For organizers of the Endurance World Championship – regardless of which nation hosts it — the challenge is always the same: finding enough land for the 100-mile course. That issue has been front and center for officials for the Alltech FEI World Equestrian Games 2014 in Normandy, just as it was for their counterparts in Lexington four years ago.
Even the 1,200 acres of the Kentucky Horse Park couldn’t accommodate the entire endurance course because much of the park was allocated to the other seven disciplines and the Games Village. Organizers had to link the endurance course, which began and ended at the state-owned park, through two dozen private farms. Normandy faces an even greater task. Endurance officials there have to persuade approximately 80 farm owners to allow 150 horses to thunder across their property on August 28, 2014.
It’s not just a matter of securing permission to use the land, but also complying with French land use laws (which differ widely from U.S. laws) and accommodating the competitors. The horses in Lexington were stabled at the Horse Park, which has about 1,500 permanent stalls. In Normandy, temporary stabling will have to be built on the venue, the grooms will be housed onsite in mobile homes, and riders will stay at hotels in Avranches and Granville, about five to 10 miles from the venue.
Moreover, as Normandy endurance manager Nicholas Wahlen pointed out in an interview, “The most important and most interesting aspect of endurance is the management of time and effort, which requires a rider to have complete communication with his horse. As an organizer, you must make every effort to allow competitors to properly manage time and space to showcase their ‘sense of effort.’”
To do so, organizers have to find local properties with enough varied terrain to put the horses to the test. Much of the 2010 course went across open fields, punctuated by streams, hills and roads. In Normandy, the course will start and end in Sartilly, close to the Bay of Mont St. Michel, and will traverse vast stretches of wooded areas and shoreline.
“For crossing the sand, how you ride depends on the tide,” said Wahlen. He noted that competitors often choose to gallop on the beach, but that depends on whether the sand is wet or dry. “Everyone makes his choice according to his horse. If the sand is too deep it can affect the strength of a horse.”
Wahlen and his team have been working on the course since November 2012. He called the test event a “true test of feasibility” because an endurance competition had never been held on the venue before. While he said the test event “validated the ride,” improvements are still being made. For example, he said, the footing was “a little irregular” for the test event and will be more consistent for the Games.
Laurent Cellier, director of the Sports Organising Committee Normandie 2014, observed: “Competitors at the test event told us they appreciated the wide variety of challenges between hills, forests and beaches, which strengthens us in our choices. We also received very good feedback on the organization of the event from some of the major federations. We still have several months to refine all the details, but the main lines are drawn.”
Wahlen said the major change from the test event will be the location of the vet gate. “This will be my main focus once the track is ready,” he said. “The most important change is the displacement of the vet gate and the organization of the ‘field of play’ into three distinct parts: the cooling, vet gate and grooming areas. Everyone is interested to see how the modifications will affect the discipline.” In his opinion, the event will be a success “if the sport is respected and horses preserved. Horse first!”
During the test event, local residents who were out on the course showed great enthusiasm for the sport, said Cellier. “We know that there will be even more excitement in 2014 ."
As it was with the highly acclaimed course in Lexington, local support will be key to fashioning an appropriate course in Normandy. So far, the signs look good. Every owner of the 76 private properties used for the test event in 2013 has agreed to let his property be used for the 2014 Games. Cellier said that property owners who initially were hesitant changed their mind when they saw that their neighbors agreed.
Lexington organizers experienced the same thing, said Emmett Ross, endurance course designer for 2010 and chef d’equipe of the U.S. endurance team for Normandy. The success of the Lexington experience provides a model for Normandy.
The only practical choice in Lexington was to run the course from the Horse Park through a series of nearby farms. But the “choice” wasn’t Ross’s to make. It rested with each individual landowner. If one with a crucial access point to the course declined, the trail would have to be rerouted. Even with so many large properties that neighbor the horse park, there was still a chance that Ross could run out of options if some landowners denied access to their farms. So he cast his net wide, initially contacting close to 60 farms and eventually winnowing the list to 27.
He recalled that a number of them were “hesitant, to say the least.” Some said no outright. After all, what was in it for them? There was no financial compensation, and the complimentary tickets offered to the Games weren’t an enticement for most. Ross was basically “selling” an intangible reward: the honor of having one’s farm be part of a first-ever event of its magnitude in Kentucky.
“I was never hesitant,” said Greg Goodman, owner of Mt. Brilliant Farm, a 760-acre Thoroughbred breeding and polo facility. “I felt this was a great opportunity to show other parts of the equestrian community that Lexington is truly the horse capital of the world.”\
Lisa Lourie was equally enthusiastic. She had just purchased 400-acre Spycoast Farm, which sits directly next door to the horse park. Spectators at the Games were able to park in a huge empty field at Spycoast and walk to the competition venues.
“We were ground zero, right next to the park; of course I was going to let them use our land. I bought the property just before WEG in full knowledge that we would have part of the Games here,” said Lourie, who had a special interest in the event. One of her horses had been chosen for the United States endurance team, but unfortunately the mare was injured shortly before the event.
Still, Lourie embraced the Games experience, allowing the endurance course to cross Spycoast in three places. Because her hunter-jumper stable competes at major national and international events, Lourie said she had confidence the Games would be run in a professional manner. Besides, she said, “I’m a risk taker by nature. You take your chances. You’ve got to live – bring it on!”
Part 2 - The Lessons of Lexington to follow!
Darlene Ricker is CEO of Equestrian Authors, LLC (equestrianauthors.com). She was executive editor for the Alltech FEI World Equestrian Games 2010 and will be covering the 2014 Games in Normandy for several publications.