Jim Wofford: Looking Back—And Forward

After a decade with short format eventing, Jim Wofford has some ideas for improvement.
To look forward and plan for eventing’s future, we need to study the sport’s past. Over the last decade, the biggest impact has been the change from the Classic to the short format. As part of the change, the technical requirements of dressage and show jumping increased while the challenges of the speed and endurance test in the cross-country phase decreased. The scoring ratio changed, too, giving the dressage phase significantly more weight than cross country. This meant that a different type of horse would excel in eventing, and event horses soon were selected for their dressage paces and desire to jump—not their stamina. Because lower- and mid-level cross-country courses do not test endurance, today’s horses can reach the three-star level without ever having been tired on course. At upper-level competitions, however, if the weather is too hot on cross-country day or the footing on course is deep, some horses become utterly fatigued. The current system rewards horses who make the lower levels look easy but the upper levels difficult. One solution: Use dressage test percentages instead of penalty points to lessen the influence of the score without changing the nature of the required movements. This will help horses more suited for upper-level competitions to rise through the levels—and make elite cross-country courses look easy. | © Kate Light

A familiar axiom says that to know where you are going, you have to know where you have been. The past 10 years have been tumultuous for eventing, and I thought looking back would help us get ready for the future. Any such historical examination should first focus on the most important occurrence in eventing over the past decade: the change from the Classic to the short format. 

A Quick Classic Primer
The Classic format originally was designed as a test for a young cavalry officer and his “charger.” It was first used in the 1912 Stockholm Olympics in Sweden, and the eventing competition remained entirely the province of military officers until 1952. Only men participated in this discipline until the 1964 Tokyo Olympics when Lana DuPont Wright was a member of the U.S. team that won a silver medal. 

In the Classic format, dressage and show jumping comprised its technical challenges and the cross country, which was ridden between them, was a scorching four-part test of both speed and endurance.

The simple dressage movements required 100 years ago were designed to ensure that the officer and his charger were adept at the parade-ground maneuvers used to move mounted troops from one place to another. The speed and endurance test next evaluated the ability of the rider and his horse to cover long distances, use speed to escape an enemy and cross the country, jumping anything in their path. The concluding show-jumping phase served as a safety check: The rider had to make sure he did not exhaust his horse in the speed and endurance test so that his mount remained “serviceably sound” for the show jumping. 

At that time, the ratio of the scoring influence of the three tests (dressage, cross country, show jumping) was 3:12:2, which meant the dressage was slightly more important than show jumping, but not nearly as important as the cross country. I will return to this point in a minute.

In the elite (Olympic and World Championship level) Classic cross-country day, horses and riders were required to begin by warming up on Phase A, Roads and Tracks, at the required speed of 220 meters per minute. After 15 to 20 minutes of trot came Phase B, the Steeplechase, which consisted of eight to 10 4-foot-7 brush fences, ridden at 690 mpm (25 miles per hour) over a distance of up to 3,600 meters, roughly 2.5 miles. The optimum time on the steeplechase course at the 1978 World Championships (they did not become the World Equestrian Games until 1990) was five minutes and 30 seconds. In other words, Classic horses and riders galloped over steeplechase fences for a longer period of time than some one- and two-star CIC competitors spend on the cross-country course these days—and the Classic competitors had much more to do before finishing the speed and endurance test.

After Steeplechase, horses and riders immediately started a second and longer Roads and Tracks (Phase C). At both the 1970 World Championships and the 1972 Olympics, Phase C required one hour and five minutes of trotting, the maximum time allowed by the rules. This phase was designed to allow horses to catch their breath before Phase D, the cross country, which usually had 35 to 40 jumping efforts and was to be ridden at 570 mpm (21 mph), the same speed we use today at Advanced competitions. The optimum time for Phase D at the 1978 World Championships was just over 14 minutes; by contrast, the optimum time at the 2014 WEG was 10 minutes and 30 seconds. You can see why most Classic competitors preferred to ride Thoroughbreds or near-Thoroughbreds, horses bred to gallop and, until recently, to “stay”—meaning they have the ability to gallop for long periods of time without fatigue.

The Big Shift
In 2004, eventing changed from the Classic to the short format, and the results are still reverberating throughout the sport. Ten years after the change, the United States is the only country that still uses the Classic format, and then only at Training and Preliminary levels. While these competitions are a serious commitment of time and effort, they are well within the capabilities of most horses and riders currently competing at local horse trials if their preparation is intelligently and diligently undertaken.

As part of the change, the technical requirements of dressage and show jumping were increased at the same time that Steeplechase and Roads and Tracks were removed from what had been the speed and endurance test. The new dressage tests required collection and flying changes, which meant horses and riders had to markedly improve their dressage skills. In addition, the height, spread and technicality of show-jumping courses increased.

The format change indicated that a different type of horse would excel in eventing. I mentioned earlier that the scoring ratio of the Classic format, 3:12:2, meant that the overwhelming requirement for competitive success was the horse’s ability to gallop at speed and evince incredible endurance. Competence in the technical phases was necessary for Classic horses, but proficiency in dressage or show jumping was rarely the determining factor in the final placings. However, it did not take riders and coaches long to figure out that the new format’s scoring system, with a ratio of 1.5:1.0:1.0, made the dressage more important than the cross country or show jumping. (Until it isn’t—I will explain in a minute.)

Once the format changed, riders and trainers quickly abandoned Thoroughbreds in favor of horses bred for brilliant movement and jumping ability. Short-format trainers selected horses for their dressage paces and desire to jump. Cross country came to be viewed as another technical phase, one that any horse with a talent for jumping could master. The thinking early on was that because endurance had been removed from the criteria, riders and trainers did not have to take into account the horse’s ability to gallop.

This line of thought, put to the test in the years following the format change, was quickly disproved. Eventing suffered a series of rider and horse fatalities that caused observers to question if a sport that had become so dangerous could continue to exist. Four years after the format change, I wrote “Lives in the Balance” (www.PracticalHorsemanMag.com), an article that elicited more public comment than anything else I have ever written. It highlighted the fact that the format change—removing endurance while increasing the technical requirements of the dressage and show jumping—had introduced new, complex and potentially fatal elements into the sport. Another point that has become obvious is that if one part of eventing is changed, then everything else changes. Thus the Law of Unintended Consequences now rules. 

How It Unfolded
Due to the overemphasis on dressage, riders and coaches selected horses mainly on their dressage movement and show-jumping ability. Well-ridden horses of this type are an excellent choice as the horse-and-rider combination climbs the ever-more-complicated FEI qualification ladder. Because lower- and mid-level cross-country courses do not test endurance, horses can reach the three-star level without ever having been tired on course. However, a strange thing happens at three- and four-star competitions. If the weather is too hot or the footing is deep, we suddenly see some horses becoming utterly fatigued. Legendary football coach Vince Lombardi once said, “Fatigue makes cowards of us all.” Thus, we now see horses refusing at obstacles that would be well within their capabilities on a good day. When conditions become difficult, however, the ability of horses to gallop and to persevere under difficult conditions is tested—and some types of horse consistently fail.

So, what are modern elite riders to do? To maintain their owners’ interest, they must choose horses with the dressage movement and show-jumping aptitude that will ensure success as they begin the FEI qualification process. Yet the qualities that make these horses so successful at lower levels become factors in their inability to be competitive at the four-star level: The elite riders suddenly find they are riding the wrong sort of horse. At the same time, it is hard to find owners willing to persist in the face of minor placings by their horses at one lower-level event after another in the hope that if the horses ever get to the four-star level (and if they are blessed by selectors with a deep insight into the nature of the sport), superlative qualities that were not apparent until they reached the elite level will suddenly propel them into prominence. Such owners do exist—and they are to be cherished—but they are not in the majority. 

The Next Step?
Eventing revolutionized itself 10 years ago, and we are still dealing with the results. I do not think another revolution is in our best interests, but we certainly need to make some adjustments. Given that the dressage test currently exerts a disproportionate effect on the results, a simple change from penalty points to using the dressage test percentages would lessen the influence of the score without changing the nature of the movements—such as collected trot, extended canter or flying changes—required. If we choose horses more suited for elite competitions, they will make the cross country look easy and the worries about the difficulties of top-level cross-country courses will abate. The technical level of the show-jumping test seems to exert the correct amount of influence on the final results and should probably remain as is for the foreseeable future. However, the FEI is in the process of changing the order of the three tests from dressage, cross country, show jumping to dressage, show jumping, cross country with both show jumping and cross country run in reverse order of placing. This new sequence will be required at the CIC level in 2015 and will certainly be required of CCIs in the near future. Once we adjust to the new sequence, there will be discussions about raising the difficulty of the show-jumping test. The reason will be that with the show jumping running before the cross country more and more horses will jump clean. Obviously, clear rounds are easier to obtain if your horse is fresh and rested. Once again, the Law of Unintended Consequences will be in charge of the sport.

In the meantime, we must find horses who make the upper levels look easy and the lower levels look difficult. Under the current system, we have it the other way around.

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