Tuesday, May. 28, 2024

To Compete Safely, First, You Must Really Learn How To Ride

Any horse sport, or even any activity with a horse, is inherently risky. And, yes, some of those risks will be apparent at the Rolex Kentucky CCI**** previewed in this issue.

You’ll also see most of the best U.S. and Canadian riders and horses try to keep three superstars from England (Polly Stockton, Ian Stark and Mary King) from winning the Rolex watch. And there will be several riders and horses making their first four-star start, some with more experience and higher hopes than others.
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Any horse sport, or even any activity with a horse, is inherently risky. And, yes, some of those risks will be apparent at the Rolex Kentucky CCI**** previewed in this issue.

You’ll also see most of the best U.S. and Canadian riders and horses try to keep three superstars from England (Polly Stockton, Ian Stark and Mary King) from winning the Rolex watch. And there will be several riders and horses making their first four-star start, some with more experience and higher hopes than others.

So this seemed to be a good time to ponder how those riders learned to ride so  well they could compete at our sport’s pinnacle, to ponder how they learned to ride, compared to our predecessors of 30 or 40 years ago and how our successors in another 30 or 40 years will learn to meet the Rolex course’s challenges.

You know, the ability to communicate with an animal is hard to learn, even with a willing partner. And, unfortunately, it seems the desire to learn how to truly accomplish this communication isn’t as important as it was in the past, when there weren’t as many competitive opportunities as there are today.

I often hear stories from the past recalling how many competitors went to big competitions like the Badminton CCI (England) with relatively few competitions under their belts. It seems incredible now, with the qualification system we have, that a sport would allow riders to contest such a tough event without having gone through a system that tested their proficiency. But perhaps their proficiency had been tested, just in a different way?

In the past, horses and riders came through many activities that weren’t sport-related but were horsemanship-related. In eventing’s case, foxhunting and racing were very big components of riders’ lives. Riding across the country was part of the way of the world, and the competitions were a test of the education that you got from somewhere else.

Plus, for centuries there were equestrian academies run by the military for their own needs. Some of those academies still survive, although the only one that’s totally sport-minded is Saumur in France. Even they’ve had to go more commercial and open up to private courses, but their curriculum for teachers is as thorough as it was 100 years or more ago. Teachers are fully versed in different disciplines and specialize only after a full education. These academies made horsemen, not competitors.

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These days, competition often provides much of riders’ education. It’s the tool in the qualification system. Consequently, competition has become the driving factor in decisions that many riders, trainers and administrators are making.

I believe that too often riders and trainers are abdicating their responsibility for short-term goals and putting the emphasis on competition, when they should be emphasizing learning horsemanship and the safe techniques of riding as primary accomplishments.

True, too few of us have the ability to foxhunt or race or even ride across the  country. Our riders are coming out of a different way of life, much more suburban and much less rural. So we trainers have to be sure that our clients have the skills necessary to compete, and we have to be inventive enough in our teaching to help them learn those skills before they get to the competition ring.

It’s also the rider’s responsibility to be honest about his or her skills and experience.

We’re experiencing a series of accidents all around the world—not only in eventing, but also in all horse sports. I’ve been investigating some of the eventing situations, and it’s become obvious to me that the way we educate riders is more important now than ever before.

We often wonder what it takes to be great at a sport and how to you make a “star.” It’s very much the old question of nature vs. nurture.

There’s a theory out there that it takes about 10 years of total dedication to achieve a high level of excellence, but it also comes down to how one practices. There’s a difference between someone who wants to reach the top and someone who just wants to be better. Most in the sport want to achieve certain goals, but they practice to practice. A star or potential star practices to achieve excellence at very small certain tasks. The level of intensity is completely different: they immerse themselves in the moment until they achieve the technique.

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Some people believe that this mental element is the most important element in making a star. They may not have tremendous natural talent, but what they do have to have is the ability to achieve total immersion in a task and drive themselves through repetitive cycles until that technique becomes instinctive.

It’s important to understand this theory, as most accomplished professionals who teach don’t realize how much harder it is for many to understand and achieve a task, because it’s not in their makeup to immerse themselves in this part of their lives. Students may be able to do that in other parts of their lives, but not on a horse.

The question for us teachers to consider is how do we break down techniques far enough that our students can truly understand and repeat them, over and over again?

The instinct a professional has in certain situations isn’t natural to most and cannot always be covered by buying a better, more experienced horse, hoping the horse will help when things go wrong. If we keep allowing students to climb the ladder just because they’re technically qualified by competition completions, they can go beyond the level of their own ability. And that’s when accidents can happen, because, especially on a cross-country course, you have to be able to adjust, to react, to the unexpected.

If you’re at Rolex Kentucky (or even if you can only see it on TV), be sure to watch Polly, Ian and Mary, as well as North American riders like Bruce Davidson, Buck Davidson, Phillip Dutton, Amy Tryon, Stuart Black and my wife, Karen, ride the cross-country course. Notice how comfortable they look, with the jumps, with the way the ground undulates, and how they recover from mistakes their horses make. That’s more than their experience on course—that’s years and years of riding horses across country.

I was heartened to hear Clayton Fredericks, the current World Championship silver medalist who’ll be competing here too, say that in his program he doesn’t let students jump until they can canter over a rail on the ground in a single speed and rhythm. He doesn’t let them jump! Most of the people who come to him are already competing at the equivalent to our preliminary level, and he backs them down. If only this were the case more often.

I’ve always believed that we cannot make our sport safer than life itself. Accidents do happen, but we teachers must always ask ourselves if we’re doing a good enough job.

We need to look at ourselves as any other industry does and demand a certain level of expertise in order to teach. I do believe that, like a lot of other countries, our governing organizations are going to have to be more involved in the education of teachers. It’s in our best interest. Our riders’ safety demands it.

David O’Connor

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