Know Your Competition? (Or Not?)

Butch Cassidy and The Sundance Kid are running from a posse. Butch yells, “I couldn`t do that. Could you do that? Why can they do it? Who are these guys?

So let`s say you are an aspiring American event rider who maybe has, maybe hasn`t just made the USET Winter Training list. And you want to know what it takes to make it in “The Bigs”, as they say in baseball. Well, good news, troops, because there are two riders who kicked (almost) everybody`s butt in London this summer, and I haven`t read one single word about how they got where they got. How they came along as younger riders, who trained them, where they found their horses, what they look for in a horse, what their conditioning and training procedures are, NOT A WORD.

I`m obviously talking about silver medalist Sara Olgotsson Ostholt, riding Wega, and bronze medalist Sandra Auffarth, riding Opgun Louvo. Sara is from Sweden, married to a German, and Sandra is German. They were born in 1974 and 1986. Their horses are a fairly small percentage thoroughbred and a fairly large percentage Warmblood.

It`s interesting to me that, as far as I know, nobody in America has interviewed them, invited them to the USA to teach a clinic, “picked their brains” to derive insights about, as Butch Cassidy wanted to know, “Why can they do it?”

So if I were an enterprising American eventer, I`d try to be the first to find out more. What do these women know that I don`t know about horse training, horse selection, horse conditioning, all of the pieces of the big puzzle that allowed them to prevail where American riders failed to prevail?

I would pull up the pedigrees of Opgun Louvo and Wega on All Breed Database, and I would study them. I want to know what ACTUALLY works, not what my hunch tells me should theoretically work. I`d be interested to see that Wega, who lost the gold medal by the slightest whisker, is a homebred, and that her dam, La Fair, completed the same Olympics with Sara`s sister, Linda Algotsson. That family is onto something—aren`t you curious what that is?

There`s an old saying, “know your competition”, and to date, I don`t think American eventers have sufficiently considered what this means. So here`s a Christmas/New Years tip, fellow Americans. Go find out.

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US EVENTERS—No Despair, Recalibrate Your Goals—- Be Rolex Bound

I haven`t commented much since our USET squad didn`t get it done in London, but I`ve been trying to think of what to say to the very good aspiring riders in eventing who might be thinking that the USET is too big a mountain to climb. Too many mountains, maybe. Million dollar horses, strings of horses, trips to Europe, so much that`s so daunting and so out of reach for good riders without those elusive “owners”.

So forget all that. Stop making yourselves crazy with impossible dreams and start dreaming an impossible dream that actually can come true for the best of you. That possible impossible dream is called Rolex.

There are, what, 25,000 of you out there who event at some level in North America, from pre minnow/guppy/trot rail/ all the way to Four Star? And how many of you ride around Rolex on a very good year for North American riders, maybe 50, which is really pushing it. So 50 out of 25,000 is one out of 500, or 1/5th of 1%. Math whiz I`m not, but a very tiny minority, right?

So don`t think you have to be a USET Star (Or a Canadian Team Star) to be a Superstar, but you DO have to be good enough to go to Rolex, that`s the bad news. But the good news vastly outweighs the bad news. Here are some of the things you DO NOT have to have or be to get to Rolex:

You don`t have to be born rich. You don`t have to have some mega rich sponsor. You don`t have to travel outside of the USA, except maybe to Canada, which is like the USA in every respect except that they speak French, say “Eh” (In English), and fight at hockey games. You don`t have to spend a gazillion dollars for a Mr. Medicott or an Otis Barbotiere, or a Land Vision, or a Biosthetique Sam. You don`t have to ride like William, or Mark or Michael, or Mary or even like a German. You don`t need to travel from the east coast on an airplane to ride in Montana. You don`t need a string of fabulous horses.

Here`s what you DO need. Talent. At least some talent, not maybe Mary King talent, and you don`t have to be Bill Steinkraus/Kathy Kusner reincarnated over the jumps, Mike Plumb/Bruce Davidson on cross country, or Reiner Klimke in dressage. But you can`t be hopeless!! You don`t have to win dressage, but they shouldn`t actually, you know, laugh at you. And you can have a rail or two (or three), on a bad day.

You DO need fierce resolve. Why are there so many African American boxers, Hispanic jockeys, kids from the “wrong side of the tracks” at the top of so many sports? They are HUNGRY, that`s why. You need to be that fierce and hungry, too.

You DO need a tough, brave, sound good jumper, but he/she can be a $5,000. off the track thoroughbred, or the product of a good North American breeder who raises great babies in her “back yard” so to speak. Those horses are out there, and you need to start hunting. You absolutely need MILEAGE, but it can be North American mileage, or even  local mileage, not overseas mileage, despite what you hear. (“To ride your best, it is necessary to move to Europe, and test yourself against the highest possible standard.” ) The hell with that BS. It`s too expensive, and you can get it done right here at home. BUT—-You DO have to ride lots of horses, (but they can be just ok horses), you DO have to be a tough, fit, buffed athlete, you DO have to not `effin bounce at the sitting trot, you DO have to be gutsy, you DO have to see some semblance of a distance to a fence, and you DO have to have already struggled your way through preliminary, at least, and maybe also have some mileage at the intermediate level.

Then start grinding your way toward going advanced. You can do this, many of you. I know this. I watch you. You DO HAVE WHAT IT TAKES, but you have to start believing that you do.

I am convinced that the riders who will put the USA (and Canada)  back on the podium, most of them, are kids from 18-30, not yet in the league where they hope to be, but hungry and driven enough to start thinking that Rolex might be in their gun- sights, maybe not now, but out there waiting. And on North American horses, trained in North America. THEN—-Once you can nail down Rolex, and only then, should you start thinking USET. Make a priority list that ends with galloping through the finish flags at Rolex. This can then be a glorious ending, or a starting point. Either way, go there first.


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Cowboys In Tights

In the summer of 1998, Peter Gray and I were standing in the big Bromont, Quebec show jumping arena, and Peter was telling me about his plans as Canadian Eventing Chef D`Equipe to take a squad of riders to the upcoming World Equestrian Games, to be held later that year in Italy.

In those days the New Zealanders seemed to be winning everything in sight, and the topic turned to the question of how a tiny and geographically remote country like New Zealand could be so internationally dominant.

Later that summer our discussion proved prophetic, as the New Zealand 3-Day Team absolutely owned those Italian  Games. They won Team gold. Blyth Tait won individual gold on Ready Teddy, Mark Todd won silver on Broadcast News, Vaughan was 4th on Bounce, and Andrew Nicholson was 5th on New York.

A couple of weeks after the Games were over, and all the various countries had journeyed home, I got a letter from Peter. I wish I`d not misplaced that letter, because Peter`s own words are more eloquent than my memory of them, but several phrases have remained stuck in my memory for 14 years. Peter said that he`d thought about our conversation at Bromont over the couple of weeks in Italy leading to the Games, where  he`d had the chance to closely observe the New Zealanders in their training sessions, and, of course, as they slaughtered all opposition at the actual competition.

Peter said that “the New Zealanders are basically cowboys at heart, very comfortable galloping at high speeds on bad terrain, but cowboys who`d gone on to embrace upper level dressage and show jumping.”

So there`s a winning 3-day formula if I`ve ever heard one. Cowboys with finely crafted technical skills.

One word from Peter`s letter that resonates as we approach the London Olympics is the word “embrace”, so very much stronger than “tolerate” or “learn.” And with dressage and show jumping even more critical in short format eventing than back in the long format days of 1998,  I suspect that we will see that the riders who will be standing on that podium in a few weeks will be dressage and show jumping technicians who love to gallop. Cowboys in tights! Cowboys with skills so finely crafted that there won`t be a single “chink in their armor” in any of the three phases. Or, more to the point of the analogy, cowboys with no runs in their breeches!

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