Pandemic Report: Improved Sport but Worrisome Trends

Many riders got back to basics during quarantine, but Jim has some concerns about the bigger picture.
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I know my regular column has been missing recently, but as Mark Twain once said, “the report of my death was an exaggeration.” I figured that while we were going through this little thing called quarantine, I would successfully deal with some health issues and go into hibernation. Am I the only one around who can find a silver lining here?

I woke up from hibernation in time to attend the MARS Great Meadow International here in Virginia. It provided me with an overview of all three disciplines our sport entails. Much to my surprise, people are riding better. On second thought, however, I shouldn’t be surprised. For years I’ve been writing about how people are learning to compete rather than ride … so when riders no longer compete, they learn how to ride.

The quarantine could have affected us either way—riders could endlessly practice their usual routines or they could analyze their and their horse’s shortcomings and go back to basics. If you want a good ribbon at an event, you need specialized training. I’ll get back to this in a minute, but good news first: Most of the riders I watched have improved since the last time I saw them. Why do I say that based on only one series of observations? Let’s drill down, taking the most important part first: the dressage.

Dressage Tells the Story

Dressage is the most important because it teaches our horses to place all their power and athleticism at our disposal. It takes a long time but is worth it in order to have the sort of partnership with a horse that others only dream about. Watching dressage through high-powered binoculars from a car parked on a lonely hillside provided me with a unique perspective. The binoculars brought me closer than if I were sitting at ringside, and parking that far from the crowd prevented distracting social interactions. I had time to study performances and to notice trends.

The most obvious sign to me that riders had improved was apparent the moment horses entered the arena: They halted square. This seems simple, but in the real world it is usually neglected. The problem with unlevel halts is that the rider immediately waves a red flag at the judges, saying in effect, “I haven’t done my homework, but whatever, here I am.” At the upper levels, riders can usually expect to halt three times; at the lower levels, at least once. Think about the math. If the rider gives away one point for each halt, that’s three points off. If the horse is not square when he halts, he will usually move away from the halt crooked; that’s at least another point, maybe two. Next thing you know, the rider exits the arena having left five to 10 points “on the table,” all because she couldn’t halt square. The fact that so many riders halted square at this last competition tells me they had put their time in quarantine to good use; they had fixed the basics.

There were other indications of good basic work. For example, competitors rode deeper into their corners than I have seen in the past. No matter what level is involved, riders can generally complete the test; “errors of course” happen, but they are rare. Variation in the scores is based on riders’ differing abilities to take care of details. All the riders can turn through the corner, but it takes work to ride deep into the corners while maintaining regularity. Count up the number of times you go through a corner in your test, then think what your score would be if you could improve your score by half a point each time. Still wonder if this is an insignificant detail? I could go on and on, but you get my drift. Details matter in dressage, riders’ attention to detail has improved during the quarantine, and that’s good news.

More Good News

For me, the good news continued through the next two disciplines at the event. In the show jumping, riders’ ring craft has improved; they no longer look like a cockroach in a wastebasket when they come into the arena. They know which lead to enter on and where to make their circle. They don’t all look like Beezie Madden or McLain Ward in the arena, but they are finding better distances and they land looking for their next obstacle. I tell riders not to worry about distances at the lower level because they don’t need to be accurate to jump small fences. However, the reverse of that statement is also true. You need accuracy to jump big fences because your horse’s scope is limited. Not many horses can successfully “miss” at a 4-foot-high, 5-foot-wide oxer. Thankfully, not as many “missed” during the show jumping, and fewer landed cross-cantering or went through the turn on the wrong lead (particular pet peeves of mine).

The cross country was equally satisfying, as riders were galloping in better rhythms and riding with better mechanics. In years past, I watched riders galloping straight-legged with their stirrup leathers too long. Once close to the obstacle, they fell back against the reins in a futile attempt to rebalance their horses, then either toppled forward to “see a long one,“ or water-skied over the fence while their horses desperately extricated themselves from a potentially dangerous situation.

Again, I don’t mean to say that everyone I saw was wonderful, but they were certainly much better. People were riding with shorter stirrups, which is correct when their speed increases. Approaching their obstacles, they merely sat down, instead of sitting back. This technique has several advantages. The rider has a more stable position in the approach. A lighter seat means the horse’s back retains its flexibility. Horses soon learn that the rider’s change in position means an obstacle is in their future, and thus will quickly change from a flatter galloping stride to a rounder jumping stride. All in all, they presented a much more attractive picture.

We’re Always Asking for More

However, there is always a cloud inside my silver lining, or something. Watching these upper-level riders, I was struck by how hard they work to produce their results. Upper-level horse sport is not for the dilettante these days. It takes an almost monomaniacal obsession with the sport as well as years of practice to satisfy the technical requirements of our modern competitions. I looked up “obsession” recently and found this: “Obsession—a persistent disturbing preoccupation with an often unreasonable idea or feeling, also a compelling motivation.”

Recognize anybody in that last definition? I regularly watch riders suffer from an unreasonable desire to be “perfect,” even after I explain that there is no “perfect” in horses. When you get a 10 for a dressage movement, it’s because that judge thought the movement was excellent, not perfect. Yet many students of mine are obsessives when it comes to riding and getting it “perfect.” I’m not exactly using obsessive as a pejorative term; after all, I’m one myself. But at least I can laugh at myself and go fishing. Still, I do think some people take their riding so seriously they forget to have fun while they are at it. I know Bert de Némethy said a good feeling after the round is better than any ribbon, but we can also get a pretty good feeling cantering across an open field with autumnal colors in the trees or making the first set of hoof prints in new snow.

Part of the reason riders have to practice so hard is that the rules dictate it. Think about it for a minute. The rules state we have to do certain movements at each dressage level, jump a certain height in show jumping and gallop at a certain speed on cross country. This isn’t a problem, exactly. We need rules to make sure the competition is fair. I think the unfair part comes in when the rules start to require more and more from our horses and riders.

For example, eventing has maintained the same upper level cross-country rules for almost a century. We gallop at the same speed and jump the same cross-country heights and spreads as we did in the 1930s, but those riders would not recognize the rest of the sport these days. We have gone from a simple dressage test of training to one that is basically a test of conformation. If your horse does not have three fabulous paces at the upper levels, you can kiss that top-10 ribbon goodbye before you ever turn down the centerline. The same goes for an eventer’s show jumping: If your horse does not combine an allergy to painted rails with breathtaking scope, you might come into the arena in first place, but if you don’t jump clean, you might walk out two minutes later in last place.

Trends of increasing difficulty have also affected the other two Olympic equestrian disciplines; they just happened years ago. Show-jumping courses got bigger and bigger in the 1960s and 1970s. At one point, only one or two horses in the world could jump a clear round. This was unfortunate, as we were teaching our horses they would have to jump until they failed. Modern design does not emphasize scope as much, but the courses are incredibly fragile and certainly scopey enough. Dressage, which should be the least affected by trends, has occasionally lost the plot as well. For a while, scores were based on conformation, with extravagant movement rewarded more than excellent training. Based on my limited exposure to it, dressage seems to have recovered from this aberration and is more pleasing to the eye as a result.

My point with all this is to say that just because a horse can do something, that doesn’t necessarily mean he should do something. We have to beware of “mission creep,” a military term: One minute troops travel to interesting places to shoot someone; the next thing they know, they are maintaining roads and running water-treatment plants. Not long ago, the eventing “powers that be” suggested that because event horses are now capable of being in collection, they should do canter “threesies”—changes of lead every three strides. This trial balloon caused a justified uproar, and the suggestion was quietly shelved. Otherwise, we would now be considering passage and piaffe for eventers, as well as 5-foot oxers and 6-foot walls in the show-jumping phase.

I’ve already referred to how much training is needed for upper levels, and that’s (barely) acceptable to me; the elite level should be hard. However, I worry about the effect on the lower levels. The demographic in my sport is heavily weighted toward eventing’s lower levels, yet most of the ribbons are won by a handful of riders. It is hard for someone who makes her living in a cubicle, staring at a computer screen during the week to be able to afford to train and compete, to ride against a grim-faced robot with an inexhaustible supply of horses. It’s even more discouraging when one-horse riders realize they are paying to compete against someone who is getting paid to compete. Something about that transaction bothers me.

There is a time and a place for riders to compete against more accomplished riders and better-trained horses. Placing third behind two Olympic medalists is a pretty good brag-point for a weekend warrior. Break out the chips and dip, pour some cardboardeaux and tell me again how wonderful your horse was when you saw the distance from hell to the last oxer and he saved you. However, a steady diet of competing against professional obsessives can be demoralizing. Maybe it’s time to consider more Amateur divisions and leave the Open divisions to the truly obsessed.

The good news for the obsessive part of me is that winter is coming on, which means I have time to, once again, go back to the basics with my students. I won’t be looking for perfect, but as Bob Seger sings, “Next time, next time … we’ll get it right.”  

Sidebar: Focus on Why You Ride

Cross Country With Jim Winter 2020

There aren’t many “Cinderella Stories” in the modern horse world. Years ago, a young rider could find her unicorn horse, and next thing you know, they were rich and famous—well, famous anyway. Not many people get rich in the horse business. Nowadays, if you want to successfully ride at the middle and upper levels, you will spend a majority of your life like the student in this photo—riding in circles while someone who knows more about it than you do tells you what you are doing wrong and, hopefully, how to fix it.

You can be an occasional rider and enjoy the lower levels, but if you get ambitious, cross your stirrups. The expertise needed to ride well at the middle and upper levels of any of our Olympic disciplines takes years of practice, and years of accepting unremitting criticism. My Olympic coach, Jack Le Goff, used to say he could take a young rider from a raw talent to being on a team in four years. You can just about double that now.

I’m not saying you can’t have any fun with horses, just that you have to maintain your focus on why you ride, rather than on how you did at the last competition. Chances are you can improve your results; that part’s simple. Practice, take a ton of lessons and devote all your spare time to getting better. You will, but you have to pay the costs of the monomania needed for success. I don’t worry about what I call “the obsessives.” They have usually already self-selected and are launched on a path to continual improvement. For the rest of us, though, don’t forget to kick back with the chips and dip. One of the sweetest sounds I hear when walking down a stable row at a competition is shrieks of laughter and glowing reports of how clever Mr. Snuggles was when dealing with the distance from hell at the oxer or keeping his composure when you lost your stirrups right in front of the dressage judge. Pour me a Dixie cup of cardbordeaux, and tell me again. That’s where the fun is, that we enjoy our horses.  

This article originally appeared in the Winter 2020 issue.

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