When I first began to event on the west coast, we eagerly sought reports, photos, and news of the “big events” back east. Groton House was one of those highly-thought-of events that always had lots of news coverage in the media of the day. So while I never spectated or competed there, I knew Groton House as intimately as someone 2,900 miles away can – as all of us yearning for event knowledge, did.
We in the west were truly the lesser stepchild of the larger eventing community back in those days when Groton House was so revered and popular that it had a large waiting list of entered riders. Going east to a big event was always the goal of everyone as they trained and competed in the scant offerings west of the Mississippi. We soaked up any news and photographs of these events and poured over our copies of The Chronicle and USCTA News. We dreamed of attending a “real” three day event, and places like Groton House felt like a worthy goal.
Blue Ridge, Radnor, Groton House, Stuart … all gone now, but in their day, they were big exciting places to have on your calendar to attend. Maybe you were an amateur eventer with some hope that you could compete with the big guys at those beautiful places. To see them go is sad, because it marks the end of an era, the end of early dreams, when you were learning to event and just began to understand the addicting complexity of good horsemanship.
Over the years, as all shared experiences do, inevitably things change around events, around the land it’s held over, and around the people. My mother was in her 80’s when she was still volunteering for youth associations she had supported for over 50 years – and she prided herself on being able to change with the new rules, new industry standards and new program focus. Because of her flexibility and intelligence, she was still treasurer of her group at her death at 84. I learned from her the importance of not getting in the way of progress, even if you’ve been around a long time and were there at the start.
Eventing has changed over the years, and it’s a good thing – events have changed with it, people have changed with it. Our sport has evolved beyond its reliance on the cavalry holdover of “fit for duty”, a rather horrifying standard at times that made the sport in its modern iteration a glowing target for accusations of cruelty. I was also around for the growing pains of eventing in the 90’s and early part of 2000’s, and for the subsequent changes. Looking back now, I feel the changes were categorically good for horses. No longer would crappy footing be required to be traversed in roads and tracks squeezed onto unsuited hillsides and gravel roads around property not meant to have horses on it. Standards for building jumps and obstacles changed and prevented career-ending accidents and even deaths. Officials began to enforce horse welfare ideals and were empowered to make changes when they saw stuff on courses that didn’t fit basic guidelines for safety. That wasn’t all of the change that was seen, but most of what I have seen over the past two decades in the sport has been for the betterment of horses, and it’s hard to argue against that. I’ve seen changes in rules create bad riding occasionally over the years, and I’ve seen changes in the rules create brilliant horsemanship. Even if you were there at the start, you can’t stand in the way.
So when Ann Getchell, longtime organizer at Groton House says, “we ran the event in the ‘right’ order,” I looked back myself to events I attended on the west coast when I first started competing, and contrasted the events that I attended on the east coast, that occur many times in what is, I guess, considered the “wrong” order. And you know, it doesn’t really matter, does it? Today’s eventing may not have the classic order of dressage-cross country-show jumping all the time as all events used to have. But I’m not sad about that – it’s OK to have some changes.
Today, eventing provides a hell of lot fairer experience for kids and adults just starting out than it did when I began at the lowest offered level – Training – which was a brutal elimination test at times. I recall one event where the winner took a blue with a score over 80 points, and many a kid went home in tears after a very difficult and tricky cross country course scared and shocked horse after horse. If that was the “right” way to run the sport I am glad it’s gone. So much of what the sport was about was centered around the eastern seaboard in those days, and the disconnect was painful at times for those of us trying to learn how to event the “right” way but with no where near the resources of the other side of the country. But what’s done is done, and fortunately the sport survived its early mistakes, and actually thrived if you look at how well it is doing today. Our outlook is bright – not that we don’t still need every single event, from our newest to our oldest, to stay with us and continue to give us good sport, in the “right” way – a way that continually tries to make it better for the horses and educate the riders. That’s the way I want it to go. I think that is the way that everyone wants eventing to go, and for sure it was the way Groton House went out.
So goodbye to Groton House, and to all those grand memories that people lucky enough to compete there have. While we didn’t get to experience it, we did know it well, all of the great east coast events that we dreamed about and planned for and pictured ourselves riding in. And we move forward and we learn and we grow, and yes, we change a little bit, and the sport survives and thrives. It’s less an ending than a salute to a memorable part of eventing. The sport was built by those events and they paved the way for others to come along and keep it and care for it.