Recently, two horses died at the four-star Bramham International Horse Trials on cross-country day and two riders were admitted to a hospital. Cross-country course designer Ian Stark talked with Eventing Nation at the conclusion of the event, discussing the design of the cross-country track and the bigger issues facing the sport of eventing.
The cross-country track at Bramham is notoriously difficult, a challenge for both horse and rider. Riding at the event is often an end unto itself but it is also used as a stepping stone for riders looking to move up to the five-star event level.
Reflecting on how the course rode, with three people falling off at one fence (which was ultimately removed), Stark opined that eventing competition needs standardization in order for horses and riders to progress up the levels safely.
Stark noted he must decide between dumbing down the jumping questions, ensuring all riders competing at the level are safe, or if he should expect that riders be competent at the level in which they are competing. The decision is not one he takes lightly; Stark is unsure whether he will continue course designing at the upper levels.
There is a difference between being qualified to ride in a specific division and being truly prepared to ride at that level, Stark noted. He suggested that a greater distinction and progression between competition levels is necessary. While riders can compete to garner qualifications to move up a level, Stark notes that the riders are not necessarily gaining an education while competing – they’re simply checking a box to move up to a more difficult level of competition.
To whom the onus of determining “qualification” belongs is still in question. Is it the rider’s responsibility to learn how to ride at that level? Or is it the course designer and show manager’s responsibility to design a track and show at which riders can perform well, but one which strays from the original point of eventing: riding out on open land, asking questions of horses that test their responsiveness to rider and athleticism?
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Stark has an illustrious career, in which he has asked a multitude of questions of riders competing on his courses. Thus far, the riders have continually risen to his challenges.
Introspective to the core, Stark noted that he must take the time to look at himself to decide whether continuing with the sport is in his best interest. His piece in Eventing Nation concludes powerfully:
“I feel vulnerable, and I think the sport’s vulnerable.”
Read more at Eventing Nation.