When it comes to eventing, I long ago crossed the line between hobby and obsession. My obsession with eventing is total; it has been my constant companion for well over half a century. It has served as a constant source of learning about our beloved horses, a guide, a goal, a stimulant, and—occasionally—a scourge. The research for this speech has caused me to look back over the history of our sport, and I thought I would share some of the results with you today.

A New Millennium’s Challenges

We have all heard the somewhat shop-worn axiom that we must study history in order not to repeat the mistakes of the past. I think we agree that eventing has changed and that it will (and should) continue to change, but those changes must be carefully considered. Occasionally, we have made these changes with the best interests of humans in mind, and our horses have come out second-best.  If wisdom is the anticipation of consequence, then we must pray for wisdom as the new millennium unfolds before us. Our horses are silent partners in this endeavor, and for their sakes we must give serious consideration to the consequences of future change.

The sport of eventing, now a century old, has shown an ability to change and adapt that it will need that in the coming years, when the sport will be challenged as never before. Strong societal forces are demanding an increased emphasis on the welfare of our horses, demands that I personally welcome and support.  The safety and welfare of our riders has also come to the forefront of recent discussions. Eventing has received a chilling warning that neither rules nor mastery can entirely guard us from risk. We all wish for a speedy and complete recovery from the life-threatening injuries suffered by some of the most adept and elegant practitioners of our art.

Rules Tell a Story

The rules of any sport define its requirements and provide a level playing field for our athletes, two-legged and (in the case of equestrian sports) four-legged. Eventing’s regulatory bodies—national, international, and global—are currently increasing the rigor and complexity of the rules that guide us. Because the changes in our rules reflect the evolution of our sport, it is an interesting analysis to track the rule changes that have occurred over the past century, determine the reasons for them, and observe the resulting impact.

Eventing has been part of the Olympic movement for more than a century. Although eventing was on the Olympic calendar at Stockholm in 1912, my review begins with the 1924 Paris Olympics, the first to use the format that we now refer to as the “Classic.” By this I mean a dressage test, followed by a five-phase speed and endurance test (Phase A: roads and tracks; Phase B, steeplechase; Phase C, another roads and tracks; Phase D, cross country; Phase E, cool-down), culminating on the final day with a show-jumping test. This basic format would remain in use for the next 80 years. Also of note: The rules and format for the competition as a whole remained basically unchanged from 1924 until 1948, while the dimensions and speeds used for the cross-country tests have remained unchanged for a century.

Civilians, then Women on the Podium

Our next date of interest is the 1952 Helsinki Olympics where, for the first time, some of the men on the Olympic podium were in civilian rather than military attire. The reasons for this change were obvious. The global conflagration of World War II was over, military budgets were shrinking, and the unsuitability of horses for modern combat had become apparent, even to army generals. The essential character of eventing also began a gradual change at this time. At the sport’s inception, completion—as opposed to winning—was the competitors’ primary goal. Why? Commonly referred to as “The Military,” eventing was designed to train young cavalry officers and horses. Carefully prepared and thoughtfully ridden, the Classic event horse was capable of strenuous exertion, yet could remain in service after the completion of the event.  

However, the competitive nature of mankind began to influence the sport, with predictable results. I view it as a harbinger of what was to come that all three members of the 1952 Olympic U.S. eventing team were mounted on Thoroughbreds, as opposed to the cavalry remounts that had typically been used before. Eventing originally used a ratio of 3:12:1 as the basis for the relative importance of the scores for the three disciplines: Dressage comprised three parts of the total score, while cross country was 12 parts and show jumping only one part, signifying that its main purpose was to show that a horse could complete the competition, yet remain serviceably sound. Riders and trainers gradually recognized that the ability to ride at speed had a marked effect on their competitive results … and the Thoroughbred offered speed as well as endurance.

From 1924 until 1952, the optimum times on both the steeplechase and the cross country were viewed as unobtainable goals. The individual gold medal winner at the 1952 Helsinki Olympics, Baron Hans von Blixen-Finecke, riding for Sweden, finished the cross-country phase with only 3 time faults. By 1956, however, several competitors at Badminton, including Col. Frank Weldon and Sheila Wilcox, finished the speed and endurance test without penalty. (Sheila’s performance is especially noteworthy; at the time, army generals and colonels considered women too weak and timid to be successful event riders. Little did they know.)

Speed and More Speed

The 1960 Rome Olympics provide interesting illustrations of the effect of changes in the rules; teams were now increased to four members, with the three best scores to count. This change naturally increased the average speed of the steeplechase and cross-country phases. Team strategy of the four-rider era consisted of sending your slowest, most dependable horse and rider first; if they were successful, the next pair would ride closer to “maxing the course,” which in those days referred to obtaining the maximum bonus points available on both steeplechase and cross-country, and so on. At the Rome Olympics, we saw the first double-clear cross-country ride when Laurie Morgan of Australia, riding Salad Days, won the individual gold. The Australian team won a gold medal based in part on their discovery of a legal ‘short-cut” on Phase C, which allowed them a considerable amount of time to recuperate before their Phase D start times. This was an advantage because there was no scheduled rest time before horses and riders started Phase D, the cross-country test.

By 1963, a mandatory 10-minute veterinary examination before the start of the cross-country test was required. As eventing became more and more of a speed competition, the pace of change increased as well; women were first allowed to compete in Olympic eventing in 1964, when U.S. rider Lana du Pont won a silver team medal at the Tokyo Olympics.

The Influence of Television

In 1967 Phase E, the “cool-down” phase, was removed. That same year, the stadium rules were changed to a more dramatic and suspenseful “reverse order of placing” in recognition of the growing importance of television coverage. This rule change also continued the trend towards increasing the technical expertise required for success in the sport.

Meanwhile, steps were taken to simplify a scoring system that had always been insanely complicated. The old “bonus points” system was changed. Now the entire competition was scored on a basis of penalty points, a change whose results again illustrate the Law of Unintended Consequence. Before the scoring system change, the optimum steeplechase speed to avoid penalties was 600 mpm, with maximum bonus points awarded for 690m mpm; the cross-country optimum speed was 450 mpm, with maximum bonus points awarded for 570 mpm. However, the new system required average speeds of 570 mpm to avoid time penalties. This strongly influenced riders’ attitudes towards the steeplechase and cross-country tests. In the mid-1970s the penalty points for a show-jumping knockdown were lowered from 10 to 5, while the ratio of the influence of the tests was changed to 3:12:2, thus slightly increasing the influence of the show-jumping test. (This is in contrast to the current ratio of 1.5:1:1. Again, these changes reflect the ever-increasing levels of technical expertise that eventing requires. )

A Test of the Best

Among the next decade’s many changes, the most influential followed the 1984 Los Angeles Olympics, when the International Olympic Committee (IOC) opened the Games to professional athletes. Although the introduction of a profit motive drove competitive pressure to new heights, this change at least had the virtue of honesty. The Olympic movement had existed in a state of hypocrisy from its’ beginning, and the removal of artificial barriers between amateur and professional athletes reflected the opinion of society at large: The Olympics should be the best competing against the best.

For the next two decades, the Law of Unanticipated Consequence was alive and well in our sport. For example, increased competitive pressure caused an ever-increasing emphasis on speed. One result was improved conditioning of the event horse, resulting in an increasing number of competitors who were able to complete the speed and endurance tests without time faults. At the same time, in an attempt to slow the perceived extreme speed of cross-country riding, the complexity and technicality of course design was increased.  The result was to emphasize the flexibility of the horse’s stride, with a concurrent increase in the importance of dressage for the event horse. However, many observers argued that the trends in design were causing, rather than alleviating, the disastrous series of fatal accidents that occurred with distressing frequency throughout this period. This discussion has kept bartenders busy around the world, and is one that continues to this day.

New Format, New Consequences

From 1924 until 2004, our format remained essentially unchanged. However, eventing revolutionized itself when the 2004 Athens Olympics utilized a new shortened format, one that contained only dressage, cross-country, and show jumping. The numerous reasons for this include a desire to remain on the Olympic calendar, to lessen the space required for the cross-country course, and to provide a format in which horses could compete more often. I mentioned earlier that the Law of Unintended Consequence rules our sport, and this revolution of our format provides a plethora of illustrations.

In my opinion, one could trace a straight line from the IOC decision in the mid-1980s to open the Games to professionals, to a desire for more competitive opportunities from modern-day professional riders and their horses. During this time, the same professionals have raised the bar of technical expertise to new heights. Our new short format emphasizes competition rather than completion, and our riders and trainers have risen to the new challenges posed by changes to our rules. During the decade since the revolution of eventing, our best horses and riders have attained admirable levels of performance.

In the fall of 2014, the IOC issued an agenda for changes to be implemented by 2020. This document is commonly referred to as the “2020 Memo.”  (It can be found at http://www.olympic.org/Documents/Olympic_Agenda_2020/Olympic_Agenda_2020-20-20_Recommendations-ENG.pdf)   I was going to say that this memo provides the prism through which we must look, as we attempt to guide the future. However, the apparatus we look through is in reality a kaleidoscope; every time we change some part of our sport in an attempt to accommodate ourselves to the IOC’s imperatives, the Law of Unintended Consequence awakens.

Part of the 2020 Memo refers to “downsizing,” IOC-speak for cost-saving measures that will be required of various sports if they wish to continue to be included in the Olympic calendar. One of the cost-saving measures suggested for eventing is to cut the size of the team from four to three riders, with all three scores to count. (It is ironic, that in order to “modernize,” we should reinvent ourselves as we were 60 years ago, when three-member teams were the standard.) The reason for the change is simple: money. National Olympic Committees provide funding for their various Olympic teams based on team results, and when all three scores are to count members of teams with three riders are told to finish at all costs. A weak showing at this Olympics may very well result in a reduction in the team’s funding during the next Olympic Quadrennial. Reducing the size of the teams will certainly save money for the IOC and the organizing committees involved, but it will also dramatically reduce the speed that riders use during the cross-country competition. After 60 years, the emphasis will once again be on completion rather than competition.

Eventing in Today’s World

As we continue to interact with the IOC, we must look at the world as they see it. The IOC has become one of the largest, and most successful, entertainment businesses in the world. Ernest Hemingway, the American author, once remarked that human activity crossed the line from sport to entertainment when it sold the first ticket. We are long past that point. In 2014, the IOC put three million US dollars back into global sport every day of the year. The main source of this fabulous wealth, of course, is television. The IOC measures every sport on the Olympic calendar by several metrics, including “universality” (does the sport occur the world over, or only in certain places) and television ratings. If your sport does not fit into television’s parameters, it will either have to change, or will be dropped from the Olympics. This explains the success of eventing’s change to show jumping in “reverse order of placing”—because the winner is not determined until the last competitor crosses the finish line.

Beginning with the 1972 Munich Olympics, I worked as a television commentator for more than 40 years. During this time, I have asked some senior and knowledgeable people in that industry what could make our sport more television-friendly.

Without fail, they make these observations: first, change the competitive attire. Nothing turns off the average viewer faster than to see a so-called athlete dressed up like the Phantom of the Opera. Another suggestion is, “change the scoring system.” By this, they do not say that we should produce different winners, but rather that our system should be simple and easily explicable. This would be a worthy endeavor regardless of television. Although we say that modern short format eventing means we participate in three equal disciplines, in reality the present ratio of the influence of the three disciplines means that dressage exerts a slightly disproportionate effect on the final results.

Television is a distressingly compressed medium, and your time for commentary in each segment of the program is quite short. It is too short, in fact to explain our current system. Basically, you put a graphic up on the screen, and hope your viewer is recording it, so that they can review it later.

Finally, TV experts will add, “While you are at it, change the name.” I can hear you groaning from here; this topic is a hardy perennial and to date no satisfactory name has emerged.  Still, the TV experts are right. Sports such as golf and tennis have succeeded with non-descriptive names, but participants in a boutique sport do not have the luxury of universal recognition.

If I had unlimited time, I could continue at great length, describing the various ramifications of various proposals for change. But our discussions should consider the essential question: What is our future to look like? Will we make every effort to remain in the Olympics? The answer to this question will determine the path that eventing takes into the 21st century. As an aside, when he was a newly elected U.S. Senator, John F. Kennedy remarked, “At some point, a man’s political party can ask too much.” In our context, we must continually consider if the IOC has asked too much of our silent partners. I do not think we are at that point yet, but we must remain committed to the idea that our horses mean more to us than the Olympics.