“It’s not something that’s worked on as much as the actual jumping and the approach to the jump and the position while jumping,” he said. “But it’s certainly something I put a high priority on. I don’t think you’re an all-around horseman unless you’re able to be in balance while galloping and stay out of your horse’s way. I’m not necessarily going to teach people to gallop the way I do between jumps, but I do think it’s important that they don’t bounce on the horse’s back and that they are able to get and keep their balance.”
Martin said that when he was learning to event in Australia, galloping position wasn’t taught.
“It was a culture of learning to event by natural feel,” he said. “There wasn’t that much formal training in my career before I came to the United States; definitely, cross-country riding positions were not addressed that much. When I moved to America to work for Phillip, and for the two years when I was riding some of Bruce Davidson’s horses, those guys really entrenched a science behind the correctness of galloping. Before 2008, I was just doing what came naturally, which wasn’t always efficient.”
Wofford said it’s a different story in Europe. At the Luhmühlen CCI**** (Germany) in June, he saw not just the British Olympians but their younger riders as well.
“They ride shorter than American riders do; they’re well up over the withers; they have a pronounced angle behind the knee; they’re very connected with their horses, and their horses go in a very attractive way across the country,” he said. “Just after the last rider went, I happened to go past Yogi Breisner [performance manager for the British eventing team], and some of his riders had gone very well, and I congratulated him on that.
“I asked him when he was going to come back to America and teach people to gallop again, because his riders galloped in a very attractive style, and he laughed, and he said: ‘Jimmy, you’re very kind. Thank you very much. When our talented riders get put on lists, I find them jobs over the winter with race horse trainers.’ So these kids are studying galloping and their position at speed in the same way they’re studying dressage and show jumping techniques. We’re being left in the dust because we’re only focusing on two parts rather than three parts,” he continued.
Will Coleman, who represented the U.S. team at the Olympics this year, added that his own galloping position was honed by years of foxhunting across Virginia’s undulating terrain.
“You end up kind of gearing towards the position that’s more comfortable to you and to the horse,” said Coleman, of Gordonsville, Va. “When you’re out galloping for four or five hours, you find a way to get comfortable.”
But Coleman also received a piece of advice from David O’Connor, incoming U.S. team coach and one of Coleman’s instructors as a young rider, that stuck with him.
“David was the first one to put the idea in my head: to try and find somebody who’s built like you and who rides exceptionally well, and then to mimic them. So I ended up being drawn to guys who are built like me, whether it’s Mark Todd or Andrew Nicholson, and then trying to emulate the way they sat or galloped on the horses,” said Coleman. “I was the guy who studied and watched and observed a lot, and then I tried to incorporate it into my riding. You don’t have to pay $100 to watch someone.”
An Open Or Closed Case?
But does physique and upbringing entirely influence a rider’s position, or is there something more intentional involved in the technique of being upright versus crouched in the saddle?
Martin, who rides with a more open hip angle at some points on course, described the benefits of that position: “You can actually balance the body weight almost using four points—the two hands and then the two legs,” he said. “You can balance your body weight forward and almost lock your knee joints, so you’re not using your muscles to hold yourself up there. If you’re banking on your strength, you might clunk back into the saddle. I think if you do that enough times, it wears the horse down. If you’re riding a number of horses or a long enough course, sooner or later your muscles are going to collapse. If you can balance, you can hold this gallop position for much longer.”
He also believes it’s easier on the horses once they’re accustomed to the style.
“One thing you have to understand is that your body weight is your accelerator and your brake on cross-country,” said Martin. “When I’ve had horses in training for a long time, when you land from a fence and stand straighter, that tells the horse he can now pick up speed and gallop. When I lower my seat, that’s the signal that there’s a fence coming. Once the skill is perfected over time, you often find you’re not pulling on their mouth to slow down. The master of this is Phillip [Dutton]. The stride he lands after a fence, he’s popped back into this position.”
But Wofford, who said he started seeing the standing position more often in this country five or six years ago, cited a study released in 2009 by the Royal Veterinary College at the University of London, which stated that the crouched position jockeys adopted around 1900, as opposed to the upright, seated position they’d practiced previously, helped improve racing times by five to seven percent. It’s a rate of improvement that hasn’t been seen in the last 100 years.