Erik Duvander was named Performance Director of U.S. Eventing in October 2017. He brings 30 years of strategic planning and program development experience at the high-performance level. Duvander spoke with Equestrian Living magazine about preparing U.S. Eventing athletes for this year’s FEI World Equestrian Games (WEG) Tryon 2018 where he will serve as Chef d’Equipe for the Land Rover U.S. Eventing Team.
How did you first become involved with horses and eventing?
I was born in Chicago to Swedish parents, and when I was 6 years old we moved to Sweden. My mother, who always liked horses, took us to the local riding club, and my sister and I began riding there. Later, when I was about 8, we moved again, and we were very fortunate that there was a riding club nearby. It was run by Caroline Asker. She’s just a phenomenal lady. Many Swedish Olympic riders began their careers at her riding school. Her husband at the time was the chef d’equipe for the Swedish team, and he got me interested in eventing. They had team trainings at the farm, so I got to see the best riders close up when they were training.
I think most of my learning probably came from doing it myself and also working with world class riders, which I’ve been fortunate to do over the past 15 to 20 years. I was able to work or be involved with some of the best dressage, eventing, and show-jumping trainers from all over the world.
My first official role was with riders from the Japan Racing Association. They used to have one or two riders that they sent to Europe to train for world competitions and the Olympics. They asked if I was interested, and I got my grounding in going to championships with riders and a small team. I think that was fundamental at my start to be able to go with a team that had, probably, less pressure about trying to win. After that, the Swedish and New Zealand teams invited me. The first job I actually applied for was with the American team.
How did you get the Chef d’Equipe position?
I had been in the sport for a long time, and the only team, except for the ones I had worked with earlier, that I really wanted to work with was the American team. So when that application was announced, it was an absolute must; I had to try to apply for it and see if I could get it. The U.S. is a great country, and I’ve always hoped that I would be able to work in America. I applied and went through an interview process. That took a lot of time, and I had the good fortune to get the job. To have the role I have now is a great honor, and I feel very privileged every day.
What do you do as Chef d’Equipe?
I travel around, work with riders, and get involved with what they do on a daily basis. To me, it’s really important to see how they operate in their home environments because that’s where most of the work gets done. You can pull riders together in a clinic, but it is what happens day-to-day that counts. I’ve been trying to spend as much time as possible overseeing and supporting the riders at competitions. The key for me is to function within their own support team. They all have their own vets, farriers, dressage trainers, and show-jumping trainers. As I see it, I work at the next layer in an advisory role. I coach, advise, and help riders plan. I provide outside perspective on their strengths and weaknesses and keep them motivated to work hard. That’s really what it’s all about.
Can you tell us about the selection process for the WEG team?
I’ve arrived here to work with the American team about 10 months before the world games, so a lot of structure was already in place. The selectors are a hard-working group. They’re very focused, and they pulled together the riders that they thought should be part of the squad based on the results after the spring events. Then, it got narrowed down in this last selection. There was a conversation between the selectors, and then I was invited to share my view. I had a pretty clear view, but I didn’t know as much about the riders’ history. I came in with fresh eyes and had the opportunity to speak my thoughts about each combination, and then the selectors put together a final list.
What should visitors look for at the WEG?
It’s a beautiful area of the country, so it’s worth traveling to the competition. Tryon itself is a spectacular destination. How they built this whole equestrian complex, it’s mind blowing in my opinion. I haven’t seen many places like it.
The WEG will be an opportunity to see all the best riders in the world come together and fight for medals, so it should be extremely exciting. I hope as many Americans attend as possible. I think the riders thrive on home support. It could help us to get more wind under our wings.
What do you suggest for young riders who want to compete at higher levels in eventing?
In our sport you pretty much have to be self-reliant. That fosters a certain type of character, and I think it needs to be in place early on. My advice would be to find the best mentor you can to help you with the first stages. You don’t have to make all the mistakes, but learning by mistakes is the best learning. It’s a fine balance of not overprotecting riders but having them be well supported and guided, especially when it comes down to horsemanship. Horsemanship is a massive part in our sport. If you’re a good horseman, your likelihood of being successful is higher. I think at the end of the day, if you want to be successful, you have to create your own environment. Having the best trainers you can find around you, the best vets, the best farrier, and a very good mentor can help you through the highs and lows. It’s a demanding and tough sport.
Finally, as an aside, is there a breed of horse that you think is best suited for eventing?
Everyone has their preferences, and a lot of it comes down to personality and the way you communicate with horses. Some riders are better suited on sport horses; some riders are better suited on Thoroughbreds. For me personally, I prefer Thoroughbreds, but if there’s a bit of a mixture with Warmbloods, that’s fine as well. Thoroughbred horses are very well suited to be able to ride quickly around the cross country and have endurance, speed, and agility. However, it’s difficult to find great Thoroughbred horses with the correct technical jump and also with the movement required for dressage. There are not that many of them, but when you get one, it’s a good find.