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David Taylor’s Journey to Become USEF Course Designer

by David Taylor, USEF ‘R’ Eventing Cross-Country Course Designer | Oct 3, 2022, 3:00 PM EST

As I sit here in Ocala, Fla., in late summer, looking back on the most recent cross-country tracks that I’ve had the honor to design, I can’t help but reflect on my journey to this point. I have traveled thousands of miles across the country, spending hundreds of hours being a bona fide part of the great sport of eventing as a USEF Licensed Official. I’ve met countless organizers, facility/farm support staff, volunteers, course builders as well as riders and their faithful equines. It is a journey I have zero regrets undertaking.

David Taylor at the Virginia Horse Trials
David Taylor at the Virginia Horse Trials

But the question is: How did I get here?

In the spring of 2016, I was doing what all eventing enthusiasts were doing, following the goings-on at one of the big spring events. When tragedy struck, it seemed most people turned to social media to vent their theories and frustrations. I took this moment to become involved and after a quick call to the CEO of the USEA, Rob Burk, I was placed on the USEA Safety Committee.

A few months later, I felt I could have an even larger impact on the sport as a whole. In January of 2017, I read an article published in Eventing USA magazine that focused on becoming a USEF-licensed cross-country course designer. To say it resonated with me is an understatement. Cross-country, to me, makes sense. The way a course is designed, how it rides, the flow, and how jumps and turns are used to affect each and every footfall just clicks for me. I wanted to learn more. With little to no hesitation, I signed the appropriate forms and submitted myself to the ride of a lifetime.

Later that spring in Aiken, S.C., I joined several others with similar goals of becoming USEF Licensed Officials. Some wanted to become eventing judges, others wanted to become technical delegates, and the rest, cross-country course designers. As a large group, we were instructed by some of the very best licensed officials in the sport of eventing for three days. At the end of the training session, I was granted my Certified Cross-Country Course Designer license, allowing me to design through training level eventing, and a hand shake from each instructor wishing me the best of luck on my path.

The Path I Chose

It seems to me that most of my fellow certified course designers were fine being just that and I support them in their decision to do so. But for me, this was just the beginning of my path and not the destination. My path, partly due to my innate sense of being a social butterfly, led me a few hours away where I was welcomed into the Mentorship Program at the Virginia Horse Trials in Lexington, Va. Under the guidance of Andy Bowles, Organizer and FEI Eventing Technical Delegate/Course Designer, and John Michael Durr, USEF and FEI Eventing Course Designer, I was given an amazing opportunity to challenge myself as well as grow and learn.

This unique opportunity led to other skills that I developed, most likely again by talking too much, hanging around the right people, and creating friendships out of thin air with most people I met. After just one year of gaining as much experience as possible being a certified course xesigner, I decided my path would take me to Parker, Colo., home of the Colorado Horse Park, the 2018 American Eventing Championships, and the site for promotion testing for rising USEF Licensed Officials. The promotion testing lasted two days all the while surviving my first time in high desert heat and altitude as well as dodging thunderstorms and blazing sun. The examiners, much like the training session in Aiken, were the best of the best USEF Eventing Licensed Officials and pushed the rising candidates to be our best, demonstrate the things we’ve learned, as well as understand where it would be useful for us to grow more. It was as much a learning opportunity as it was an examination.

I remember going into my final meeting with the examiners, confident in myself as the course designer I had become, but anxious all the same at the outcome. The question they asked first was, “How do you feel you’ve done this weekend?” Which I believe is code for “You’ve done well, but do you know where you can do better?” Fortunately, I passed my promotion testing and at the beginning of 2019 was granted my USEF “r” Eventing Cross-Country Course Designer license.

What I’ve Learned Along My Path

My path as a USEF course designer has shown me parts of this country I would never have had a reason to go to before. I have traveled to Littleton, Colo.; Plymouth, Wisc.; Cedar Rapids, Iowa; Aiken, S.C.; and Ocala, Fla. I have also been to venues in my own area I had yet to visit. Each and every show is a unique and different experience with its own set of challenges that, as a happy byproduct, continue to teach me new things and build on my skill set.

I have learned that one of the paramount tools for USEF Licensed Officials is teamwork. Some of the best friends I have in the sport of eventing have come to fruition out of just that. For instance, my good friend Leslie Threlkeld, a USEF Eventing Technical Delegate, and I started our journey in Aiken, S.C., at the same time in 2017. We worked together as a team in Aiken, challenging ourselves to be better. We then continued pushing ourselves as we went through the process to get to testing. Both Leslie and I again tested together in Parker, Colo., and yet again worked as a team, pushing each other to be the best each of us knew the other could be. Since then, we have worked together on several occasions at recognized competitions, always working as a team.

Photo courtesy David Taylor

I have also learned that you are never done learning. That simple question the examiners asked me of, “How do you feel you’ve done this weekend?” is so much deeper than it first appears. As USEF Licensed Officials, it is our goal to create a level playing field, keep both horse and rider safe, and help a venue host a fair and adequate competition. After each weekend I've had the privilege of being the USEF Licensed Course Designer, I ask myself that same question.

I think we are our own biggest critics, and the most pressure is put on by ourselves. I know for one, I am far more nervous on cross-country day when I am the designer rather than when I am riding. When I’m riding, all I need to worry about is myself and my horse. As the designer, I have several hundred riders and horses to think about, all of which now become my responsibility. I try to learn from every horse and rider that sets foot on course that day. I then apply that new knowledge to the next event.

Where Does the Path Lead?

In late 2021 I tested for, passed, and subsequently earned my USEF “R” Eventing Cross-Country Course Designer license. Looking back to seven years ago, I’m not sure I knew where this path would take me. I questioned if I would be good enough, or if this was just an educational experience that would make me a better rider/trainer. I knew I wanted to have more influence on our sport, and likely it wouldn't come from being on the U.S. Team. It was my goal to put into eventing what eventing was giving to me. But I am proud of how far I've come and excited for where I'm headed.

I’m sure this path I’m on will continue to take me places I've never been. I'm certain I’ll continue to meet new people and encounter new experiences. I know that I will always rely on the team and give back to those on the path behind me. Who knows where I am headed next, but I’m beyond happy to be a USEF Licensed Official and I’m more than game for the challenges and learning experiences ahead on this path.