Familiar faces greeted me when I arrived at my gate at the airport on the way to this year’s U.S. Eventing Association Annual Meeting and Convention in Colorado Springs, Dec. 5-9. Much of the USEA staff was on the same flight. USEA website editor and programs manager Leslie Mintz and I immediately began plotting how we’d find out what happened in the closed-door meetings that new U.S. Eventing Technical Advisor David O’Connor was requiring all the U.S. high performance eventers to attend.
We needn’t have worried. Not only did the meetings end up being open, but O’Connor also made an effort to share his plan for the return to glory days with anyone who cared to listen.
Although the rider meetings weren’t technically part of the convention agenda, it was a logical place to bring the upper-level eventers together.
“I want to bring the riders here every year and meet at the convention,” said O’Connor. “Our sport is not big. We can’t afford to be separate.”
Over four days O’Connor laid out his plan for a new program based on four pillars: respect, integrity, transparency and consistency. He covered topics from personal analysis to the mechanics of good riding to selection procedure. He went into detail about how he planned to prepare riders to compete successfully on the world stage. And he explained a scoring system based on subjective and objective elements that would provide riders with a clear explanation of why they had or had not made the team.
Every rider I spoke to, whether we were out jogging in the pre-dawn hours or conducting a formal interview, was bubbling with excitement. You couldn’t help but be impressed by O’Connor’s innovative ideas and effective leadership.
I asked Olympian Becky Holder what she thought about O’Connor’s idea of sending teams over to Europe to compete in Nations Cup competitions at CIC***s. “It’s kind of like climbing a mountain,” she said. “I’ve been climbing that same mountain many times over the years. I kept thinking that I needed to improve my game by climbing that same mountain better. All of a sudden, he brought us to the top and took us over the edge. I didn’t even know the name of half the competitions he put on the board, which is terrible on my part. I have blinders on to the rest of the world. It’s brought a youthful excitement to the game for me.”
O’Connor introduced a four-year plan and discussed five national lists instead of the previous three:
- Global Talent - The ability now to win anywhere in the world
- World Class - The ability to compete anywhere in the world
- National Potential - Competitive in U.S. international classes
- Under-25 - Talent and attitude to be an elite rider
- Under-18 - Talent and attitude to be a world class rider
He hopes to work with individual riders to get to know their programs, so they can use their own coaches, veterinarians and farriers and still stay consistent to a national system of training and horse care.
“Where I’ve felt lost in the program before was a lack of communication in the sense that I wasn’t understanding the whole plan and idea,” said four-star rider Allison Springer. “I love that he’s brought a multi-tiered approach to this. It’s not just: ‘Who’s hot right now? Give them some lessons and see what they do.’ I love it being so forward thinking.”
Money, Money, Money
And it wasn’t just the riders who were inspired by O’Connor. The best plans in the world won’t be effective without adequate funding, but several announcements during the convention proved that passionate eventing fans are ready to step up in that regard.
Jacqueline Mars, longtime sponsor of O’Connor and his wife, Karen, established the Giltedge Challenge in honor of David’s legendary horse who was inducted into the USEA Hall of Fame on Dec. 8.
“Jackie has pledged a gift of $500,000,” announced Jim Wolf, the U.S. Equestrian Federation executive director of sport programs. Someone in the front of the room shrieked in shock at this incredible sum.
“It will be exclusive to eventing programs if it can be matched by the eventing community by June 1,” Wolf continued once the hubbub died down. “With the incredible generosity of Jim and Sarah Wildasin, Jerome and Sarah Broussard, and Howard Simpson, we are well on our way to matching that gift.”
However, Mars’ gift hasn’t yet been matched, and Wolf encouraged additional supporters to contact USET Foundation Executive Director Bonnie Jenkins in order to contribute.
And the Giltedge Challenge wasn’t the only big grant announced at the convention. Quality horseflesh is an important element of renewed American eventing dominance, and Tim Holekamp and Christine Turner hope they can do something about that from the breeding perspective.
The Holekamp/Turner Young Event Horse Lion d’Angers Prize and Grant will award the winner of the USEA Young Event Horse 5-Year-Old Championships with a cash prize toward travel to the FEI World Young Horse Championships at Le Lion d’Angers (France) for the 7-year-old two-star championships. North American-bred winners will receive $17,500, while imported horses will get $8,000. If the highest scoring 5-year-old doesn’t qualify or is unable to attend Le Lion d’Angers, then the money will be go to the next highest scorer who is qualified and can go.