Sunday, Apr. 14, 2024

Our Event Riders Need To Refocus On Horsemanship

We need to restructure the sport to emphasize the complete relationship between horse and rider.

I’ve thought a lot about the recent accidents we’ve seen in eventing, and being a veteran of the sport and one who has closely observed the trends and changes over the years, I wanted to share some observations.
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We need to restructure the sport to emphasize the complete relationship between horse and rider.

I’ve thought a lot about the recent accidents we’ve seen in eventing, and being a veteran of the sport and one who has closely observed the trends and changes over the years, I wanted to share some observations.

We have a new generation of people who are riding and competing—those in their 20s and early 30s—who entered into the sport after the reign of the great eventing coach Jack Le Goff and his immediate protégés. Unfortunately, they haven’t had the exposure to Jack’s ways, nor do they understand the way the sport evolved and how important overall horsemanship is to succeeding in upper level eventing.

Today’s society is a society of McDonald’s. Fast food, fast results. We want to compete advanced right now. We have the money to buy the horses. We want to do it now. And this mentality has hurt the sport, especially the younger generations; sadly, this is all they’ve known. They compete well, but their lack of experience and horsemanship will eventually let them down at the upper levels, as we’ve seen.

When I came up the ranks in the 1970s, Jack Le Goff was our coach and overseer. He was always so fanatical about everything. Even when you were setting jumps, he watched closely. He made sure you had the pin all the way through the cup. He said if the horse bangs the jump the pin will bend if it’s not properly set. From that day on, I made sure the pin was through the jump cup.

He gave us similar, detailed advice when walking the courses, on speed, finding the proper direction, the lines, the places where you could go fast and the places were you should go slow. He also made sure we had an overall plan. “What do you do when you have a stop? What’s your plan B, C or D?” he would ask.

And he always told us, “If you have a stop, you’re out of the competition. Make sure you get the job done. Safely. Don’t be in a hurry after you have a stop.”

That’s a key piece of horsemanship that I’ve seen contribute to some of the injuries and deaths over the years. In fact, at Burghley, England, in 1999 I watched Simon Long’s horse stop at a vertical going up a bank. Simon quickly pulled the horse right. He took three or four walk stops and a trot step and then tried to jump the option. The horse did a slow rotational fall and just crushed him. You were helpless watching it happen because you knew it wouldn’t end well.

Live In The Barn

I remember the first time I was invited to ride with Jack at the U.S. Equestrian Team headquarters. He said, “Jimmy [Wofford] taught you how to compete; I’m going to teach you how to ride.” And that’s an important distinction riders need to understand if they’re to succeed in this sport.

You have to spend time in the barn with your horse. And the knowledge you gain ranges from riding and conditioning him to feeding, bedding, footing and shoeing. You need to develop your horsemanship through buying the horse, understanding his temperament, suitability and rideability, and that takes a lot of practice. Sometimes when you try a horse he might be the best he can be. Don’t let your ego get in the way. Don’t think, “I can make him better.”

If you ask a professional such as George Morris, Mike Plumb or Karen O’Connor, they’ll tell you that at some point in every day, when it’s quiet, they’ll look at all of their horses, just to make sure they’re happy, quiet and eating. They all have barn managers who do most of the work for them, but I’ve never met a great horseman who didn’t know their horses inside out.

I used to do this every evening when no one was there and the phone wasn’t ringing. It was my time just to hang out with my horses, for them to talk to me and for me to listen to how their day was.

When I was sent to the European Championships in 1995, my horse, Ask Away, had a solid background (he’d never stopped). So I was the leadoff rider for the team. When I walked the course with [Capt.] Mark Phillips we talked about the fast ways, which all looked jumpable. So, that’s what I did.

The last quarter-mile I could tell I had pressed Ask Away, but I hadn’t overridden. Because I knew him well, I could tell he was just starting to get tired. At the end of the course, I clucked to him and picked up the pace a little where I knew it was appropriate. It turns out we galloped home 11 seconds over the time. Mark asked me if I thought I could go quicker. Yes, there were probably a couple of places. But being the first one out, I knew my horse and what he was feeling and my main job was to jump the jumps, not push my horse too far.

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And that’s every rider’s own requirement, not just when competing, it’s every day. You have to know how your horse is feeling underneath you. You’ve got to take stock of that and put that into perspective depending on the day and the competition. This perspective comes with time, experience and proper management.

I’d be surprised if most of our top riders in their 20s to early 30s don’t have full-time help. I know they’re trying to run a professional business, but where did they do their internship? What qualifications do they have to do that?

The instructor certification program is a wonderful model. But even if you’re riding with a level 5 instructor, if you only take one lesson a week you’re not learning everything you could from this person.

In fact, I think that some of these younger professionals need a manager more than a coach—someone to overview their conditioning schedule, their feeding, provide veterinary and blacksmith recommendations. This is someone with more experience, whom they can turn to for direction and questions. A mentor.

Take advantage of the proximity to professionals in other disciplines too. Soak up their knowledge. Last week I heard of someone who had New Zealand rider Vaughn Jefferis over for a week. That’s a lot of money. Why not spend a week with George Morris or Robert Dover or Jane Savoie? They’re here and more readily available. They may not be eventers, but they’re masters in horsemanship who could certainly add to your education.

Intense Pressure

One of the issues young professionals face is the struggle to make a living in this sport. Let’s face it, being an eventing professional is tough. You have to work hard to find owners, sponsors and horses to keep putting diesel in the truck and paying the rent.

Young professionals shouldn’t allow the pressures of their business to guide their decisions, though. Don’t push a green horse because his owner wants him to compete at a certain event; don’t allow a rider to move up because you’re afraid she’ll take her horses to another trainer when you tell her she’s not ready. It’s easy to say, but tough to do.

Years ago my student, Mara Dean, had one particularly difficult year. She would win one weekend and then fall off the next. I told her we weren’t going to the North American Young Riders Championships that summer. She was really upset because all of her friends were going. I told her we’re going to Plan B, and that’s what we did. After having four more intermediate courses under her belt, she did her first two-star that fall at Radnor (Pa.) and was fifth. You have to have contingency plans because some horses just won’t follow Plan A. And that’s OK. But everyone has to be on the same page.

I understand that Darren Chiacchia’s fall occurred when he took an inexperienced horse to an event that was over his head. This is a perfect example of a bad decision made because of outside pressures. You have to be a horseman first, businessman second.

Yes, I’ve lost some horses and riders over the years because of the choices I’ve made in these types of situations. But as a young professional you must consider the big picture and the safety and welfare of the riders and horses you train. As we’ve seen, in this sport one bad decision can ruin your life in the blink of an eye.

 Several riders who’ve died in this sport over the past decade were riding green horses—that’s how they were supporting themselves. I think there’s a certain amount of pressure that riders put on themselves too, regardless of owners, to get these green horses quickly up the levels. Again, you must draw on the
horsemanship you’ve developed and your relationship with that horse to determine the correct path. It’s imperative to know your horse.

I think that regardless of whether you’re competing at Rolex Kentucky, Badminton (England) or Difficult Run (Va.) in the novice division, you need to know your horse. How are things feeling as you leave the start box? Are you organized and in control? Is this in your mind what feels comfortable and correct? If the answer is no, you need to pull up.

It’s Not The Format

Many people believe that the evolution of eventing from the long format to the short format has caused the recent spate of accidents. I disagree.

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We’ve had accidents and deaths in this sport for years. Ten years ago, when Simon was killed, worldwide there were 13 people killed in 18 months, and that’s when the long format was in existence. It’s not the format.

For the short format, you still have to condition the horses, and they still have to be very fit. I think that the short format is a good change because the horses last longer and aren’t pounded as hard.
 
With the short format you do have to ride better and understand what you’re doing. You don’t have the chance to take the edge off on A, and you don’t have C to feel how they are.

Today’s horses aren’t the problem, either. Some of the best event horses are still the Thoroughbreds, whether American, New Zealand, Australian or English. If anything, this format is even more suited to a Thoroughbred. The warmbloods are bred for dressage and show jumping, they’re not bred to go fast. And the heart of our sport is still the cross-country.

I’m glad dressage and show jumping have become more difficult now, but I think cross-country is in the proper balance. The courses are more technical, but that means the riders have to be smarter. The riders have to take responsibility for what they can or cannot do.

Our sport, eventing, happens to be in the spotlight at the moment. But the problem is universal in all disciplines. Many people now have the money to have the nice horses, and they have the money to pay someone else to care for them. It’s unfortunate in other disciplines, but it’s fatal in eventing.

Money simply can’t buy you experience. Just because a horse has done really well with someone else doesn’t mean it will have the right temperament to do the same with you.

The U.S. Equestrian Federation officials can make all the rules they want, make all the qualifications as difficult as they want, but there are still going to be accidents on a perfect course because the horse and rider are going to make mistakes. Anyone in any discipline can make a mistake—even top riders.

But when you have the horsemanship, the understanding of your horse and an instructor or coach to educate you, it’s less likely to have catastrophic results.
 
At Rolex Kentucky, Laine Ashker was 30 seconds fast on her first horse. Everyone was saying great job, Laine! Her second horse, Frodo Baggins, was slipping, sliding and staring at everything over the first four fences. Her fall at the fifth fence was inexperience. Your most important job at the first three or four jumps is to feel what your horse is doing. You ask, “What am I doing? Do I recognize a problem? I need to fix it if I can.” She just kept going faster.

At Kentucky, Karen O’Connor was 3 seconds under the optimum time aboard Theodore O’Connor—a true horseman using enough to get the job done but not more than needed.

More stringent qualifications aren’t the only answer either, although a mandatory clear cross-country round in a three-star before moving up to a four-star would have prevented Sarah Hansel from even starting Rolex Kentucky on The Quiet Man.

Now that eventing has grown in popularity, you can attend a competition on almost every weekend in just about every area. It’s relatively easy to qualify your horse for the next level without attending competitions considered “difficult” for that level. So more than ever it’s imperative that riders carefully consider whether it’s more important to get a ribbon or better to prepare that young horse for the next step up.

In addition, trainers should ask their upper level students questions that challenge them at home, to take them out of their comfort zone so they can practice those skills before they get to the competition. Riders should seek out those instructors who are difficult, demanding and perfectionists so they have someone who is improving their performance and knowledge.
 
I know this isn’t a pleasant subject to address, but I feel that today’s riders have to be completely honest with themselves. They have to be honest about their horses’ capabilities. All riders at all levels need to remember that the buck stops with them. The rider is responsible for all decisions, not the groom, coach, owner or sponsor.

And all the greats will tell you that every day they’re around horses they’re learning something new—every day. It’s time for today’s young professionals to get back into the barn, get their hands dirty, and seek out those more established horsemen who can help them on their way to the top. Yes, it’s easy to take the elevator up, but climbing the ladder rung by rung not only gets you fitter, but it also gives you more time to think about what you still need to learn. 

Washington Bishop



Washington Bishop, Rectortown, Va., trained with Jack Le Goff, was a member of the 1980 Alternate Olympic team, has trained many riders who have represented the United States, and was an eventing team selector from 1997 to 2002.

In The Forum, horsemen are invited to express their views and offer constructive criticism on any topic relevant to working with and enjoying horses. The opinions expressed by the writers are entirely their own and not necessarily those of The Chronicle of the Horse.

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