Sometimes, I wonder if the eventing community operates under a kind of hive-mind — as though, much like in Stranger Things, triggering a reaction in one person (or, um, tentacle beast) creates a ripple effect that flows throughout the inner machinations of the sport. But then again, we’re all here as boots on the ground, watching the bits that go right — and often more pertinently, the bits that go wrong — in real time, with a shared wealth of experience and perspectives, and so it’s no surprise that this year, especially, we’re all thinking many of the same things.
I say this as a crucial foreword because, as I put the finishing touches on a piece I’ve been dwelling on and discussing for a long time, I see that the excellent Pippa Roome of Horse&Hound has released a not dissimilar op-ed on the magazine’s website this morning. It’s heartening, and interesting, to read her thoughts on the matter, which are so much aligned with my own, and I encourage you all to click over and check out what she has to say on the subject of further four-star delineation, because all the voices at this big table are so important in enacting positive change over time.
The hot-button issue on the table for eventing is, and has long been, safety. This feels heightened this year, in part due to what has been an enormously difficult spring season for our sport: in the UK and Europe alone, where my reporting efforts are focused, we’ve seen two riders suffer career-ending injuries (Caroline March in the CCI3*-S at Burnham Market; Nicola Wilson at Badminton), and a number of horses euthanised for a wide swathe of reasons. My fellow EN team member Ema Klugman wrote a salient piece the other day positing the idea that ‘most planes don’t crash for one reason’ – or, to apply that metaphor to eventing, most accidents aren’t the result of one easy-to-target cause, but rather, the result of the cumulative effect of a number of factors. When you take that concept and step back, looking at a season’s worth of accidents instead of just one, it’s even more pertinent. The variety of problems we’ve seen this year are unique from one another; we’ve seen horse falls that we can attribute to rider error, such as too high a velocity, but we’ve also seen falls that we can’t quite explain, no matter how many times we rewatch the available footage frame by frame. The unexpected horse fall that Cathal Daniels suffered at fence three at Luhmühlen, riding horse who had jumped the exact same fence the previous year, is one such oddity — but fortunately for both, the dramatic incident wasn’t ultimately a catastrophic one.
In the case of horse deaths this year — and further back than that, too — we’ve seen similar variety. It’s no less tragic when a horse is euthanised as a result of a soft-tissue injury incurred while travelling on the flat than it is when a horse dies as the result of a crashing fall, but in the latter case, it’s easier to pick out a scapegoat for the blame, which is a very human response to uncomfortable circumstances. And certainly, every incident — and every near-miss, too — needs to be analysed, picked apart, discussed, and learned from, or we truly do risk seeing our sport come to an untimely end itself, whether that’s through the destruction of its ‘social licence’ or its almost inevitable removal from the Olympic line-up (which, in turn, will lead to a loss of sports body funding).
This year’s major incidents have largely befallen hugely experienced riders and horses, and so the focus has turned in large part towards course design, which should always evolve, however subtly, to respond to shifts in the sport. But we do ourselves few favours if we hone in so closely on one aspect of the sport that we neglect to build upon the others — again, that plane isn’t crashing for one reason — and so, while we’ve largely seen inexperienced competitors excel on the world stage this year, I can’t help but think that there’s still a pertinent building block that needs to be refined along the way to ensure that that trend continues.
The international four-star level is a curious thing: it encompasses such an enormous spectrum of difficulty and technicality, and as the penultimate stepping stone on the FEI pathway, it should do. There are tough courses that flirt with five-star technicality; there are softer courses that feel just a smidgeon above a national Advanced or even a beefy three-star track. There are courses that employ terrain in a way that truly tests stamina, such as Blair Castle’s mountainous tracks in Scotland, and there are flat courses wherein the time becomes much more gettable, such as Blenheim Palace, which serves as such an exceptional end-of-year aim for less experienced horses and riders. We need all of the above: there’s no sense in throwing competitors in at the deep end when they step up from three-star, and over the last number of years, we’ve seen eventing split into two increasingly disparate pathways. Not every horse will be a Badminton or Burghley horse; some horses are exceptional at the four-star level, and are ideal Championship horses or CCI4*-S specialists, while others come into their own when their deep well of jump and gallop can allow them to overtake those horses who score better on the flat. An event that may be a stepping stone for one horse-and-rider pair may well be an ultimate goal for another, and that’s commendable. With years at the upper levels of the sport comes wisdom; with that wisdom comes an innate ability to understand what each horse’s pathway should look like, and the knowledge to understand where to go to make that happen safely and successfully.
I suspect, however, that we are often too quick to make assumptions that what we ‘all’ know to be true — that Bramham’s CCI4*-L, for example, is about as tough as the level gets, while a trip around Blenheim is a considerably different run — are universally understood. And yes, I believe that riders and their support teams need to take responsibility for making a sensible plan for the season, particularly if the end goal is a move-up, and if they don’t have the available experience to hand, they should seek it out. But I also believe that there are concrete ways to help build that level of intel, removing some of the onus on any one person to make the right call and instead, creating a series of foundational steps that riders have to navigate in order to adequately prepare themselves for their next big challenge.
The issue, to my mind, lies in the current system of minimum eligibility requirements, or MERs. There’s an enormous difference between being qualified and actually being ready to move up, but ours is a fast-paced, tough world, and with a number of external pressures on their shoulders, riders — particularly those building fledgling careers — can often be hurried into stepping up. That may be because they want to attract further sponsors, or chase ranking points, or keep an owner happy; it may be because they see their peers moving up and worry they’ll be left behind; it may simply come down to the fact that as horse people, we’re all achingly aware of how difficult it is to produce a horse to the top level and that anything can happen. When you have a horse in the stable who’s fit, sound, and qualified to run at five-star, it’s hard not to consider the fact that all these fairy-dust factors may never come together again. The horse could come in from the field lame next week and never run again. Why not take the chance when it comes along, even if those qualifying results were picked up at four-stars on the softer end of the spectrum?
By changing the qualification system, just slightly, I suspect we’d remove a lot of that pressure, that risky ‘what-if’ that can steer a rider into a decision that isn’t quite right for them at the time. As I’ve said before, when analysing Badminton in retrospect, we’ll never remove the subjectivity from our sport entirely — whether that comes down to judging or entry decisions — but minimising subjectivity wherever possible will, I believe, make an impact on safety.
At the moment, qualifying for CCI5*-L as an uncategorised, D, or C athlete — that is, a rider who has fewer than fifteen MERs at CCI4*-S and above, or fewer than five MERs at five-star — requires you to gain MERs as a horse-and-rider combination at two CCI4*-Ls and three CCI4*-S competitions. For B athletes, who do have fifteen MERs or more at CCI4*-S and above, or five or more MERs at five-star, that number is reduced to one CCI4*-L MER and three CCI4*-S MERs as a combination. For A grade athletes, who are enormously experienced and, as such, have years of ingrained intel about the progression of various events on the circuit, the requirements are fewer still.
I don’t think adding MER requirements is the answer; two long-formats and three short-formats, when used sensibly, can be sufficient, and there’s a fine line to negotiate between ensuring preparedness and overrunning a horse. To my mind, the most functional solution is in categorising the existing four-star competitions depending on their degree of difficulty — Pippa Roome, in her piece, suggests ‘four-star plus’ and four-star minus’; I’ve previously posited the idea of ‘four-star A’ and ‘four-star B’. At the end of the day, the nomenclature doesn’t matter much; what does matter is that by splitting them into one camp or the other, and ascribing them a relative degree of worth where qualifying results are concerned, you can help push riders to shape their season in a more sensible way.
By rewriting the rules to demand that at least one of those two CCI4*-L MERs has been achieved at an ‘A’ or ‘plus’ event, and two of the short formats likewise, it would not only ensure that inexperienced horses and riders had tackled a top-end track competently before stepping up, but it would also ensure that events themselves maintain a level of stasis. How often have we, as riders, trainers, or members of the media, travelled to a typically ‘soft’ event to discover that this time, it’s had a serious facelift and isn’t at all what we’d expected to find? I know of at least one friend who has carefully planned a four-star move-up for an exciting young horse this year and then had this exact scenario occur after a great deal of expense and effort to get there. The course, while absolutely suitable for the level, wasn’t the softer move-up course that it typically has been, and as such, wasn’t at all suitable for a novice at the level. Had it been subject to further classification, this situation could have been avoided, minimising pressure on the rider to run the horse over a track that it wasn’t yet ready for.
As Pippa sagely points out, categorising the events won’t necessarily be a straightforward task, and would likely require a spirited roundtable discussion — or many — to ensure the job is done well. Perhaps part of that job will be creating a database of course descriptors; many of us may know, for example, that Hartpury CCI4*-S is a good pipe-opener ahead of Burghley, and Little Downham CCI4*-S is built with twists and combinations that emulate Pau CCI5* a couple of weeks later, but should we rely on the idea of common knowledge to ensure that information is well disseminated?
When we consider the alternative — and the alternative in our high-risk sport is tough, but important, to consider — I suspect it’ll be well worth a bit of extra admin. In tandem with some of the enormous safety initiatives being undertaken elsewhere in the sport, such as EquiRatings’ innovative green-light system, I truly believe we could create a safer trajectory up the uppermost levels for competitors. We have access to data in a way we’ve never had it before, with systems available that quantify difficulty based on factors such as the relative calibre and experience of the entries, and we also have access to significant anecdotal experience, with long-time riders and trainers such as Andrew Nicholson ready and willing to provide their thoughts and ideas about courses that have long served as suitable prep runs. The answer, to me, lies in bringing all of this intel together, quantifying experience with numbers and adding context to numbers by bringing horsemen into the equation.
Do safety concerns begin and end at four- and five-star? Absolutely not. But shelving whataboutery, and focusing on making tangible changes in the places where they can be enacted quickly and nondisruptively, is the way forward.
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