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Jim Gornall's Reminiscence on Eventing in America

by James “Jim” C. Gornall | Apr 24, 2023, 8:00 AM

Caveat: The writing that follows may not be exactly historically accurate. These are recollections from a long time ago when I was a young man just beginning my lifelong involvement with the sport of eventing. Since I am neither a scholarly researcher nor a trained journalist, everything I write is limited by my personal experience which, as we all know, is only a small slice of what might have been going on elsewhere and by all the usual frailties of human memory.

I rode in my first event at the Norfolk Hunt Combined Training Show in Medfield, Mass., in 1963. This was pretty early in the period when eventing was transitioning from its military roots to a civilian sport.

The USCTA had just been founded four years earlier in 1959. Throughout the 1950s, the USET had sponsored three-day championships. These long-format events with roads and tracks and steeplechase phases were scattered around the country and used to select riders and horses to represent the United States at international competitions. However, it was apparent that for the sport to grow in popularity (there was considerable disagreement as to whether popularity was desirable), a format would have to evolve that required less space, fewer personnel, and less start-up money. And so, horse trials were created with the intention to preserve the core challenge of the three tests in a more expedited situation.

Here in Area 1, the shows initially developed at venues which already had histories of fox hunting and horse showing—places like Geneseo, Myopia, and Norfolk. Horse shows in this era had hunter divisions which were held on outside courses. These courses were built in fields with turf footing and obstacles such as stonewalls, split rail fences, brush and Aiken jumps, and quite often a bank up or down. The foxhunters were accustomed to coops, big logs, telephone poles, and natural ditches, so experienced riders from either discipline were somewhat prepared for cross-country riding.

Most of us who crossed over to the new sport of eventing did so for a few common reasons: we were enamored with its military history and international flair as an Olympic contest. Some were looking for an equestrian activity that was measured mostly on objective performance rather than the subjectivity of horse show judging and, honestly, its newness appealed to those with adventurous and non-conformist natures.

Besides the show and hunt worlds, the rider ranks of local events were joined by Pony Clubbers (all Pony Club mounted functions were eventing-oriented back then), an occasional Olympian (Mike Plumb was frequently about), and a group of mostly self-taught individuals who got hooked on the sport by attending a clinic. Such clinics were few and far between. The Green Mountain Horse Association in South Woodstock, Vt., strongly promoted the sport by hosting educational gatherings every summer, but there just weren’t very many experienced and knowledgeable people anywhere in the country. And to make things more difficult, the amateur rules prohibited the small cadre of international riders from getting paid for their equestrian work.

Officiation at the shows was, shall we kindly say, more relaxed; there were no licensed course designers or event judges like now, and the ground jury typically was composed only of dressage judges whose knowledge of the jumping phases was limited. Consequently, the TD was often THE AUTHORITY on the grounds, sometimes doing a good bit of course design work and closely overseeing (i.e. sitting with the ground jury) the show jump judging along with the usual duties. Problems in the conduct of the shows were more common then. Dressage rings might be incorrectly built, jump courses poorly designed or mis-measured, timing devices failing, riders angry and confused by unworkable scheduling, etc. The numerous iterations of the ever-expanding Rule Book are really a record of problems that occurred and how, through trial and error, solutions were found.

We were all on steep learning curves trying to learn a fairly complex set of rules, figure out the mathematical intricacies of the metric system, and cope with the mysteries of dressage. (Dressage was the nemesis we all struggled with. It just didn’t seem very natural or fun. But that’s another story!) In the end, the dearth of readily available expertise made the journey to acquire knowledge difficult; this in turn demanded commitment and resourcefulness by all the players.

It was a proper empirical learning process with plenty of hard work and disappointments, which prepared the most determined for future roles as organizers, officials, and coaches. This was critical because the ex-calvary Army officers, like General Jack Burton, Colonels Paul Wimert and Don Thackery, who were popular officials and counselors would be retiring in the coming years. A new generation would have to take up the reins and guide the sport as it entered a period of robust expansion and change.

Speaking of change, when Amber asked if I might be interested in writing a bit about my eventing odyssey, she also suggested I consider the question of where the sport is headed based upon my familiarity with its past. I’m not game to put in writing predictions about the future, but my thinking on the matter is shaped by some observations I have made.

First, there are powerful extrinsic forces, such as governmental, economic, and social, which can act to quickly and dramatically affect any sport. In most instances, we can do very little other than respond in the best way possible.

Secondly, there also are intrinsic forces which drive a sport’s progression; they are slower acting and more controllable. I think the four principal ones that impact eventing are professionalization, specialization, standardization, and regulation. For good or bad, my sense is that, left unchecked, the usual combined eventual outcome of these forces results in a much smaller number of participants who may be performing at a very high level; a process which could be termed elitism. Most of the current Olympic sports are on this path; it seems to be the way to win medals at international competitions.

Alternatively, small changes over time in the mix and nature of the four drivers can create a process that results in a larger number of participants who probably will be performing at a lower level. The important goal being to attract and retain more involvement from more people. In order to achieve this result, purposeful decisions have to be made and corrective actions taken. Otherwise, the path to elitism will prevail. Since I believe the highest and best purpose of all sport engagement is to enhance general society by providing a structure wherein good behaviors can be learned and bad behaviors unlearned, the more who participate the better!

My hope for national and local eventing is that its governance will always have strong and influential voices advocating for our favorite equestrian endeavor to be a fun, safe, affordable, and broadly popular sport.