As important as all of the aspects of horse care are—some detailed in this annual Horse Care Special Issue—I’m convinced that we must take into account an additional element when looking for maximum performance from a show jumper. Just as with any athlete, state of mind can make, or break, performance on a given day.
In today’s rider-centric sport here in the United States, it’s easy to let the role of the horse lapse into one closer to “necessary piece of sporting equipment,” than “equal partner in the quest for victory.”
“Schoolmaster” is a term more frequently heard in dressage than in show jumping.
It refers to a horse whose background and personality make it ideal to teach a less experienced rider the nuances of riding at a higher level. Just as highly gifted human teachers can be few and far between, the
combination of knowledge, experience and generosity found in a true schoolmaster isn’t all that common and is something to be appreciated when found.
What makes horses special, however, is that they’re not machines. Despite the finest “mechanics” (veterinarians, chiropractors and massage therapists), state of mind is as important at today’s highest levels as physical fitness.
When I began in this discipline it was very different than it is today. The (often off-the-track) Thorough-bred that most of us rode had an abundance of courage but often lacked in carefulness. With the simple courses of those days—together with the very deep cups and heavy, non-machined poles—the answer could be had with effective poling or other means of “tuning a horse up.”
Long-term success today simply isn’t to be had with those methods of old. The sport has changed, and the horses we use for the sport have changed as well.
Europeans, always on the cutting edge of this sport and with their long history of breeding, have taken the jumping talent of their older bloodlines and infused the “blood” of the Thoroughbred to produce a modern sport horse. The system of propagating bloodlines mostly on the basis of success in the sport rather than strict geographic and studbook parameters has produced horses with a natural desire to be exceptionally careful.
Today’s warmbloods have the genes to jump, and to jump carefully. What man must develop is the education that leads to a horse becoming a confident and obedient partner with the rider.
Boldness in today’s horse comes from the horse having learned how to solve the problems that modern courses pose and having learned to trust in the rider not to ask the impossible. Today’s successful horses jump because they want to and not because they have to. Winners at the highest levels know their job, know when it counts, and want to win nearly as much as their riders do.
Real horsemanship goes into developing a special horse—one with not only exceptional scope but also with that sensitive character that can take it to the top—in many ways more horsemanship than it takes to pilot the horse, once made, around a big course. Special horses are not necessarily easier to train. Many potential superstars are ruined along the way by a less able rider or trainer failing to recognize their abilities, recognizing but exploiting them, or mistaking confusion for obstinance. Just as a gifted child can fail to develop a love of learning by being held back, or over-pressured, or not suf-ficiently challenged, so can an equine protégé.
The biggest challenge facing our sport is the worldwide shortage of exceptional “primary school” trainers. Breeders can produce quality stock, exceptionally suited to the sport of this century. Riders able to effectively negotiate even the biggest and most technical courses are being produced every day around the world. Yet the toughest parts of the equation are two-fold: find and develop the horses that can go to the top, and assure that riders who aspire to the top are more than just riders.
Developing horses is an art in itself. Sadly, it’s not an art that garners much appreciation. So many riders charged with riding young horses have little education themselves or their experience is entirely with horses already trained, which can leave them short on patience with a youngster that might have an abundance of enthusiasm but no knowledge of what to do with it. Also, many riders with young horses feel they are only biding their time until someone mounts them on something better.
Recently, I had the pleasure of spending a day watching Olympic gold medalist Jeroen Dubbeldam and a younger rider from his stable in the Netherlands ride a succession of 4- and 5-year-olds at La Silla in Monterrey, Mexico. Literally every second spent on the back of each horse was devoted to its education and development as an athlete. Every horse had the full attention of the rider and everything asked was part of a progression.
One could watch things become clear to each horse. Developing the impulsion from behind was paramount, followed by a consistent rhythm and a straightness of line. Jumping was left entirely to the horse without interference of any sort from above. Mistakes on the horse’s part were an accepted part of
learning—and one could see the learning take place as the horses were taught that jumping was a part of the job—and any effort on their part was consistently commended by their rider.
It’s not hard to see why top riders such as Jeroen, Marcus Ehning, Ludger Beerbaum and others have an edge in bringing horses to the top of the sport and keeping them there. The nuances of the equine mind and body are something that have been a part of their interaction with every horse they’ve ever ridden—starting with their early days on young horses and continuing today with their top international stars and the younger horses being prepared in their stables.
The luxury of buying a horse ready to step into the international arena isn’t something that Europeans know they can count on, so recognizing and making their next mounts becomes just as big a part of the game as winning at the shows.
At an event such as the Rolex FEI World Cup Finals, or this summer’s Pan American Games, having the horse “right” is essential. It’s very different from getting ready for this weekend’s grand prix. A short-term fix (or a bit of luck) can get you through one class, but to hold form and improve over three tough days of jumping involves a lot of strategy. On the final day it can depend as much on the horse’s attitude and desire to jump and win as on its sheer ability.
While we take the time to consider all aspects of our horses’ health and well-being physically, I hope that riders and trainers will also be mindful of the mental welfare of those who do so much for us. Most horses like their jobs and try to do them well. Let’s do all we can to make their jobs easier and not harder, and remember that there are issues that are beyond what a veterinarian or supplements can handle.