Eventers were startled last week by news that the U.S. Equestrian Federation would not renew the contract of Erik Duvander, the discipline’s performance director – but no one was more shocked than Erik himself.

“I was 100 percent surprised,” he commented during a phone interview from his home in New Zealand. “I was very confident I was going to continue working for the next three years (through the Paris Olympics) with the team.”

USEF offered no explanation for its action, a little more than nine months before the 2022 Eventing World Championships in Italy.

Eventing “stakeholders” were notified by USEF in a brusque email that Erik’s contract, which expired Nov. 30, would not be renewed and that Jenni Autry, the managing director of eventing, was no longer with the federation.

According to the email, the action followed “a detailed review involving stakeholder surveys” and a series of meetings among eventing constituents, USEF CEO Bill Moroney and the organization’s president, Tom O’Mara. It indicated more information would be announced in the coming days.

What was the reason for the abrupt end of Erik’s involvement?

“I haven’t asked,” he said, the day after being told he could not continue in the job to which he had devoted himself since the autumn of 2017.

“I’m a little bit upset about it but I’m not bitter about it because I know I did all I could and that’s all I wish from myself or anyone I work with. You do your best and if that’s not what’s wanted, then people have to move on and that’s where we are.”

Following the notice that he was no longer part of the program, Erik was gratified to have heard within hours from nearly all the high performance riders with whom he has worked, noting, “There have been some very moving letters, emails and conversation from athletes.”

That is worth mentioning in a world where participants generally are just laser-focused on their sport.

“I’m overwhelmed,” he observed, because usually, “you just work and everyone does their jobs.”

As Boyd Martin posted on his Facebook page, “I was saddened to hear that Erik Duvander’s contract will not be renewed. I have greatly appreciated what Erik has done for me over the last five years since coming on board as the American coach. I believe he has changed my career through his coaching and mentoring and I owe a lot of my successes to him.”

While there is some speculation on social media about why Erik’s contract was not renewed, most of the comments come from people who are mystified in lieu of any explanation from USEF. The eventing team did not get a medal in the Tokyo Olympics, but was sixth, a great improvement from the 2016 Rio Games where only half of the four-member squad finished the event to wind up 12th. David O’Connor, who was the technical advisor at that time, resigned the following May.

Phillip Dutton, the 2016 Olympic individual bronze medalist and the USA’s senior high performance eventing star, said Bill Moroney had conducted a thorough post-Tokyo Olympics debriefing “with everybody involved…a pretty extensive hashing out…a look at the way the whole program’s going. I think in general, most people were surprised Erik was not kept on. Maybe changing the role a little bit, but kept on certainly with the world championships next year.”

It is to be hoped that this situation does not pave the way for the same scenario as the last World Equestrian Games (the world championships are being held only in conjunction with driving this time around.)

Taking over the helm just 10 months before the 2018 WEG in Tryon, NC, Erik noted he didn’t have much time to do the development that was needed. “It always takes a few years before you can turn the ship,” Erik explained.

Even so, the team ended up eighth in Tryon, a better showing than four years earlier when the U.S. was 10th at the WEG in Normandy, France, with only two of four riders finishing.

Erik had achieved an impressive trajectory during his tenure. Not having his contract renewed was particularly hard to understand because there was evidence of real advancement. In September, Will Coleman became the first American to win the Aachen, Germany 4-star, where the U.S. team finished second. A month later, Boyd Martin topped the new Maryland 5-star, becoming the first U.S. rider to win at the top level of the sport since Phillip Dutton did it at Rolex Kentucky 13 years ago. Also in October, an American team that did not include Olympians took second place at the Boekelo, Netherlands, Nations Cup 4-star Long.

“Repetitive success is an indicator of where the program is tracking,” Erik pointed out at that time.

Phillip contends, “Competing on the world stage a lot more is what we need to be doing. Certainly, that’s been restricted by the Covid and everything else. But it’s fair to say the standard we’re competing at here is not as high as it is in the world. We all need to make an effort to compete against the best on a reasonably regular basis. That would be where I could see Erik doing very well and overseeing those traveling and teams and helping them prepare for that.”

Assessing Erik’s abilities, Phillip stated, “The basics of the guy are incredible. His horsemanship skills and his knowledge; his ability to pick out areas that really improve the horse and rider, are as good as I’ve seen. It would be good to recognize that and utilize that skill in the right way.”

However, he pointed out, “I don’t think the program was set up very well.”

He noted that with Erik having to travel all over a huge country, “I think it was hard to win or be successful doing that. If I was in charge of the whole thing, I would have come up with a better way of utilizing his time and his energies.”

Because nearly every rider has at least one personal trainer, it’s not always clear how a team coach, technical advisor or performance director should fit in.

Jennie Brannigan, a member of the Boekelo silver medal team, found a way and emphasized that working with Erik made a difference for her. “I think Erik’s pretty awesome; I’m someone who benefited greatly from his help.”

She felt not renewing his contract in any form “is quite a slap, considering things were finally on the ‘up,’” and criticized a lack of transparency in the process.

Describing working with Erik, Jennie noted, “The thing that he said starting out with him was that if you wanted his help and you were all-in, he was happy to help, but it needed to be rider-driven.”

Apparently not everyone appreciated that approach, however.

“It was clear a lot of people were unhappy with the way the high performance program worked,” said Liz Halliday-Sharp,

“Some people felt maybe he was spread too thin and they weren’t getting the attention they would have hoped for from him. I would just call him up if I wanted to talk to him about something. I wouldn’t wait for him to call me. I would send him a message with a question or send him some videos of my horses working at home or at a show and say `What do you think?’ and I never once didn’t receive a response or some thoughts on how things could be improved.”

Liz, who was named to the Olympic team but replaced due to a horse issue, felt that difficult situation was handled very professionally by Eric and the team’s support staff.

“I think Erik has been a seriously influential part of U.S (eventing) now having some of the best results they’ve had in maybe fifteen years. I think he was a catalyst for that and I feel we were on the cusp of being even better for the next three years, and it’s a shame that we are now going back to square one,” Liz commented.

“I’m really disappointed and shocked that this was the decision made. I don’t think it was the right choice for U.S. eventing.”

Liz also had high praise for Jenni Autry.

“I thought Jenni took it on with every ounce of her soul. I fought very hard for Jenni and Erik to stay on,” she noted.

Jenni declined an interview, stating simply, “It has been an immense privilege working with the athletes, grooms, owners and staff to ultimately see the U.S. Eventing Team deliver their best results in over a decade.”

Erik, who was born in the U.S, moved to Sweden as a child and rode for that country’s Olympic team. He has coached for several nations and prior to the U.S. job was with the program in New Zealand.

What’s next for him?

“I just arrived back in New Zealand after a long year, so I need to spend a little time with my family and figure out what to do,” Erik mused.

“I could see myself coming to the States; I love the States. I haven’t come up with a game plan yet. I know there are plenty of things for me to do, so I’m not worried about staying busy.”

Erik said some of the U.S. riders “want to carry on working with me,” and he’s interested.

“You build such strong bonds with these athletes,” he explained, “and you’re proud of what they’re doing. I think they’re on track and I think they’re all in touch to win medals at the next two championships. They should just keep putting their heads down and keep working away, because it’s nearly there.”