When word came in December that Erik Duvander’s contract as the U.S. Equestrian Federation’s eventing performance director would not be renewed, team stalwart Boyd Martin had an instant reaction.
“Obviously, I was devastated,” he recalled.
Erik not only made improvements in his riding, Boyd explained, but also also assisted the three-time Olympian in communicating with his owners and working alongside staff that helps with his operation.
Boyd did not want to lose that degree of assistance.
“I rang him up and told him how upset I was and told him if he was able to come back to America, I’d love to keep working with him,” said Boyd, who two months earlier under Erik’s tutelage became the first U.S. rider to win a five-star since 2008.
“He rang me back a couple of weeks later and said a number of the American riders had reached out to him and he was going to come over here as a private coach.”
“He’s an absolute die-hard true horseman,” Boyd commented. “His mission is incomplete. I feel he chose this road to finish what he started and we’re very grateful. He’s a class human being.”
After Tamie Smith heard Erik was available, she didn’t waste any time before getting in contact.
“It was a no-brainer for me. I immediately messaged him,” said Tamie.
“Why would you change something that’s been working? If you look at my results before I met Erik until now, I’d be stupid to not continue working with him.”
“Why would you change something that’s been working? If you look at my results before I met Erik until now, I’d be stupid to not continue working with him.” She isn’t even sure if she had an FEI ranking before she started working with Duvander, but she’s now ranked 25th in the world.
She joined his list of big name clients that also includes Ariel Grald, Jennie Brannigan, Phillip Dutton, Caroline Martin, Liz Halliday-Sharp and of course, Boyd.
The payoff for Tamie came last weekend when she was ninth at Badminton on Mai Baum, finishing as the highest-placed American.
“With Tamie, it’s not just her riding skills, but it’s her mental skills to perform all three phases in the manner she did,” Erik said, commenting on the Californian’s Badminton performance. “I feel her future is really bright now.”
Meanwhile, Ariel came in a very respectable 15th at Badminton aboard Leamore Master Plan. “I’m super-privileged to have that caliber of riders who want to continue to work with me,” said Erik. “Because I don’t have any federation work, I have more time to actually focus on the horses and riders,” said the trainer, who was born in America, rode in the Olympics for Sweden and is now based in New Zealand when he isn’t working in the States.
Discussing the role he has played in her performance, Jennie said, “Erik’s the best. He has done such a good job of not only training with me and the horse, but just making me finally believe in myself, which is massive. Everyone deserves to have a coach like that.”
Many on the U.S. eventing scene were stunned that Erik would not be continued in the role he assumed in 2017. The situation was exacerbated by the fact that USEF did not give a reason for its action ‒ even to Erik. He said he got a six a.m. phone call with the news that his contract wouldn’t be renewed and that was it.
Erik was “super surprised,” but didn’t bother to ask for an explanation. With no reason given, people could only guess what prompted the decision not to renew, which led to some wild speculation.
When he worked for the Japanese team, Erik recalled, they gave him a big send-off, and after finishing his work with the Swedish and New Zealand teams, they saluted him in the arena of their big competitions as he departed. He did not even get a thank you from the USEF.
Noting that USEF CEO Bill Moroney had spent little time speaking with him over the years, he felt there was a lack of understanding about what he was doing.
“If they want a reporting or verbal reports, that should all happen, but they never asked for anything,” Erik said. “If they think it’s like instant fix, and so on, it’s not.”
One issue is horsepower.
“In Tokyo, we were totally outmatched by horse quality. That takes time. It takes seven years to train a horse. I had four years to use what was available.”
Always gracious, Erik added, “I look back on my four years with the federation as very, very good. I did my best and I enjoyed it and had good response with the riders. You can’t have 100 percent with riders in these sort of roles, but I never felt I struggled with any of that.”
“I don’t think it was anything Erik did that precluded him from being renewed,” Tamie mused.
“I think they (USEF) really wanted to just restructure eventing the way they have the show jumping and the dressage, when it comes down to it,” she said.
Neither of those disciplines have an official coach; Robert Ridland is more of a coordinator for show jumping. Debbie McDonald did not have her contract as technical advisor renewed for dressage, and instead, U.S. Dressage Federation president George Williams was named High Performance and Pathway Development Advisor, which does not involve training duties.
In contrast to the other two Olympic disciplines, eventing has had a drought. The U.S. hasn’t won a team medal in the Olympics since 2004, though riders brought home individual medals in 2008 and 2016.
“Even when you look at jumping and dressage, it seems like every couple of Olympics they’re really, really good, ” said Bill Moroney, conceding there may be a little bit of a letdown but then they’re “back up, really good. Those are normal ebb and flows.”
Bill added, with the eventing situation, “The feedback we got led us to believe it was time for a change rather than enter a contract with somebody else while the program is in flux.”
The results were getting better at the end of Erik’s time in his post. The USEF CEO said, “You have to look into that. Why was it getting better? What can we learn from that, that might inform where we are going forward?”
He said one thing that emerged during the review process is the need for riders to take personal responsibility, finding out for themselves who they need to train them.
And now they have.