Cross Coun­try With Jim Wof­ford

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

Practical Horseman - - Contents -

Jim takes a look back at ro­ta­tional falls and of­fers thoughts on how train­ing can com­pro­mise safety.

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.

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. You can find the ar­ti­cle at www. prac­ti­cal­horse­man­mag.com.

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 half­cen­tury. 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 mid20th 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.

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.

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.

Based at Fox Covert Farm, in Up­perville, Vir­ginia, Jim Wof­ford com­peted in three Olympics and two World Cham­pi­onships and won the U.S. Na­tional Cham­pi­onship five times. He is also a highly re­spected coach. For more on Jim, go to www. jim­wof­ford. blogspot.com.

For my sins over the past half-cen­tury and more, I have been forced to watch sev­eral cross­coun­try 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.

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