Jim Wofford: Eventing Lives in the Balance

Why are event horses falling and, sometimes, dying? Olympian Jim Wofford suggests some answers in this Practical Horseman online exclusive.

May 14, 2008 — Jackson Browne says “I’ve been waiting for something to happen, for a week, or a month, or a year.” For my part that “something” was the recent series of tragic accidents at the Rolex Kentucky Three-Day Event. There is no doubt that eventing is at a crossroads, and we need to make sure we take the right road.

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Whenever I study anything in the horse world, I first look at the history of things, and then I review what horses are capable of in other related horse sports. Eventing was first introduced into the Olympic program at the 1912 Paris Olympics. It went through several changes in format until 1924, when it settled on the dressage-cross-country-show jumping sequence that we would recognize today. This format remained basically unchanged until the 2004 Olympics in Athens, where the short format was introduced.

It is interesting to note that while there have been changes in the format of the sport, the height and spread of the cross-country obstacles and the required speed have remained unchanged for 85 years. Yet it is only recently that we have experienced the human and equine fatalities that now seem tragically commonplace at events. The first human fatality that really rocked the event world was a slow rotational fall at Burghley in 1999. Soon thereafter, the Federation Equestre Internationale (FEI) discussed making a rule against attempting to jump from a standstill; i.e. “jumping too slow.” I can hardly wait to see what they say about “jumping too fast.”

To claim that recent fatalities are because “riding too fast produces bad jumping” is to reveal an abysmal ignorance about what horses can do when trained in self-carriage and ridden in balance. Anyone who makes that claim needs to skip Rolex next year and watch the Maryland Hunt Cup instead.

The Hunt Cup is a timber race that covers more than four miles of natural country. Several fences are 4-foot-10, and most of the remaining jumps are over four feet. That is not a misprint… the third and the 13th, and the seventh and the 17th fences are all 4-foot-10 and plumb vertical as well. The horses average more than 800 meters per minute, and most of them jump like working hunters. If you think horses can’t jump well at speed, you need to continue your education. Speed is not the problem; lack of balance is the problem. (As an aside, I used to dream at night of riding in the Hunt Cup… now I have nightmares that I can’t pull my horse up in time! Those are really big fences and the jockeys go really fast at them… successfully.)

The next time you have a high-speed Internet connection and a little time on your hands, look up English Grand National on YouTube and watch the race. Like the Hunt Cup, the Grand National is run over four-plus miles at speeds averaging about 800 meters per minute. The Chair and Canal Turn are 5-feet high, and the drop at Becher’s Brook is more than six feet.

When Jumping at Speed Works

I started out talking about eventing, and now here I am, talking about steeplechasing. My reasoning is that we learn a great deal about our sport by examining what horses are capable of in other horse sports. We can then apply that knowledge to eventing. Our horses are now regularly suffering rotational falls, ostensibly caused by high speed. While this type of fall does occur in steeplechasing and timber racing, they do not occur with the frequency that proponents of “slow and safe jumping” would have you believe. The reason is simple … horses do not want to fall.

Go back to YouTube, and watch the Grand National again. This time, pick out a horse who loses his jockey early in the race and track his progress while he jumps the rest of the fences without a jockey on his back. Good jumper, isn’t he? Horses at liberty jump well. I have heard of only one horse in the Grand National who fell while jumping unimpeded: That horse soon had to be retired because no jockey in England or Ireland would take the ride on a horse who would fall on its own. If you offer Irish jockeys (who are mad) money to ride and they turn it down because they are afraid to ride a horse who will fall on its own, you know something is up. Jump jockeys are usually superb riders and horsemen. They understand jumping at speed better than we do and have a cheerful acceptance of risk that we can all seek to emulate. The lesson I draw from all this is that the vast majority of horses can jump well at speed when in a good balance and concentrating on the fence rather than on the rider.

So where does this leave us? In our sport, we have been jumping the same size fences at the same speed for three-quarters of a century, yet suddenly we are suffering rotational falls. Ah-ha, one might say, but what about course design? That has surely changed, hasn’t it? Obviously, course design has changed over the past few years, and for the most part it has improved the situation. However, many times the design of the jumps is not really new. Anyone who thought the double-bounce at The Kennels during the 1978 World Championships wasn’t technical, or did not require a slow, controlled approach, would have been proved wrong. One can reach far back into the history of eventing to find splendid examples of technical questions.

The 1948 Olympic Three-Day Event featured a set of 3-foot-11 vertical black gates set 30 feet apart (a perfect half-stride). These gates were the next-to-last efforts, so the rider had to know how to either slow down and “pop” in two very short strides, or accelerate and jump with one huge stride between two very imposing obstacles. And this on a horse who had covered approximately 20 miles by this point.

In addition, the 1948 course featured a “stile” which was about five feet wide. Fences 18, 19 and 20 were three ditches with a “bounce” in between each one. Each ditch got wider, with the third ditch measuring 6-foot-6. Narrow fences and agility tests are nothing new in eventing. For example, when bounce ditches first resurfaced at Burghley in the mid-1980s, the riders were perplexed and the jump caused some problems. However, the military old-timers just smiled. They had seen technical questions such as this before. As young officers, most of them had jumped ladder-back kitchen chairs for fun, and the more enterprising of the military types had jumped a saber stuck in the ground. Narrow fences and agility tests were nothing new to them.

“Steeplechasing” Over Solid Jumps

While there is not much new in course design, the change in the format in 2004 certainly had an enormous effect on course design, and more importantly on how riders rode the course. When competing in the classic format (with steeplechase), most riders took for granted that they would accrue some time faults and judged their pace accordingly. In addition, because they had just completed a steeplechase phase, their horses had been given an opportunity to “miss” at a soft, forgiving brush fence. This reminded their horses to watch what they did with their footwork and to reawaken their initiative.

Due to the change to a short format we now have a generation of horses and riders who have never had the chance to miss at speed and learn from it. This means that when they miss in competition, it will be at something fixed and immovable with drastic results. It is hard to draw a positive learning experience from a high-speed rotational fall. And there is no doubt that the speeds reached by short format riders are far greater than any classic rider ever experienced. During the classic era, the maximum Olympic speed for phase B, the steeplechase, was 690 meters per minute. The maximum speed for the Olympic cross-country remains the same, at 570 meters per minute. Expert onlookers at this year’s Galway CIC***/**/* clocked riders with a radar gun. Some CCI* riders recorded speeds of more than 800 meters per minute, the same average speed as used in the Grand National and Maryland Hunt Cup.

How can we explain this: Riders are riding faster than ever, over courses that are, supposedly, specifically designed to produce “slower and safer riding”–yet falls are increasing in frequency and severity? In my opinion, the answer is simple. The more you make riders slow down to jump complicated, show jumping-like combinations, the faster they will ride somewhere else on the course in order to avoid time faults. The inevitable result of this is that riders are now jumping the plain fences at very high rates of speed. In effect the experts have designed a new sport, where riders steeplechase over solid jumps.

“But Jim, wait,” you say, “you just said that horses don’t want to fall. What is going on? They are falling at a greater rate than ever.” “That is true,” I reply. “Our horses use their initiative to keep from falling. The problem occurs when we destroy our horses’ initiative.”

Destroying Our Horses’ Initiative

It seems to me that the factors at work in these accidents are not that the course designers are wrong, or that the riders are riding too fast. The obstacles we are asking our horses to jump have been successfully jumped for nearly a century. For almost two centuries, racehorses have successfully jumped bigger fences at much higher rates of speed than we require. Our problems are not being caused by the cross-country test; they are being caused by the dressage and show jumping tests. Viewed from a historical perspective, the cross-country has not changed as much as the dressage and show jumping have in recent years.

We absolutely must practice our dressage, because dressage is the essential tool by which we communicate with our horses. Without it, we cannot control them. However, we have recently started to require collection from our horses, and I am sure this is where we have gone wrong. Certainly our horses are marvelous creatures, and they possess powers that leave us in awe. At the same time, just because a horse can do something is no justification for us to require him to do it. If we carry that logic to an illogical extreme, eventers would be performing a Grand Prix dressage test, an extremely complex cross-country course, and the same show jumping course as Grand Prix show jumpers. Crazy, right? But that has been the trend in recent years, to place increasing demands on our horses’ performance. Possibly horses can do these things, but the question remains, should they?

Take collection, for example. Collection occupies a very specialized part of the dressage world. When a horse enters into collection he begins to surrender his body to his rider, and he begins to surrender his initiative as well. Two of my Olympic coaches, Jack LeGoff and Joe Lynch, told me not to go too deeply into collection because it would make the horse reliant on me.

Jack used to tell the story of winning the French Eventing Championships on a mare who showed real promise. Jack was stationed with the Cadre Noir at the time, so the following winter it was easy for him to delve deeper into dressage, and he succeeded. “After that,” Jack said, “she was never the same.” Meaning that the mare had begun to wait to be told what to do across country. This excellent horseman immediately sensed what had happened and thereafter warned his riders against too much collection.

Other dressage experts, including Reiner Klimke, have mentioned to me that when we truly and correctly collect our horses, we also subdue their initiative. Old time dressage experts used to say that the well trained dressage horse “appeared” to produce the movements of the test by itself. But the movements are in reality a result of the application of our aids, and the horse’s response to those aids. Thus the recent proposal that we require our four-star horses to produce tempi changes at the collected canter fills me with foreboding. More collection, less initiative–less initiative, more falls.

New System of Training: You Can’t Miss

The same loss of the horse’s initiative has occurred at the other end of the event, with the recent mandated changes in the height, spread and design of the show jumping test. Accuracy of approach and presentation are being tested as never before. I often maintain that “accuracy” or “seeing a stride” is an overrated concept for most riders. They do not need it until they start to jump obstacles that test their horse’s scope. I am sure that some people have heard the first part of my statement, but did not hear the second part. Let me say it again… The reason most people do not need accuracy is because they do not jump high enough.

However, the recent changes to the show jumping test have made accuracy necessary. There may be one or two horses around the eventing scene who do not have to be accurate to four-foot oxers with a five-foot spread, but those horses are few and far between. The vast majority of event horses are reaching the limits of their scope when they approach a show jumping fence of this size, and then the reverse of my statement comes into play. You don’t need to see a stride over low fences for the same reason that you do need to see a stride to big fences. Low fences do not test your horse’s scope.

Once you approach the limits of your horse’s abilities, there is no other possible answer than to regulate your horse’s stride in the approach. The only way you can obtain this regulation is for your horse to “wait” to be told where and when to take off. This works really well at slow speeds on level ground, and expert show jumpers do it successfully all the time. Unfortunately for our horses, they are not exclusively show jumpers.

My conclusion is that we are asking our horses to surrender more and more initiative in their dressage, and to wait more and more in their approach to the show jumping fences. In addition, about 50 percent of the fences on a modern cross-country course will be some form of narrow, angle, corner, or accuracy question–what some observers have referred to as “show jumping at speed.”

The problem with that statement is that the designers have taken speed out of the approach to their combinations by using an ever-increasing complexity of placement and striding. This means that we are no longer even “show jumping at speed” we are just plain show jumping. Our speed in these situations must be, by design, the same speed that we use in the show jumping test. Now the remaining 50 percent of the cross-country obstacles must be ridden at extreme speeds in order for the rider to remain at all competitive. At these extreme speeds we must still regulate our horse’s strides. Since we have caused our horses to surrender their initiative to us, we must now take responsibility for the placement of their stride at the correct take-off distance from the jump. A system of training such as this will work well… until you miss. When you miss with your horse, after you have spent months practicing in controlled circumstances and promising your horse you will never miss, the results will be disastrous and possibly fatal.


It is clear in my mind: We now have an event that was designed by humans for humans rather than by humans for horses. Because of this, we have forced riders to cross the line between discipline and domination. It is sad to say, but all the changes our sport has recently endured have, each and every one, failed to produce the benefits that were predicted. I see no way back to the classic format, because the FEI is often in error but never in doubt, and the FEI makes the rules. In addition, our present bureaucracy is deeply and emotionally invested in the mistaken belief that there is some magic rule change, if only they can write it. For them to make a massive change in their mindset is too much to expect. I only wish legendary event horses like Charisma or Kilkenny had a voice in those committees to say, “Have you really thought about what you are asking us to do?”

I am afraid that all we have to look forward to is more press releases that sound like they were written by Deepak Chopra, and a growing sense of what we lost when we accepted these changes. We love our sport and we love our horses, but I sense people are growing hesitant to participate. Riders are starting to fear that they may become yet another statistic, leaving chat room forums to pick over the bones of the most recent disaster.

So what are we to do, now that we are caught between our love for the sport, and our concern for our horses? I have several suggestions:

1. First of all, don’t even think of competing without competence. You are in this sport because you treasure the partnership the sport gives you with your horse. Work on your competence to the exclusion of any competitive desires. Bert de Nemethy said, “A good feeling after the round is better than any ribbon.” That statement is as true today as the day he made it, over half a century ago.

2. When you are training, make sure to include daily exercises in initiative and self-carriage. If you cannot finish your dressage periods with quiet work on long, soft reins, you are not riding your horse in self-carriage. Regularly practice jumping gymnastics on a long or loose rein and remind your horse that he needs to, in Eric Smiley’s lovely phrase, “take ownership of the fence.” Jump small banks and ditches on loose reins and find steep slides and hill climbs where you can remind your horse how to adjust his own balance without your dictation. Make him proudly independent of you so that he understands his job so well you merely walk the course and then show him the way. Tell your horse what you want him to do, and then allow him to do it.

3. This last part might be a little bit my fault, and I apologize. Due to the recent increased importance of dressage and show jumping to the competitive outcome, I have stopped telling people to find a horse with the “look of eagles.” Horses who are successful in competition these days are extraordinary movers and powerful, careful show jumpers. But finding one who combines all this with the look of eagles is nearly impossible. Thus when we compromise, we must compromise on the horse’s movement, not on his agility. I now recognize that more than ever these are the qualities we need, qualities of the horse’s spirit. Certainly we need great movers and powerful jumpers, but above all we need a partner, not a slave. We need horses who are supremely courageous, fiercely independent and phenomenally agile.

Find such a horse and treasure him. Teach him that you will trust him with your life. Give him the education he will need, and then sit quietly while he does the job you have very skillfully and very patiently taught him. He won’t let you down. We owe all this and more to our horses. As Jackson Browne says, “There are lives in the balance.”

For more from Jim, check out his books:

Modern Gymnastics: Systematic Training for Young Horses.”

“Cross Country with Jim Wofford”

Take a Good Look Around”

And for Jim’s reading list, click here

A highly regarded coach, Jim Wofford has ridden on three Olympic and two World Championship eventing teams. He won the U.S. National Championship five times. Visit his website at jimwofford.blogspot.com, and read his monthly columns in Practical Horseman .

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