Many of us have spent a lot of time lately discussing “active athletes”ï¿½”who they are and what they require to reach the top of their game. While I agree that it’s very important to address these issues for our show jumping riders, I think this is a good time to consider carefully the needs of our other “active athletes”-he horses.
Horses must be healthy, sound and fit to succeed in any competition. But, when we’re talking international-level show jumping, the degree required is far, far higher, especially if we hope to sustain that success over a lengthy career. Top competition horses also need high levels of both confidence and contentment to perform at their utmost.
Without meaning to sound anthropomorphic, I believe that we would do well to study the modern means of dealing with all of these issues in human athletes, especially those engaged in the kind of physical activities similar to those we demand of our horses. Figure skaters, skiers, ballet dancers, and football players are among the athletes that come to mind.
Excelling in any of these sports demands exceptional natural talent. But, it is impossible to reach, or remain at, a high level without a great deal of sustained physical stress on the body. The ability to minimize the risk of injury, as well as to successfully rehabilitate when the inevitable injuries do occur, is paramount.
If you listen to top athletes discuss “coming back” from an injury, it’s obvious that the effort required for successful rehabilitation is major. It is at least as strenuous as normal training, often far more.
“Rest” is not part of the prescription in most cases. Instead, athletes undertake carefully structured and intensive work to maintain or regain fitness levels while they avoid further stress on the injured area. They give special attention to assure adequate strengthening of the surrounding muscles and ligaments, to shorten convalescence and to prevent re-injury when full training recommences. Without this time-consuming, often tedious, process, a comeback isn’t likely.
A horse jumping to the utmost of his ability must be an athlete in every sense of the word. Repetitive stress on both propulsion muscles and shock-absorbing tendons and ligaments is inevitable. Total fitness is essential.
But fitness is also extremely difficult to achieve and maintain in our horse show environment.
Few, if any, human athletes feel prepared to go “full-bore” in competition without spending a large amount of training time doing exactly the same activity. Run-ners run, dancers dance, skiers ski, and football players receive a lot of rough contact, even in practice. Keeping the specific body parts used in competition toned and ready to handle its rigors means being able to handle intensive training, which often requires additional, specific fitness work.
However, when some of our show jumpers sustain an injury, it’s all too common for them simply to be sent off to the veterinary clinic. Usually, these clinics are set up superbly for dealing with acute illness or injury, but few have the capability to provide for even mild exercise. Thus, when a horse arrives back home, complete with a clean “bill of health,” he’s probably in about the same shape as a human athlete who’s just spent an equivalent amount of time on bed rest. The doctor might tell him that he’s “all better now,” but he’s unlikely to feel that way when he goes out to take up where he left off! And, if he tried to do just that, the likelihood of re-injury or a whole new problem occurring is extremely high.
That’s why a serious human athlete is unlikely to be this foolish. Either because common sense tells him that it’s not smart or his coach or trainer won’t allow it. Instead, he re-doubles his efforts to achieve full fitness levels.
Most competition horses are conscientious about trying to do whatever they’re asked to do, so they’re only too willing to step back into full exertion right away. And they often don’t show overt signs of their tired muscles during or after work. But unfit muscles do tire quickly and leave other structures vulnerable. So often it’s only the arrival of a “new” acute lameness that signals too much, too soon. Only an astute trainer or rider can see to it that full fitness is there before the horse is called upon for 100-percent effort.
The matter of warm-up is also a critical one. For even (or perhaps especially) the fully fit athlete, complete stretching and warming-up of all muscle groups is incredibly important to prevent injuries. No dancer would go on stage without completing an extensive and well-planned warm-up.
But how do we tell when an equine athlete is truly ready to put out maximum effort physiologically? Not easily. Again, the rider and trainer have to know the individual horse extremely well to gauge when he’s ready to perform.
This is an area in which I observe a tremendous difference between American riders and their European counterparts. Europeans spend a great deal more time on their warm-up before a jumping round. They (or a knowledgeable groom) are on the horse’s back for two to three times longer, not jumping, but stretching and achieving a truly supple horse prior to jumping a single fence. Could this have something to do with the longevity of so many of their horses’ careers?
I believe that the Europeans, as a whole, also excel in the area of prevention. Show jumpers there are considerably fitter than the average American horse. The number of hours a day a horse spends under saddle is far higher at any European event.
Experienced riders who spend this much time on their horses’ backs get to know them in-side and out, so it’s far easier for them to discern the hint of an oncoming problem and catch it, at a point when minor therapy and a simple cutback in work is still effective. When a horse is kept going beyond that-o the point when lameness is apparentï¿½”it normally means a longer time off and a far less optimistic long-term prognosis. Too bad for the horse that was gamely trying to do his best.
One other area that can be as important as physical condition is a horse’s mental attitude. While often a change in attitude in an otherwise solid performer is the first clue to a physical problem brewing, younger or less experienced horses especially can be seriously compromised by confidence-damaging experiences.
Show jumpers simply must be naturally careful to succeed over today’s courses and with today’s competition schedule. That very prospect who displays this important “carefulness” is exactly the one who will quickly lose heart if he’s pushed beyond his ability to cope with the questions posed to him in training or competition.
Educating a show jumper is a three- to five-year process from under saddle to grand prix campaigner. As a well-known European who has brought numerous horses to the pinnacle of the sport once told me, “With a truly special horse, it can take four years to make them, but it only requires two minutes to break them.”
If you take away the confidence of a naturally careful horse, you’ll probably destroy the chances of that horse ever fully doing his job. Like children, just because they show innate ability, it’s not usually a good idea to ask too much, too soon.
As we continue the debate on how best to prepare equestrian athletes to represent our country in international competition, I hope that we won’t forget all that it takes to assure maximum opportunities for our equine athletes as well. They deserve our best, for their sakes and ours.