Tuesday, March 29, 2011

The Guessing Game

I've seen and heard more than a few stories, comments, and angry diatribes the past few weeks about the awkward and scathing outings that some of the spring eventers (I'm talking primarily about the ammy LL riders) are experiencing around the recognized courses of late. Some of the frustration comes from not knowing if the respective event's expectations focus on "early year" questions, or (as seems to be happening more and more) spring competitions being tailored to question horses and riders who have had the luxury of training all winter long and are ready for any and all challenges. How many times have I heard (and even thought, to myself), "Where are the true early season events?" "Are there any more true move-up courses out there?" "Where can I run when I know I can get my new year intro event where I won't be jumping a championship-level track in March or April?" 

What is it about some of these tried-and-true competitions/venues that seem to want to put a championship cross-country course in front of competitors no matter when the show is held? It used to be that there were certain places where a rider knew the course, knew the venue, and knew that it would be a familiar test and would choose that for the purpose of early-season outings, debuting greenies, or just regaining a horse or student's confidence. Those courses may change and evolve over the seasons, but the level of expectation would never be so drastically altered to where a horse or rider might suddenly be asked to face a question or obstacle that was not consistent with the rest of the jumps. Now, it seems like even the most trusted of competitions are surprising competitors and most of the showing masses right now HAVE NOT been training with big name riders in warmer climates for the past 3 months. Heck, I have friends who didn't even pull their horses out of the pasture until early February, but all of a sudden, the lower-level tracks have become more of the "experience necessary" or "not a move-up" caliber. It's MARCH, people!

Novice fence #17 at Poplar Place Farm. It is nice that
their course photos capture the fences as set for competition
so a rider can get a sense of what to expect on show day.
Soooooo, when looking for those early-year competitions, how do the amateurs decide or learn the best courses for what they need? Do we just make a guess, buy a ticket, and throw our money in the pot? It baffles me why the USEA omnibus (and even venue web sites) are so vague sometimes when it comes to the possible courses or questions for the lower-levels (BN-T). It's almost like they want to create this sense of mystery or maintain an element of surprise, and inevitably someone gets scared/over-faced/or over-challenged when they had planned for an "introductory" or "confidence-building" experience. Yes, show situations should push riders to test their comfort level moreso than when just riding or schooling at home, but honestly expecting all riders to be ready in March as if they've been riding and training since the preceding fall is just not realistic. Seeing a lot of BN courses that have maxed out or excessive "big jumping," intimidating efforts in March is disappointing and can ruin a season. BN, if anything should always be designed to give confidence and introduce the concept of pace, consistency, cantering/galloping forward, and jumping in front of the rider's leg. Later in the year, the tests can be more demanding and require more bravery. But, what happened to the reliability of some of these spring events? At least if you decide to put some serious fences in there in March, let people know before they get there.

I was scanning the ERA web site last week and I noticed that they had some updated XC course descriptions listed and I simply clicked on them out of curiosity (not that I'll be riding at Belton, Somerley Park, or Withington Manor anytime soon). I was shocked at how honest and forthcoming some of those write-ups were. One was even so detailed as to describe how a Novice (BE level.....our USEA prelim) corner question had been rebuilt or represented so that it would pose a different challenge or offer a more fair option: "Intermediate: Suitable for a first time Intermediate providing the combination is fairly bold. As above, the bounce has moved. The second element of the brush complex has been moved to improve the distance. Novice: Suitable for a first time, bold but straightforward and educational. It has two corners on a related distance but there is an alternative. The water jumps are white and need riding." Several of the entries even linked to a more thorough description with maps or photos.

I wonder why the USEA doesn't get more regular or routine updates on courses and course changes around the US? It wouldn't be too difficult. The designer and builders and organizers would know well enough in advance to email some details that could be posted online somewhere.....anywhere. I always sort of get the sense that venues like to keep their courses "secret" and throw in the occasional wild card jump or question that just seems to be an attempt to weed out the unworthy and applaud the lucky. Ultimately, if you enter a competition, you better be prepared to bring it at whatever the respective level. But, on the other side of that coin, perhaps the venues could bridge the gap for the potential entrants to make things more transparent in order for a more successful effort by horse and rider. I'm not saying that every venue for every event needs to give a detailed description of their XC course months in advance. But, it would be nice if everyone could at least take the time in spring and fall to articulate to the possible competitors what the courses will offer and allow everyone to make an educated decision based on their level of experience, preparation, and their goals before sending a check and pulling up at the stables.

And, as a side rant, what is this with all the accessories and decorations at BN/N/T? I think the artistry and creativity of the dressings are fine and valuable at the upper-levels, but when the real question a horse faces isn't the type or height of fence they are jumping....but rather the number of lobsters thrown all over it or the dog hiding in the cut-out underneath....then it seems a bit unfair to me. Why not save that money on the fancy LL dressings and toss in another few prizes for the top-3 placers? What's wrong with brush, wood chips, and stone as "decorations"? Let's keep it realistic and don't ask my pony to know that the gardening tools scattered all over the top of the 3-foot table he's already facing won't jump up and grab him as we sail over; therefore, he decides to take a closer look at the spade. Just let us worry about jumping the 3-foot table, please. That's enough for me. 


Suzanne said...

I have to agree with you! I think our Area (1) does a good job of ramping the difficulty as the season progresses. And, two thumbs up on the decorations... at the big shows, go for it but use flowers and brush, not toys and banners.

eventer79 said...

Love this. I am shocked at the BE descriptions -- that level of useful information would be AWESOME! As someone trying to get ready to move up to Training, the agony of trying to pick a move up course that won't overface my horse weighs on me every single day.

Erin and Mari said...

Wow! What a great blog entry! I found this through the link on Eventing Nation and am definitely on board. Why don't we have descriptions like they do in England? Those are wonderful and would really help us prepare! Once again, sometimes I think the PTB forget that we aren't ALL in Aiken/Ocala slowly developing our horses all winter. Some of us just saw the last of the snow leave a week or two ago and just went on our first conditioning ride (due to footing) last week! Thanks!

Leah said...

This is brilliant. If I read "Average for horses with some experience at this level" I may scream!!

Emily said...

Love, love, LOVE this post! Reeeaaally makes me like being in Colorado, our first recognized event PERIOD isn't until may, and nobody, I mean nobody, is able to do any sort of XC schooling until end of march at the earliest most years. We are so far away from the south where one can train all year, that nobody would be able to do a end-of-the-year level event in may, so by default we have to. It does stink having a shorter competition season, and not as many events, but then, guess it works out! Thanks for the blog :)

Holly said...

Thank you all so much for reading and for stopping to add your thoughts, as well! I have gotten on my soapbox on my blog before about ways to change what we see happening and to not just "say" something, but "do" something. Perhaps there could be a volunteer in each USEA Area who could do a one-time detailed catalog of the XC courses at the recognized events in their region and then be the contact for course changes and updates, which can be posted on the Area web site and the USEA's page at regular intervals. It really wouldn't take much work, and that would take the responsibility off the designers/builders/organizers. Hmmm....I shall think on this further and maybe try to go ahead and contact some people later this week. Even if it wasn't an "official" role, anybody who wanted to could do this for any event and any Area just on their own (and post it somewhere that others could find and read). I'm inspired already! I could possibly do this for a few of my local events, since I know the organizers and a few of the builders. I will post the information here soon and we'll see if it's helpful and, if so, maybe we could take the initiative further.

Holly said...

I also think it bears noting (not to stir ANYTHING up, though) that the updates I saw were posted on the ERA Event Riders Association) web site, and not on the British Eventing site. Not that BE wouldn't be for that, but I find it to be positive that it is the riders' site that is working for the riders, and that's the way it should be. Riders helping riders is the quickest and best way to get anything done!

ERA UK said...

ERA UK says:
Thanks for the praise of our new initiative! We're really pleased at the response. We're getting feedback from about 1 event in 3 so far, but we only started this page very recently, so we hope interest will grow. The riders really appreciate this up-to-date information, and we're very grateful to the Event Organisers who have responded so generously to our request.

Bonnie said...

I couldn't agree more. As a teenager with a young green horse, I would like to be able to go to some of the schooling shows around my area. Unfortunately, the schooling shows around me don't follow the established rules. I am forced to either go to a recognized event and pay a larger fee or to go to a schooling event and risk my horse's and my own confidence.