Horses Don’t Want To Fall

Safe jumping depends, at least in part, on letting our horses figure it out for themselves.

When I started writing this column more than 10 years ago, I promised that I would always be willing to address difficult issues and to express my opinion about them. In the decade since then, I have been continually surprised to realize that people read what I write. I know this because I get a fair amount of response to my columns—mostly positive but mixed with occasional hate mail. I haven’t caused my editors too many problems along the way, although sometimes someone disagrees with me strongly enough to cancel his or her subscription.

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Of all my columns, one provoked far and away the most response to anything I have ever written. That article, written in 2008, was entitled “Lives in the Balance.” The title is taken from a Jackson Browne song of the same name. 

Safety is an important factor in course design and construction for the 21st century. One major advance is the development of frangible (breakable) pins shown here. I am a huge fan of the concept but very much against the way breaking a pin is scored right now. Cross-country horses will “bump” certain obstacles, which can gradually weaken a pin. Sooner or later a horse will give the rail the same bump as previous horses but this time the pin fails and the rider is awarded 11 penalties for breaking the pin. Although the Ground Jury is granted discretion, in many cases they have been reluctant to exercise their judgment. This creates the possibility of massive unfairness to a rider as happened to Hannah Sue Burnett and Harbour Pilot at the 2016 Rolex Kentucky Three-Day Event. Her horse gave the top rail at the second cross-country fence a tap, but the pin had been weakened, the rail fell and Hannah Sue lost her chance at the 2016 Rio Olympics. The concept is great, but the technology is imperfect, and Ground Juries must act to protect riders from unfairness. Amy K. Dragoo

The background for the piece was this: By 2008, eventing had been stunned by a series of fatal rotational falls. The sport’s format had changed in 2004, and the Law of Unintended Consequences was very much in evidence. Naturally, vigorous efforts were made to determine the reasons for the fatalities and to correct the situation, and those efforts continue. We have learned an entirely new vocabulary and are now discussing “deformable structures” and “frangible pins.” We now have watch lists for riders who show more courage than judgment while on course and red cards for continued or serious transgressions. Thankfully, the number of deaths is now declining—but they still occur as do the arguments about their cause.

Training Can Compromise Safety

My contention in “Lives in the Balance” was that horses do not want to fall; therefore, something in the way we are training them must be causing them to fall. That was my opinion at the time, and I have not changed my mind. Although the technical requirements for the dressage and show-jumping parts of an event have markedly increased, the cross-country rules have changed little over the past half-century. The cross-country speed is the same as are the height and spread of the obstacles. Cross-country course design has become more complex, but the questions asked are all variations on themes that were first developed many years ago.

There is no doubt that the situation is improving and that the rate of fatalities is down. At the same time, there is no doubt that frequent rotational falls are a relatively new occurrence. I remember hearing about several fatal falls when I was growing up. Two of them happened trotting over crossrails and one was a young horse rearing. But until the 1980s I cannot remember a fatal rotational fall. During the following 20 years, tragedy became commonplace. One of the most distasteful duties I have ever had was to serve as an expert witness, tasked to watch a video compilation of fatal rotational falls. My role was to determine if, from a horseman’s point of view, there was a common element. I completed my task and reported that the only thing most of the falls had in common was that in the final approach to the obstacle the horses did not have their ears up. If the horse is not concentrating on the obstacle, we should not be surprised that he makes mistakes of judgment and calculation.

The argument about how much the rider should guide/interfere in the approach to an obstacle has been going on for almost a century now. It began in the early 1900s, as Federico Caprilli’s revolutionary new “forward seat” was adopted. Wilhelm Müseler was one of the most widely respected practitioners of the art during the mid-20th century. One might suppose that a German dressage master would be in favor of controlling the stride to the fence. Think again. Here is what he has to say about it: “With increased experience, routine and practice, a horse will automatically correct his approach” (1949 edition of Riding Logic, page 163). That’s not the sort of statement one would expect from a German dressage rider, but there it is.

“Your Horse Knows His Job.”

I must say that Müseler’s experience and mine are one and the same.

When I first joined the U.S. Equestrian Team training squad in the mid-1960s, I had a difficult time adjusting to the training methods in use at the time. I had been brought up in the sort of system that Müseler recommended and I was unable to ride in the way that our coach, Maj. Stephan von Visy, wanted. My very first cross-country school ever with Kilkenny was not going at all well using this new technique. Selecting the take-off spot for my horse at every obstacle was a foreign technique to me and one I was unable to master. Fortunately, Gen. John T. “Tupper” Cole was watching that day. Gen. Cole had been the reserve on the 1932 Olympic show-jumping team, when my father rode in Los Angeles and our families had remained friends since then. Gen. Cole called me aside and delivered a pretty good ass-chewing, as only general officers in the Old Army could. I won’t bore you with the details, which were lengthy, many and various, but the gist of it was, “Boy, your horse knows his job. Point him at the jumps and stay out of his way!” That worked like a charm for me, and I made a career of it.

For my sins over the past half-century and more, I have been forced to watch several cross-country rotational falls. Some involved too much speed, some too little speed, some occurred at airy verticals, some at solid tables, some uphill and some downhill. There are many factors that contribute to rotational falls. The only consistent factor I noticed? Horses who fell did not have their ears up in the last few strides. If a horse is distracted in the final approach to a solid obstacle, it stands to reason that his jumping will not be as accurate as it would have been otherwise. If the horse’s ears tell us a great deal about what will happen when the horse gets to the obstacle, then we already know that Sydney Elliot and Cisko A will jump the obstacle well. Cisko A’s ears are up and his attention is entirely on the obstacle. He has raised his shoulders, engaged his hindquarters and is obviously giving Sydney an “uphill” feel as he prepares to take off. Sydney is in a lovely place, poised over Cisko A’s withers and looking at the same place on the obstacle that Cisko A is using to calculate his final few strides. Because her lower leg is in the correct place at the girth, Sydney can maintain a straight line from her elbow to her horse’s mouth. She has, quite correctly, lifted her hands as Cisko A has raised his head and neck. We can’t see the jump, but we already know what will happen. Amy K. Dragoo/AIMMEDIA

Another Old Army family friend was Gen. Frank Henry. He won Olympic medals in two different disciplines at the same Olympics. At the 1948 Olympics in London, he won the Grand Prix dressage silver team medal, team gold in eventing and individual silver in eventing. My point is, the man knew how to ride. I asked him about “finding a distance” one afternoon, and he replied, “Oh, you mean ‘hand riding.’ Our coach, Col. Chamberlin, would never let us hand ride.” Col. Harry Chamberlin, a stalwart of our Olympic teams from the 1920s until World War II, is widely acknowledged as one of the best horsemen the U.S. has ever produced.

An Army Experiment

Gen. Henry went on to tell me a story about how the Old Army resolved the argument to its satisfaction. Sometime in the late 1920s, a group of cavalry officers was gathered in front of the fireplace at the Officers’ Club at Fort Riley in Kansas. Fort Riley was the U.S. Army Cavalry School where all the troopers and officers were brought to receive instruction. All the Advanced Officers’ classes were taught there, and it was the Olympic Equestrian training center. (That was the reason my father and mother bought Rimrock Farm, which was just outside the military reservation—to be close to their friends after my father retired from the Army.)

Apparently there was a fair amount of whiskey being passed around, which was no surprise where cavalrymen were concerned. It did not take long for the same old argument about jumping to break out. The colonel in charge suddenly pounded his fist on the table and started issuing orders. The U.S. Army would take 100 4-year-old remounts that were just coming into service and put them in a special six-month program. Fifty recruits who had just passed their Basic Equitation course would be assigned one horse each. In addition, 10 experienced first lieutenants and captains, graduates of the Officers’ Advanced Course, would be assigned to the program and given five remounts apiece to ride. The program would culminate in a jumping test.

The riders drew the horses’ names out of a bowl, putting back any horse who they had previously ridden. The colonel and two majors were the judges while each horse went around a course at the old Hippodrome, just outside Fort Riley. (The next time you see a photo of a U.S. Cavalry officer and there is a limestone formation running horizontally in the background, that photo was taken at the Hippodrome. The formation is called “the Rimrock,” hence my family farm’s name.)

I asked Gen. Henry which group of horses scored better—the ones ridden by skillful riders or the ones who had been forced to negotiate the course without help from advanced riders. “Well,” he said, “it wasn’t even close.” The best and safest horses were the ones who had been allowed to figure it out for themselves.

Modern elite riders have developed their skills to impressive heights, and the quality of their riding is breathtaking. It is a conundrum that our riders are better than ever, yet they partake in a sport that is statistically more dangerous than half a century ago. My explanation for this is that the continued improvement in rider skills has sometimes caused riders and trainers to cross that invisible line between discipline and domination. Our horses are ever-better trained and more athletic, but we must always remember that they are partners and friends, not slaves.  

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