Jim Wofford: Our Sport Changes; Horses Do Not

Jim has had the time and opportunity to observe what has shifted in our sport—and what remains constant.
This photo reflects the state of our sport in the 21st century. Women outnumber men about four to one and they occupy more of the places in international podium pictures. The only rooster in the barnyard, Great Britain’s William Fox-Pitt, is head and shoulders taller than his teammates, (from left) Daisy Duke, Mary King, Kristina Cook and Sharon Hunt, which reflects the way he has towered over his competition for the past 10 years. Here the team is celebrating the Olympic team bronze medal at the 2008 Beijing Olympics. Although recovering from injury, at press time William had been named to the Great Britain Olympic Eventing Team and stands a good chance to be in another podium photograph at the 2016 Olympics. The changes in our demographics shown in this photo are indicative of the changes that have reverberated throughout our sport in the last half-century. | © Charles Mann/arnd.nl

Phew! A few years ago, when I rented out my Virginia farm’s training facility and started freelancing, I thought I would have more spare time. Although I am busier than ever these days, I can’t really say I am successful; a man who is too busy to fish is not really a success.

I finally got out for a nice day’s fishing recently, which gave me a moment to stop and think. I reflected that I am still saying the same things to my students that I have said for 50 years—and thank goodness, the horses I work with are still the same sweet, forgiving, interesting, wonderful creatures they have always been. But everything else has changed, starting with the way we ride them.

Competitors Have Changed

When I first began watching international competitions as a boy in the early 1950s, I could immediately tell the nationality of riders even at a distance. Of course, that era’s competitors were all men, and most were in uniform, but every international show-jumping or eventing team had its own style. The Germans were very erect in the saddle. The Americans and Irish rode shorter and more forward while the Italians with their extreme forward position were still very much influenced by the teachings of Federico Caprilli, the inventor of the forward seat. As more and more teams started to travel for international competitions, however, riders and coaches watched other countries’ competitors carefully and imitated the successful ones. This gradually had a homogenizing effect on rider styles—these days it is hard to tell one team from another based on their form in the saddle. Classic riding and training techniques now prevail around the world.

As the Olympics’ eligibility rules for equestrian competitors changed over the decades, women started to compete with men. This change began with dressage in the 1952 Helsinki Olympics when, although partially paralyzed by polio, Danish rider Liz Hartell won the individual silver medal. The changes continued with show jumping in 1956, when British rider Pat Smythe won a team bronze medal, and finally included eventing in 1964, the year that U.S. rider Lana DuPont won a team silver medal. Obviously, once they were allowed to compete on equal terms, ladies did not take long to establish themselves on the international scene.

… But the Horses?

But have the horses on which we compete changed? Like most things to do with horses, the answer is “yes and no.” I don’t think horses are better these days. They don’t jump higher, gallop faster or move better than their predecessors. The horses with which men and women succeeded half a century ago were the same as today’s successful horses. It is just that there are more of them. The sporthorse breeding industry, especially in Western Europe, has done a good job of producing the correct type of horses needed for the three Olympic disciplines. If you breed good movers and jumpers to good movers and jumpers, you will eventually wind up with more good movers and jumpers. In addition, riders and trainers are getting better and better at the selection and training process.

The High-Tech Training Era

Which brings me to another aspect of our sport that has changed dramatically: the training process. It would be a rare person who becomes successful today without having been carefully coached throughout his or her career, beginning with the first few experiences as a young rider. When I started out, I was lucky in that I was exposed to a succession of U.S. Cavalry officers who insisted on correct basics. For many people, learning to ride in the early 1950s was very much a seat-of-the-pants experience. 

Modern riders and trainers also have a much wider array of training tools available to them now, thanks to the advent of digital photographs and the invention of portable video. In this visual age, books have fallen out of fashion although the lessons they contain are timeless. A rider these days will look at more photographs and videos in a month than I would have seen in my entire career. (Of course, in my case that is not such a bad thing.)

Technology has affected every aspect of our interaction with horses. YouTube and helmet cameras have changed the way riders study and improve upon their past performances. Eventers now train with portable heart monitors and use software that will store and display a horse’s entire annual conditioning regimen. Other computer programs provide stop-action and slow-motion analysis of the rider’s performance. 

21st Century Vet Care

Technology is not confined to the competitive arena. It has transformed veterinary care. Several decades ago, I was amazed by the invention of the portable X-ray machine—but now we can X-ray, scan with ultrasound or use thermography and nuclear scintigraphy to provide ever more accurate diagnoses of lameness. Modern veterinary care has greatly expanded the range of antibiotics, anesthetics, tranquilizers and therapeutic injections available to treat our horses. Unfortunately, the misuse of these substances has also expanded.

Other aspects of science have also benefited horses. Equine nutrition has improved greatly as our understanding of the competitive horse’s digestive and nutritional needs has improved. In addition, there is now a vast spectrum of supplements—not all of them equally beneficial. Some substances are advertised as “all-natural calming agents,” which is code for “can affect the temperament of the horse without reacting positively to current drug-testing methods.” I prefer to affect my horse’s temperament by the effect of my riding and training, not by using chemicals to subdue him.

A New Horseman’s Business Model

Another change since 1950 is that the horse world no longer means one elite rider with one horse. Successful riders have enormous strings of horses. This means they have assistant riders, grooms, plus workers to maintain the facility, the training arenas and turnout paddocks. The stable vet stops by on a regular basis as do the physiotherapists (one for the horses, one for the riders), and the stable manager is usually hovering in the background with an iPad clutched under her arm, reminding the rider of her next appointment.

The rider’s time is not completely taken up with riding and training large strings of horses. Quite often, the next appointment will be with a “media adviser”—what we used to call a press agent. The modern rider’s public image needs continual work. Successful modern riders are usually graduates of some sort of media-training program. They will often appear on television and will also be featured in video segments that are immediately posted on social media. Guiding and controlling this effort takes an appreciable amount of time. Someone has to stay up to date on the topics of various chat rooms and bulletin boards, making sure that the rider is always seen in a positive light. Given the vituperative nature of anonymous online commenting, media advisers must react quickly to avoid possible damage to the rider’s reputation and business prospects. This is a far cry from the one horse-one rider world I referred to a moment ago. Riders back then did not have a business model because they were amateurs and did not view their activities as a business venture. 

The medium in which riders appear has changed, too. When I first started riding at a national level, you wouldn’t find any of my few interviews or comments on the sports page. You had to look in the society pages to find them. It certainly qualified as change in the horse world when reportage of horse sports moved to the sports pages from the society pages. We have gone from “keeping up with the Joneses” to keeping up on Facebook.

Professional Pay, Amateur Egos

One surviving vestige of our long-lost amateur world is the attitude of riders toward press coverage. They want to be paid as professionals but treated as gently as amateurs. Any critical comment in print from myself or some other observer, no matter how truthful, is sufficient to earn a cold shoulder from the rider. (It’s a good thing I don’t usually write what I am secretly thinking or I might get frostbite.)

Fortunately for us, there is one thing that has remained unchanged for centuries, and that is the horse. Despite all the change swirling around him, the horse is still the same. And that’s a good thing because he brings some certainty into an ever-changing world. 

Check out Jim Wofford’s online course at AIMEquineU.com

This article originally appeared in the September 2016 issue of Practical Horseman.

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