Dressage coach and six-time Olympic rider Robert Dover recently wrote a blog entry about eventing on his website. ” The problem for me is that I am having greater and greater difficulty as I get older, finding a way to legitimize Eventing while horses which have no choice in the matter end up getting killed for the sake of sport.” Columnist William Micklem felt he had to respond.
It is such a huge delight for me to watch a horse of any level going with real quality—willing and happy, through in the back, at ease in their work, light in the rein as a result of their way of going rather than a response to the bit in their mouth.
Such a way of going is beautiful in any equestrian discipline. To see such quality expressed in a perfect transition or a jump or a gallop is for me equally exhilarating. I therefore truly have no bias and love really good dressage, just as I love really good show jumping and really good cross country work. I’m not only talking about high level work, as a well-produced novice horse is also something of great beauty.
What Do Horses Like Doing Best?
Top trainers generally agree that young horses from all disciplines need time to grow up mentally and physically and time to experience a wide range of activities. Dressage horses should also hack and go uphill and down dale as young horses. Event horses should also do the basics in the arena as young horses. However, if one sets out to objectively assess all these well ridden novice horses to ascertain which activity they preferred, by comparing their responses in work and the analysis of stress levels, both practise and research indicate a majority preference for cross-country first, especially in company, show jumping second and dressage third.
This isn’t surprising, as we all know that if you want to rejuvenate a depressed or sour horse you give them hacking or hunting not an extra session in the arena. The research related to stable vices as a reaction to stress during work is particularly powerful and emphasises the problems we have with some types of dressage training. (Recently confirmed by researchers Martine Hausberger, Emmanuel Gautier, Véronique Biquand, Christophe Lunel, and Patrick Jego at the Ecole Nationale d’Equitation in Samur. Could Work Be A Source Of Behavioural Disorders? A Study In Horses. 2009.)
We need to bear this in mind when looking at horse fatalities and humane treatment of horses, as without doubt eventing and related activities at all levels give a huge number of horses very happy lives with varied work and above average stable management. Of course there are happy horses in all equestrian sports, but I would argue that the lifestyle and care of the average event horse sets the standard for all sports. In the context of humane horsemanship this is of great importance and therefore of huge benefit to horse welfare as a whole.
Going Cross-Country: What A Feeling!
It’s not just the horses that almost squeal with delight as they canter across country and jump small fences—you can invariably see the riders metaphorically doing exactly the same! “Don’t Fence Me In” is not just a line from Bing Crosby. It also expresses something fundamental about human nature and our evolution.
For young riders going cross-country is like the adrenalin rush they get at the county fair, while for the older riders it is “new legs for old” and a rare opportunity for true athletic freedom.
In all cases there is the partnership with a horse that is so good for mental health and wellbeing. (Of course the partnership element happens in dressage as well, but it’s much more difficult to acquire initially in a small arena and in a dressage saddle.) This makes cross-country riding both an extraordinary sport and a great “gateway” activity to the other disciplines, as well as a stimulus for an all round education in riding and horsemastership. For this latter reason alone it should be treasured by all equestrian sports.
At this point I can hear readers saying, “William has gone off on a tangent here,” but I would argue that realizing that eventing is good for horses and good for riders is the fundamental reason for defending the sport and the start off point for selling the sport to its critics and a wider audience.
But this should not stop us finding better ways to develop the sport, particularly with regard to training and how specialist trainers from other disciplines coach event riders.
There are three connected better ways that I would like to highlight that relate directly to safety:
1. Drive For Show, Putt For Dough
The first is simply developing a different attitude of mind to the three phases. I know that the cross-country has historically been the centerpiece of eventing and is supposed to exert the greatest influence, but we need to face facts and accept this is no longer the case. It’s similar to golf where players “drive for show and putt for dough.” All top golfers have to drive very well, but the tournaments are actually won with their short game. At the sharp end of a competition in eventing all the leading riders are very good at cross-country and the competitions tend to be won by those with the best dressage scores who finish on their dressage scores.
I don’t see this as a problem because huge expertise and preparation is still needed to go clear inside the time across country and clear in the show jumping. It’s still a supreme test of all round horsemanship. What is therefore wrong with winning the competition because of also having the best dressage?
However, I would agree with those who suggest having a slightly bigger show jumping at just championship level. This would increase its influence and provide a better climax to the competition, as well as encouraging the use of horses with more jump. I believe this would also help cross-country safety.
By accepting that there is nothing wrong with the leading competitors all being clear inside the time on cross-country, it changes the mindset of course designers and encourages a slightly less challenging course at each level. (I am NOT suggesting a major reduction in the level of difficulty at each level or a change in the required speed, which is fundamental to the sport. In addition it’s vital that the “upgrading/qualifying” process should continue to ensure that horses and riders upgrade slowly and progressively, learning their trade as they go.)
2. Holistic Training
By looking at the three phases as equally important it can also change the mindset of coaches and riders. The training program should develop all three phases simultaneously, harmoniously and with quality; rather than, for example, not beginning the cross-country work at an early stage or leaving the dressage to be “fixed” at a later date. It’s part of what I call holistic training.
Holistic, integrated training is a key requirement for efficiency and success. The top riders train for one phase with the needs of the other two phases in mind, rather than have three separate training programs running in parallel. To do otherwise is not being fair to your horse and also increases the risk of accidents.
More advanced riders know their sport and their horse so well that they can cherry pick ideas and exercises from different trainers and make them part of their whole training package, but less advanced riders are usually not in a position to do this. These riders need genuine eventing coaches who teach all three phases and know the priorities and progression that suits eventing as a whole.
Alternatively the specialist trainers who now work with elite riders have to understand the demands of all the phases and the priority needs of the horse and rider based on the whole competition. In this respect I very gently suggest that Robert Dover’s comments show that he may not be quite fully up to speed with the demands of cross-country riding.
3. Fifth Leg Training
Robert Dover is convinced of the need for cross-country riders to “see a distance” and find exactly the right take-off spot for their horse. I agree with him that riders can and should be taught to develop their eye, and increasingly be more aware so that they can gradually work with their horse and make minor changes to the stride as appropriate. However, I also believe in the priority need for what I call “fifth leg training,” and I encourage riders to do this every day in the same way that “feel” should be taught every day.
Fifth leg training is all about preparing your horse to cope when the unexpected happens or the rider makes a mistake—finding a fifth leg to keep themselves upright and safe. To do this, the horse has to take responsibility for the fence. To make this possible, the rider has to give responsibility to the horse by allowing him to learn from mistakes and jump with minimal interference.
The best steeplechase riders do this all the time. They come to a fence at racing speed with the lightest of rein contacts or a loose rein and sit very still. Even elite show jumpers going against the clock need their horses to have a fifth leg and work for them if they are to win the big classes. It is simply wrong to think that the top show jumping riders in the world come on such perfect strides that they don’t need their horses to help them out at times in a jump-off.
The right type of horse, with brains and a sense of self-preservation, can easily learn to do this, and I defy any parent to deny the good sense of giving their children the insurance policy of a fifth leg.
The same applies to all coaches—we have a responsibility to keep our riders as safe as possible. If our horses can learn to make this more likely then to do otherwise is possibly negligent.
For cross-country riding it is actually dangerous to always see perfect distances and stop the horses thinking for themselves. Yes, the closer a horse gets to the limit of his scope the greater the need is for the perfect take-off point, but in general cross-country horses are not and should not be taken near their limit.
It’s also dangerous if the training style for dressage or jumping is inappropriate for cross-country. Our biggest problem is with bad dressage training that leaves a horse mechanical in his way of going and thinking.
In addition, mechanical jumping training is dangerous, over riding is dangerous, and any training that regularly requires aids that are complicated or strong is dangerous in relation to cross-country riding.
Increasing The Room For Error
The truth is that if we want to reduce the risk of an accident to rider or horse, then we need to increase the room for error so that it will still result in a safe outcome. If a horse has a fifth leg this will happen, and if they have good instincts this will happen, and if your horse is performing well within his ability and isn’t tired this will happen.
Racehorses are taken to the limit of their ability and fitness, but this should not be the case with an event horse. Riders at all levels should be jumping fences that are easily within the scope of their horse and have a horse of sufficient quality and gallop that they are well within their maximum limits—not forgetting a horse with a great brain. All this substantially reduces the risk of an accident by increasing the room for error.
But we can’t live our lives in some super safe cocoon, and it’s not living if we stay anchored to the couch in front of the television. The very nature of eventing means there’s more risk for rider and horse than in dressage, but riders round the world have had their lives immeasurably enriched and senses heightened by riding across country.
What is more, these riders will invariably learn to make decisions in favor of their horse rather than their own performance goals. It has to be that way because eventing is ultimately about horsemanship and partnership, not medals.
Such lessons are rare in sport, but sacrificing individual goals for the good of others is a vital life lesson and gives added value to eventing. To lose even one horse is a tragedy, but the sport can increase the room for error and make it safer. I know the majority of horses would hypothetically vote in favor of eventing. This is the bottom line, and I believe it puts our sport in profit and justifies the inherent risks.
William is an international coach and educational and motivational speaker. He is a Fellow of the British Horse Society and author of The DK Complete Horse Riding Manual, the world’s top-selling training manual. He found Karen and David O’Connor’s three Olympic medalists Biko, Giltedge and Custom Made and breeds event horses, including Karen O’Connor’s Olympic horse Mandiba and Zara Phillip’s High Kingdom. He is also the inventor of the Micklem Bridle, which is now approved for use in dressage by the FEI. www.WilliamMicklem.com