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July 19, 2010

Conditioning For The Clueless: Things To Avoid When Aiming For Your First Event

Cartoon by Custer Cassidy.

Back in the days of the dinosaur, before my best buddy and I had either sense or a proper trainer (trainers were unaffordable and sense was, um, in short supply), I spent a year as an exchange student at a university in England.

To help cover tuition and board, I worked as a combination au pair and stable manager for a woman who competed internationally. Since we were centrally located, I got lucky and attended some of the most important events and shows in the world. Badminton’s cross-country course was just a short hack from the farm, and I’d never seen anything like the jumps there.

Eventing was in its infancy in the States—most people had never even heard of the sport. One trip to the Badminton three-day event spiked my interest in potential equestrian challenges hitherto unknown. It looked like fun, and like the adrenaline rush to end adrenaline rushes. At that age, adrenaline-rushes are what life is all about.

On my return to the States, degree in hand, I rode for several years as a professional before gratifying my parents by making use of the very expensive education I’d supposedly absorbed.

About that time, Tory, my first horse, came into my life. Tory took delight in galloping cross-country (or, in fact, galloping anywhere as long as there was a jump within reach), and it was clear (at least to me) that Heaven had sent her to me to be my event horse.

The fact that she loathed dressage—she made that very clear to me and every judge who ever laid eyes on her—seemed to have escaped my notice. Then again, those were the days when you could survive a rotten dressage test with brilliant and clean cross-country and stadium rounds, and Tory could certainly produce brilliant, clean and fast rounds. (They even used to give bonus points for speed—we ate those up.)

I boarded her on a working cattle farm near the city. We had 1000 acres of barbed wire-fenced fields and woods which we shared with a herd of dairy cows, wild pigs, the local bow-hunting idiots and dirt-bike enthusiasts. Our jumps consisted of our own ingenuity and skill at scavenging: rusty oil drums, poles we made from broken fence rails, traffic cones (I won’t tell you where we got those), and coops and brush fences we built from scraps we begged (we did a lot of whining) from the lumber mill down the road.

We did have ditches and drops, but they were gullies washed out from storms and a deep creek that ran through the property. There were also copperheads, coyotes, porcupines, skunks and the occasional pack of feral dogs. Not to mention buzzards, wild turkeys, mother mockingbirds (have you ever been attacked by a nesting mockingbird?) and stray golf balls from the championship course across the highway.

A Partner In Crime

A year or so after I moved to this farm, I met another boarder with similar tastes and a similar lack of common sense. We immediately became friends, riding buddies and partners in crime. She’d even heard of eventing—she’d ridden off-and-on with one of the few upper-level American event riders during her school days—and she’d been bitten by the same “I want to do that too!” bug as I had.

When I started describing what I‘d seen in England to my friend, we decided, being young, foolish and indestructible, that eventing was the challenging horse sport, and that was where we should aim our poor unsuspecting horses.

We subscribed to and read all the British eventing magazines we could get our hands on (this was long before the Internet) and volunteered at the events we could find so that we could watch the big boys and learn from them. (This was before baby novice classes, and the divisions that were offered were huge and completely out of our reach.)

We rode every day and tried to sort what we’d seen, what we read and what we had previously learned into some kind of workable mélange.

The magazines said that to event successfully and safely, your horse had to be fit. We knew from our reading that the team members did interval training to get their horses into the kind of shape that would survive a three-day event. I knew from working as an exercise rider at the track that a good bit of galloping was involved. Of course, I’d done my work at the track under the eagle eye of an experienced and careful trainer, but one who, unfortunately, didn’t bother to explain the “whys” of what he was doing, just the “whats.”

Conditioning a three-day horse is no joke; it takes many miles and hours to get an advanced level horse into shape for cross-country, which can be a run of as much as 12 minutes at a gallop. If you don’t think that 12 minutes at a gallop is work, go try it sometime. Don’t forget to add hills to your gallop—and make sure it’s really a gallop and not a relaxed canter. And remember to factor in roads and tracks and steeplechase as well if you’re doing long-format.

Needless to say, all this conditioning doesn’t happen by itself. It requires prior planning. A wise trainer sets up a conditioning schedule months ahead of a major competition to be absolutely sure the horse arrives at the event in peak shape.

The only book on eventing we knew of (most Stateside publishers at the time did not acknowledge that three-day eventing existed) was one I found in England by Sheila Wilcox called The Event Horse.

Ms Wilcox set out in detail her program for getting a young horse conditioned and ready for (as she put it) a “run ‘round Badminton.”

Footnote here: Badminton is arguably the largest, fiercest and most prestigious event in the world. To “run ‘round Badminton” takes a superbly-conditioned and brave horse, guts, skill, lots of talent and preparation, a hefty dose of luck and a touch of insanity. Just finishing (also called surviving) Badminton is beyond most mere mortals. Ms. Wilcox had not only “run ‘round Badminton,” she’d won the event three years in a row on three different horses. A lot of her instructions assumed prior knowledge. For us, it was the proverbial razor in the monkey’s paw. We had dedication, drive and determination. What we lacked was a sense of proportion—and sense.

The Conditioning Begins

We set up a conditioning program. The Wilcox book assumed that one had access to an infinite amount of land to do trot sets and steeplechase training, trailers to take the young horse places and lots of brightly colored jumps to school over. We had the farm, the cow pasture, the forest and the jumps we’d cobbled together. So we were off!

Dressage schooling? Hah! We knew we had to memorize the dressage tests (thank you Pony Club). Beyond that, both our horses hated dressage, so why bother? Let’s jump!

Any sane technical delegate would have canceled an event outright and permanently banned the course builder if the event had presented some of the things that we frolicked over, through and into.

We knew we had to train up and down hills, over ditches and drops. There was a long, steep hill, which led to a water meadow and to the creek, which had a four-foot drop into about 6 feet of water with a lovely sandy bottom. Since we knew we’d be seeing hillside fences on cross-country, we figured we should school over something similar. We built a coop in the middle of the long slope.

We’d start down the hill at a trot, which became a canter by the time we got to the coop, then hit the water meadow at a dead run followed by a launch into the creek where we would, of course, completely forget about our interval training and swim. In the heat and humidity of the summer, the horses were as happy as we were.

We jumped fallen trees, not worrying about branches protruding on the far side or interesting stuff on the landing. Stopping to inspect before jumping (also known as “look before you leap”) didn’t occur to us. We were blessed with youth’s delusion of immortality, and we survived because of very clever horses that realized their own survival depended on them being the sensible ones in the partnership.

The farm was about a 20-minute trot down a two-lane country road from the local pharmacy and soda fountain. That was our trot work. We would hack our mounts to the pharmacy, tie our loyal troops up to the parking meter and stop at the soda fountain for ice cream cones, which of course we shared with the horses. The pharmacy catered to the foxhunting community, and the owner and manager was reasonable the day one of the horses untied himself and came in to get his own. The pharmacy is now a mega-chain, the building has been converted into high-end shops like Cartier, the village is now the ritziest and toniest suburb of a very large East Coast city, and what used to be a two-lane road is now a six-lane highway with about 150 traffic lights and no apparent speed limit.

And then there were our gallops. We had read up on those and knew we were supposed to do timed works over a set distance. The first time we attempted this was a lovely late-winter morning with a hint of spring in the air. The horses felt fine and so did we. We got to the field where we’d carefully measured out our route, looked at each other and took off.

Measured pace? Measured distance? Spring fever strikes again. That was the end of our attempt to do the thing properly. When we finally did consult with a real professional on what we should be doing, he explained that as long as our horses were in decent work and we were only doing novice, we really didn’t need to have them racing fit. As it was, ours were usually the best-conditioned horses at a competition, both mentally and physically. They had, after all, survived us.

For stadium schooling, we created some of the most unusual obstacles ever assembled, on the theory that if they’d jump those, they’d jump anything we could find at a show. The old blanket-over-the-pole trick was way too mundane for us. We tied paper plates to a pole; we hung strips of aluminum foil over a pole. On one memorable occasion, we ran a hose with a rotating sprinkler attachment out to the arena and positioned it so that the spray of the water was just under the height of the jump. We corralled a couple of the farm chickens and stuck them in a cage under a jump. And we dreamed up courses that required the steering control of a Formula 1 car.

It wasn’t orthodox, it wasn’t always the safest approach to schooling, and it certainly wasn’t common sense, but we didn’t have a lot of problems with our horses objecting to the appearance of any jumps at a formal show.

When we did actually get to compete, we were up against a crowd with money, trainers and time. We were delighted when we placed, as we did occasionally. We dreamed of competing at places like Kentucky or Badminton but knew in our hearts that our dreams were only dreams. So we did what we could and had a blast doing it.

Kathie P. Mautner grew up as a "Foreign Service brat," and now she works as an insurance attorney and competes in ballroom dancing. Her horse experience includes eventing, dressage and hunter/jumpers as well as volunteering as a Pony Club D.C. "I'm a survivor of ponies of all sizes," said Mautner. She also writes humor pieces for the Chronicle recalling her mispent youth as well as a serious column every now and then.

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