Eventers like speed, right? Try this one on for size: last October, less than a year before the start of the 2018 World Equestrian Games at Tryon, the United States Equestrian Federation hired Erik Duvander as the U.S. High Performance Director for Eventing. With limited time to become familiar with the horses and riders and make an impact on the program before the next major championship, Erik prioritized preparation for the Games, while simultaneously formulating his plan to return the U.S. to a powerhouse position in the sport of eventing.
Since taking on this new position, Erik has spent close to four months away from his family in New Zealand, traveling around America and to competitions worldwide, working with the U.S. high-performance three-day event riders.
“I really need to invest my time and spend enough with the riders to try to fully understand them and their horses so I can be of best value to them,” Erik says. “I feel the time invested has been really good. It’s worked out and I think it’s a lot to do [with the fact] that the riders have also been very open and generous with letting me in and letting me participate in their world. I think we’ve got good momentum on that space. It takes time and we had [a] shorter [amount of] time, so I just needed to go hard.”
Such a grueling schedule might wear down the average person, but Erik is not your average person. He's wholeheartedly dedicated and ridiculously passionate about what he's doing, and it fuels him. “It’s not hard to get up in the morning, I can tell you that,” he says.
"It’s a really inspiring environment to be in.”
“I feel extremely privileged to have this role and I’m very grateful. I love horses, and joining a new team and getting to know a whole group of beautiful, exceptional horses - it inspires me every day. I really enjoy the riders that are on our squad, too. They all are unique in their own way and the time spent with them on a daily basis is always enjoyable and valuable. I learn a lot as well from them. It’s a really inspiring environment to be in.”
Having worked with numerous national federations, including coaching the highly successful New Zealand team for the last decade, Erik says it’s the insatiable hunger of the U.S. riders that stands out above the rest of the world. “They are absolutely hungry for success and really wanting to be one of the top nations in the world. I feel that in every day’s work. It’s all about progress. A lot of world class riders are dedicated but you’ve got to be really hungry. In their hunger, there is a real willingness and ability to make change. I think that is the strength and quality within the American team. They are not going to stagnate.”
Though there is a strong desire to succeed, Erik has said there has to be joy throughout the intensity of high-level training and competing. For high-performance horses and riders, finding and maintaining joy may be more difficult with the pressure to succeed for owners, sponsors, and an entire country weighing heavily. The fact that the U.S. riders are open and willing to change, however, indicates to Erik that improving and becoming better is the root of that joy. To foster joyful training and development for the horses, riders, and for himself is to create a positive working environment both at home and at competitions.
"I think that is the strength and quality within the American team. They are not going to stagnate.”
“We’re there to do the job, but it’s all in a positive direction and [to] focus on the details that can help everyone improve. From my side, it’s to really ensure that the riders experience new and valuable learning every time I see them so they feel that there is some momentum moving forward. As a rider and coach, that is what drives us. It’s important to celebrate success big or small in training and competition, whether it’s the perfect half-halt or a great ride to a fence. They’ve got to feel it and they have to feel good about it, otherwise, there is not really much point in doing it.”
Joy in the training, a positive working environment, and celebrated achievements is a recipe for one of the most important qualities of a world champion - belief in oneself. “Belief in oneself and the riders feeling they can achieve greater things should help with the joy of every day’s work.” And so goes the cycle of success.
We spoke with Erik just days after Phillip Dutton, Lauren Kieffer, Marilyn Little, Boyd Martin, and Lynn Symansky had been named to the Land Rover U.S. Eventing Squad for the World Equestrian Games. While the team and individual assignments have yet to be designated, we knew the short list eleven weeks in advance of the start of the eventing portion of the competition. While each federation has their own timeline, Erik feels the strategy the U.S. has employed in giving riders nearly three months notice on the team decision is “the one that functions best.”
"It’s important to celebrate success big or small in training and competition, whether it’s the perfect half-halt or a great ride to a fence. They’ve got to feel it and they have to feel good about it."
“What happens when you do later selection is you have riders fighting for winning positions on the team instead of preparing for the World Games. I think everyone has had the opportunity to fight for their positions and they’ve been prepared about what events we want them to [participate in]. The riders have gone there and put on their best performance. After that, the horses got their break that they needed and now it’s all about what is the best preparation for each individual horse to be their best at the championships.”
And it is all about the horse and having them arrive at the competition feeling their best - mentally and physically - and ready to perform. An early selection and allowing the horses to have a well-deserved rest is an integral part of that plan.
“I’ve seen in the past where people are pushing the horses and they are peaking at the wrong time because they are fighting for a position,” Erik says. “It’s a steady build-up towards this event and it’s well planned. That’s one thing I’m putting a lot of emphasis on. Instead of having them fit and ready on the day, you have them fit and ready 10 days or two weeks out so you can taper your training and back off the horses so they can freshen up and arrive fresh and well and not overworked and overdone.”
Having fresh horses will be especially important at the Tryon International Equestrian Center. Cross-country course designer Captain Mark Phillips has been crystal clear about the fitness requirements of the cross country course, with a long uphill climb (an elevation change of 70 feet over approximately 600 meters) near the end. With average temperatures in the low 80s in Mill Spring, North Carolina in September, heat, and humidity may also be a major factor. So much so that Capt. Phillips has designed the course so that sections could be removed and the entire track shortened to accommodate for the weather conditions. Both horses and riders will need to be at the top of their game.
“We have to arrive with super fit horses and also super fit riders. The riders have to have a level of fitness that is higher than they possibly have ever had to have before. The next thing it’s come down to - this is what I talked to the selectors about - is having riders with the right attitude, ones that are real fighters. We need four or five real warriors to ride there, who are prepared when the horses are getting tired to carry on and carry the horses, but also have the skills for not overriding in the beginning. It’s going to be technically difficult to ride, but I think if you have the horse’s fitness in order and the rider’s fitness in order and come in with the right attitude and self-belief, then I think we will be okay.”
Fitness is just the beginning, as this year’s WEG will be the first under the new scoring system, which removes the 1.5x FEI coefficient, effectively pulling the spread of scores closer together and narrowing the margin of error. A missed flying change, cross-country time penalties, and a single show jumping rail will have a greater impact on the final results.
“It’s made the sport more exciting, which I think is a great thing,” says Erik. “Before, if you weren’t really in the top ten after dressage it would be difficult to win. Now, you have more like the top 20 of the field within reach of it, and on the right day they can climb up and be in the top three. It drives a higher level of competition, and at the end of the day we need to keep every phase as good as possible.”
“We’re talking about the small margins between winning and losing in these big competitions. All those subtle differences make a difference at the end of the day. That is what we’re working on.”
"It drives a higher level of competition, and at the end of the day we need to keep every phase as good as possible.”
The U.S. team will have the advantage of having ridden around the existing portion of the track during both the USEA American Eventing Championships and The Fork Horse Trials, as well as being relatively accustomed to the weather. There is also the excitement (or pressure) of performing in front of a home field, an experience Erik himself enjoyed at the 1990 WEG in Stockholm, Sweden.
“I don’t think anyone really understands until you’ve ridden in front of your home crowd at a championship. It lifts your game. If our riders can arrive with well-prepared horses and lots of [confidence], I think the crowds backing them will carry them up that hill at the end. I’ve seen magic happen at home Olympics or home World Games, and if the riders arrive in the right mental state, they will feed off it.”
So with the team named, the fine-tuning underway, and the buzz of excitement coursing through the country as we look ahead to a World Games at home, how is Erik feeling in these moments of the final countdown?
“I do feel the pressure and that is part of why I’m doing what I’m doing -because I enjoy that side of it. Taking on a team like this for me, I feel like there is no option but to have success. I do feel pressure, and I feel the excitement and joy of it. There’s a lot of components that keep me on my toes every day. Every thinking hour, the job is on my mind.
"Every thinking hour, the job is on my mind."
"The riders and I very much all want the same outcome. We want to be the best team in the world, and we just have to put our heads down and get on with the work. This is our time right now. We have to make the most of it and do the best we can.”
Feature photo by Shannon Brinkman.
Article photos by Kaitlyn Karssen.
Written by Hossein Maleki
Having grown up on horseback, Leslie Threlkeld, Managing Editor at NOËLLE FLOYD, treasures her career in the equestrian industry as a writer, photographer, and eventing technical delegate. Leslie thrives on frequent travel but never tires of returning home to the serene mountains of North Carolina.