Tuesday, October 14, 2014

USEA Rule Changes: Perspectives of a Once and Maybe Future Eventer

Wow, Facebook is hot today. And I have a opinions. Always a good combination. So even though I published the Red post this morning, here's another one coming atcha. I figure most of you won't read it until tomorrow anyway.

My opinions are at least somewhat informed. My coach is on the USEA Board of Governors, and she's integral to the decision-making process here. So I've gotten a lot of information straight from the horse's mouth, if you will.

The US Eventing Association has two proposed rule changes that people are talking about at the moment: Increasing the cross country speed a little bit at beginner novice through training level, and also adding one jump in the stadium phase that is up a hole and a little wider (so, essentially, a jump from the next level up). You can read more about it on Eventing Nation. Let's take these one at a time and go from there.

Increased XC Speed
Here's the thing: If you're on a horse of quality with a good canter, barring a stop on course, you're going to get a speeding ticket at BN through training level. A rider with a close eye on her watch could theoretically avoid this by circling on course or trotting. This creates problems, though, because it interrupts the flow of the course and the horse's rhythm. Horses that will be expected to move up need to canter from jump to jump and not waste time. It's stupid to circle on XC, but everyone does it. Or they take the penalties, but in this case, the horse is being punished for doing things correctly.

But what about horses who can't handle the higher speeds?
There are a couple reasons a horse might not be able to handle the higher speeds: it is slow or short-strided, or it is hot and needs those trot transitions or circles to get its head on straight. The thing is, those circles are still going to be allowed. And we can't gear XC speeds towards the short-strided, we just can't. Most eventers are not ponies, and a pony or horse going BN that can't go 350mpm isn't a novice-level prospect. And it isn't true that all ponies can't make that step. Teddy O'Connor clearly could. I coach a BN kid on a 13.2hh pony who has to circle to avoid the speed faults. I live in Virginia, too, and all our XC courses are plenty hilly, which should slow things down but doesn't on most horses.

So what? I want to stay at BN anyway (or my kid does, or I am just raising this as a theoretical argument). Your "that horse isn't a novice prospect" point doesn't work on me.
That's fine. You can stay at whatever level you like. Not everyone is or should be looking to move up a level. But we still arrive back at the point that too many horses get punished for having a good, appropriate canter--far more than will get punished for not having the step. It's just as easy to say "who cares about time faults for going too slow, just go at your horse's pace" as "just take the speeding ticket, assholes."

Consider this: when do we want horses and riders to get comfortable jumping at a forward pace? At BN through training, when the jumps are small, or at prelim and up, when they get more challenging? I think it will actually make eventing safer if everyone learns to gallop or at least canter forward when the jumps--and the stakes--are lower.

Shouldn't eventing be trying to make itself more amateur-friendly to get people into the sport? It's had a lot of bad press lately. You'd think the USEA would want whatever advantage it could get, and making XC faster and one SJ jump higher isn't going to help.
I hear this. I'll return to this point in a minute, because M had some pretty good insight here that encapsulates both the XC speed and the SJ height. But as far as the XC speed itself is concerned, remember: one can always make the choice to go slower. It isn't as though the guillotine awaits anyone who wants to take their time on XC on a green horse or at their first time at a new level. In jumper land, we don't even think about the jump-off for like a year at least. If you get there, huzzah, but it isn't the goal.

Making one SJ jump higher and wider
The deal with this is, you've got the possibility of one SJ fence on course that's like a move-up to the next level. It isn't a requirement, I don't believe (or won't be if these rules come into effect).

This one seems to be ruffling more feathers than the XC speed, and I find that very curious. I get that we all have to get our eye up and that a jump that might look like a tiny warm-up fence to one person looks insurmountable to another, and I'm not here to tell anyone that their comfort level is wrong or not good enough. Not at all. But let's keep a few things in mind:

1. These are rated events we're talking about, not schooling events (this goes for XC time as well--plenty of schooling horse trials around here don't even have an optimum time for XC). In theory, if you're ready to compete at a rated horse trials, you're probably schooling a level up at home. Every trainer I know would be working on that with their students before sending them off to spend the money at a rated show. So one jump at a height that you're schooling at home shouldn't make or break you.

2. A little bit of trust for course designers here, huh? That one bigger and wider fence could be in the toughest spot on the course, I suppose, but that isn't likely. I bet good, conscientious course designers--the ones that tend to get paid to design for rated horse trials--will put it in a thoughtful spot. I mean, if you're riding in a championship and everything is tough, then I wouldn't expect that. But I bet most course designers will keep in mind that the one bigger jump could come somewhere towards the late middle of the course where canter rhythm is established but before the horse is out of quarters.

3. It is, in fact, the case that in every other country, the SJ jumps are higher. US eventing has had a tough go of it in international competition lately (including a cringe-worthy performance at WEG). If we want to deepen our bench, we have to get it together and get our riders up to the level that other riders are doing. This should better prepare our riders and horses for moving up. The jump up can be kind of a shock, especially from training to prelim, and this should ease the blow.

Which leads me back to...

Okay okay! I hear you.  And I don't disagree. This is the dilemma, though. Do we let the lower levels stay super easy compared to international standards and keep people in the sport? Or do we focus on the horses and riders with upper level potential at the cost of adult ammies?

I don't think we really have to make this choice. There are a lot of things that USEA wants to do that would help even things out a bit. For instance, a little birdie told me that they're talking seriously about allowing coaching on course in the lower levels. I think this would help tremendously in coping with that one bigger SJ jump for BN riders. I wouldn't be surprised (though the birdie did not say this) if we heard that the eventing scene is going to look more like the h/j world in other ways, like having BN through intermediate or advanced at more shows so that the lower levels can get the important education of watching upper level riders do their thing; or that having a trainer hop on a jerk horse for a few minutes in the warm-up wouldn't be grounds for elimination in the BN and novice levels.

So as is probably clear by now, I'm in favor of these rules changes. I feel more strongly about the XC course time than the SJ fence, but I'm in favor of both. And I will eventually have to put my money where my mouth is, as M and I have eventing plans for both Mo and Red in the spring.

I eagerly await your comments. I'm sure this will get interesting.

ETA 10am: I forgot something. One thing I'm hearing from the people opposed to the rule change is "people need to learn to ride to pace." But that is exactly why I am in favor of the rule change. Learning to ride to pace means finding your horse's appropriate pace for the level. Circling at the end of the course is not riding to pace. It's wasting your horse's legs and energy to avoid getting penalized for having an appropriate canter through the course. Of course, some people do ride hell bent for leather, rule change or no rule change. But that shouldn't happen, and the technical delegate ought to be (and usually is in my experience) on the lookout for dangerous riding. 350mpm is not a crazy fast gallop.  I really do think that most people who are at a lower level on a short-strided horse are going to be able to make the time still, without riding like crazy idiots. The idea behind the rule change, in other words, isn't to make anyone ride faster. It's to prevent the circling at the end of the course. I hope that makes sense.


  1. No comment, because I have 0 skin in the game as I'm not an Eventer. But I really enjoyed your thoughtful approach to the subject.

  2. Love this and I agree! If you are safe competing at the level you have signed up for you should be more than fine with a jump that is one hole up, seriously the horse probably won't even notice. As far as the speeds go, yes yes yes! I think having to circle on course because you had a reasonable canter (not even a gallop yet) is a bit ridiculous! I'm not sure about speeding penalties not happening until you are going prelim speed (seems way to fast for tiny fences), but over all I think these are very safe ways to help the US eventually be more competitive with the rest of the world. Also coaching on xc would be an incredible way for AA's and kiddos to be safer and enjoy more success which is something we are all rooting for!

  3. As a H/J I was totally out of the loop until yesterday when my Facebook blew up over this. Thank you for laying it all out for your readers-I appreciate it, and can't wait to hear what others think too!

  4. I'm kinda with you on this. I see both sides, but I don't think a very slight increase in speed is a big deal, AS LONG AS the TD's are diligent about handing out DR's. I've seen a lot of people who should get one that do not. We can't be afraid to hand those out when it's warranted. Also - I'd REALLY support the one or two higher jumps if they were presented as option fences, which may be what they're saying... hard to understand 100% from the wording presented so far. The pace right now for BN is definitely too slow for most horses, you absolutely have to either trot or circle. The ponies and short-strideds would be able to make time just fine if they cantered the whole way around, and an extra 30-50mpm isn't going to make much difference, especially if those people choose smarter, straighter lines.

    1. Exactly re: the speed. I should have mentioned that I evented a pony in the 90s and we only had time faults if we had a stop.

      I like the option idea for the bigger jump on SJ. I'll ask M if that's what it means. Maybe it could be an option at events that are meant to be "move up" events and required at the ones that are supposed to be the tough, like champs.

    2. It doesn't seem like it'd be hard to offer a couple option jumps, but I am not an organizer so I'm not the person to speak on that. The speed thing though - all for it. WITH liberal doses of DR's where needed.

  5. It's interesting to hear this type of debate because I feel that similar sentiments are going through many different disciplines right now, including hunters and jumpers. Thanks for your very thoughtful and respectful insight on the subject!

  6. So I think the whole concept of "one jump will be much larger" is just super weird. Forget increasing it, because I'm kind of against that at the start.

    The speed thing, I agree with you 100%. I see way too many eventers (online, I don't event) crawling around on course or trotting everything and that's not really the point.

  7. Not "much larger". Just one hole higher and a little wider. I do get people's complaints about that though, which is why I think it would really only work as an option fence.

  8. I agree with you and think these rule changes are interesting. The increase in speed is very minor, the slightly larger SJ jump is minor. BN through Training horses are not competing at their physical max heights here, even the ponies and the greenies and the elder horses. However, as a point of discussion, I've observed that people are circling and trotting on course to get close to optimum time, not to avoid speed faults. To get speed faults you'd have to be riding at dangerous speeds. I understand people wanting to get close to optimum time (can be a tie-breaker, sometimes there's prizes for it), but its not like they really are getting penalized for coming in well under time.