Apr 10, 2019

The Future of Eventing with Jim Wofford

By Jessica Duffy - USEA Staff
Michael Jung at the 2012 Olympics in London. Redbaystock.com Photo.

The SWOT analysis method is typically employed by businesses to identify Strengths, Weaknesses, Opportunities, and Threats related to business competition or project planning. In his presentation at the USEA office last month, three-time Olympic medalist Jim Wofford first examined the history of eventing before turning his attention to the future of the sport. He employed the SWOT analysis method to analyze the positive and negative factors facing the sport of eventing.

Strengths and Opportunities

Wofford started with an examination of the strengths and opportunities of the sport of eventing, primarily the fact that eventing is one of the increasingly rare chances for humans and animals to interact in a natural setting. “Author Alan Lightman makes the point that ‘we have marginalized our direct sensory experience’ – we’re in a cube, we’re staring at a screen,” Wofford observed. “That screen expanded our universe as humans, but it seems it might have shrunk our soul a bit.”

“When you are outside directly experiencing motion in the natural world and you feel yourself centered over the force of gravity, you feel a little bit better balanced in nature, you’re a little bit better balanced in life,” he continued. “I view that as a strength, and I view it as an opportunity also. More and more people are raised in an urban background – [I consider that] a threat and a weakness because we have fewer people that are ‘varminty.’”

The term ‘varminty’ refers to a person “who was born knowing how varmints think - knowing how the fox thinks, knowing how the horse and the foxhound thinks. They can think like a varmint.” This ability to understand how the animal thinks is something Wofford views as a strength, but one that is declining in prevalence. “I notice it in my teaching. I’ll say, ‘Didn’t you feel what your horse was thinking?’ and sometimes you’ll get a blank look because they hadn’t realized that their horse thinks about the world, and they perceive the world very differently than we do. We have to be able to look at the natural world through the eyes of an animal. This is an enlightening and energizing and wonderful thing.”

Cross-country sets the sport of eventing apart from other equestrian disciplines. USEA/Jessica Duffy Photo.

Wofford pointed out that eventing is unique among the equestrian disciplines in that it requires a varied skill set to be successful in all three phases. “Eventing requires a synthesis of skills and it intrigues people that [riders] must learn a wide set of skills in order to participate successfully,” he observed. Spectators are perhaps more attracted to the sport of eventing than the other equestrian disciplines because of this, and with the 2028 Olympic Games being held in Los Angeles, an exciting opportunity is available for eventing to increase its visibility in the U.S.

Wofford recalled that, following the success of the U.S. Team at the 1984 Games, there was a lack of follow-up from the AHSA (now USEF) or USCTA (now USEA). “I would like to hope that we are better prepared for that the next time around,” Wofford stated. There was a surplus of funds following the 1984 games and eventing was allocated some of those funds, but there was a lack of action to utilize those funds to the best of their advantage. Wofford expressed the hope that, should that happen again, the USEF will be better prepared to make good use of the money to further the sport.

Weaknesses

The weaknesses of eventing in the United States, specifically in comparison with Europe, are related in part to the sheer size of the country and how that dilutes the concentration of top riders. “In Europe, they compete in a smaller area – there is a concentration of talent . . . they continually compete with each other. Here, we split the divisions up, so you’re fifth out of 17 [instead of fifth out of 60.]” Due to the large distances involved, our top riders do not always compete against the best of the best, meaning they are less challenged to win than riders in Europe.

Together, Lynn Symansky and Donner have appeared in competition on U.S. Eventing Teams since 2011, including the Pan American Games, two World Equestrian Games, and two FEI Eventing Nations Cups. USEA/Jessica Duffy Photo.

Another issue Wofford pointed out is our retention and repetition rate for horses on senior teams. While horses like Ingrid Klimke’s SAP Hale Bob OLD and Michael Jung’s La Biosthetique Sam FBW return to teams multiple times over, we see less of that in the United States. “How well are we training our horses? Not well enough,” Wofford commented. “Why is our retention and repetition rate so low? Horses are not staying sound. Those are training practices. Once is an accident, twice is a habit. That’s a little brutal, but it’s also statistically provable.”

Threats

From his discussion of strengths, opportunities, and weaknesses, Wofford then turned to an examination of the threats that eventing faces. “One of the most obvious threats is loss of land,” he stated. “The developers have this irresistible impulse to bulldoze everything in sight and pave it. Our sport is based in the natural environment and we are destroying our environment at a rapid clip.” To fight this, Wofford urged for a renewed coordination with the Equestrian Land Conservancy and other similar local organizations. “We have to support them because they support us.”

The cross-country course at the Virginia Horse Center in Lexington, Virginia. USEA/Jessica Duffy Photo.

“Another threat that has receded but has not gone away is the threat of the Humane Society of the United States (HSUS) and People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA). We are in their cross-hairs, not specifically because of what we do, but because their political beliefs are that humans should not interact with animals,” Wofford said. While Wofford explained that the HSUS and PETA operate very differently, their views and goals are very similar and both organizations are working hard at the regional level to change laws regarding animal rights. “They will make [eventing] illegal if they’re allowed to.”

Wofford concluded his comments by stating that, while the USEA is an educational institution and not a regulatory body, we need to be involved when it comes to guiding the future of the sport of eventing. “The USEF has the regulatory role. While we don’t enforce them, we should definitely have a voice at the table.” By making good use of our strengths and opportunities and working to mitigate our threats and weaknesses, eventing will continue to grow for generations to come as a sport that celebrates our partnership with the strength, agility, and heart of the horse.

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