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The Bungling FEI’s Next Election Will Affect Our Horse Sports’ Future

By John Strassburger, September 29, 2014


Olympic gold medalist Pierre Durand is one of the two candidates for FEI president I’d support.

The Federation Equestre Internationale (FEI) has stumbled into a potentially important moment in its corporate life, a moment that I believe could very likely have large and small influences on those of us who compete our horses in the seven disciplines the FEI looms over.

During the last two years, the FEI has muddled its way through three serious issues without resolution. The latest is the mostly disastrous Alltech FEI World Equestrian Games, the shortfalls of which I wrote about in my last blog.

Second, they’ve been deflecting a long list of rules and ethical violations in endurance riding by the husband and other family members of FEI president Princess Haya, including serious drug violations and allegedly changing the identity of two horses ridden by her stepson Sheikh Hamdan bin Mohammed Al Maktoum, the heir apparent of the Untied Arab Emirates throne who just won the WEG individual gold medal. No one at the FEI, nor Sheikh Hamdan or his father Sheikh Mohammed, will discuss these charges. (Sheikh Hamdan even left France immediately after the medal ceremony and skipped the press conference that’s mandatory for every other medalist.)

And almost two years ago the FEI unceremoniously kicked out Rolex, one of their biggest and most loyal sponsors for the last three decades, in favor of competitor Longines. But Rolex remains the title sponsor or numerous international competitions (including, of course, the Rolex Kentucky Three-Day Event).

The ramifications of just these three debacles are symptomatic of the organization’s incompetence. In fact, I believe that this sponsorship conflict is the reason why the FEI inconceivably chose Bromont, Quebec, over the KHP to host the 2018 WEG. The KHP’s main stadium is the Rolex Arena, not the Longines Arena. Rolex is also the major sponsor of the great Aachen (Germany) show, and you should notice that Aachen, which hosted the mostly successful 2006 WEG, didn’t apply for 2018.

As my friend Jimmy Wofford often intones: “The FEI—rarely right, but never in doubt.”

Why do these issues affect us, especially those of us who compete horses here at home and only occasionally venture into a CCI, a CDI or a CSI? Mainly because the leaders of our federation, the USEF, are committed to following, or at least mirroring, the FEI’s rules so that those of us who do ride in international competitions aren’t completely blindsided when we do. (The exception, thank goodness, is that USEF’s leaders’ commitment is even stronger to maintain our therapeutic drug rules, to not blindly accept the FEI’s head-in-the-sand, nothing-at-all, ever, rules.) So the moment is critical because almost every rule or policy the FEI makes trickles down to our national events.

Consequently, in the wake of these three screw-ups, the FEI presidential election in December is looming as rather important, probably for the first time ever. Six men have thrown their hats into the arena, which I believe is the most ever/ And, for the first time in 60 years, none of them is from a royal family. Unfortunately, they’re all European, but I guess it would be too much to ask to have a non-royal, non-European in charge, finally.

This election is potentially important because the FEI needs a dramatic shake-up. It needs to be hurled into the 21st century in terms of technology, public and media relations and, above all, horse care.

Here’s an example of one technological improvement the FEI refuses to adopt, a change that would make life so much easier and more efficient for riders, owners and veterinarians.

Every horse who competes in an FEI-sanctioned event needs a passport, and the most difficult part of getting the passport is that it requires an FEI-approved veterinarian (a small cadre of practitioners) to draw, by hand, views of the horse from both sides, front and back, showing in perfect detail all of its markings, whorls and scars. Can you imagine how hard it is to do that on a horse with lots of white or on a pinto? (I can tell you—I have both.) Why can’t we use digital photos instead of a veterinarian’s drawings, which are subject to errors and are incredibly time-consuming, for the vet and for federation staff members? This is an indefensible 19th-century remnant.

Far more generally, the FEI’s leaders and its Swiss-based staff need to develop an entirely different outlook on what their job is and on how they do it. The FEI’s outlook for a century has been that of a benevolent dictator—“We’ll tell you what’s good for you and how you’ll do it. And when we want your opinion, we’ll give it to you. In the meantime, we simply don’t want to hear about your problems or concerns.”

No, the FEI should be working for our federations. The fact that they don’t—and generally won’t even listen to most of their member federations, barring some scandal or major catastrophe—is why riders and show organizers around the world have formed at least a dozen of their own associations, to do what the FEI is incapable of or unwilling to even try.

Which candidate would I suggest that the USEF back and lobby for? The usual pattern for groups like the FEI or USEF is to develop officers from within its administrative ranks, promoting them to higher offices as their connection with and knowledge about the organization increases. But I think that now is the time to bring in someone who’s had basically only tangential experience with the FEI—someone who’s had to deal with the FEI but not been involved with its machinations and politics over the last few decades.

That leaves only two candidates: Javier Revuelta del Peral of Spain and Pierre Durand of France. Each is a former international competitor—Durand won the show jumping gold medal at the 1988 Olympics and was the 1987 European Champion—and each has been president of his country’s national federation. Each has also been successful as an entrepreneur in other businesses—Revuelta in finance, media and food; Durand as a winemaker and lawyer.

I interviewed Durand when he won the Olympic gold medal and thought he seemed a pretty sharp guy, but that’s not enough to suggest one over another. I hope, though, that someone at the USEF does know more about them and can lead a promotional effort on behalf of one, to take advantage of this potentially pivotal election and actually lead us into the future. 

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It’s Time To End The World Equestrian Games

By John Strassburger, September 17, 2014


For a WEG to be fan success, the facility has to have the physical infrastructure to accommodate tens of thousands of people for three weeks.

The 2014 Alltech FEI World Equestrian Games concluded last week in Normandy, France, so now is a good time for me to join the small chorus suggesting that it’s time to put an end to this 24-year attempt to create an “equestrian Olympic Games.” It doesn’t work well enough to continue—at least it doesn’t work in the ways that it was intended to work, and it doesn’t work in a way that’s going to expand the public popularity of horse sports.

I covered the 1994 WEG in The Hague (the Netherlands), the 1998 WEG in Rome and the 2002 WEG in Jerez de la Frontera (Spain) as a reporter and photographer, and I worked on the media staff in 2010 in Lexington, Ky., so I’ve experienced first-hand the both the high level of competition and the organizational disasters that is the WEG. I’ve written critically about three WEGs as a horseman and as a working journalist, and I’ve been a part of the organization staging the event and taken the criticism. 

So I think it’s time to return to the old World Championship scheme: Have separate championships for each of the seven FEI disciplines, instead of trying to stage them all in one mega-event.

The motivation for creating the WEG almost 30 years ago was two-fold: To create a “festival of the competition horse,” an Olympic-like event devoted entirely to the horse. It was supposed to bring various economies of scale to the organization of these championships, to make it more economically possible for nations to stage them, and to help promote equestrian sports and, especially, the non-Olympic disciplines.

But neither has happened. The WEG has never achieved the desired economies of scale. It’s too big, but it’s not big enough.

The most annoying problem is food: It’s never, ever been good at the WEG. Even at Kentucky, I’ll admit, the food was at best bland and overpriced.

Why? It’s too many people for too many days to have the usual food vendors, the people who make an equestrian competition fun to be at by providing a variety of tasty treats. Instead, you get one firm providing a bland, unchanging and expensive menu, because a vendor large enough to provide food for 25,000 to 50,000 people every day for a fortnight will always require total monopoly. Because the only way they can make a profit is to be able to buy food in huge volume, so they can afford to pay the staff and for the equipment they’ll need to serve all those meals.

But they and organizers are playing a guessing game on the amount of food they’ll need, because they don’t have historical numbers to go on since the WEG has always been a one-time event. They can plan for 25,000 meals a day, but what if late ticket sales surge? Then they don’t have enough. Or it rains, people don’t come, then they’ve lost money.

There was never sufficient food on the grounds in Jerez (my staff and I all lost weight, and the only thing that saved us was that I could walk to a grocery store about a mile away and bring back food). And I’m told the food situation was even more dire in Normandy.

Transportation, parking and hotels are challenges common to any large event (including the Olympics). In The Hague and Rome, the fact that the games were in large cities reduced the problem, because public transportation took fans and press right to the main stadiums, but in Rome the eventing and driving were more than an hour outside the city, and housing was scarce and very rustic. Jerez was a transportation nightmare—we spent more than three hours a day riding the bus from our hotel to either of the two venues.

In Lexington, fans could park relatively close to the Kentucky Horse Park, and our shuttle buses were pretty efficient, but finding accommodations was tough, and expensive, and could be far down the interstate. Plus, Rolex Kentucky fans who usually stayed in the excellent campgrounds there were disappointed that that space was designated only for competitors and staff.

There’s no savings in WEG ticket prices either, because of the staggering cost of staging it, and that discourages fans from coming. In 2010, we were anticipating an American equestrian celebration of epic proportions, but the cost of going to it and being there decidedly dampened the numbers. Of course, the economic collapse of 2008 destroyed a lot of the planning that had gone on before then, but neither the organizers nor local businesses were able to offer lower prices for tickets, rooms and more, because the expected economies of scale just didn’t happen.

We still had more than 500,000 fans come through the gate, but a sizeable percentage of those were specially discounted tickets (even free for school children) to help pump the numbers up. And, even though it turned out to be an American success story, the 2010 WEG still ended up more than $1 million in the red. I don’t know how much money the others lost, but I don’t think any have broken even.

I’d say that every WEG has been largely successful from a horseman’s and competitive point of view—good to excellent arenas and courses, good to excellent stabling, good to excellent transportation for the horses, adequate to good accommodations for the riders. And many extraordinary moments of competition.

But where the WEG has never been a success is for the fans and the media, as I’ve described above. Some have been better than others—Lexington and Aachen (2006) and Stockholm (1990) were far, far better than the public-relations disasters of Jerez, The Hague, Rome or Normandy. 

For a WEG to be fan success, the facility has to have the physical infrastructure—stadiums, barns and other buildings, roads and transportation, electricity, communications, water/sewer—to accommodate tens of thousands of people for three weeks. Aachen and Lexington have both, although they’re short on nearby hotel rooms. Jerez and Normandy, in particular, had only the bare bones of this infrastructure. So when the people came, they couldn’t accommodate them.

The roads and parking in Normandy were so bad that on cross-country day people spent six or more hours sitting in the cars on access roads and arrived at the course just in time to see the last few horses. Of course they’re furious and want refunds.

Looking ahead to 2018 in Bromont, Quebec, I see nothing but disaster. The FEI inexplicably chose Bromont over Lexington for 2018, even though Bromont has almost none of this infrastructure. Bromont has only one large arena (left over from the 1976 Olympics); Bromont has no indoor arena for reining and vaulting (the Kentucky Horse Park – KHP - built their indoor arena to accommodate those two sports); Bromont has no permanent stabling at all (KHP has more than 1,000 permanent stalls); but the biggest thing is that there are no medium-sized to large hotels within an hour of Bromont, and the roads are entirely insufficient to move large volumes of traffic. Staying there and getting there will be a nightmare.

I’m sorry, but I’m going to predict that Bromont 2018 is going to make people wish they were back in Normandy. It’s certainly going to make the FEI look foolish for choosing Bromont over Lexington.

So I’m going to urge that, following the organizational disaster that was Normandy, the FEI pull the plug on Bromont—now—and open up the seven World Championships to individual bidders. Admit that it’s a failed experiment and move on.

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The Only Way To Get Better Is To Ride More

By John Strassburger, September 05, 2014


During the years that I rode steeplechase races, I would run 5, 6 or more miles four days a week.

Sometimes students—or parents of younger students—will ask me what they can do to practice their riding or to improve their riding fitness. My short answer is always the same: "Ride more."

Unfortunately, that simple solution isn’t always practical or even possible.

But it's an issue with which I'm quite familiar. For the 24 years that I worked at The Chronicle of the Horse, as a staff member and as the editor, I always wanted to ride more. But usually I simply couldn't, sometimes because of time and sometimes because I didn't have any other horses to ride.

So, yes, I used to do other non-mounted exercises to be confident in my riding fitness. I ran three to five days (mostly nights) a week; at one point I did quite a bit of bicycling to ease the strain running put on my legs; for about 12 years I swam two to three days a week; and for awhile I worked out in a gym on the days I swam. During the years that I rode steeplechase races, I would run 5, 6 or more miles four days a week, both for fitness and for weight control.

I haven't run, swam laps or bicycled in more than seven years now, because I don't need to and don’t have the time, since I'm riding four or five horses a day, have farm work to do, and a young son to raise. But I do practice yoga three or four times a week, for strength and flexibility. As I've discovered at age 54, you really do lose both of those qualities as the years start to pile up.

So I speak from experience when I say that non-riding exercise is beneficial to riding, but only to a degree. Certainly anything you do to increase your strength and your endurance helps you in any physical activity, and riding is no exception. If you're out of breath or exhausted after trotting a couple of times around the ring or cantering over a small course, then anything you can do to improve your overall fitness can substantially improve your ability to stay on, and to influence, your horse.

And the more you want to do on your horse, the fitter you need to be. Running serious mileage definitely helped me to be able to ride two- or three-mile steeplechase races and to finish physically within myself, but running didn't make me a better steeplechase rider. Running didn't improve my ability to judge when it was the right time to move or make me brave enough to send a horse at the last fence in order to win. I don't think I ever became more than about halfway good at either of those decisive abilities, but what improvement I did make was from riding horses at speed over jumps and from riding races.

So my longer answer to the question is always this: If you want to get fitter (which is always a good idea)—then undertake a serious and consistent exercise routine. But if you want to become a better rider, then you need to ride more. Ride as often as you can, on whatever horses you feel confident riding. Yes, do what you can to ride horses besides your own.

Here's an observation that I offer as an example of how riding improves riding: I've just returned from working in the media center at the Hampton Classic Horse Show on the eastern end of New York's Long Island. I spent eight days watching some of the best jumper and hunter riders in the country jump a lot of jumps. And my biggest observation was the same this year as when I've worked here in the past:  Man, those guys and gals can really find the fences.

Of course, that's especially true of the pros, but even some of the amateurs and most of the juniors who show in top shows like this are really good at finding the fences on the right stride.

Why? Because they practice jumping almost all the time, so they can instinctively and immediately adjust their horses' stride to meet the jumps at the correct distance.

As an eventer, I'm envious of the time they can spend working on the basics and the fine points of jumping. Sure, flat work is important to improve jumping, but flat work for hunters and jumpers really is a means to en end, not an end in itself. They practice leg-yields and shoulder-ins strictly for gymnastic, strength-building reasons. They don't have to worry about how correct the bend is or how long the strides remain through the exercise, because no judge is gong to score them on it. Even transitions aren't as big a deal for them—they have to be obedient and soft, but that’s really all that matters.

The hunter people do an astounding job of teaching their horses to canter around in the prescribed rhythmic self-carriage with a rounded frame, on a loopy rein. The jumpers don’t have to go in a prescribed manner between the jumps, but the more responsive and rideable the horse is, the more likely he’ll be to keep the rails up. They can allow a jumper to go in almost any frame he wants, as long as he responds correctly to his rider's aids.

My point is that the hunter/jumper people are better at jumping than we eventers because they practice it far more than we can. The dressage riders are better than we are for the same reason.

The simple truth is that if you want to be good at jumping, you have to jump a lot. If you want to become better at dressage, you have to spend a lot of time riding with your horse truly on the bit.

The key to both—and to riding well in any discipline—is practice, practice, practice.





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Full-Care Or Self-Care: Which Is Better For You?

By John Strassburger, August 27, 2014


Full-care often means that you’re not teaching students anything about horsemanship.
Horse care always presents a quandary to trainers and their clients are, one for which there is no one-size-fits-all answer. That quandary is: Which is better, a barn that offers full-care for horses or a barn that requires all owners to care for their horses themselves?

I’m going to examine this question of full-care vs. self-care from the viewpoint of the trainer (which I am now) and of the client (which I used to be).

To start with, I can tell you this: From a trainer’s perspective, it’s so much easier and so much more efficient to have your staff take care of the horses, rather than the clients. But yet you can feel as if you're not really doing your job of teaching your students if they don't learn how to groom, feed, bandage, clean tack, clean stalls, and more.

The training/care model of a full-service barn is partly cultural (it's simply the way it’s done in South America and much of continental Europe, where you’re either a rider or a groom, but not both) and partly a discipline thing (you most often find it in hunter/jumper barns, where you tend to find those cultural influences more often than in other disciplines).

Full-care is certainly more efficient—as a trainer you know the horses are getting groomed and tacked up properly, equipment is being used properly and put away properly, and that hay, grain and bedding are being efficiently used. You can also give directions or orders to your staff that you can't—at least not awkwardly—give to the people who are paying you. Full-care is simply a lot less hassle.

But it also means you have to charge your clients fees that are large enough for you to be able to hire enough staff to accomplish it. That could be an amount that's double or triple what your potential clientele is willing to pay. The clients’ willingness to pay depends on where you are, your level of expertise and accomplishment, and the level and financial ability of the clients you're serving. It also depends on your personality and your goals.

A big problem with not letting the students care for their horses is that they never learn, or understand, the requirements of horse care and all the things that can go wrong with or to them. Sometimes they can even come to believe that riding, training and caring for horses is easy.

So the near-term result can often be that they're surprised, horrified and even discouraged when they discover that it's not at all easy, when they discover that horses really do get hurt or sick or that they do get old and can no longer do their job. In the long term, you're not preparing them for the next horse, or for a life with horses, which means you're not really teaching them.

Full-care often means that you’re not teaching them anything about horsemanship, that you’re only teaching them about riding. And there’s a big difference.

I don’t have a great answer to this quandary, from either the trainer's or the student's perspective. For both, it's a case of finding what works best for you (and your horse too).

Some owners like being highly involved with their horses; they like being fully responsible for that care. That's how I was as an amateur rider, and it's why I kept my horses at home for the 24 years between when I got out of college and when we moved to California to establish Phoenix Farm. I would have found leaving my horses' care to someone else distinctly unsatisfying, at the very least, and even annoying at worst. It wasn't how I was brought up, at all.

To me, their care was an intrinsic part of the deal with my horses—I got the hay and feed and gave it to them, I cleaned their stalls and groomed them before and after I rode them. I really enjoyed taking care of one, two or even three horses, as well as riding them.

But many owners and riders don’t feel that way. I grew up knowing nothing different, while other riders grow up knowing nothing but showing up at the barn, with the horse groomed and tacked and ready to go.

For some people, that's the only way they can get to ride—women or men with a demanding career and/or a family, or teenagers who have school and other sports that demand a great deal of their time and effort. These are usually people for whom horses are an avocation or like other activities, not a true passion, and they’re willing to pay for the service; sometimes they even expect it.

We're somewhere in the middle at Phoenix Farm. We tried to be almost full-service for a while, but we found it too costly and not what we believe in. We take the basic care of the horses--we feed, muck, turn out or bring in, arrange for shoeing and vet. But owners or students staking lessons on our horses have to groom, tack and bathe their horses before or after they ride. We believe that’s the best way for everyone.

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Why It’s Really Hard To Retire Your Horse

By John Strassburger, August 19, 2014


Retirement is like your best friend telling you that you can no longer share an activity that you love doing together.

I received quite a few comments from readers on my Horse Journal blog “Why I Decided To Stop Competing Alba,” so I thought I’d share some additional thoughts with you on the topic of retiring horses from competition or riding.

Pat Robinson of Elk Creek, Mo., is a reader who sent me a lovely letter. In it, she described her recent decision to retire her trail horse after 13 years of traveling the countryside with him.

Pat wrote: “We have traveled many, many trails and done our share of trail-blazing due to trails being blocked by falling trees, or just plain exploring. I do still get to ride him around the farm, but I will miss seeing the bluebells each spring and the bald eagles each winter, and all the other special things we shared.”

I understand what Pat means by her touching words. Until the time came to stop competing my first intermediate horse, Merlin, and then to stop with Alba, I couldn’t fathom why so many elite eventing and dressage riders I knew were usually so reticent about saying publicly that they were retiring their longtime mounts from competition. Well, I do understand it now.

The reason is that you can’t bear the thought of not training and competing them, of not experiencing the daily thrill of improvement, of not conquering the challenges of a cross-country course or of a dressage test. You don’t want to face that you’ll never again feel the adrenaline rush of your successful partnership surmounting these tests. Honestly, you don’t want to face that a part of your life has passed by, a dear part of your life, especially if you were the one who developed the horse up the levels, especially if it was something the two of you did together.

Even if the horse is still alive and healthy, and even if you look at him every day in the stall or the pasture, it’s as if your best friend has told you that he or she can no longer do with you some activity that was central to your friendship.

I spent eight years competing Merlin, and he was a central part of our lives for a total of 12 years before we had to put him down five years ago next month. I competed Alba, who’s now 12, for six years, and I hope she lives for another 12 years (at least). So that’s 14 years of my life, so far, that have largely revolved around competing these two horses—which probably explains why our house is filled with photos of them!

Now I really hope that someday my son Wesley, who’s almost 5, will want to ride and compete Alba.

But in the meantime I will always cherish all the tough courses both horses and I conquered together, all the great days I had foxhunting Merlin when we lived in Virginia, and the fun of riding Alba across the country. (I know she’d love foxhunting too, and I hope in the future I’ll somehow have the time to take her out.)

Above all, though, I’ll be forever thankful for all the things that Merlin and Alba taught me and for the way, for all those years, their eager and inquisitive eyes have met me in the morning, always seeming to ask, “What are we going to do today?” 

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