Disclaimer: The views contained within this blog post are solely my own. I do not intend to speak for the other staff of the University of New Hampshire Equine Program, its students, volunteers, or other affiliates, who may well see things quite differently. I am merely using my experience as the manager of the UNH Horse Trials to inform my perspective on the continued loss of competition venues in eventing.
At the US Equestrian Federation meeting in West Palm Beach, Florida, I attended an interesting panel discussion: “Growing the Grassroots”. This presentation featured the work of a panel which included representatives from several USEF affiliates and disciplines. Bill Moroney, CEO of the USEF, facilitated the discussion, and he opened with the statement that “a majority of the USEF membership feels they are part of the grassroots.” This large group of riders mostly avoids competing at rated shows due to any of a number of barriers—cost, exclusivity and accessibility being among the most significant.
One panelist commented that local shows (which are often unrated) are doing well, and the upper levels are doing well, but there is a serious lack of opportunity in the middle levels—and this is where we are losing riders. The middle is the land of the one day rated horse show; when I was a kid, these were the “C” and “B” shows, where you were able to log miles and trips and hone your craft in the show ring, without the budget and time commitment of going to a week long “A” show, but with the pressure that comes with an increased standard of riding.
Although most of those present were speaking of the hunter/jumper scene, I couldn’t help but think about the sport of eventing. In 2018, 28 horse trials were cancelled, reducing the number of starters by over 3,000 rides. Though some of these cancellations were due to weather, many more are permanent losses to the eventing calendar. Here in Area I, we have lost Stoneleigh Burnham (which hosted twice per year), King Oak/Grindstone Mountain (King Oak used to host two per year, and the new owners tried it in 2017 but threw in the towel in 2018) and we have just recently learned that for 2019 we also are losing Fitch’s Corner in New York and Riga Meadow in Connecticut. Collectively, this represents over a century of eventing in the northeast. Losing these competitions impacts the bottom line of the US Eventing Association, which collects a starter fee for each ride, but more importantly, it is eroding access to local, one day events. You know, the ones where you log your miles and hone your craft and learn how to compete under pressure. These events are the bridge between schooling trials and premier, destination competitions.
I have been managing the University of New Hampshire Horse Trials since 2006; we are the quintessential “middle” competition, a stepping stone from the growing schooling eventing circuit to larger, more prestigious events in the region. Our competitor base is largely local, coming from within a two hour radius, along with a handful of riders from further afield.
UNH hosts two events per year (spring and fall), and for five years, we ran one in summer as well—to help replace yet another event lost to the Area, Kingsbury Hill. Since Kingsbury Hill was sold, UNH has remained the only sanctioned horse trials in New Hampshire. When Snowfields stopped running, Maine lost its only sanctioned event. For those event riders in Maine or New Hampshire, save for UNH, you have to travel to Vermont, Massachusetts or New York to compete at a USEA horse trials. Most of these losses have happened within the past 5-10 years.
Each semester, when I meet with the ten students who will head up committees of their peers to manage each phase of our horse trials (dressage, cross country, show jumping and awards/promotion), I ask them: “Why, for over forty-five years, has UNH run a horse trials on its Durham campus?”
The answers are fairly consistent: to promote the program, to give students a chance to learn about how to run a horse show, to make money. And most of these reasons are true, save for the last. It is an unusual show in which we actually turn a profit. Our goal is to break even—because truly, for us at UNH, hosting the horse trials is mostly about giving our students a living laboratory, a chance to get behind the scenes and to ‘learn by doing’ all that goes into organizing and running a horse event. We use the horse trials as a model; using similar skills, students could go on to coordinate any number of equine related activities. Plus, the experience of running a committee is a real resume booster, full of transferrable skills: organizing, communicating, delegating, meeting deadlines, coordinating, following organization rules. I hope you can tell how incredibly proud I am of the work that our students put into these competitions.
But each time I ask the question, I find myself thinking: “If this were my private farm, and I had all of these resources and the land to run cross country—would I still do it? What incentive does a private land owner have to continue to offer eventing on their property?”
Truthfully, I have no way of knowing what exactly motivates these landowners, but I sort of suspect it comes down to a deep seated love of the sport, and a desire and willingness to give back. People take pride in their properties, and I believe that many of them truly love watching others enjoy them as well. We competitors are just invited guests to a party. Let’s face it—no land owners + no organizers= no more eventing. To that end, we have to keep organizers happy. We need to be better guests.
It seems trite to say that running a farm is hard work. Maintaining a cross country course can almost be a full time job itself; it feels like you have no more finished mowing and weed whacking than you turn around and have to do it again. Mother Nature is always out to reclaim that which she considers hers. Water complexes become clogged with weeds, wooden fences rot and decay. Footing becomes compacted and worn away on trails as roots and rocks rise up. Trees fall, blocking routes and sometimes destroying jumps. I come back to my earlier point; to do this much work on a private farm in order to run a competition a handful of times per year, one which is most likely not going to make you money and might even cost you—it is a labor of love.
The event at UNH is unique for many reasons. It is the only recognized event in the country held on a college campus. It is nearly wholly coordinated and staffed by students, very few of whom would call themselves eventers. They come from myriad equestrian backgrounds: horses at home, 4-H and Pony Club, breed specialty programs (we are the land of the Morgan Horse, after all), dressage, western, therapeutic horsemanship and of course, hunter/jumper. Some have shown, some have not. Some have volunteered before, some have not. Many have never in their lives been handed a clipboard and a radio, been trained to do a job and then told: you are now in charge. They are emergent leaders. They are your future boarders, clients and friends. They are equestrians.
Volunteers, like organizers, choose to offer their time and talents for myriad reasons. Just like organizers, if they are not getting what they need from their experience, they are unlikely to do it again in the future. Our students are not volunteers in the strictest sense—they are required to participate in the horse trials as a course expectation—but like volunteers, they are trying to fit competition preparations into their very full schedules. They have classes, homework and exams, jobs, family commitments and personal lives, just like all of our competitors. They are up early, giving of their time and energy, setting up courses in the rain and then running to an exam, coordinating a dressage warm up before their peers have even gotten out of bed.
So perhaps that is why, after a week of frenzied activity and three days in a row of 12+ hours of nothing but horse trials, and bearing witness to this hard work, I bristle to receive the following types of feedback from event participants (these are from actual competitor evaluations):
“College kids were distracted and handled timing poorly….though they are college kids, so kudos for not wearing pajamas.” (How insulting is this? Really? The nicest thing you can say is at least they were dressed?)
“College kids didn’t have a clue.” (Maybe the particular student you asked a specific question of didn’t have the answer you needed. That can happen, because most of them are only familiar with the phase of the event which they prepared for. But I can guarantee you that our students, overall, have been through a more comprehensive training program than the average event volunteer. For example, our fence judges have two hours of lecture training and are taken out to see their fences in advance of the trials, in addition to the TD briefing on the day of.)
Or one of my favorites, when a prominent trainer in our area said out loud to our dressage stewards this fall, “I hate when they give you benches to sit on. It makes you lazy.” (So you would like them to stand for seven hours? With no break? Is this any way to treat a volunteer? I should probably also add that the phase ran on or ahead of schedule both days—and I can’t even begin to explain the impact that remark left on the two people it was directed towards.)
Maybe I just take these comments so personally because I know, first hand, how hard our students work to put this event together. For some, it is a steep learning curve, and when a phase is first getting under way on the first day, and people are figuring out their jobs, are there some hiccups? Sure. But the officials, full time program staff and student leaders are right there behind them, offering them support, helping them figure it out. Our students are not lazy and they are not inattentive. They are learning, and most take their duties quite seriously. They are volunteers.
I should add here that we receive positive evaluations too, and a handful of emails or notes thanking us for hosting the shows. I am always sure to share these with our students and staff. But the hurtful ones leave a sting that can be hard to forget.
When Stoneleigh-Burnham School, our sister event out in Greenfield, Mass., was forced to cancel their 2018 summer competition on the morning of the event due to excessive rain, my heart broke for them. So much time and effort, and money, was spent for naught. This private girls’ school has an equestrian program, but their focus has become primarily hunter/jumper. Like UNH, SBS has run an event for decades, on its campus, the cross country course wrapped around soccer fields and tennis courts and its main dormitory. Like most schools, it doesn’t have a generous margin of error when it comes to its budget.
Within hours of the competition cancellation, while some of its entrants were no doubt still making their way back home, having already begun their trip to the foothills of the Berkshires when they got the news, the posts started on social media. “When are we going to get a refund?” snarked one competitor. “I don’t have the money to lose on a cancelled competition.” Others chimed in. Many defended the competition and understood that this was a lose-lose situation. But the fire was lit, and some threatened to never enter the event ever again, accusing organizers of keeping funds which should be returned to competitors (contrary to the omnibus listing, which clearly stated no refund in event of cancellation).
Within two months, Stoneleigh announced that they were done with eventing for good.
Here’s the thing folks—if we want our “middle” eventing competitions to survive—organizers need to break even, volunteers must be treated with respect, and competitors need to say ‘thank you for inviting us’. We are all in this together.
“Middle” event staff and volunteers work hard and invest time, money, energy and love into presenting a quality, safe competition on a budget. We want our competitors to have fun, to meet their goals, to be challenged reasonably for their level. We take constructive feedback seriously, and over the years many changes to the format, layout and coordination of the UNH event have been the direct result of competitor feedback.
At that Grassroots round table, the panelists stated that in the hunter/jumper industry, the middle of the sport is in a bad place. There is no incentive for organizers to run local, one day recognized shows, because trainers don’t come; instead they take their clients to the high end shows, where they can camp out for a week or more. The clients which can’t afford it either bankrupt themselves trying, drop back to the schooling level or leave the sport.
Eventing must take this warning seriously. When events go off the calendar, they don’t seem to come back. There just isn’t a long list of new facilities and land owners clambering to get a spot on the schedule.
It benefits ALL of us to ensure that people who start in our sport stay in our sport. We want people to be lifelong equestrians, which means they need to have good experiences, and this includes our volunteers and organizers. As a competitor myself, I appreciate that when we are under the pressure of a show, we are not always our best selves. I warn my students about this and I can forgive a sharp word or two. But please, before you hit send on that snarky competitor evaluation, take real stock of what it is you are trying to say. Are you offering help, or are you just complaining? Is your intention to make yourself feel better or to genuinely improve the quality of a competition?
Perhaps outgoing USEA President Carol Kozlowski said it best in her “President’s Letter” in the Sept-October 2018 Eventing USA, in regards to organizing, “It’s a tough job even when things go well, and it quickly loses any appeal when an unappreciative audience runs amuck,” writes Kozlowski. She then encourages competitors to reach out to organizers to thank them for their effort and say you are looking forward to their next event, even if the show had to be cancelled or something didn’t go smoothly. If being an organizer has taught me anything about how to act as a competitor, it is the importance of being grateful for the opportunity to even be there in the first place.
Please listen to her. I promise it makes a difference. The future of our sport may depend on it.