A week ago today, I received a message that made my heart sink.
After months, if not years, of preparation, I was told that my entry to the long format Training Three Day event was actually rejected. It was only a matter of hours before the jogs, and with that simple message, my singular goal of 2019 was crushed.
Now, to be clear, I knew this could happen. I had spent 2017 preparing for the T3D only to have a similar thing happen. Because in 2017, you needed 4 MER’s (Minimum Eligibility’s) to qualify for the T3D. This included a dressage test with a score lower than 50, a stadium test with no more than 16 penalties, and a XC test with no stop. And in 2017, I ended the year with 3 MERs, and a stupid stop on XC.
I was devasted.
I spent 2018 injured, and hit 2019 ready to regroup. I ran around a bog at Midsouth Horse Trials in June to my 4th MER and thought “Yes, finally. I am in.” With that 4th MER, I also realized I was qualified for the move up to preliminary level, but knew that with an upcoming wedding and a less than ready brain, I would plan to stick to the training level. I wanted another few MERs before I made that jump, and knew that a goal of a T3D was the perfect plan to route that move up.
I wanted to be ready. I wanted to be prepared. I wanted to be safe.
But with AEC’s taking place in exchange for Kentucky Classique, and a bank account that limited my ability to travel, I had limited time to get ready for that T3D.
So I ran around another clean in September with a tough course at Flying Cross HT, my 5th MER. And I left that event thinking that I finally felt totally prepared. My demons were gone, my riding was there, and I felt like training level was a breeze. I had been competing at this level on this horse since 2015. We now had 5 MER’s. And I suddenly felt like preliminary was within reach, albeit with a long arm.
My trainer and I discussed my plan to that ultimate level. It made sense to run around the T3D in October, and then maybe follow this with the elusive Modified in Virginia if I could afford it. This would end my 2019 on a brave note, with a preliminary move up in 2020 if all went to plan.
Flash forward a few weeks, and I found out that the rules had changed. According to April 2019, you now needed 3 MERs and 1 MER with a 20….within the last 24 months. I had 2 MERs within 24 months, an additional at 25 months, and a 4th at 27. And although my entry had initially been accepted, ride times had been given, PTO time taken off, and steeplechase lessons been taken, my goal was vanished.
I won’t go into the intricate details of my emails, phone calls, and visits with both USEF and USEA to clarify the rules that were written in 3 different ways on 3 different websites. And I won’t go into the tears and heart break that this brought me.
Because what I want to focus on is the safety.
Immediately after I was told that my entry was not accepted for the T3D, the show secretary graciously reached out to me and offered to get me into the regular horse trial. She didn’t want my weekend to be a bust, and knew how little I had the time and money to compete.
And then she asked me: Did I want to go training? Or did I want to run around preliminary?
And my eyes grew wide. My mouth grew tense. And my fingers clenched.
Because we as a sport claim that we are getting safer. That our rules are there to protect the horses and riders. The research is being done to improve the fences and the safety equipment. And the data is going into improving all of the above.
We claim to change the sport to better it. And yet in this very moment, I was being told that the rules had failed. I was told that I could not enter an event at the very level that I had been competently competing at for almost 5 years, but that I was deemed “safe” by USEA/USEF standards to jump 4″ higher.
I walked the course of the regular training, and noticed that the open training course was 95% the same as the T3D – a course that I knew I was fully capably of tackling. And I looked left and right, focusing on the green numbers to see if I felt any differently. To see if I felt braver. If I felt ready. And I knew that I was not.
Had I been braver, or maybe stupider, I could have said yes. I could have ran out of the preliminary start box with my middle finger up and a war cry. I could have kicked around the first 10 fences and pulled up when I felt inadequate. Or I could have kept kicking and eventually fallen. Eventually hit the ground. Eventually got hurt. Or even died.
Because with the invention of social media, the risk is always present. I read of the three deaths within the last few months and gasped. I watched as my friends and my fellow riders shattered pelvises and spines. I stared as the Facebook statuses of another horse rotating over a non collapsible fence were published. And I watched us send prayers, well-meant messages, and even dollars by GoFundMe’s.
And each time, I felt sick. Unsure of why I even did this sport. Unsure of if I was willing to take the risk.
I refused to be pressured into something that I deemed MYSELF unready for. I refused to be another statistic to the masses of people who deem us both insane and unethical. I refuse to be the reason that the comment section on Eventing Nation lit up for the millionth time after a rider fall. Where the haters screamed that we were inhumane, while we responded that we did what we loved. What the horses loved.
That we try to do what’s best for our animals and our students, while USEA, USEF, and FEI create the rules to hold us accountable to those measures.
Only this time they didn’t.
This time, the rules changed in a way that made no sense.
And I have to wonder why? Why are we limiting access to those long format events that we declare are so essential to the education of our young competitors who never got to experience them. People like me who studied day in and day out to learn about the vet box, to learn about the phases of Roads and Tracks. The people who asked their trainer for a lesson on properly jogging a horse, and brought out their old rusty watch to relearn minute markers.
We used to claim that the T3D was the perfect move up for preliminary because you encountered a maxed XC course, a difficult dressage test, and a championship stadium course. It was a way to learn of our history while preparing for our future, and in doing so, we broadened our continuing education of the sport we loved so much.
But while I was deemed ready for that move up to preliminary, in the same sentence I was told that I was not deemed worthy of the T3D. The fact that this message was sent the day of jogs was just the icing on the cake.
Yes, our governing bodies screwed up. Maybe my entry should have never been accepted in the first place (it was). Maybe my rule book should have been updated in May 2019 instead of January 2019 (it was not). Maybe USEA should have deleted their website page from February 2019 where they had the qualifications described in a way with which I was qualified (they had not). And maybe USEF should have responded to my emails sent 5 weeks ago for clarification (they did not).
Maybe I should have never entered an event at a level I felt 100% capable of completing and instead took the risk and competed at the next level that I was not ready for.
Or maybe I should just stop entering at all.
I want to continue to love eventing. I want to continue to defend eventing. I want to be able to scream to the naysayers that we are doing whats best for our horses, and whats best for our riders.
So I propose a few things.
- The rules need to make sense. The rules need to allow our members to do events that they are capable of while still increasing entries and membership retainment. Let our members experience these long format events that we keep saying are so far lost. Let the requirements to get into them be minimal if the courses are not going to be harder. Let the education increase.
- The rules need to only change for one reason: safety. You should not be able to qualify to move a level up and not be allowed to compete at the same height that you have been at for years. This was truly the aspect of this weekend that frustrated me the most. It made absolutely no sense. And it was dangerous.
- Additionally, they need to go into action on January 1st of that calendar year and stay the same for the following 12 months. We have seen this happen with bits, we have seen this happen with faults. If we are to decide on new rules, than they need to be simple to find, simple to follow, and simple to enact.
I am so saddened that my educational opportunity got taken away from me. But I know that I still left that start box on Saturday prepared. I still left that start box safe. And I still crossed the finish flags with a huge smile on my face.
But maybe I’m more saddened because I can no longer trust my governing bodies as the ones with their heads screwed on straight, I can only trust myself. I myself made the safe decision. I myself decided that I was unready to move up. I myself kept my wits about me throughout the drama.
I am also sad because I can no longer say that one day I will do a T3D, because now my goals have circumvented it. There are so few offered every year as it is, and they are not inexpensive to be entered in. By the time the next one that I can afford rolls around, I will have hopefully already moved up to modified and then possibly preliminary. But this will happen when I am fully ready. When I deem myself safe.
A goal that was one of mine for 3 years now is gone, an educational opportunity lost. But in its place, I received an education into the ropes, hoops, political BS, and inadequacy of the very people we trust to govern us. That needs to change. Conversations need to be had. And rules need to be in place to keep us safe.
Only then will this sport be one worth fighting for. Worth competing in. Worth loving. I want to love it, and I know you do too.