Meet the Chef d’Equipe of the United States Endurance Team.
Mark Dial became Chef d’Equipe of the U.S. Endurance Team in April 2015. He spoke with Equestrian Living magazine from the FEI World Equestrian Games (WEG) Endurance Test Event about preparing U.S. Endurance athletes for this year’s WEG.
How did you first become involved with horses?
My first real memory is sitting on a big black and white paint horse horse with my dad. I was maybe 3 or 4.
A friend of mine had started doing endurance, and he invited me to come to a ride, and I was hooked. I grew up in East Texas, and we had quarter horses. When they told me that they were doing these 25, 50, 75, 100 mile races on Arabians, I thought I had to go see this, because all the Arabians I had ever seen couldn’t trot out of their own shadow. So I went to this endurance ride, and we did a 50 [mile ride], of which I did 35 [miles], and I said, “I think I like this sport.”
What does your role as the U.S. team’s Chef d’Equipe entail?
You take your knowledge of the sport and apply it to the different riders in different courses to select horses and riders for a particular course, help manage the crewing, help with the training and the team staff, and work with US Equestrian and with the selectors and the team vets. We have four team vets, and together we watch the horses over the course of a year. Plus, right now we’re starting an emerging athlete program, so we’ll be trying to bring along new riders and new horses. It’s a long process.
How does international competition work?
International competition is governed by the FEI. They have very strict rules about welfare of the horses, doping, and on how the horse completes the ride. If they see a horse that has an issue, often they’ll vote on the horse; all the vet inspections are a three-panelist vote. So if they think the horse has an issue that’s severe enough, or maybe a career changing issue, they will eliminate the horse. The rules and vetting are a lot stricter than at national rides. It’s very tight. It’s the difference between playing high-school football and playing professional football.
The World Equestrian Games in Tryon, North Carolina, is a 100-mile course. Can you describe it?
There’s a minimum of 300-meter elevation change on each loop of the WEG course. It’s straight up and down. You go up, you go down, then you go up, then you go down again. It looks like a rollercoaster ride. It’s a lot like Vermont. It has some trails like Old Dominion. It has some trails like Big Southport and Yellowhammer and Leatherwood. This is what we in the U.S. consider a real endurance ride. We have creek crossings. Parts of this course are old foxhunting trails that people have not necessarily used for years.
How does the team selection process work?
Are there qualifying races?
Yes. We list the observation rides throughout the year. There is usually a selector there, a team vet, and a lot of times, I’m also at the ride. When we’re observing a horse and rider team, we see how they’re managing a particular course and if they’re getting their CoC (Certificate of Capability) speed, which all riders have to have to compete in the international events. A CoC requires that you have to compete the competition maintaining an overall speed of 14km an hour.
Who will be the U.S.’s toughest competitors at WEG?
The Middle Easterners are always tough competitors. In reality their top riders compete all over the world, all over Europe, they’ll go to South America to compete, so they see a lot of diverse terrain. A couple of South American countries and France are always tough. Spain is about as tough as it gets. They’re really serious competitors, and they have a lot of experience. If you can keep up with them, you’re doing well for that day.
What would you tell people interested in attending an endurance event and getting started competing?
Well, all you really see in endurance is the crew areas unless you can get on the trails and watch the riders come by, and, of course, the start and the finish. Old Dominion (Virginia) is a big ride. It starts and finishes in the dark. You can see a lot of the start and finish at FITS in Florida. At Biltmore (North Carolina) you can see all the starts and all the finishes, and the crewing is really accessible. Tevis in California has a lot of crew spots, where you can get in and see.
You can always go up and say “Hey, I’m a newcomer, and I’m thinking about trying this,” and they might ask you to scribe for one of the vets, or you can help on the timers. Volunteering is a very good way to get started in the sport, so you can see how people do things. Also, try to find somebody who’s been doing endurance and see if you can have them mentor you. Sometimes you can find some of the bigger riders who have horses for lease for American Endurance Ride Conference (AERC) rides. The AERC is our national governing body. You can lease a horse, do a couple rides, and see if this is what you want to do.
Tell us about the emerging-athletes program you mentioned earlier.
It’s one of the things we’re trying to get out this year. We’re working on an emerging-horse program at the same time. We’re trying to identify up-and-coming young riders who are transitioning from the young-rider position to the adult position, or other athletes who want to become involved in the FEI and the international portion of endurance, so we can reach out to bring them into the program.
We’re trying to save them time and money, so they don’t make mistakes. Instead of drawing it out over 5 or 10 years, we put them into the program and ask them to come crew at rides or participate at a larger event at some level, so they can get exposure to the FEI rules and the much tighter standards that you have in international competition.
AERC has a new young-rider program, and they’re getting more young riders interested. I do believe that the sport is rising. US Equestrian and I work together on the emerging-horse and athlete programs, and we’re trying to get those online. They are also working on more with the grassroots. We’re trying to go to more of the AERC rides, so we can talk to people and get them started.
Each United States Equestrian Team is led by a Chef d’Equipe who is a combination leader, coach, and manager. Meet them in this series of features created in collaboration with US Equestrian.