Saturday, May. 18, 2024

My Olympic Observations

Our columnist believes that critical and focused observation of the “best” is one of the most effective means of learning.

My own Olympic experience this year could best be described as “observations from afar,” but what opportunities the 21st century presents us in this regard!
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Our columnist believes that critical and focused observation of the “best” is one of the most effective means of learning.

My own Olympic experience this year could best be described as “observations from afar,” but what opportunities the 21st century presents us in this regard!

What a boon to have real-time quality video of all the action instead of just the paltry network coverage that non-attendees were limited to in the past. This year I watched the show jumping individual final three times: early morning Internet live feed, the rounds offered by NBC at mid-day, and then every single round plus coverage in the paddock on the Canadian network in the evening.

I never tire of watching the superb riding, nor the incredible heart of the horses, and there was special joy seeing our own team and that of the Canadians. What a thrill to see four of the six medals in show jumping come home to North America—what a job our U.S. and Canadian horses and riders did! (Aug. 29, p. 8)
These major world events, held every four years (Olympic Games and World Equestrian Games), are not just a chance to cheer, however. Now that we have the opportunity to see it all, even without the cost of traveling, these events provide a unique opportunity for any rider, coach or trainer with a desire to further their education—which should mean everyone with serious aspirations at any level.

Watching the riders and the horses with a discerning eye points out not just the variations in style but also the oh-so-important commonalities amongst them all. I never tire of observing and analyzing. I find I observe more detail and learn more about what goes into those winning performances with every passing year.

Watching with the purpose of learning, and not simply being entertained, takes practice; the casual observer will see the obvious errors and the spectacular efforts of the horses. Riders are usually quick to pick up the idiosyncrasies demonstrated by some of even the very best riders.

What I believe makes a rider truly effective is much, much harder to see, however, and it’s what they are not doing. For example, on big and difficult courses, such as those in Hong Kong, the partnership and communication between horse and rider becomes paramount.

Yes, the jumps are difficult, but the only thing that makes it possible to negotiate every obstacle on the course, within the time allowed, without a penalty, is the ability of the horse and rider to work as a team—with each member responsible for his own part.

After the course walk the rider knows what comes next, knows the appropriate line, speed and necessary impulsion that will be required at each step along the way. The horse, on the other hand, has the sole responsibility for getting both of them off the ground, controlling their arc and missing the rails.

The Partnership Is Key

Training and empathy are needed to assure the horse’s willingness to take direction from the rider at all times between the fences. But a top rider always makes sure that he’s never in the horse’s way, mentally and physically, leaving him free to concentrate fully on the job and never distracting or worrying him with even the slightest loss of balance at any part of the take-off, arc or landing.

There were more than a few examples of what happens at this level when the partnership isn’t working—jumps of this size aren’t very forgiving of even the small errors, the kind that riders get away with every day at the lower levels!

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It’s such a treat to watch riders like Beezie Madden, Rolf-Göran Bengtsson, Ian Millar, McLain Ward, Rodrigo Pessoa and Ludger Beerbaum, who are so exceptionally good not just at winning but also at making it look so easy for themselves and for their horses.

Different body types, different styles, different types of horses, but every one of these top riders has the ability to be perfectly balanced every moment over the exact center of their horses’ balance no matter the type of jump. Each rider can establish the level of impulsion, pace and rhythm that suits his or her horse
and the task at hand, each can make every small adjustment so far in advance and so smoothly that the rhythm isn’t compromised. For the good rider, each jump seems a natural consequence of the powerful yet relaxed and concentrated approach.

In watching the individual rides I find it most instructive to try to discern the spot where a problem first begins. Where did the break in concentration, the loss of rhythm, the crookedness or change in balance first start? Did it initiate from the horse or the rider? Was the rider able to rectify it, or did a small problem escalate into a fault at the next or a following obstacle?

On the other hand, what isn’t all that important even at this level?

Did you notice how many horses counter-canter, cross-canter and swap leads when they’re galloping with both power and collection. Though virtually every horse in Hong Kong will do beautiful lead changes in their flatwork, top riders know to ride the gallop and not the lead on course. Fussing with a lead change is unnecessary and distracting with so much else to think about.

Getting the most from observation requires the observer to really focus in on a certain aspect—the big picture is great for watching a movie, but to learn something about how it’s done means zeroing in.

Grand prix rider Richard Spooner once described how he used his early trips to Europe. Whenever he wasn’t riding he would take a particular rider, watch his work in the morning, his warm-up routine, and then his performance in the ring on a given horse. He said he went even further, focusing for example on just how the rider used his weight, his upper body, his leg or hand—picking just one of them—to see the effect on the horse and on the final result. He spent the most time on those riders whom he admired most, those who got results in a way that he felt he could use to his advantage.

This sort of watching isn’t a passive endeavor but can really pay off for those willing to put in the effort.
It’s not only specific riding techniques that can be improved through observing events like the Olympic Games. In fact, other disciplines can bring home points that would benefit many a junior or amateur rider.

A Focused Goal

Dealing with a bobble with what I call the “correct it immediately and go on” method was so well demonstrated when German dressage rider Isabell Werth’s horse offered a mighty resistance during an early piaffe in the ride for the individual medals. She sat down, corrected the horse with not an ounce more than was necessary and picked up the test so smoothly that 10 seconds later one could forget that it even happened. Not an easy thing to do at home, let alone under the pressure of seeking an Olympic gold.

Another principle that many people have a hard time grasping is “it’s not over until it’s over.” The Canadian team lost a member for day No. 2. The odds of any team with this handicap standing on the podium are extremely low. Yet you saw no sign of resignation on the part of the remaining three riders. Jill Henselwood, Eric Lamaze and Ian Millar dug deeper and went about their jobs with the same determination as if no handicap existed, and this attitude left them standing only one step down from gold when all was said and done.

A few years ago I watched Camile Benedicto, a first-time Olympian from Brazil, make a serious error in the Table C class during the South American Young Riders Championship, leaving herself somewhere around 16th after this first phase. With incredible determination, she produced clears in each of the following four rounds and emerged the winner at the end. I think her competition was in such disbelief watching it happen that it forced their errors!

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A focused goal and the absolute refusal to give up may not give you a victory every time, but when it does, what a victory it is.

For these Olympic Games it came down to a game of experience and focus. Both North American teams were comprised of riders who have made success at the highest international level their priority for far longer than just the past few months.

As the Chronicle’s Road To The Olympics profiles the past year have pointed out, each of our U.S. riders had a long-term plan for themselves and for their horses, one they stuck to even if some rough spots appeared along the road. But it wasn’t solely good planning. There was no shortage of experience on our team.

One couldn’t begin to tally all the horses those riders have ridden or the competitions they’ve attended getting to their moments on the podium. Our sport certainly has its share of protégés, but it’s also one where experience can and does enable continuing success at the very highest level, even at ages that would
be unconceivable in most other sports.

Ian Millar, at 61 years young, rode as beautifully as ever, and I have no doubt that his intent to be back again in London will be fulfilled.

Whenever World Championships or Olympic Games come along it’s an opportunity for everyone with a love of the sport to be inspired and re-energized. It’s easy to get into a rut in any endeavor, and these types of events are not just important for those participating but also for the rest of us. Even from afar they can be a shot in the arm (and a priceless learning experience) for anyone who takes the time to watch, really watch, those who have reached the top.

Every member of the U.S. Equestrian Federation has played some role in getting our riders and horses to the Games to represent us, so we should feel extra pride when they emerge the winners.

Whether or not you saw your fill of the equestrian events in Hong Kong, don’t forget the next world event will arrive in just two years, in our very own Lexington, Ky., with the 2010 Alltech FEI World Equestrian Games. I haven’t missed a World Championships since 1978, and you can bet I won’t be observing from afar when this great event comes to the United States for the first time.

It’s not just fun, it’s better than any lesson, clinic or show you’ll ever attend if you want to improve your riding, training, coaching or just plain enjoyment of this great sport of ours! Plus, you’ll be able to cheer in person when our incredible team extends their winning streak here at home.

Linda Allen



Noted international course designer Linda Allen created the show jumping courses for the 1996 Atlanta Olympics and the 1992 FEI World Cup Finals. She’s a licensed judge, technical delegate and a former international show jumper. She lives in Laredo, Texas, and founded the International Jumper Futurity and the Young Jumper Championships. Allen began writing Between Rounds columns in 2001.

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