Suppose any of the following scenarios were presented to the equestrian public: “Let’s shorten the Belmont Stakes from 1 1/2 miles to 1 1/4 miles.”
“Let’s shorten the Maryland Hunt Cup from 4 miles to 3 1/2 miles, and while we’re at it, let’s lower all the fences by 3 inches.”
“Let’s shorten the Tevis Cup from 100 miles to 75 miles, and while we’re at it, let’s take out some of the steeper climbs.”
Some people would probably applaud these moves as sane, sensible and humane, but knowledgeable horsemen would feel betrayed by the erosion of the standards that make the Belmont Stakes, the Maryland Hunt Cup and the Tevis Cup the pinnacles of their respective sports.
How do we, the riders, feel about lowering the standards at the top level of eventing? Does it matter, really, if stamina and endurance are no longer prime requirements for the most elite horses in the sport? Does it matter if the roads and tracks become shorter and slower, along with the steeplechase and cross-country phases? In the long run, will anybody really care?
The main question I have is whether “they,” whoever “they” are, need to make eventing shorter and easier. What motivates them? I’ve heard that safety is the big issue, but why is a shorter safer? Riders and horses have been injured and killed at preliminary events as well as at advanced events, and at more horse trials than three-day events.
Any time that horses gallop at solid obstacles, there will be risk, and it doesn’t matter how great a rider you are. Two of the greatest riders of our time are Bruce Davidson and Blyth Tait. Between them they’ve won enough gold medals to start their own Ft. Knox, yet they were both badly injured in falls during the same week this summer (Blyth was only schooling dressage).
Horses are simply dangerous. Three of my worst horse-related injuries (two broken hips and a fractured eye socket) didn’t happen in events. I’ve come to believe that if you spend a lifetime around horses, it’s not a question of whether you’ll get hurt, but when and how badly.
If I were going to try to make eventing safer, I’d accelerate the use of collapsible fences, which are already being used, because that seems like a better solution than shortening the distances.
I can hear the arguments now. “Oh, but shorter events are less tiring, and less tired horses are less apt to fall.” Horses fall for lots of reasons, and fatigue is only one of them. Aggression is a big reason horses fall, and horses that aren’t tired are often more aggressive. Bad jumpers fall more often than good jumpers, and badly ridden horses fall more often than well-ridden ones. Horses fall more in wet, slippery footing than in firm footing. They fall more often over verticals than over ramps.
I would admit that a tired horse that is beginning to flounder on his forehand is a more likely candidate for a fall. But isn’t getting a horse fit enough so that he isn’t tired one of the major horsemanship skills that eventing tests? Doesn’t a discussion like this come down to the real heart of the matter, which is, “What is three-day eventing?”
What three-day eventing “is,” or should be, has always been evolving, and different riders and horsemen have a variety of opinions. My conclusions are only that—mine—based on my lifetime of experiences, beliefs, prejudices and preferences, but my ideal horse-and-rider combination and “my” three-day event is a sport that most completely tests the qualities they possess.
My ideal horse is a sound, tough, agile, galloping machine, a horse with strong limbs, big, tough hooves, a sloping shoulder, massive thighs and gaskins, a prominent wither, a long, “snakey” neck, and a head that’s more handsome than pretty.
However, what I really want is one that can get the job done, regardless of appearance. He should be hardy, agile, brave, and bold, but also quiet and sane and steady. He should be able to withstand enormous stress, should handle all manner of terrain and footing, and he should exemplify stamina and endurance. If he were to be put into racing, he would be a Maryland Hunt Cup or Grand National horse.
His rider should be brave as a lion to ride this totally bold horse, at high speeds on bad terrain, at fixed obstacles. The rider should be tough, agile and quick as a cat, but gentle and sympathetic as well. With a keen eye for a distance to a fence, and a “cowboy and Indian” sixth sense of balance, the rider will be able to instantly respond to all kinds of changing conditions.
To test this pair, the three-day event must be very demanding, because the unfit, timid, and unprepared shouldn’t even attempt to compete at this level. The cross-country course should test speed, stamina, courage, accuracy, agility and scope. It shouldn’t be all little skinnies, arrowheads and glance-offs, nor should it be one maximum oxer after another, but rather a combination of all the kinds of questions that great horses ridden by excellent riders should have a reasonable chance of “answering” successfully.
Modern eventing appears to be backing away from the skills demanded of the total horse and rider.
We’ve probably all heard someone say, “When I was your age I walked 10 miles, uphill each way, through deep snow, to get to school!” So maybe I’m reflecting a bias harking back to the late ’60s and ’70s, when courses really were serious tests of stamina.
At the World Championships at Jerez, Spain, this summer, the total distance on the second day was just under 12 1/2 miles; there were two rest stops on phase C; and both roads and tracks phases were ridden at a speed of 220 meters per minute. It’s perfectly possible that our six horses at Jerez this summer might have prevailed equally well over a much longer course, but it’s something we’ll never know.
At the last World Championships that the U.S. Equestrian Team won, in 1974, we had a second day of 17.7 miles, and there were no rest breaks on any of the roads and tracks, which had to be ridden at a speed of 240 meters per minute. That’s 5.3 miles longer, an enormous difference in terms of the endurance component, and I believe it speaks volumes about the consummate horsemanship of our coach, Jack Le Goff, that he could have six very different types of horses so well-prepared that each one completed the cross-country.
Dressage played less of a role in those days, and jumping more. For one thing, a lowered rail in show jumping was 10 penalties (not 4), so a couple of rails were as costly as a refusal on cross-country. The cross-country jumps were less technical in that there were fewer “glance-offs,” but they were often less forgiving because we had more vertical faces and even a few false ground-lines. And we also had those huge, flat-top tables that have been properly made illegal.
The philosophical consideration that bothers me the most, as a horse breeder, is that once eventing is turned into a glorified horse trial, no horse sport will need what we used to call the “Grand National” stamp of horse. Modern race horse breeders know that the trend is toward shorter, faster races by horses who are only 2 or 3 years old, so we shouldn’t look to that industry in the future for much help. If eventing doesn’t need the great, galloping stayers, what sport will?
Old-fashioned eventing is gradually being dismantled by well-intentioned people with different attitudes about what constitutes “the great horse.”
Robert Frost once wrote a poem called “The Oven Bird,” about a bird’s midsummer lament for the vanished days of spring and early summer, presaging the onset of autumn.
“The bird would cease and be as other birds
But that he knows in singing not to sing.
The question that he frames in all but words
Is what to make of a diminished thing.”
When man depended upon the horse for war, travel and commerce, his life and livelihood demanded that the horse possess soundness, stamina, speed, hardiness, courage and endurance. As the 20th century’s technological advances relegated the horse to the status of a glorified toy for man’s pleasure, those traits became increasingly irrelevant. Except for sports like endurance racing and eventing, and a few of the longer flat and steeplechase races, there is no longer a need for them.
Modern eventing is already “a diminished thing,” compared to just a few decades ago, and there are strong forces at work to erode it further. As the sport diminishes, won’t the intrinsic genetic qualities of the horses we use in the sport be expected to diminish as well?