities of the region. I include the images here only to promote Area I eventing and encourage all riders to support the official show photographers who dedicate so much time and passion to our sport.