Jun 11, 2021

A Conversation with Erik Duvander

Erik Duvander with Dinero Z and Liz Halliday-Sharp. USEA/Leslie Mintz Photo

US Eventing Performance Director Erik Duvander has been working with High-Performance Athletes throughout the Olympic training and selection process. Duvander transitioned from a competitive rider into a coaching role after representing Sweden at the World Championship and Olympic level, and has coached teams and individual athletes to World Championship and Olympic medals. He has worked with the Japanese, Swedish, and New Zealand Equestrian Teams, including leading the New Zealand team to a fourth-place finish at the 2016 Olympic Games in Rio de Janeiro and a team bronze medal at the 2010 Alltech WEG.

Read what Erik recently had to say about the 2020 Olympic Team, High-Performance Preparations, and more!

Q: Discuss your preparation so far this year with the high-performance riders

A: Since we started in January I have been traveling around working individually with the riders. All of the listed riders have a slightly different program and different things they need to work with depending on their program, and how they want to utilize me. So that’s been an ongoing thing.

We analyze the competitions and consistently just work on trying to improve, so the competitions become a test to see where we’re at. It was the same thing for all the horses that went to Kentucky and then Jersey Fresh.

Q: How are you feeling about the depth of talent that was available for selectors this Olympic year?

A: I think the selectors had a bit of a job. Nothing was super obvious: quite a few riders have shown that they are capable to be competitive. For me as a coach, the big spring events show if there are any holes in our training program and where we need to do better. We still have a bit of time to make improvements. I don’t really work thinking about the selection process; I just try to make them all as good as possible and then let the selectors select. Whatever the thought process between me and the riders, it’s how to keep notching it forward.

I think we learned a lot from Kentucky: no one combination nailed the whole thing, we all have bits and pieces to work on. But we’re getting more into the details rather than fundamentally changing anything. The highlight is that everyone got to Kentucky and to Jersey Fresh healthy and well, and well-prepared. I think we are all quite happy with how we are preparing our horses, but there is always more to do.

Q: How does the vetting process work?

A: Basically after they ran at Jersey Fresh, the day after the event, the horses got a fairly basic check-over. Dr. Johns had been watching the horses through the whole event and had the big picture for all the horses. Some bounce back well after cross country, and some don’t. Some need fluids and then they perk up. It’s not a knock-out system, it’s about figuring out how we can help each horse feel the best they can.

Obviously, after Kentucky the horses were tired. They all looked good, but of course, they were all tired and didn’t look as good as they did at the beginning of the weekend, because they had just done a big event. They just do a little check over after each event. But then the proper vet evaluation comes later, both on the East and West coasts, with the team vet and an outside vet making sure everything is in the right place and it’s a fair system. After that, a decision was made on which horses were sound for selection.

Q: Tell me about the mandatory outing at Great Meadow and what happens next.

A: Great Meadow is just a preparation run. After the horses run there, we’ll have another look at all of them before they get on the flight, so we don’t put horses on the flight that isn’t 100%. Here in America, it’s like nothing I’ve ever worked with, there are checks and checks and checks. To me it is more fundamentally that the vet is consistently working with the horses and with their home veterinarians to make sure we are working with healthy, well horses.

Q: How are you feeling about Tokyo going forward?

A: I’ve done a lot of championships and this is probably the first time everything still feels a bit up in the air since everything has changed constantly through Covid. Normally we have all our travel plans and logistics in place a year out, but we only found out which flights we’ll be on a couple of weeks ago. We’re not going to quarantine here in America, but we’ll go to Aachen, Germany, and do the quarantine there, so we’ll pack up here and make sure everything is in order and then we’ll be in Aachen for nine days, then go through the process again. We have grooms, horses, veterinarians, and everybody. We think this is the final version, but it may not be; this is the flexibility we have had to work with because the Tokyo Olympics have been very tricky compared to other championships.

In Aachen, which is truly a world-class facility, they’ve laid out gallops on the cross country course which will give our horses an opportunity to have a canter. We’ll have access to the dressage arenas and grass the areas, we’re very well catered for when we’re there. We’ll be practicing the dressage tests in front of judges and Peter Wylde is coming over to help with the show jumping.

The show grounds are practically in town, and we’ll be at a hotel just a few minutes’ walk from the show grounds. Aachen is a lovely town, so we can go out and about a bit. We’ll get tested for Covid-19 before we ship out, so we’ll exercise caution, but we don’t have to stay totally in a bubble.

Q: So you are obviously going to need riders who are able to go with the flow, so to speak?

A: That is always the case, especially now when it’s only three riders. You need riders who are really resilient and can go along with things when the unplanned happens and so on. I think you obviously want the best performance, but you also want the type of person who has a proven record dealing with those kinds of scenarios.

Q: Can you speak to the strengths of the riders that have been selected?

A: Basically the top three riders are well deserving of their position. Phillip [Dutton] is going into his 7th Olympics and we haven’t seen the best of his horse Z yet. Phillip knows how to win medals and really is the backbone of our team. Boyd is our fiercest competitor at all times – he was the best American at Kentucky on his 3rd best horse, he’s a true warrior and someone I can count on. It’s no holding back with Boyd, we will just be trying to get every improvement with Luke, who is less experienced but a freakish talent. Liz Halliday-Sharp came over to the US from England with a depth of talent and smashed everyone to earn Rider of the Year, and her horse is a massive talent. Doug Payne’s Vandiver is a real campaigner, he’s really reliable. And even if Doug doesn’t get to run, his technical skills are invaluable so he’ll be a good wingman for me. You can swap out horses before or during the event, so if anything happens to another horse or rider he can sub in at the last minute.

Our alternates, Tamie Smith and Will Faudree, will both go to Aachen and be there with the team for the time there. Ultimately we’ll only ship four horses to Tokyo and the others will travel home.

Q: What specifically will you be working on with the team? What “holes” are you filling in with their training before Tokyo?

A: We’ll cover all areas for sure. The gallops in Aachen aren’t proper gallops, just room for a canter, so we’ll doing most of the galloping before we leave home. There’s also a short gallop in Tokyo that’s mainly for them to stretch their legs. Individually with each rider, we’re drilling down on the details in the dressage tests, and we’ve had a couple of cross-country schools. Because of the number of riders, and because I’m also going to Luhmuehlen, I’m focusing on the top six riders and their main horses. There aren’t enough hours in the day to cover the whole long list right now.

At the moment I’m at the airport and will be flying to NC to work with Doug and Will, and then I’ll fly to KY to work with Liz, then back to PA, then back to NC, then to Tamie in CA for a few days, so it just keeps rolling like that, foot to the board! That’s the difficulty with the USA, that all the top riders are spread out around the country.

Q: You’re also taking a trip to Luhmuehlen, how will that benefit our high-performance program overall?

A: The reason we have a focus on this event is that it is in preparation for the WEG next year. At the moment I think it’s just going to be Jennie Brannigan and Ariel Grald going over, and they are both top contenders. Boyd was going to compete there too, but he’s decided to stay home and focus on the Olympics. I don’t mind the extra travel to Germany before the trip over with the team; when I’m working I’m working, plus it's asparagus season over there, so it’s worth the trip! It’s also good for me to get out and see the competition as well, a lot of teams are using it as a final outing and I will have a chance to see what the opposition looks like.

Q: What is your plan after the Olympics? Will you visit your family in NZ?

A: I’ve got a flight booked after the Olympics, but of course then I have to spend two weeks quarantine, and then I will finally have ten days with the family. The quarantine isn’t so bad - there’s an exercise yard at the quarantine hotel that’s a bit like a prison yard, where everyone walks in circles in the same direction; I like to go the other direction for a bit, just to mess with them! But I’ll have been working pretty nonstop by then and will probably be content to have a glass of wine and a good rest.

Q: Any final thoughts?

A: Spirits are really high and everyone’s working away at improving. The horses are in good shape. Out of the 12 horses that were vetted, every horse passed with flying colors. That’s a testament to the whole team and the program: that’s never happened before, so that’s cool. It’s really worth pointing out that the program is going in the right direction if the horses are healthy and sound. It takes time to develop horses to this level – for example, a couple of the listed horses were at the WEG two years ago and were green then, but they have stayed consistent in their training and are strong contenders for next year’s WEG. Keeping them sound and healthy is really key to the success of our team.

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