Our columnist questions the shortened careers of modern U.S. event horses.
I wish horses matured faster and lived longer.
It’s unfair really. After they’re born, you have to wait three years to get on them. At 4 years old their bodies and minds are soft and malleable, but they still haven’t developed enough to allow them to do much that’s interesting. When they turn 5, the devil gets into them, and you have a new training reality. Almost grown, like bad teenagers, they often become belligerent or spooky as they realize their strength and start pushing behavioral boundaries.
After that, horses live five minutes away from suicide for the rest of their lives, so that training continues only when they aren’t recovering from a punctured lung or some other injury sustained while playing in the field or rolling in the stall or breaking a crosstie in the aisle or whatever. Try as hard as you want to, there isn’t a barn in America that can keep a horse safe 24/7.
Few types of horses have to be as versatile as three-day event horses. They have to master three distinct athletic skills—dressage, show jumping and cross-country—while becoming fit enough to gallop a track roughly equivalent to the Grand National steeplechase. Where dressage trainers might concentrate exclusively on flat work training and development five or six days a week with only a few days off to hack or rest, event trainers never get to concentrate their efforts on one thing consistently for very long. When training stops due to lameness, no training in three disciplines takes place. It’s a bad thing.
I hate when my horse is laid up. While tincture of time often provides the most effective treatment for injuries, I find it completely unsatisfying to watch as my horse’s mind and body forget what he has learned, become less fit and less agile, gaining weight and losing condition as he stands in his stall while his stifle heals, or the puncture in his frog closes up and hardens or, God forbid, the microscopic lesion on his suspensory fills in.
It feels kind of like when I stand in front of the microwave screaming “Faster!” at the bag of popcorn. And while time marches slowly on, he misses the show at which I was planning to qualify for the championships, or he misses the show where I wanted to move up a level on my optimistic schedule that would have allowed him to be the youngest horse at Kentucky next year.
If I’m lucky and my horse isn’t made of glass, I might enjoy a training and competing regimen that goes uninterrupted by lameness for a year or so. Having completed two seasons of training and showing, I might bask in the luxury of choosing to give my horse a therapeutic vacation, a rejuvenating rest for his mind and body. I will watch with satisfaction as his muscles repair themselves, growing stronger with density from a good solid year of equestrian CrossFit. I will take comfort knowing that while he may not be able to trot a straight line, he does so with a good, sound rhythm. And if I’m really lucky, this fantasy will coincide with the winter holidays, so that I’m able to enjoy some down time myself. Merry Christmas to me. This almost never happens, but what the hell—a boy can dream, right?
It’s unusual for a horse to reach the highest levels of competition before his 10th birthday. Regardless of whether it’s Grand Prix dressage, grand prix jumping, or four-star eventing, acquiring the skills necessary to compete and win at the highest levels takes incredible horsemanship, a great deal of luck, and above all, time.
While strength and stamina develop cumulatively over years, horses lose form way faster than they gain it. Time off is time backward.
In his book Outliers, Malcom Gladwell says it takes 10 years, the time it takes to put in roughly 10,000 hours of practice, for a human being to become really good at something. This doesn’t hold true for horses because a horse doesn’t have 10,000 hours of his life to spare for anything unrelated to grazing and sleeping.
At an hour a day, a horse might be able to do a third of that amount of work before it dies of old age. But Gladwell’s point still holds up. If you want to make a horse good at something, you need to practice with it as much as possible. When a horse optimistically has from six to eight years to perform at the highest levels, and when an unplanned 10-week lameness break can put a horse a year behind in the competition schedule, it behooves us trainers to do everything we can to prevent the kinds of injuries that require significant time off to repair.
A decade ago, eventers of my generation watched helplessly as the Fédération Equestre Internationale did away with the long-format CCI. The stated reason was to make the speed and endurance phase less taxing on the horse. Don’t let my nostalgic tone mislead you: The long-format speed and endurance test at Olympic and World Games levels required ghastly athleticism that only the best-prepared teams made look like legitimate sport.
Yet, even without the kinds of veterinary practices that have improved joint health and recovery times, the horses from that era exhibited a hardiness that allowed them to compete at multiple championships throughout their careers. Horses like Grasshopper, Kilkenny, Plain Sailing, Giltedge, Heyday, Winsome Adante and Poggio became known as reliable team horses who courageously finished some of the hardest events ever concocted. And not surprisingly, the longer they stayed active in the sport, the better they got at it. Even if they weren’t going to be individual medalists, by God they were useful team scores almost every time.
The removal of roads and tracks and steeplechase certainly changed the sport. But it’s not clear that doing so did the horses any favors in practice. Coupled with an increase in difficulty required in dressage and jumping, we hoped that the altered sport would allow a higher level of skills to take hold, resulting in increased longevity for equine athletes.
Horses like Michael Jung’s La Biosthetique-Sam and Andrew Nicholson’s Nereo, both of whom medaled in the 2010 World Championships and who finished first and second at Badminton this year, and both of whom will be old enough to vote in our midterm elections, tend to support the conclusion that longevity is possible now in ways it wasn’t before. These brilliant horses (competing for Germany and New Zealand, respectively) are lasting longer and raising the competitive standard as they hone their craft over years of exposure and improvement. Watching them today puts me in mind of the Rafael Nadal-Roger Federer match-ups we see in tennis as older guys with less quickness and diminished athleticism smoke their younger counterparts on the strength of experience.
Sadly, that outcome hasn’t yet crossed the Atlantic. Since the advent of the short format, the U.S. team has had no horses that proved sound enough and good enough to be reliable for more than one CCIO championship at three-star level or better.
While Karen O’Connor and Buck Davidson each repeated appearances on the team with Mandiba and Ballynoe Castle RM respectively, only Mandiba produced a usable score at the WEG in 2010. Mr. Medicott, a horse produced in the German system, participated in three championships successfully, the first two for Germany before O’Connor finished in the top 10 with him at the 2012 London Olympic Games. That horse looked promising for a fourth championship in 2014 until he broke down at Kentucky that spring.
This fact leaves me and others asking what else changed in the Americans’ preparation regimen. We have better veterinary medicine than 30 years ago. We’ve significantly reduced the pounding required in competition. Why haven’t we seen our best horses stay sound from year to year? Where is our Sam?
Has the requirement that horses perform at a higher level of dressage made us devote too much time to pure dressage at the expense of fitness? If our dressage scores are any indication, that’s probably not happening. Have the higher jumps made injury more likely? Are the cross-country questions so different that horses are unable to learn the skills without sustaining injuries? Have we selected the wrong horses? Are riders forced to sell horses too soon to make ends meet? Or did we change too much the kinds of work we do to build strength and stamina?
Jack Le Goff, the brilliant coach and horseman who brought interval training into the modern eventing era and one of my mentors, produced horses that lasted for many championships without any of the advantages offered by modern veterinary practices. Have our riders abandoned his systems in favor of other ways of getting horses fit and keeping them sound?
I’m not sure you can identify just one reason horses don’t last. Perhaps there are as many reasons as there are horses resting in stalls. So yeah, it’s complicated, but certainly others are getting it right, and so should we.
Do Something Different
Albert Einstein often gets credited with saying that the definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over and expecting a different result. It’s more likely that it comes from the founders of Alcoholics Anonymous. But I think it’s instructive no matter who said it first. It means that if you want a different outcome, do something different. Do anything, change it up, experiment, but do something different.
It seems fairly clear that our horses suffer from a shortened and less successful competitive life as compared to their European counterparts. The fault lies with us somewhere. If we want to produce a team of horses that can beat the likes Nereo, Sam, Ingrid Klimke’s Hale Bob, and the host of other older horses at the peak of their careers, we can’t keep doing the same old things here at home.
Getting better requires change, it requires adaptation, it requires education, and it requires self-awareness. If what Malcom Gladwell says is true, eventually practice makes perfect. But where humans have years, horses have months. So if we want perfection in competition, we have to be perfect at home. We can no longer waste our horses’ time with imperfect practice at home.
The U.S. Equestrian Federation has put out a request for proposal for a new technical advisor for eventing. I sure hope that one of his or her goals will be to examine and update the training methods and practices that aren’t really working right now.
Patrick McGaughan was rider in residence at the U.S. Equestrian Team from 1981 to 1982. He graduated from Duke University (N.C.) in 1987 and from the University of Maryland School of Law in 1991. A team gold medalist at the 1987 Pan American Games aboard Tanzer, he is now “a reformed lawyer spending my time teaching, riding and training horses” at his Banbury Cross Farm in Clarksburg, Md.