Sunday, Mar. 3, 2024

Between Rounds: Where’s The Jog?

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The equitation discipline provides the basis for developing proper position and riding technique. Form instructs function. Good position is an integral and essential part of good riding. Balance, connection, stride, direction—instructors drill the basics and practice pattern after pattern. From the wellspring of equitation flows competency in all equestrian sport. While position may vary, the underlying tenets are the same: A balanced, educated rider in concert with the horse will produce the best performance. 

It’s November, and the equitation divisions have wound down. There are at least nine 3’3″ to 3’9″ junior equitation championships scheduled within five weeks on the East Coast alone. They take place in Massachusetts, Pennsylvania, Maryland, New Jersey and Kentucky. Five weeks, five states. Not every horse does every final, as some classes restrict a rider’s eligibility to one height or the other. Thank God for small mercies. 

The number of competitors in these classes is astounding. Palm Beach International Academy North American Junior Equitation Championship (Maryland)—147 entries. New England Horsemen’s Council Junior Hunt Seat Medal Finals (Massachusetts)—176 entries. USHJA 3’3″ Hunter Seat Medal Final—East (Massachusetts)—79 entries. EMO Insurance/USHJA 3’3″ Jumping Seat Medal Final—East (Maryland)—169 entries. Platinum Performance USEF Talent Search Final—East (New Jersey)—46 entries. Dover Saddlery/USEF Hunter Seat Medal Final (Pennsylvania)—206 entries. USEF/NCEA Junior Hunter Seat Medal Final—East (Pennsylvania)—35 entries. Hamel Foundation National Horse Show 3’3″ Equitation Final (Kentucky)—188 entries. ASPCA Maclay Final (Kentucky)—228 entries. That’s 1,274 entries in total, and that doesn’t include the West Coast editions of many of these classes. 

“The dark secret is that many of these horses on the public stage, competing at a championship level, are not sound,” says columnist Sissy Wickes, who is proposing a mandatory soundness jog for equitation championships. Mollie Bailey Photo

How many “big eq” classes did each rider and horse complete before arriving at a final? Rule restrictions prohibit a rider from competing in a class once they’re qualified, but there’s no shortage of classes in which to compete. Open hunter and jumper classes, not counting toward a final, can be utilized week in and week out, 12 months per year. If they have the means to do so, an equitation rider can easily achieve Malcolm Gladwell’s unit of proficiency of 10,000 hours within the structure of our competition calendar. 

And how many hours does an equitation horse spend in drills and patterns? How many hours of flat lessons with and without stirrups? They are the workhorses of our world. Many have stepped down in height from a jumper career, carrying with them the physical remnants of tough competition. Many have spent years as eq horses, carrying rider after rider through qualifying to the finals. Grappa, the most storied of eq horses, won seven national championships in his career. They are reliable, skilled and invaluable. When you are lucky enough to have a good one or skilled enough to produce one, they are difficult to give up. The schoolmaster equitation horse is a staple in an equitation trainer’s stable. 

Where Are The Mandatory Soundness Checks?

Why is it that our equitation finals do not include mandatory soundness checks? Why are there no jogs prior to competition? These classes represent a hallmark of excellence in our youth and, in some cases, portend international-caliber careers. Thousands watch the finals in person or through live stream platforms, as public a display as we have in the junior ranks. In many cases, the horses are questionably sound. The USEF Rulebook addresses the soundness of equitation horses as follows: 

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EQ 102 Judging
SOUNDNESS. Unsoundness does not penalize a competitor unless it is sufficiently severe to impair the required performance. In such cases, the imposition of a penalty is at the judge’s discretion. (Exception: Hunter/Jumping Seat Equitation classes held at Hunter Jumper Competitions where, in a case of unsoundness sufficiently severe to impair the required performance, the judge(s) must eliminate the competitor from that class and inform the competition manager, who in conjunction with the Official Veterinarian and the Steward, will evaluate disqualifying the horse from further participation in the competition.)

Our federation does not require an equitation horse to be sound. Hunters are required to be “serviceably sound” (HU 121). We are not talking pre-purchase exam sound but reasonably sound. The equitation horse is only considered as far as it affects the performance of the rider. The horse is a vehicle for the success of the rider, not deserving of a soundness requirement. Does this imply that as long as the horses are able to perform the task, they should be asked to perform the task? The tenor of this rule relegates the equitation horse to a subclass, and we as a group look the other way. 

The biggest challenge facing the equitation discipline is horse welfare. The dark secret is that many of these horses on the public stage, competing at a championship level, are not sound. The relentless schedule of competition, multiple championships over a few weeks, and unrestricted qualifying and non-qualifying classes throughout the year demands a Herculean effort from the equitation horse. Trainers and owners care diligently for these horses, treating them well to produce a long-term career and short-term competition outcome. Veterinarians are an integral part of the equation. But where is the soundness check that we see in other disciplines? 

Take Heed Of Other Horse Sports’ Mistakes

As someone who’s had one foot in the racing world for my entire life, I’m keenly aware of the steps racing is taking to deal with catastrophic injuries. The 42 deaths at Santa Anita (California) in 2019 and the two widely televised catastrophic breakdowns at Saratoga (New York) in August 2023 resulted in public outcry. The world watches horse racing and sees cruelty. 

In response to public opinion and in an effort to protect the horses, the federal government enacted a law to create the Horseracing Integrity and Safety Association. This independent organization oversees developing national integrity and safety rules for Thoroughbred racing. Amid controversy and pushback from trainers and owners, HISA is involved in anti-doping, racetrack surface analytics, concussion protocol for jockeys, and soundness checks for all horses before a scheduled workout and/or a race. The Breeders’ Cup Championships (California), held the same weekend as the ASPCA Maclay Final, instituted jogs and flexion tests for its entries, as well as increasing the frequency of drug testing.

Does hunter, jumper or equitation sport face the same incidence of catastrophic injury as racing? Of course not, by nature of the fact that we do not compete at high speeds. Does the lack of deaths excuse us from monitoring the soundness of our horses? What level of unsoundness are we willing to excuse? 

As participants in equestrian sport, we must face the specter of social license to operate, a buzz phrase heard throughout the industry. According to Investopedia, a social license to operate “refers to the perceptions of local stake-holders that a project, a company, or an industry that operates in a given area or region is socially acceptable or legitimate.” 

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Public acceptance of horse sport will determine our future. We must be mindful of how we are perceived, of implementing best practices, and promoting the positive aspects of our world. If we are stewards of horse sport, our responsibilities are to animal welfare, fair play and integrity. The stakeholders of our prestigious equitation finals should begin with a jog for soundness of horses participating in their classes. Limiting the number of classes that a horse can participate in within one year should be considered by the U.S. Hunter Jumper Association and U.S. Equestrian Federation. With more than 1,250 championship rounds should we assume these horses were sound? Or should we ensure sound horses? 

From the outside looking in, our sport is a folly of the rich. The price of horses and high-level competition has skyrocketed beyond the reach of most. The industry is ripe for scrutiny, vilification and disdain. Stories about horse world drug abuse and child abuse have already been reported in the mainstream news. What is the next public mark against us? 

Are we able to step back from our well-worn routines, off the hamster wheel of horse show after horse show, and look at our practices with a dispassionate eye? The American Society for the Protection of Cruelty to Animals is displayed prominently throughout the Maclay weekend, an irony not lost on the audience. Let us be proactive toward horse welfare challenges before a crisis creates a situation to which we must react. While equitation may be perceived as all about the rider, it’s time to address the vessel of success: the horse. 

Scheduling a jog process within the hectic, packed schedule of the indoor horse shows hosting the finals will be a challenge bemoaned by managers. How can they find the time, personnel and space to jog so many horses? They can, and they must. This is an instance where the industry of horse shows cannot dictate the best practices of horse sport.


Sissy Wickes is a Princeton University (New Jersey) graduate, a lifelong rider and trainer, a U.S. Equestrian Federation R-rated judge, a freelance journalist and an autism advocate. Her resume includes extensive show hunter and jumper experience. She serves on the U.S. Hunter Jumper Association board of directors and the USEF National Breeds and Disciplines Council. She chairs the USEF Judging Task Force and sits on the USHJA Equitation Task Force, USHJA WCHR Task Force and USHJA Planning Committee, as well as the board of directors of the Retired Racehorse Project and Hill Top Preparatory School. 


This article originally appeared in the Nov. 27-Dec. 11, 2023, issue of The Chronicle of the Horse. You can subscribe and get online access to a digital version and then enjoy a year of The Chronicle of the Horse and our lifestyle publication, Untacked. If you’re just following COTH online, you’re missing so much great unique content. Each print issue of the Chronicle is full of in-depth competition news, fascinating features, probing looks at issues within the sports of hunter/jumper, eventing and dressage, and stunning photography.

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