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Wed, 2009-12-16 00:00

Letter from the President - Kevin Baumgardner ... The Next Fifty Years

Authored By: Kevin Baumgardner

The Next Fifty Years

Sometimes the simplest things are the most powerful.

Picture this:  nineteen enlarged photographs perched on nondescript easels scattered around the mezzanine of a hotel in suburban Virginia.  These black-and-white images seem of a different place and time amid the mid-morning bustle and hubbub of the USEA’s Golden Anniversary Convention—committee members dashing from meeting to meeting, old friends exchanging gossip, last night’s partygoers stumbling off in search of a second cup of coffee, trade fair merchants doing a brisk business.

You lean against a corner, hidden in plain sight in a quiet eddy out of the jostling mainstream of convention-goers, just taking in the scene.  And then you witness a most extraordinary thing.  Three young Eventers come bursting out of a just-completed seminar, their heads close together, joking and giggling in conspiratorial tones.  Nothing so unusual there.  But then, having nearly run down one of those nineteen easels, all three suddenly stop, fall silent and just stare for a full five beats before they walk on, sedate now, even respectful, as if leaving church.  You move over and take a look at what stopped them in their tracks:  a photograph of a dark bay horse launching exuberantly into space, his forelegs stretched impossibly straight out in front of him, his landing nowhere in sight, his rider fighting to stay in the backseat.  And you read two words:  “Plain Sailing.”

This vignette was repeated time and again in Reston, as convention-goers came face-to-face with the images of the nineteen equine and human legends who were inducted into the USEA Eventing Hall of Fame between its inception in 1999 and 2006.  Nothing so perfectly captures the raw power and emotion generated by the past 50 years of the USEA—the miracle that is Eventing in America—as these iconic photographs.  I hear distant trumpets each time I gaze at them, a pictorial roll call of the titans of our sport:  Alexander Mackay-Smith . . . Jack Burton . . . Torrance Watkins . . . Neil Ayer . . . The Grasshopper . . . Jim Wofford . . . Plain Sailing . . . Karen Stives . . . Bally Cor . . . Jack Fritz . . . Denny Emerson . . . Michael Page . . . Biko . . . Edward Harris . . . Kilkenny . . . Jenny Camp . . . Jack LeGoff . . . Richard Collins . . . Mike Plumb.

And now, after the magical evening of December 5, 2009, eight more of those haunting black-and-white photographs will grace future conventions:  Eileen Thomas . . . Good Mixture . . . Denis Glaccum . . . Custom Made . . . Irish Cap . . . Kevin Freeman . . . David O’Connor . . . Bruce Davidson.

On the occasion of our 50th anniversary, I urge every Eventer to stop, take a hard look at those photos, and ponder the monumental contributions made by the greats of our sport who have been enshrined in the Hall of Fame during the first half-century of our Association’s existence. (You can see the images at  Click on “Inside USEA” on the top line of the Home Page, and then click on “Hall of Fame.”)

To my mind, the accomplishments of our Hall of Famers represent a stark challenge to those who will be entrusted with guiding and nurturing the sport for the next half-century.  While I am excited and gratified by the tremendous advances that have taken place over the past decade on the “business” side of Eventing, I am firmly convinced that this sport can never, must never be reduced to just a series of arm’s-length mercantile transactions involving mere “vendors” and “customers,” “professionals” and “clients.”  I have developed much too keen an instinct for self-preservation to call out other sports or disciplines by name on this point.  Suffice it to say that our sport is different; it must always remain a calling, a passion, a unique cultural heritage that must be preserved at all costs.  And that cannot happen—our precious culture cannot survive and flourish—except through the selfless investment of time and energy by Eventers at all levels.

I am equally convinced that we are at a generational crossroads in the leadership of Eventing in this country.  Many of the towering figures who forged our sport in the latter part of the 20th Century through the investment of their own sweat and toil—Alec Mackay-Smith, Edward Harris, Neil Ayer, just to name three—are now gone; many others are in their 60s, 70s, 80s—or, in the case of two who were honored in Reston, Elkins Wetherill and Major General Jonathan R. Burton, are now 90 years old.  The same is true at the Area and local levels, where many of the greatest contributors to the sport are those who have been contributing the longest.

One of the major initiatives of the USEA Board of Governors this year has been the development of “Vision 2015,” a distillation of our strategic planning goals for the Association and the sport for the next five years.  Look for more on Vision 2015 over the next few months.  For now, you should know that perhaps the most important action item identified by the Board in Vision 2015 is the need to develop new avenues of volunteerism and leadership, and in particular “new and fresh perspectives.”

It is high time for a new generation of leaders, mainly those who are now in their 20s, 30s and early 40s, to emerge and serve the sport of Eventing as tirelessly—and at times as thanklessly—as the people who are depicted on those Hall of Fame photographs.  This will be a tall order, particularly in this frenetic 21st-Century world.  The intense specialization and dizzying pace of the sport faced by our professionals who actively train and compete—and the attendant cash-flow worries and other symptoms of modern times with which they are regularly beset—make it increasingly difficult for them to find large blocks of time to give back to the sport.  And adult-amateur competitors, who comprise the fastest-growing segment of our membership, often face huge personal challenges just to get to the Events, what with juggling finances, jobs (and sometimes second jobs!), family and other commitments.  Truth be told, virtually everyone involved in the modern sport of Eventing faces significant time-management and financial challenges.

Ironically, a further challenge to the emergence of strong new leadership is the very strength and stature of some of our current leaders.  A number of those who over the past several decades have repeatedly stepped up to the plate and helped grow this sport are now, quite naturally, installed in long-held positions of responsibility.  Through no fault of their own, they can sometimes seem to suck all the air out of the room.  All of us in the current leadership need to be cognizant of this phenomenon and make sure that we welcome, promote and support emerging leaders and new voices in the sport.

So there are challenges, but nothing that is worth doing is easy.  Let’s find out if our 21st-Century volunteer leaders will measure up to standards set by their predecessors.  Will they donate thousands of hours in dozens of capacities, like Jack Burton?  Will they combine the vision and drive of Neil Ayer with the tenacity of Eileen Thomas?  Will they kick open doors and create opportunities for youngsters, like Jack Fritz?   Will they conjure the poetry of our sport with the inspirational brilliance of Alec Mackay-Smith, Jim Wofford, Denny Emerson?  Most of all, will they do whatever is necessary to ensure that Eventing, the shimmering pinnacle of the equestrian world, glitters as much in 2059 as it did in 2009?

My optimism that the answer to those questions will be “yes” is fueled by my recent experience working with a number of our sport’s most promising new leaders.  Jon Holling, who is on the USEA Executive Committee as Vice President of Active Riders, is Chairman of the Professional Horseman’s Council, is on the USEA Nominating Committee, is a member of the USEF Eventing Technical Committee, and in his spare time is coach of the nascent Puerto Rican Eventing Team, is a case in point.  Jon is living proof that “being busy” is simply not a valid excuse for inaction.  He is one of those upper-level pros who has so many irons in the fire that he probably sometimes wishes he could be cloned.  Nonetheless, he makes the time to give back to the sport in a multitude of ways, and through sheer hard work and talent has emerged as one of the voices most respected by Eventers at all levels and from all backgrounds.

Robert Kellerhouse is another important new leader of our sport.  Robert, who organizes many of the largest events on the West Coast and is a member of both the USEA Board of Governors and the USEF Eventing Technical Committee, recently was named to the FEI’s Eventing Committee as well.  Needless to say, he will be busy.  Most critically for the future of the sport, Robert is a tireless innovator and out-of-the-box thinker who knows how to make good things happen.  I am very excited to have Robert on our Board in 2010.

Others to keep an eye on among the new generation of Eventing’s leaders include Gina Miles, Allison Springer, Matt Fine, Ursula Brush, Anni and Marc Grandia, Kaiti Saunders, Mary Schwentker, Nate Chambers, Sarah Kelly, Hannah Sue Burnett, John Their, Cathy Jones-Forsberg, Jennie Brannigan, Christina Gray, Max McManamy—the list goes on.  And there will be more.  The strongest leaders aren’t anointed; instead, they emerge through their own talent, vision and hard word.  And most of all, through their persistence.  If you are reading this and believe you belong among the sport’s future leaders, learn from someone who never went beginner novice, Woody Allen, but who accurately observed that “Eighty percent of success is just showing up.”  If you want to help shape the future of our sport, start showing up—as a volunteer at local Events, at the USEA annual conventions (next year in Scottsdale, Arizona, December 1-5), and most importantly, at your Area annual meetings.  The USEA Areas are where the rubber meets the road in the implementation of many of our organizations policies and programs—a role that has been highlighted this year through the outstanding leadership of our VP of Area Affairs, DC McBroom.  Contact DC or your Area Chairperson and offer to get involved at the Area level.  Make your voice heard.  Try to live up to the shining example set by those who have guided our sport since 1959.

 * * * *

But just for a moment, let’s set aside the challenges of the future and return to the golden evening of December 5, to that moment just after Jack Burton cut the USEA’s 50th Anniversary cake with the Wofford family’s cavalry saber and the lights dimmed for the Hall of Fame celebration.  Consider the legacy of the five human honorees:

No one who was in that ballroom more perfectly embodies the concept of a lifetime of service to the sport of Eventing than Denis Glaccum.  Nothing could be more fitting than the fact that Denis was inducted into the Hall of Fame on the same day he and his Plantation Field Event pledged a total of $1000 to the USEA Endowment Trust’s matching challenge to benefit the Equine Cardiovascular Study.  The pilot project of the Study had of course taken place at Plantation Field this fall.  Denis’s support and generosity was inspirational, as witnessed by the fact that convention-goers rose to the challenge and donated a total of nearly $15,000.  (As an aside, special thanks are due USEA Affiliate Eventing Association Coordinator Janet Gunn, who donated a whopping $5000 to the Study, as well as to incoming Endowment Trust Board member Dick Thompson, who contributed $2500.)  We need future leaders who are as tough, uncompromising and, yes, irascible as Denis can be—and who are willing, like him, to put their money where their mouth is.

Service to the sport has been the hallmark of Eileen Thomas’s career as well.  Her gracious British accent masks a formidable inner toughness.  This is someone who Got Things Done—and did so at a time when the sport was at its most vulnerable in this country.  When Eileen came across the pond to work with Neil Ayer, there were only a handful of horse trials in the United States.  Now there are over 230.  What’s more, Eileen championed many crucial horse welfare and safety advances.  She is truly one of the indispensable leaders who built our sport.  Every American Eventer owes Eileen a profound “thank you.”

It was great to see David O’Connor surrounded by family members—Sally, Brian and Karen—who have themselves given so much to our sport.  One of the many qualities I admire in David, and indeed in all of the O’Connor clan, is their work ethic.  As Jim Wolf noted in his witty and moving introduction, David did not become one of most celebrated riders in Eventing history because he was a “natural”; instead, he achieved greatness because he worked at it.  Isn’t that what Eventing is all about?  The constant hard work, the simple rewards of spending time with our horses, the incremental victories, the courage and fortitude to stay the course through the inevitable disappointments.  In short, the long haul—the journey as much as the destination.  What a shocking concept in this era of the two-second attention span:  that you really do need to work long and hard to achieve something worth getting—that, as Sir Edmund Hillary put it, “nothing ventured, nothing gained.”  In that sense, Eventing is about integrity.  David’s integrity is so evident that several years ago, when the AHSA and the USET finally ended their protracted legal fight, the one non-negotiable demand by both sides was that David be the first president of the new, merged organization—the United States Equestrian Federation—that rose from the ashes of that Stalingrad-like battle.  And in that position David has given freely of his time for the last six years.  I hope our sport’s future leaders take note of, and emulate, David’s example.

In a night overflowing with “favorite moments,” one of mine was the heartfelt acceptance speech of Kevin Freeman, a man whose Olympic medals do not even begin to describe his mastery of not only Eventing but point-to-point, show jumping, dressage and virtually anything else it was possible to accomplish on the back of a horse.  True to his self-effacing nature, Kevin extolled the greatness of nearly everyone with whom he rode in the ‘60s and ‘70s—while barely even mentioning himself.  And who will ever forget Kevin’s vivid recollection of going across country aboard Good Mixture as “feeling like you were riding a cat with a rocket tied to his tail”?

And then there was Bruce Davidson (happily, Bruce’s Hall of Fame photograph immortalizes his trademark Abe Lincoln top hat!).  I doubt that anyone, in any sport, anywhere, has had a career anything like Bruce’s—a career that continues to dazzle us after more than 40 years.  Denny Emerson spoke the truth when he called Bruce the transformative figure in American Eventing in the 20th Century.  As I listened to Bruce’s eloquent acceptance speech, I thought back on the wisdom he dispensed earlier in the day in the course of a panel discussion with Denny and Bruce’s son Buck on the topic of “Breeding the Four-Star Event Horse and Rider.”  When asked by one of the parents in the packed audience for advice on how his teenage daughter should pursue her dream of one day being a four-star rider, Bruce did not say she should train with this person, or should get her ticket punched by winning that Event, or should make sure she was riding at a certain level by a certain age, or should go out and buy a fancy horse.  Instead, addressing himself directly to the aspiring rider, he said (I paraphrase):  just get out there and ride horses; have fun with it; don’t limit yourself to just Eventing:  ride endurance, ride Western, gallop racehorses, do point-to-point; get the feel, put in the time; learn to be an all-around horseman; live the life.

It’s really quite simple, isn’t it?


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