The Chronicle of the Horse recently ran a column by the eventing veteran Denny Emerson, considered by many to be one of the masters of the sport, questioning what happened to the old “down time” between competition seasons.
I read it with excitement, because I thought that Denny would echo my own thoughts. Sport horses had traditionally gotten the winters off, until winter travel became more commonplace and the practice of travelling to less-icy climes became the showing norm. I think year-round showing is detrimental to mental and physical health – how ’bout you, Denny?
The column ended up like a Google search of “Time off for event horses.” He talked to a lot of people about their practices, and found, unsurprisingly, that everyone has their own opinion. Some horses like a few weeks off, some horses like a few weeks of light riding, some horses can’t have more than a day off, etc. He finally concluded, “Every single rider I asked about downtime agreed about one thing, if one thing only: that the horses come back from their rest breaks brighter, sharper and fresher and ready to go back to work.”
Sometimes I really wish I could just get solid advice from magazines.
In the meantime, I go back to the masters.
It was once the common practice to give horses an off season. Consider the closing paragraphs of the classic manual The Event Horse by Sheila Willcox:
If the Three-Day-Event is the close of the season, he is roughed off gradually and goes out into the field as soon as the weather permits.
The training season is over.”
Sheila Willcox, if you aren’t familar with her, is to this day the only rider to have won Badminton three years in a row (although Lucinda Green and Pippa Funnell have put up a good fight, winning twice in a row and then having to wait a year for their next win). And she did this, we can assume, following her own advice for keeping an event horse sound and fresh.
The rest period is stressed again and again in her book. After nine months of steady training, she writes, the young horse
should have a complete rest before starting on an actual Trials season. He should be roughed off and turned out in the field for anything from three to six weeks.”
For her upper-level horses, competing at both Badminton and Burghley, she prescribes two rest periods, a month following a spring three-day event, and six to eight weeks following the horse’s autumn three-day event. Her reason is compelling:
This ensures that the horse retains his interest in the sport and goes a long way towards keeping him sound. . . No horse can remain at peak fitness from March until October. He grows tired and stale working all the time and when that happens he makes mistakes. You must guard against this.”
Mistakes on the cross-country course can get someone killed.
Time off for a season might be good for the rider, as well. Riding during a Florida summer is its own kind of misery. People go to all sorts of ends to try and “beat the heat,” getting up at five a.m. to ride before the sun is up (but when the humidity is at its highest), mortgaging the farm for a covered arena which provides a riding environment that sounds like something between a rushing waterfall and an air raid when the afternoon storms roll through, or, most foolishly and naturally my favorite trick, waiting until just before a thunderstorm hits and it’s nice and cloudy (if a little electrical).
It was nicer for everyone when I just gave up, stayed in the air conditioning all day, and left the horses on their own, to move between the pond and the fans in the run-in shed. We were all more cheerful, and I do believe that “not getting struck by lightning while training” applies in the “stays sound” category.