With the 2005 eventing season just around the corner, the legitimacy of the CCI without steeplechase continues to engender debate. But even as the controversy rages, event riders must figure out how to condition and compete their horses in a new type of competition.
How does short-format fitness work differ from traditional CCI preparations? Without steeplechase and roads and tracks, how should riders warm-up their horses for a championship-level cross-country course? And what lessons did riders learn from the six inaugural CCIs without steeplechase–Rolex Kentucky, Punchestown (Ireland), Blenheim (England), Athens Olympics, Adelaide (Australia) and Fair Hill (Md.)–that took place in 2004?
“I think we all knew, going into Kentucky [last spring], that you’d need your horse to be just as fit for the new format,” said Athens Olympic team rider Julie Richards, of Atlanta, Ga. “In the CCI without steeplechase, you have the same number of jumping efforts in a shorter track, which means there’s no breathing room between the jumps. The long gallop stretches in a traditional CCI course give a horse a chance to catch his wind. But in the short format, you have to go as fast as you can between every jump to make the time.”
Ashley MacVaugh, from Hamilton, Mass., placed 20th in Kentucky’s CCI without steeplechase. “I didn’t hear that anyone changed their conditioning program for the short format,” she said. “But what we were all unsure of, going in to Kentucky,was how our horses would react to the new format.”
When the short format debuted worldwide at Rolex Kentucky last April, most observers noted that the modified horses finished cross-country in far worse shape than did their counterparts who had run steeplechase at the same competition.
“I think we were all surprised by how tired the horses were [in the modified division], ” said Richards, who had conditioned her vet-eran Hyde Park Corner for Kentucky’s modified division exactly as she prepared her second ride, Jacob Two Two, for the traditional CCI. “Hyde Park Corner finished the modified course exhausted; he practically crawled home. Yet he recovered quickly after cross-country, which indicates that his tiredness wasn’t a fitness issue.”
But was the culprit at Kentucky the new format or the deep footing on the course? Modified division competitors, who ran cross-country in the afternoon, encountered deep, holding footing.
“I don’t think you can draw any conclusions about the short format from Kentucky,” said Darren Chiacchia of Springville, N.Y., another veteran of the Athens three-day team and winner of Kentucky’s modified division. “The heavy footing there was the single most exhausting factor any of those horses faced.”
Chiacchia’s Olympic teammate from Duvall, Wash., Amy Tryon gave both of her horses–Poggio and My Beau–exactly the same preparation for Kentucky’s modified section that she would have for a traditional four-star. “But I’ve got Thoroughbreds who naturally have foot speed,” she said. “I think you’ll see some riders changing their schedules for short format conditioning to orient their last few gallops toward sharper bursts of speed rather than endurance work.”
Choosing The Best Warm-Up
Capt. Mark Phillips, U.S. team trainer, said the problems at Kentucky didn’t have anything to do with fitness.
“What you had at Kentucky was a structured warm-up,” he said, referring to the minimal “phase A” created at Kentucky to get riders from the barn to the cross-country warm-up. “You haven’t seen it since because it was the wrong structure.”
“If you take a page out of endurance sports for humans, like running, most athletes get their heart rate up before they race,” said David O’Connor. “Certainly Kentucky proved that horses have to be just as fit for the short format as for the long. But what we needed to figure out is how to best physically prepare our horses for short format cross-country [at the actual competition].”
So Phillips, preparing his U.S. team for the Athens Olympics, looked to the racing world. “If you think about it, no race horse trainer would not gallop for a whole week before the race,” he said. “When you factor in shipping, a couple of days for briefing and vet check, then two days of dressage, it might be seven to nine days since their last gallop by the time those horses went out on course at Athens.”
Phillips recommended that the U.S. horses run a light gallop about four hours before the start of cross-country. Then the horses returned to their stalls and were later brought out to warm-up for cross-country just the way one would for a horse trial.
Phillips saw the British, Australian, and German teams using this technique as well. “What we’re trying to do is get the lactic acid out of [the horse’s] system before the cross-country test,” he said. “But every horse is different. The correct warm-up for one horse won’t be right for another. You certainly must not tire the horses out before you start. And there’s little scientific data to help us here; we’re operating by the seat of our pants.”
Richards said the breeze technique helped Jacob Two Two. “It was really just a pipe opener, not a real gallop,” she said. “You just want to get the horses loose. I trotted up the hill once, then went up once at half speed, then once more a little faster, but I never approached steeplechase speed. You don’t want to gallop them so much that you stress their legs. That’s why the hill is so important; you get the horses puffing without putting stress on their limbs.”
Tryon chose not to breeze her idiosyncratic partner, Poggio II, before the Olympic cross-country. “I understood where Mark was going with all of this, but I felt it would make Poggio crazy if I let him gallop a couple of hours before cross-country,” she said.
After Kentucky, Tryon said Poggio was over the top fitness wise. “I knew I needed to figure out a different way to get this horse fit,” she said. “So although I galloped Poggio whenever the vets or selectors wanted to see him, I did my own program, consisting mostly of trot work up hills. On cross-country day at Athens, my goal was simply to keep the peace. So I took him out a couple of hours before and did flatwork.”
Olympic team member John Williams had already adopted the notion of a warm-up gallop before he competed at Athens. “I’d been giving this a lot of thought long before the Olympics,” he said. “I had started to notice that, although my horses might feel a little tired in the last 15 seconds of steeplechase, they would come back after phase C to run a 12 to 13 minute four-star cross-country course, finish fine, and not feel tired at all.”
Although horses handle advanced horse trial courses of 6 to 7 minutes fine, Williams began to wonder if there was something about the middle-level distance of the short-format CCI tracks–101