Monday, December 21, 2020

2020 in review: FEI Spectating

It should come as no surprise to anybody following along for the last couple years, but I LOVE going to big horse shows as a spectator. Love it, haha. Really, anything at the upper levels is pretty exciting -- and the internationals are especially fun. 

We're super lucky here in Area II to be surrounded by so many world class venues. I particularly love trying to film as much of the action as humanly possible -- and can often be found scrambling alllll over the grounds, only staying at any one jump or feature for just 2-3 horses at a time (obvi changing angles between each horse!).  

Emily Beshear & Olney Uncle Sam
Fair Hill CCI 3* 2020
Actually, one of my consolation buys during the interminable days of lockdown last spring was a new camcorder expressly for this purpose (a Canon Vixia for anybody curious -- it's responsible for every video, gif, and still shot in this post). 

Previously, all of my big FEI XC Compilation videos were made with iphone footage and.... You could definitely tell haha. It only barely counted as "HD" and the zoom was especially bad. This new Canon, on the other hand, takes a much crisper picture and has 57x zoom. Yesssss!!

Tim Bourke & Quality Obsession
Fair Hill CCI 3* 2020
Obvi the global pandemic changed everything, but 2020 was supposed to be a HUGE year for spectatorship. 

We were supposed to go to BOTH of North America's CCI5* events: Kentucky and the inaugural Fair Hill 5*. Plus naturally we'd hit up all the other usual 3* and 4* haunts too -- Loch Moy, Great Meadow, Jersey Fresh, Plantation Field, Morven Park, etc. 

Instead, virtually the all spring / early summer events were wiped off the calendar entirely. And even once major competitions resumed, spectators weren't allowed due to covid restrictions. 

Luckily, tho, there are a couple allowable exceptions to the "no spectators" rule at most competitions. Most relevant to my interests? Volunteering

I wasn't sure how the process worked (for instance, if I volunteered on a different day than cross country, would I still be allowed in?) so for the first event of the season -- Fair Hill's 3* test event on the brand new international track -- I signed up for multiple days and roles to maximize the likelihood I'd be allowed to spectate XC. 

Fair Hill is close(ish) to home so this was doable. I familiarized myself with the new track in advance while flagging and decorating all the fences. Then got to film ALL of cross country day (video above!!), and then saw all of show jumping while volunteering at the in-gate. Yess!

Jennie Brannigan & Bliss III
Great Meadow CCI 4* 2020
That was my first time really using the new Canon camera, and I paired it with a monopod to help stabilize the extreme zoom capability. It was a cool track for getting a feel, too, since it was basically two long side-by-side lanes where you could stand in the middle and see nearly everything haha. 

Overall, while I was thrilled with the improved quality of the footage (and you should 100% watch that video if you haven't), it actually felt like the monopod made it shakier, not more stable. 

So a couple weeks later at Great Meadow, I stuck with handheld videoing. And guys, Great Meadow is gorgeous. From every angle, in every direction, there's always something beautiful in the background (even if it's just the rolling green Virginia countryside). 

Great Meadow is substantially farther from home for me, tho -- basically on the other side of DC. Which.... for those uninitiated with local traffic, is a massively unpleasant drive haha.  

I emailed the volunteer coordinator in advance and ultimately ended up signing up for cross country clean up. Which meant I could spend the whole day watching all the action before reporting for duty at the volunteer tent. Perfect!!

This was such an incredible event too. The track is dotted with iconic features all the way around and the class was enormous. Benefited in no small part by being one of the very few 4* classes offered this year in our area. 

ALL the big hitters were there, and I spent the day circulating the track again and again, catching every feature from multiple angles with multiple horses. Definitely one of my favorite videos! 

Boyd Martin & On Cue
Plantation Field CCI 3* 2020
One tricky aspect of the new Canon is it's a little fussy about focusing at its most extreme zoom range. Which.... is unfortunate, obviously. It eventually figures it out -- it's just a little slow to do so (or I'm a little ham-handed at managing the settings). 

I ended up slowing down the zoom speed, which definitely helped smooth things out. Plus I'm getting better at setting up my shot sooner so the camera has time to sort itself out. 

Most of these big events have anywhere from 30-60 horses running, usually at intervals of at least 2min between horses (but often closer to 3min), so that makes it reasonably easy to plan ahead for each shot and move from feature to feature in between horses. 

Boyd Martin & Long Island T
Plantation Field CCI 3* 2020
So by the time Plantation rolled around, I felt confident in operating the camera to create a pretty excellent video. 

This turned out to be important bc..... Well. You all probably know. There has been extensive community dialog this year regarding this legendary venue's name*. Some dialog has, in my opinion, been very constructive and very important. Some of it, tho, was.... less so. And multiple parties on both sides I think, if given the chance, would probably in retrospect wish they played their hands differently. 

Long story short, the courses were set and competition horses were already onsite doing their in-barns and jogs when news broke this would be the final running of this iconic event. 

(*Pro tip: if you're having trouble understanding why people care about the name, consider Maya Black has won major classes at this event multiple times in recent years -- and in fact won the 3* again this year -- leading to undeniably cringeworthy headlines like, "Black Wins Plantation!")
Boyd Martin & Long Island T
Plantation Field CCI3* 2020
It was actually sorta surreal -- this was another event where I signed up for advance volunteer roles -- helping to set up and finalize the xc courses prior to their ground jury inspection. I spent all morning with one of the course designers trimming brush and fixing flags and placing ropes and all that.... Only to be absolutely blindsided when the news dropped like a bomb later that same afternoon. 

So.... I figured, if this really would be the last running of this event (and honestly I maintain hope some mediation or solution will be found!), then dammit --- I'd make the best freakin video I could possibly make. 

Plantation is similar to Great Meadow (and to the old Fair Hill track, which I admit to strongly preferring to the new track.....) in that it's kinda an irregular shaped track that winds through various different terrain features including very natural looking water, ditch and bank complexes. 

The most notable features at Plantation are it's setting on a massive hillside, and the absolutely stunning stone ruins incorporated into various jump combinations. So I definitely tried to capture as much of all that as possible in the footage. 

One tricky thing in my filming style is tending to hold fairly tight frames on the horse and rider. I like this bc, imo, it creates a more engaging and intimate view of the action. But... one big downside is it's easier to chop off a horse or rider head or leg or something bc (obviously) the horse is constantly moving in and out of frame lol. 

So I need to find a balance where I can keep the frame tight enough to maintain that personal high-impact feeling, but without risking losing the big picture. 

That's what practice is all about, tho, right?? And here's hoping the competition landscape next year will be easier for all that. At this point it's still not looking particularly likely we'll get to go to Kentucky. But fingers crossed more of our local options will be a go! 

I also need to keep working on pushing these videos out to wider audiences haha, bc let's be real.... my own network and readership is.... limited lol. But I strongly believe these videos would appeal to a wider audience if I could just get in front of them. Lol... That's another downside of being terrible at social media I guess! That said --- for any of you who enjoyed these videos I'd love to hear about it! And would especially be grateful if you'd share with your own networks!


  1. youre like the new buzzter brown :P i used to love his videos!!

    1. ha nice!! most of the videos i see from other content producers at the big shows are organized by individual rider (as in, one video per rider). seems like the USEF and FEI have kinda gone in this direction too -- with on-demand videos available for each rider. as a spectator tho i really prefer more of a 'live broadcast' type feeling that captures more of the entire competition. so that's what i try to do with these videos i guess lol

  2. Cool! I'm looking forward to all your videos next year!

  3. It's awesome that you take these. I will likely never make it to one of these to spectate so it's great to live vicariously.

    1. hey, ya never know!! but until then, i'm definitely happy to supply the vicarious viewing opportunities :D

  4. I definitely agree that it is cool to have a decent-ish camera in our pockets via phones, but having something actually built for the job of taking stills and videos, you end up with a product that blows phone cameras out of the water, every time.


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