This was a typical preliminary jump from 54 years ago. The jumps were easy, but the test was incredibly hard.

We did roads and tracks down near GMHA (Green Mountain Horse Association). Then we did steeplechase down in the big field at GMHA. Then we trotted all that long way, straight up Morgan Hill Road, to the Reeves’s Flying Heels Farm. Then, after a 10-minute vet hold, our cross country course ran up and over Reeves’s hill. It took an iron horse.

Today, the test is short, but the jumps are very hard. And horses have to run just as fast in 2016 as they did in 1962. The speeds now are identical to the speeds then. If you run fast at solid jumps, some horses will hit them. Some will fall. And some that fall will get hurt. And some will die.

If you make the fences smaller, some upper-level riders will complain. If you make the times slower, some upper-level riders will complain. So very little changes because the basic fact remains that in order to win at the top levels, the horse has to run very fast at very hard jumps and the top riders do not want to change that reality.

I don’t think they will change that reality. So the only thing that I think can “save” the overall sport of eventing is to acknowledge that there are actually two sports: preliminary and above, especially intermediate and advanced, and training and below.

I wonder if the time has come to just cut the upper levels loose to go do their dangerous thing.

I wonder if the time has come to just cut the upper levels loose to go do their dangerous thing. There are not many of them, only a few hundred in all of North America. Probably only 200 or so at advanced, if that. And let the gigantic numerical majority have a sport they can trust is looking out for their best interests, slower speeds, better ground lines, safer jump construction.

In other words, be aware of the trickle-down effect, and work hard not to let the problems at the top infect the lower levels. Why should we allow “the small tail to wag the big dog”?

It is not an ideal solution, but I do not trust the upper-level people to do what it will take to make the sport significantly safer. I wish I did. But empirical evidence suggests otherwise.

I don’t think they are “bad people,” but I do think that they are so obsessed with making teams, proving themselves, attracting sponsors, riding and competing their big strings of horses, all of that, that they have lost touch with what most event riders actually want. General Burton, 40 years ago, articulated his vision of what eventing should be. It was “fun, fair, and affordable.”

It is not fun when the specter of catastrophic accidents hangs over every weekend.

About the Author

Named “One of the 50 most influential horsemen of the 20th Century” by The Chronicle of the Horse, Denny Emerson was elected to the USEA Hall of Fame in 2005. He is the only rider to have ever won both a gold medal in eventing and a Tevis Buckle in endurance. He is the author of How Good Riders Get Good, and continues to ride and train from his Tamarack Hill Farm in Vermont and Southern Pines, NC.