On Facebook, eventing legend Denny Emerson wrote:
One experiment that I’d try in an attempt to continue to have cross country be the heart of eventing, while at the same time trying to reduce the falls that create injuries and fatalities, would be to simply make the XC courses substantially longer, but also somewhat less technical.
That would start to weed out the horses that were good in dressage and show jumping, but were not real galloping stayers.
Instead, say, of a six minute course, make it 8-9 minutes, and so on. An 8 minute test would become 11-12 minutes, and so on. Riders would have to start to get very real about fitness, and they would start to select tough gallopers, the kind of horses the sport was originally invented to test.
I don’t think the modern pros would go for this, because it would dry up some of the money, which is what upper level eventing in 2015 is increasingly “about”.
I like this proposal better than any that I’ve seen before, but I fear that it wouldn’t make a dent in the alarming rate of horse and rider injuries/deaths in eventing… because it’s not just the technical fences that are the problem. Three examples:
(1) When I was a cross-country judge this summer at the Colorado Horse Park, I was judging two easy, straightforward galloping fences. I was unhappy to see that none of the training-level riders — except the professionals — compressed/rounded the canter of their horses before the fence. Those people weren’t galloping too fast or anything, but the horses weren’t really alert to the upcoming fence, either mentally or physically, as they should have been.
As a result, I saw bad jump after bad jump… and then finally, I saw a rotational fall that could have paralyzed the rider. That rider didn’t do anything worse (or better) than the others: her horse just got into a bad spot, and he was so discombobulated that his front legs said “another step” and his back legs said “let’s go!” I thought the rider was dead or paralyzed as she lay on the ground. Thankfully (!!), she’d only broken some ribs.
(2) I was watching the last fence in prelim at a horse trial in Santa Fe this summer — again, a nice straightforward table — when a horse left out a full stride. (Literally, a full galloping stride.) Thankfully, he had enough scope to clear the fence, but holy cow, that was hella scary. As the rider pulls up, I hear her say very casually to her trainer, “Oh, I thought he was going to add a stride.” She didn’t seem to recognize just how dangerous that jump was, that she ought never ever have another one like it, and that it was her job as the rider to ensure that.
(3) Yesterday at Full Gallop in Aiken, a group of people were schooling over a baby fence to a training table under the guidance of a trainer. One rider looked at her hands intently through both fences, and the horse couldn’t even canter properly between the fences as a result. The horse muddled through, but he was clearly nervous and jumped poorly. The trainer never told the rider to look up, and they moved on after two rounds of bad jumping, leaving the rider to her poor form and the horse with less confidence than before. That’s a disaster waiting to happen.
I’m too new to eventing to say much of what’s wrong (and I have my own share of bad habits that I’m working hard to correct), but I am alarmed by the kind of riding that I see even on non-technical jumps. My sense is that people seem to be relying too much on the natural athleticism of their horses to just get over fences rather than developing the skills required to ride cross-country according to best (and safest) practice. That poor riding seems to be aided by trainers who aren’t demanding best practice, if they even know what that is (!?!).
Such problems cannot be solved by a change in format, I don’t think. Sure, perhaps greater demands would induce people to invest more in conditioning and training. Some people would do that. But others wouldn’t, and the result might just be even more injuries and deaths for horses and riders alike.
In any case, Denny Emerson has had some really good posts on this topic in the last day or so. I appreciate that, as I’ve been thinking a good bit about the risks of my sport lately.
On a related note, I’ve decided that I’m very happy to compete Lila at novice level again next year. We’re not ready for training level yet — and with her particular draft-cross build, she might never be ready.
That’s fine, because we’re going to work on being damn perfect over the smaller fences at novice level (2’11″). That’ll be far better for the development of my skills than trying to muddle her over bigger fences.
Plus, I’d never forgive myself if I destroyed her honesty over fences and her trust in me by pushing her beyond her limits. She’s such a good girl — so willing — and I want her to always enjoy cross-country as much as she does now. If that means staying under 3 feet forever with her, I’m happy to oblige. She’s my girl, and I want to keep her that way.