In 2008, veteran eventer and Olympian Jim Wofford wrote the tremendously outspoken article Eventing Lives in The Balance for Practical Horseman. Every year or so this article crops up on Facebook again, reading as fresh and relevant as it did the day it was released–or perhaps more so, because every time it rises up, it’s a rash of eventing catastrophes that awoke it from its slumber.
In the past weeks we’ve lost several horses and riders on the cross-country course. We have to be careful out there, that goes without saying. Eventing was never a cautious person’s sport, which means as riders, the temptation to go to the extreme edges of safety is always there.
Here’s the thing: the contemporary version of eventing isn’t a level playing field for horses or riders. There are hidden dangers to the way short format eventing is designed, and since not everyone is going to read every word of Wofford’s warning, here’s the TL;DR on Eventing Lives in The Balance:
Jumping at speed: Horses can do it when they’re in charge. Look at horses who jump steeplechase courses without their rider (unimpeded by their rider, in this usage):
“I have heard of only one horse in the Grand National who fell while jumping unimpeded: That horse soon had to be retired because no jockey in England or Ireland would take the ride on a horse who would fall on its own. If you offer Irish jockeys (who are mad) money to ride and they turn it down because they are afraid to ride a horse who will fall on its own, you know something is up.”
The fences haven’t changed: technical questions and skinnies are old school military:
“As young officers, most of them had jumped ladder-back kitchen chairs for fun, and the more enterprising of the military types had jumped a saber stuck in the ground. Narrow fences and agility tests were nothing new to them.”
Without the steeplechase phase, big fences are being jumped too fast, although optimum time remains 570 meters per minute:
“Expert onlookers at this year’s Galway CIC***/**/* clocked riders with a radar gun. Some CCI* riders recorded speeds of more than 800 meters per minute, the same average speed as used in the Grand National and Maryland Hunt Cup.”
The emphasis on serious collection in dressage means horses aren’t taking initiative over fences. They’re waiting to be told what to do:
“Other dressage experts, including Reiner Klimke, have mentioned to me that when we truly and correctly collect our horses, we also subdue their initiative… More collection, less initiative–less initiative, more falls.”
Here’s where it all comes together. “Show-jumping at speed” is a misnomer when trappy combinations require careful pacing, leaving the speed for the big stand-alone fences, where our collected horses wait for instructions at 30 miles per hour:
“Now the remaining 50 percent of the cross-country obstacles must be ridden at extreme speeds in order for the rider to remain at all competitive. At these extreme speeds we must still regulate our horse’s strides. Since we have caused our horses to surrender their initiative to us, we must now take responsibility for the placement of their stride at the correct take-off distance from the jump.”
Which…. isn’t always going to happen.
Eventing Lives in the Balance has been haunting me since it was published, when I had a farm and an eventing prospect and was trying to understand what had happened to the sport I’d grown up in. I didn’t know then if there was a future for me in eventing, when I’d always before seen myself growing into an upper-level rider.
Writing Pride over the past two years and thinking very hard about the push and pull of dressage on our horses has made this article come alive for me in new ways. In Pride, I take an average cross-country loving event girl and make her face up to her dressage ghosts. A potential sponsor explains to her that however much she loves her galloping, long format is over. The Military is for the history books. This is the new face of eventing. Comply or die, to borrow a name from a steeplechase champion.
If the sport isn’t exactly balanced in the favor of the horse, we must take care, such care, with them. It’s up to riders to make good decisions for their horses, and themselves. Wofford sums up his article with a few suggestions to keep safe out there: remember that a good round is better than a ribbon, teach your horse to jump from self-carriage, and keep on searching for that horse with “The Look of Eagles,” the one he recommends in Training The Three-Day Event Horse and Rider:
“We need horses who are supremely courageous, fiercely independent and phenomenally agile. Find such a horse and treasure him. Teach him that you will trust him with your life.”
Maybe 800 words isn’t a great TL;DR, but what can I say: eventing makes me wordy. It’s why I decided to write novels about it. Anyway, find the horse you’ll trust with your life, and give him a carrot for me. May the eventing gods smile on your ride time.