Years ago, when eventing was still a young sport, various areas in the United States and Canada were growing their event calendars. As fall approached, with cooler weather and softer footing, year-end championships were scheduled. The year would wind up at the end of fall, allowing winter to be an off-period of competition.
Eventers would do other things with horses — foxhunting, steeplechasing perhaps, or some show jumping in winter indoor shows. The migration south was at first limited to only a few of the wealthiest barns, but increasingly over the past several decades, eventing has built into a year-round sport.
The last fall event now takes place in December, and the first recognized event of the new year takes place in January. Because of the growth in eventing to year-round scheduling, and the increase in demand to hold events, some are even taking place during the week, on Wednesdays and Thursdays. At least one area now has more events scheduled in a year than there are weekends available, making many weekends a happy choice of at least two events for competitors.
With this growth has been pains, of course. Each summer, USEA area officials meet to discuss the upcoming years’ calendar, and these meetings have often been long and detailed. In order to allow the younger, smaller events the same marketing opportunities as larger events, date shifts are often negotiated.
Some events, long established on top holiday weekends, never move and can be counted on year after year to be held at the same place and time of year. Some events move yearly several weekends up or down. As a competitor or barn manager, you keep an eye on the Calendar at the USEA website, and check it regularly, because even when a calendar is supposedly “set”, it’s not! Cancellations, movements, additions, subtractions occur all the time. The event calendar is a living entity that constantly changes.
It might surprise a lot of eventers to know, that the Kentucky Derby dictates the eventing calendar in North America. Yes, a horse race — albeit a very famous one — is the pinnacle of the calendar control. When the first Saturday in May takes place (the famous date of the Derby in Louisville, Ky.) is important because the Rolex three-day event in Lexington, KY. must take place before the Derby.
Thus, the rest of the US/North American three and four star three day event calendar rotates around the last weekend in April, and, subsequently, the advanced level events are controlled to lead up to the starred events, and the lower level events are orbited around these.
Historically, long-lived events get priority over younger, smaller events — and this puts new events that shoehorn onto the calendar into a stressful position in terms of success even before the first shovelfull of dirt is turned on the cross-country course.
Calendar changes are often based on additional circumstances beyond organizer’s control — weather, footing, and climate-related differences being the biggest reason for changes. In years past, the smaller number of competitions, the time and money taken to stage big events, often dictated that the “show go on” no matter how much rain or mud came along.
As our technology and ability to change Mother Nature has evolved, we have seen lots of management additions to equestrian events, such as newer footing products, all-weather tracks, new management techniques to allow soils to drain better, etc. Many of us recall very wet yesteryear events, where we drowned in stable areas or slogged through cross-country courses, and in some instances, more recent big events have suffered the same fates.
However, many eventers have recognized the trend toward “perfect” conditions; where events simply cancel if its feared that the course is too wet to be safe. There’s a steady underground controversy within the sport, that’s arisen from these rain cancellations — some believing that the old eventing way is to be ready for any footing, any condition, to be prepared with a properly fit horse, and the riding experience, to handle any sort of footing.
The legendary ride of Bruce Davidson on Little Tricky at Rolex in 2002, in a serious Kentucky bluegrass area rainstorm, is held up as the shining example of one of the greatest cross-country rides ever seen, an epitome of the Heart and Soul of Eventing; another recent example was the “Monsoon Ride” of Boyd Martin on Neville Bardos at Fair Hill International in 2009, where he won the event after a clear cross-country rideover deep old-turf ground after a 4-day “Nor’easter” rainstorm.
Yet, increasingly, the world-wide nature of eventing leads many riders with upper level horses pointed toward major events to be extremely cautious about riding in poor conditions. Many, many riders scratch when the footing today is less than perfect, preferring to save horses for better days. It is not unseen to have half the field scratch on rain days at our nation’s biggest events.
Event management dreads these circumstances. A lesser field creates a much smaller day of sport. Events that depend upon the “gate”, either for admission fees or for sponsorship dollars, are often hurt by the shrunken field of competitiors. Yet, they cannot be seen as advocating poor horsemanship and forcing riders to go on cross country tracks that are deep, slippery, or dangerous to a jumping horse. Neil Ayer, past president of the USEA and legendary Ledyard International Three-Day Event organizer said, “we should not punish horses for jumping boldly,” about course design, and when a course footing changes from jumpable to deep or slippery, the very question asked by the obstacles changes in its complexity from relatively straight-forward to requiring a huge amount of balance and scope.
Riders are often in a dilemma. Sponsors expect competitive results — and you can’t win it if you’re not in it. Horses aren’t motorcycles, and every horse in training has a potential condition that could affect performance. Poor footing can bow tendons, break joints, strain muscles — all of which can end the career of a promising upper level animal. Riders with lifetime investments in horses can’t afford to run these risks.
Officials need the wisdom of Solomon. Cancelling events can mean a death knell for the organization; the loss of revenues can create a financial hole no event can surmount. Letting an event go ahead and run in really poor conditions can result in horse decimation, even a death, which among other ramifications, is a bad blow to event organization. Among the creative solutions officials use for inclement weather are such techniques as shortening the length of the cross-country course, or perhaps removing flooded areas of the course, jumps, or sections. Sometimes they’ve even axed cross-country entirely, and reduced the competition to a combined test (show jumping and dressage only), which satisfies hardly anyone.
With world-wide global warming, event organizations are under constant stress of a wild-weather weekend that could seriously affect the staging of an event. While competitors are at the mercy of the organizers’ decisions to hold, or not hold, the financial effect to all in the mix is substantial. To limit the exposure, some events provide entry “insurance”, or promise a portion of the entry fee to be returned to the competitor, if for some reason Mother Nature decides not to cooperate on any given weekend. Some competitors regularly stay out of early season and late season events, fearing the percentages might work against them — but with the calendars so full, organizers take what weekends they can get and run their chances in April and October that inclement weather might break them. It all comes down to that reverential look up to the sky, and the realization that there is little one can do but complain about the weather.
In earlier years in the sport, with fewer competitors and less stress on the calendar, life as an eventer was easier. You just ran in the next one. Today, with the 400-plus entry contingents at many events, the economic aspects of a cancellation, and the incentives pressing competitors, managers, and officials to run events in less-than-perfect conditions, we in the sport as a whole have to make decisions about our horses. Living to run another day, vs. the go-ahead-and-run — and it all comes down to knowing your horse, your event, and yourself.