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July 23, 2010

Develop Your Own Championship Horse?

Photo by Arnd Bronkhorst.

Our columnist hopes that eventually it will become commonplace again for international show jumpers to start their horses from scratch.

Having so many different disciplines within equestrian sports is part of what makes it so interesting. We’ll be seeing all eight Fédération Equestre Internationale-recognized disciplines at the end of September in Kentucky at the Alltech FEI World Equestrian Games.

Along with the competition, we’ll see demonstrations of a broad spectrum of national breeds and disciplines. Horses will spin and slide, gallop cross-country, cover long distances, balance whole teams of vaulters, piaffe and passage, navigate hazards pulling carriages, pair up with para-equestrians, as well as jump 1.60-meter courses in Kentucky.

It’s astounding just how many unique skills horses are able to perfect! One must wonder how they can be members of the same species!

One factor spans all disciplines: the time, effort and expertise involved in bringing any horse to the pinnacle of its game.

Every animal taking part in the WEG will have had its own story of the trip to these Games. Each horse was either bred for that particular part of the sport, or its potential was recognized at a relatively early age.

Then someone took the green animal and put the early work into it in a way that provided a solid foundation for what came later. Most often it was a series of people; occasionally, one person did it all.

Most jumping horses in Kentucky will range from 10 to 14 years of age. Some will be 9—the minimum age for a horse to participate in the WEG. Since most show jumping prospects begin some specialized training sometime during their 4-year-old year, this situation means that five years or more of work must be invested before even the FEI considers them ready to walk into a championship venue.

For the other two Olympic disciplines—eventing and dressage—similar training periods are required.

Show Jumping Is Different

Looking at these three disciplines here in the United States, I see one big difference between show jumping and the other two: in show jumping it’s far less likely that the international-level rider did the early riding and training of his or her championship partner.

In dressage, Olympic veterans Debbie McDonald and Brentina were partners from the mare’s 3-year-old year. Some of the many dressage riders who brought horses all the way to the top had competed at Grand Prix on other horses before, but a few reached this highest level step-by-step, learning as they went.

Similarly in eventing, there are many, many stories of top-level riders achieving the championship goals on horses they made “from scratch.”

Good examples are Olympians Amy Tryon with Poggio, and former World Champion Bruce Davidson who purchased his 1978 winner Might Tango as a 3-year-old.

It’s interesting that while event horses are subject to some of the most extreme physical tests of any discipline—in training and competition—you’ll see some of the oldest horses at the highest level in this group.

I don’t doubt that their longevity has much to do with just how well the riders know their horses after so many years together and thus know how best to tailor their schedules and care to maximize their careers.

For show jumping riders in the United States, it remains the exception for a rider to begin with a horse at 5 or younger and then see that horse go on to the international level.

Greg Best with Gem Twist and Lisa Jacquin riding For The Moment are the last pairs to have gone to the World Championships/Games level after starting together at the very beginning–and that was two decades and more ago.

Why the difference, especially when you consider it’s not so uncommon for show jumping riders outside our shores to begin with 4- or 5-year-olds?

My feeling is that it has much to do with the importance of the “industry” over the “sport” in our country. Our established riders spend most of their time at shows, with very little time at home to devote to training. Until they reach a more mature age, few horses progress well being taken non-stop from show to show.

This fact means here in the United States the typical young jumper is almost sure to receive its early training from someone other than a big-name trainer or rider. This situation can work well as long as the horse meets the right people at the right time.

Witness the horse Pako, who has been a consistent winner in Europe for two or three years for Richard Spooner. This horse was originally bred for the sport by an enthusiastic, non-riding horseman named Don Palus on the Central Coast of California.

Don went to local professional Kristin Medall Simpson Hardin to start him under saddle and over small jumps. Then he was sold to Doug and Julie White in Nevada where he got those all-important early years of “mileage” that made him the choice of Richard, who purchased him initially for his wife to ride.

Richard soon saw that Pako was cut out for an international career, and he’s since won everything from puissance to six-bar, 1.50- and 1.60-meter classes with him, most recently winning the La Baule Derby (France) with the only clear round. Pako is just one of a growing number of examples showing that international horses can be produced in the United States.

The question remains, though, why aren’t there more?

Our country still lacks an effective and complete system for developing show jumping horses from scratch. It’s not easy to discover those rarest of gems, a horse with the qualities it takes to “go all the way.”

Not missing a one-in-a-million horse is more likely when every horse has a fair chance to show what it’s got. Anyone lucky enough to have had a top horse knows that that individual was a unique mix of talent, character, toughness and experience.

The first three are born into them even though the qualities are not always altogether evident in the early years. The last one is a product of education, and, just like a child prodigy, care must be taken to develop and sustain a desire to achieve–neither overwhelming nor boring them through the growing years.

The wrong teacher or the wrong curriculum, at the wrong time, will most certainly ensure a bad result, be it child or horse.

Sadly, it’s those individuals with the highest degree of the qualities needed in today’s top international horse that are the easiest to ruin in the early years. Sensitive, careful, earnest and determined horses are those most easily discouraged or disheartened when their level of experience and education doesn’t provide them with the answers to the questions they’re being faced with.

As I discussed in a previous column, “Show Jumping Then And Now”, the lack of connection between breeders and competition riders–via a strong network of individuals with experience and education in putting correct early mileage on youngsters–is one area that must be addressed if we’re ever to reduce our dependence on horses trained in Europe.

Judging by the incredible response to that column and interest expressed in the inaugural Young Jumper Championship Symposium on Training and Developing Young Horses that will take place in November, many of us take this end of the sport seriously.

Seeking A Systematic Approach

I believe that the other critical area of concern if we’re to effectively bridge the gap between breeder and competition rider is the inconsistency (and often total inappropriate nature) of the courses our young horses are asked to jump when they first enter competition.

Compared with Germany, the Netherlands or France–where so many of our horses come from–our system for young jumpers seems like no system at all.

Using the school analogy, our “pre-schoolers” (the 4-year-olds) have almost nothing for them except for possibly one outing in the fall with the International Jumper Futurity where they’re given the chance to see the arena, then jump small jumps that they can trot over before seeing a simple track the next day. Otherwise, they take their chances in some level of open class at the shows.

 The 5-year-olds (grade-schoolers) have the worst of it. Most horses this age are like grammar-school kids: showing where their talents lie but either painfully shy or headstrong and a bit bratty. They don’t concentrate well for long, tire easily (mentally if not physically) and quickly learn to hate what they’re doing if they feel overwhelmed.

Think of the differences in what’s expected of a student between first and eighth grades. How many first-grade students could sit down in an eighth-grade algebra class, work for 50 minutes straight, and not dread the rest of the week?

Yet our greenest 5-year-olds must do just that when they are asked to jump courses suitable for experienced horses at 1.20-meter level. For a horse with talent, the size of the jumps is seldom the issue. It’s how the jumps are presented.

I recently watched some young horses try to deal with a 1.15-meter course in which they were asked to jump a double combination, vertical to oxer, that required a 90-degree turn away from the long side of the arena (right next to the open in-gate).

They had three strides–if they completed the turn perfectly–to figure out how to handle the rather long combination. In addition, the jumps consisted of half of a length of 30" wall under the center of each element. None did it well, even if the riders managed to force them through it. Many landed in the middle of the oxer going out. Not one left with any positive educational experience for the attempt.

You would never, ever see this sort of thing in Europe for young horses.

Their program is as well thought-out as an entire school curriculum–from pre-school through university–and the course builders are horsemen who are aware of the animals jumping the courses, how their minds work and what’s appropriate by year and according to the time of the year.

Their work is evaluated by the quality education they put into the young horses that participate, not by how many entrants in how many classes they can accommodate in a day.

I wonder if one of the reasons that one will find more dressage and eventing riders successfully making their own upper-level horses from scratch is the simple fact that these disciplines are more specific in what’s asked of horses at each level.

While a young dressage horse with an experienced rider may be able to execute some passage or piaffe at home in training, you can be sure they will never arrive at a show to find their horses are suddenly being asked to do it in a test below Grand Prix. Ditto that with flying changes for eventers.

The levels are a systematic process in these disciplines with clearly spelled out and detailed parameters at each and every step. Everyone knows in advance what will be expected of the horses.

The rules for show jumping, on the other hand, consider the height of the fences and nothing more. As any rider can tell you, and every course designer should be able to, height alone isn’t what makes a given fence, combination or line difficult. It’s the combination of approach, material, distance, width, visual look, footing, slope and outside distractions, along with height that makes something easy or hard for a given horse at a given point on the course.

Just as dressage horses are capable of a lot in training but aren’t asked to do it all in competition until much time and training is invested in them, jumpers can jump big fences as young horses. But asking them to do it a lot or in competition before they’ve the maturity, strength and experience will pretty much guarantee that they won’t be doing it reliably and as sound horses later in life.

It’s a tough choice for an owner of a young, green jumper when they’ve spent the money to go to a show only to find courses that risk setting their horse back in their training instead of moving it forward.

Horses need show ring mileage to progress, but they seldom benefit from the sort of long weeks on the road that older horses must endure. The sad part is the lack of opportunity in most areas of our country to put suitable mileage on a young one without incurring the horrendous expense of multi-day shows.

For this reason alone, I doubt we’ll be seeing too many Debbie McDonalds or Amy Tryons appearing in the show jumping discipline, which makes it all the more important we put more attention into identifying and educating those who can successfully and effectively do the early work on our horses.

As to the lack of focus put on young horses at our shows, I don’t see our shows eager to make more concessions to a segment of the industry that just doesn’t always fit in very well with its strong emphasis on amateurs and juniors.

It’s a chicken and the egg situation, since low numbers in young horse classes don’t justify anything beyond using the same courses as for the open classes, yet doing this means few are willing to bring young horses to the shows given the considerable cost of attending and dubious results obtained.

For sure there are no easy answers. In recent years in Europe some areas have begun offering venues/days specifically for younger horses when they can’t accommodate what they consider an important segment of the sport into their regular shows. Maybe in areas with a concentration of young horses something might be explored along these lines here.

Personally, I don’t want to give up until our country produces another winning pair like Greg with Gem Twist or Lisa with For The Moment. Other show jumping riders deserve the thrill of riding a totally green horse and having it go on to take them all the way to the WEG or the Olympic Games, or even simply a local championship. 

Noted international course designer Linda Allen created the show jumping courses for the 1996 Atlanta Olympics and the 1992 FEI World Cup Finals. She’s a licensed judge, technical delegate and a former international show jumper. She lives in Fillmore, Calif., and San Juan Cosalá, Jalisco, Mexico, and founded the International Jumper Futurity and the Young Jumper Championships. Allen began writing Between Rounds columns in 2001.

If you enjoyed this article and would like to read more like it, consider subscribing. "Develop Your Own Championship Horse?ran in the July 23 issue. Check out the table of contents to see what great stories are in the magazine this week.

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