by The Duck, Dave Nicholson
After being actively involved in the sport of endurance for fifty-seven years, fifty-one of those as an event manager Ann and I look to the future with a heavy heart. Plain and simple, the sport is fading away and I see nothing on the horizon to keep it going. Its not just endurance riding that is failing; its all of the activities I have spent my life enjoying. Horse racing, horse shows, endurance and all other equine disciplines are on a steep decline. The AERC, in their infinite inability to look to the future and see what their actions will result in, are on the brink of financial collapse as they move to drastically cut back on the attendance of their sanctioned events. Anyone who thinks increasing mileages of existing rides by ten to thirty-five percent is not living in the real world. The demographics of the sport have changed dramatically as riders have aged and there are too few of today’s youth willing or able to make up the difference. Every endurance rider now living is going to die and as they get older and closer to death and debilitating dysfunctions they are going to no longer be able to do 100’s, then 50’s then 25’s and finally they won’t be able to get out of bed and go pet their old favorite horse. That folks, is an eternal truth. The path to successful continuation of the sport is to deal with that fact and offer venues that will offer the least able of us to continue to enjoy.
There was a time when Endurance was a growth sport. That growth came mainly from horse people who were tired of the increasing structure (rules) in CTR and horse show events. Endurance was a new sport that took riders and their horses to beautiful new places where they could share their love of the outdoors with their horses. AERC was started as a record keeping organization based in the west. Ride managers were free to improvise under broad interpretations of the basic rules. Over time that concept has succumbed to the “too many cooks spoil the broth” theory. Every new rule results in tightening the noose around the neck of ride managers. Its easy to sit in a board room, far from an event and order ride managers to strict interpretations of the many rules, but its a far different story when a RM is face to face with someone who has supported their event for years, and have to tell them they have to abide by some edict “because its in the rules”. Over the many years we have been involved in the sport, Ann and I have always tried to do what was fair and reasonable in keeping the spirit of the rules in mind. However, that practice has resulted in increasing grief and criticism in which we are no longer willing to withstand.
The latest and most egregious, of the recent decisions is over the mileage issue. Let me be absolutely clear: AERC has never had accurate mileage in a large percentage of the sanctioned rides. I know this as I was one of the few who had the equipment and ability to ride motorcycles with accurate rally odometers over many of the courses of years past, including the Tevis. Even back in the day when most of the country was open to motorized vehicles, the common practice for measuring mileage was by drawing the trail on a topographical map and then using a string to lay over the trail and measure the mileage using the scale at the bottom. The potential for error was huge, especially in difficult terrain. Our events were historically long and accurate as most were measured by the motorcycle odometer. Winning times of five hours with the last riders coming in before the 12 hour cut off were reasonable and were the standard for the sport. Since the advent of the GPS, there is a possibility of more accurate mileage when used properly by knowledgeable technicians. However, that requires a drastic change in what has been done in the past and leaves future riders being forced to compete against mileage records that are completely unsubstantiated as to correct mileage. No rational person can honestly believe that holding the western rides, which generally take place over more challenging terrain, to additional mileage requirements of ten to thirty-five percent for sanctioning, as not having a serious draconian effect on the AERC and the individual events. It will kill some of them. Kat Swigart in her infinite wisdom has proved beyond a doubt that many beautiful trails and venues will not support “accurate GPS mileage”. There is plenty of historical statistics to show what happens to rides when a competing ride shortens their trail. AERC BOD members are the poster children of short rides. For years they have gotten away with pointing fingers at others while putting on events that were ludicrously short.
So what is the way forward? I can’t speak for everyone, but this is what we are planning. This will be the last year that AERC sanctioned XP Rides will compensate for mileage with a time factor. Obviously our “short” rides that are taking 5.5 to 6.5 hours for people like Christoph Schork to win with some riders barely finishing or coming in overtime will become very difficult and close to impossible for people and horses to safely complete when additional miles are added. One of last years Mt Carmel rides would have only had two finishers on time if the remainder of riders continued the additional mileage at the same pace. If we are to do that, we will see the rides fade away as the number of riders and horses able to step up the pace are simply not available. The resulting drop in attendance can and will result in cancellation of rides as we will be unable to continue with the significantly fewer numbers. Bear in mind that Terry Wooley Howe cancelled a very popular and well attended ride because she needed a minimum of 65 riders a day to break even. Another west region manager told me they have to have a hundred riders to break even. While we can manage on smaller numbers we cant afford to drop to the level that will result with “accurate GPS mileage”. The only way forward I can presently see is to create a new association that will keep endurance records in the future. Keeping records is what AERC was originally all about but that has given way to micromanaging the ride managers in a mistaken attempt to “level the playing field”. Playing fields aren’t level when competing over varied terrain. Comparing 50 mile rides that are won in the 3 to 4 hour range with 35 to 40 mile rides that are won in the 6 to 7 hour range is ludicrous to say the least. It’s incredible the combined AERC BOD fail to see what increasing ride mileage from 10 to 35 percent is going to do to attendance. Its a no win situation for riders, management as well as the AERC. It has been suggested that we simply make the rides flat and easy so we can have accurate mileage. That is an antithesis to the XP model, which is to put on rides in scenic places on interesting but doable trails and over lands that can not be regularly accessed by the general public. Riders through the years have used the winning and final completion times in their decision making process when considering attending a ride that is new to them. I can see no way to come close to a “level playing field” than to include a time factor with GPS mileage. The standard in the west, as well as my personal standard was to adjust 50 mile rides to have a winning time of 5 to 5.5 hours and have all of the riders in by 11 hours. This worked in the past and will work for us in the future.
The way forward for XP Rides will be to continue doing the same rides as we always have with our same attitude towards being fair and consistent with everyone. We will do this by creating a new organization that will keep fees and rules to an absolute minimum. There is a model already in place for what we are planning. ECTRA, an eastern CTR organization has been co-sanctioning with endurance rides and keeping mileage records for their members that includes mileage from ANY organized distance event. As riders choose to participate in this new organization their combined mileages from AERC LD AND endurance miles will be combined, as will mileage from any other structured event, such as EDRA, FEI, NATRC and the XP Rides miles. LETS BE CLEAR: A FUTURE ORGANIZATION WILL ALLOW RIDERS TO START THEIR NEW MILEAGE RECORDS WITH THEIR CURRENT FEI, AERC, EDRA, XP AND CTR MILEAGES ALL COMBINED. After all, if creating a record of accomplishments for riders and horses is what is important, we should look at the big picture. A database is being created at present and we hope to have something up and running by then end of the AERC and FEI seasons. December 1st seems to be a common ending for competitive events and we hope a new Western Endurance Ride Association, composed of western endurance rides and riders will be in place at that time. The geographical area of the organization will start with the states of New Mexico, Colorado, Wyoming, Montana and a small part of western South Dakota and include all states west of that geographic area. I want to be absolutely clear that we are not trying to replace AERC and we will continue to request AERC sanctioning but we will be more judicious in following the AERC rulebook. This will require significantly more effort on the part of riders. It will also require more effort on the part of management and judges. This is where the epigram “We can’t fix stupid but we can charge for it” comes into play. This is a good time to consider what it costs to conduct an FEI ride and why the entry fees are so high. The future, as I see it, is for western rides to offer events that offer dual opportunities to satisfy the needs of ride managers and riders alike.
I am truly sorry that it has come to this. I would have much preferred to see AERC become the a true National Body that would see a way forward to accommodate the many facets of our sport. Its about time we start looking at what we can do to save the sport.
A response from an AERC BOD member who “gets it”:
Comparing a mountainous and technically demanding course of western rides with flat and easy terrain in other parts of the country is just insane. It has been argued by SE riders that the humidity and high temps of some of these areas are also very demanding on the horses and match the challenges of our technical terrain. I have ridden in the winter months in these states and it is rather pleasant then. The rides are flat and have pleasant temperatures on top of it. The AERC Board could work on this mileage issue by implementing a difficulty rating in courses. That difficulty rating, or handicap system like they have in South Africa or Europe, is based on the winning time of the previous years course. This has worked well for ride managers in the west and is more in line with international practices. Marc Lindsay, from South Africa, who is working with me at the GETC has agreed to write a summary for us to explain how it is working and how it can get implemented.
Many riders just cannot do Multidays rides anymore when rides are excessively long. I have seen it with the Ft Stanton rides as an example. Years ago there were many Pioneer entries at Ft Stanton. It used to be a big ride. It was a rocky SOB, but it had good entry numbers nevertheless. Roger Taylor succumbed to the pressure by the AERC Board and made his rides so long that not one rider finished either of his Pioneer events last year. Not a single one! In fact, his entries for the 50 were down to 6 entries on the last day. The demographics have changed and the average age of riders is older and they just cannot and do not want to do it anymore. Ft Stanton entries are just a shadow from what they once were. In talking to Roger he said he felt pressured to make his rides now over 50 miles just to keep the critics at bay. He barely has any revenue anymore, surely not enough to continue without outside support. I’m not sure he can even afford to conduct them anymore. That is totally ludicrous.
The threats and intimidation tactics employed by some BOD members towards RMs for so-called short rides have to stop. Otherwise we soon won’t have any RMs anymore. Who is going to be willing to do all the work organizing rides, often loosing money while doing so, and then be expected to accept abuse by AERC Board members on top of it all?
According to statistics on the AERC website, if XP Rides were counted as a region they would be the third largest region in the AERC. Should XP Rides not be sanctioned in the future , the ripple effect could very well cause other ride managers to follow that path. That would spell disaster for AERC.
A CLARIFICATION TO THE FOLLOWING ARTICLE FOR THOSE WHO INSIST ON MISINTERPRETING WHAT IS BEING SAID
Those who have misrepresented that I have admitted to running 35 mile 50’s are wrong. We have never run a 35 mile 50. We have tried to explain, over and over that the tracks we give out at the ride are truncated. Those who do not know what a truncated track file is have no business commenting on GPS mileage. The tracks that I have from OTHER AERC RIDES, not XP Rides, are the ones that get down into the thirties. Many of the rides judged as “short” have inherent errors in the calculation. We have made it clear that we have done what was the industry standard over the years. The point is that AERC needs to adapt to new technology in a modern world. Once again, all riders know that Riding Time is the most accurate prediction of difficulty for a course. Hopefully the AERC, in a good faith effort will come up with a solution that will allow all the rides, east and west, to prosper. If not, the AERC and the sport is likely to cease to exist.