A lot of eventers struggle with the question of when to move up to the next level of competition and for the adult amateur rider, this decision can be particularly difficult. As an Event trainer, one of the things I love most about eventers is their overwhelmingly independent, down-to-earth, hands-on, and often self-deprecating approach to the sport, especially when compared to many other equestrian discipline competitions. There are all levels of control by trainers in all the horse sports, but as a rule, the eventer tends to be a bit more self-possessed, making decisions a good bit more on her own. Perhaps it is the nature of the sport…you and your horse are out there alone…a good trainer has recognized the importance of developing a rider into an independent-thinking, confident being, with the ability to make decisions at a moment’s notice (or quicker), and follow through on those decisions, oftentimes alone.
Additionally, the USEA currently does not have qualifying requirements in place for adults at the levels where the vast majority of us are currently competing: Beginner Novice through Preliminary. So, while we use our trainers for guidance, for most of us, the decision to move up is left ultimately to our own judgment. Your trainer may be a bit more conservative than you, wanting you to hold off even when you believe you and your horse are ready. Or, she may be encouraging that next step when you still have some reservation. Either way, ideally, you will both be on the same page (or at least in the same chapter!) when it comes to this decision. If you find there is a much greater difference of opinion between the two of you, it’s time for a heart-to-heart. If you still don’t feel good about the schedule she recommends, it may be time to look elsewhere for instruction.
I believe when compared to many other trainers, I often tend to err on the side of conservatism. Perhaps it is my nature…I joke that “I drive the speed limit…I floss…it makes no sense that I event!” Perhaps, too, it is my students. The overwhelming majority are “over-thirty” amateurs. This doesn’t mean they’re any less brave, or fit, or driven; it simply means that they are a typically more limited with regards to pace of their progression in the sport, simply because they have a more life-balance issues than younger riders and by definition aren’t involved in the sport at the level of professionals. And…one of the things I love most about them is that they are willing to enjoy the process and the relationship they are developing with their horses in that process. For many of them, moving up the levels seems secondary, almost an afterthought, when considering their long- and short-term goals.
But, since it makes little sense for most of us to compete at Beginner Novice forever, we do need to decide when to make that move. Some trainers have very specific calculations… the horse and rider must have completed x number of events at their current level, with x number of finishes on their dressage score, etc. I don’t have that complex a formula in place. Granted, I do think it makes little sense to entertain the idea of moving up if you aren’t having some success at the level at which you’re currently competing. And, that definition of success does not necessarily mean winning several of your most recent events. As eventers, the competition is much more internal for most of us…we are competing with our last performance, a specific training weakness, a particular course or worrisome element on a course, a dressage test or movements within that test, etc. Yes, I do believe a rider should not entertain the idea of moving up if she and her horse have not finished on their dressage score at their current level at least a few times. And, finishing doesn’t mean by the skin of your teeth! No, a few good, organized, balanced, and “easy” performances in all three phases are to me, the very minimum requirements. And, one of the major challenges in eventing is trying to get all three of those good runs on the same weekend! I believe that element is crucial as well, rather than “I had a good dressage test here, then a good stadium trip there…” The ability to put all these facets of your sport together within the parameters of one event is paramount, and an accomplishment much greater than the sum of its parts.
But, for myself and my horses, I go one step further, and I recommend my students do as well. Essentially, I recommend a rider wait until she and her horse begin to feel somewhat “bored” during all three phases at a given level before they move to the next. As adult amateurs, our primary reason for competing is the sheer joy of it. If we are still getting our kicks at Novice even after a couple seasons of Novice competition, and the idea of Training is daunting, what is the reason for moving up? Many times, that boredom may come from repetition of venue, not level of competition. Sometimes it’s not the need to move up to Preliminary that will satiate that craving for change, but simply running Training at someplace besides the same three or so events repeatedly. If, however, we believe our level of enjoyment would be heightened by getting to the next level, that’s as valid a reason as any to work towards that goal. And, many of us need that measurable “tangible” goal to prompt us to keep working at our sport, pushing ourselves and our horses a bit beyond our comfort zones to keep us both sharp. Confidence at a level is a good thing, but complacency on the part of the horse and/or rider can be dangerous. Finally, if you are enjoying significant and consistent competitive success, you do have a responsibility to move on to level the playing field a bit, since the rather broad restrictions in place regarding rider and horse designation of divisions, USEA rules do little to push someone out of the nest, even after it’s time.
But ultimately, it is the welfare of the horse and rider that needs to be the focus of this decision. Riding and eventing at any level are potentially dangerous; most eventers recognize that and have readily embraced the “external” safeguards available to us: headgear, vests, horse boots, studs, etc. In kind, we must ensure we don’t underplay the most important safety device we have at our disposal: good judgment. Just like that helmet, we have to use it, every ride. And if moving up cannot happen without creating conflict with that judgment, it is too soon.
Article by: Karen Czarick of Dancing Horse Farm who lead a team of four to the Chronicle of the Horse 2013 USEA Training Adult Riders Eastern US win