Cross Coun­try With Jim Wof­ford

Maybe the event­ing world will pay more at­ten­tion to Jim than Cae•ar gave the •ooth•ayer.

Practical Horseman - - Features -

Jim goes on a long-over­due rant about what has been an­noy­ing him in the event­ing world lately.

When I men­tioned to a friend that lately I was out of sorts, he said some­thing about the “Ides of March.” When I looked up the Ides, Google told me that it is March 15, best re­mem­bered for a seer’s un­heeded warn­ing to Julius Cae­sar be­fore his as­sas­si­na­tion (at least ac­cord­ing to Shake­speare). But there was a sec­ond def­i­ni­tion: It’s “a sea­sonal ten­dency of sad­dle-tramp colum­nists to rant about var­i­ous top­ics.”

“Ah,” I thought, “that’s why I have been un­set­tled lately. I need a good rant.” The com­pet­i­tive sea­son has started again, which means plenty of op­por­tu­nity for me to no­tice trends and to fig­ure out why I am in a bad mood about them.

Blinded by Bling

Usu­ally I start by talk­ing about horses, but this is the age of the nar­cis­sist, so let’s talk about us, shall we? I mean, af­ter all, it is all about us, isn’t it? It must be be­cause rid­ers seem to spend more time wor­ry­ing about how they look than how their horses go. Let me share some­thing with you: When you were 12, hot pink looked cute on you. Now? Not so much. Even on cloudy days, I have to wear sun­glasses to keep from be­ing blinded by the glare as some rid­ers head for the arena. I see plas­tic stir­rups in gar­ish col­ors and spurs with fake di­a­monds (there’s irony for you). And don’t for­get the rid­ing boots (not shined, of course … why pol­ish your boots when you can dis­guise the lack of

el­bow grease with three-color pip­ing on your ini­tials?). There’s not much space left on rid­ers that isn’t cov­ered with glit­ter, sparkle or some­thing de­signed to dis­guise the fact that their horses aren’t go­ing well.

The next thing we know, rid­ers will have a com­put­er­ized bill­board built into the back of their rid­ing jack­ets, flashing news about their spon­sors’ lat­est “calm­ing agent” and re­mind­ing you that they have just posted the cutest pic­ture of their new­est syn­di­cates’ most re­cent pur­chase on their var­i­ous so­cial-me­dia ac­counts. Some rid­ers have ob­vi­ously lost fitness last win­ter and aren’t too wor­ried about get­ting it back. As well as small com- puter screens on their backs, they could have Jum­botrons on their, uh, back­sides, with room enough on it to ad­ver­tise “Bubba and Ju­nior’s BBQ, Chat­tanooga, Ten­nessee.” And that would all be on one line, too.

Needed: Com­mon Warm-up Cour­tesy

Nar­cis­sism is alive and well all over the place—for ex­am­ple, look in the warm-up ar­eas. Last time I checked, a first-time com­peti­tor at Novice level pays the same en­try fee as any­body else, so it’s a non­starter for a pro­fes­sional to mo­nop­o­lize one end of the dres­sage warm-up area to give his rider a les­son. Most of these “lessons” are re­ally just self-pro­mo­tion and at full vol­ume, too. If the loud­mouth in the cor­ner knew how wrong he is about some of his bel­lowed in­struc­tion, he would pipe down. (I don’t bother cor­rect­ing them—sounds like job se­cu­rity for me.) The louder the les­son, the more ob­vi­ous it is that the rider and coach have not done the nec­es­sary work at home and are try­ing to make up for it in the last few min­utes.

While some pro­fes­sion­als have a se­cretly sneer­ing at­ti­tude to­ward am­a­teurs, I of­ten think that am­a­teurs are the best among us and de­serv­ing of re­spect. Kurt An­der­son re­marked in a 2009 es­say in Time mag­a­zine that “am­a­teur” was once an en­tirely pos­i­tive ad­jec­tive. “An am­a­teur pur­suit meant some­thing—a field of study, an artis­tic en­ter­prise, a craft—that one pur­sued, not un­se­ri­ously, but out of love rather than merely to earn a liv­ing.” Am­a­teurs de­serve re­spect, not ridicule be­cause they do not ride as well as a pro­fes­sional. I think of my­self in the same category as a hot-dog stand at a com­pe­ti­tion: a use­ful ad­di­tion, but not nec­es­sary. Famed poet Toni Mor­ri­son said, “You’ve been suc­cess­ful with your chil­dren when they don’t need you.” It’s the same with a pro­fes­sional’s stu­dents.

Be­fore we leave the warm-up ring and while we are talk­ing about re­spect, let’s talk about re­spect­ing the jumps in

Usu­ally I start by talk­ing about horses, but this is the age of the nar­cis­sist, so let’s talk about us, shall we?

the warm-up. No, you can’t “re­serve” a fence for a pro­fes­sional. And don’t tell me not to change the size of the ob­sta­cle, not when your “pro” is six away and my rider is next in the ring. (I put the “pro” in quotes … if she were a real pro, she would know bet­ter and have trained her jump crew bet­ter, too.) Our sport is not a sup­port sys­tem for pro­fes­sion­als who are train­ing horses and rid­ers; it is a sport where rid­ers can have fun, com­pete with the an­i­mals they love and ob­tain a re­al­is­tic eval­u­a­tion of how much progress they have made in their train­ing.

A quick aside (this is my rant, af­ter all): I laugh when I hear pro­fes­sion­als say that they need events to “train fu­ture in­ter­na­tional stars.” As I travel around the coun­try, ev­ery ring I see has nar­rows, cor­ners, bounces, liv­er­pools, turn­ing ques­tions … all the toys. When some clever cross-coun­try course de­signer comes up with a new wrin­kle (putting the wedge be­fore the pi­raña pit and the flam­ing hoop of fire rather than the other way around), you can be sure that a minia­ture ver­sion of that new cross-coun­try ques­tion will pop up ev­ery­where. Good train­ers are in­tro­duc­ing their horses to prob­lems at home so that the com­pe­ti­tions are no prob­lem.

Say­ing (or Post­ing) Don’t Make It So

Think­ing about com­pe­ti­tion re­sults is my segue into the next part of my rant: so­cial me­dia. Re­gard­less of how badly a horse goes at a com­pe­ti­tion, you wouldn’t know it from so­cial me­dia or the web­site of the rider in­volved. I don’t stalk these sites, but peo­ple oc­ca­sion­ally send me the most egre­gious posts. Imag­ine my sur­prise when I read about “a fu­ture four-star horse who made it look easy.” (Ob­vi­ously, I am omit­ting the names to pro­tect the guilty.) That’s funny—I was at that com­pe­ti­tion and saw that horse and rider. They didn’t look like four-star ma­te­rial to me. The

horse was ob­vi­ously hang­ing on one rein in dres­sage and got the 58 per­cent he de­served. In the show-jump­ing phase he knocked down three rails—one of which was the rider’s fault, but the other two were be­cause the horse has no con­science (or pain thresh­old) at all. And the rider had to give a pretty good imi­ta­tion of a mon­key mak­ing love to a por­cu­pine to get the fu­ture four-star prospect around a nice, plain-vanilla cross-coun­try course. I’m not sure how I would de­scribe their round, but mine wouldn’t match the de­scrip­tion on the rider’s web­site or Face­book page. Done well, event­ing is a thing of grace and beauty. I hope they are home now and work­ing on that be­cause they are still short of the mark. Read­ing the var­i­ous web­sites that cross my com­puter screen, I can’t de­cide if they are ly­ing to us or truly don’t know they are not go­ing well. Ei­ther pos­si­bil­ity is wor­ri­some for the fu­ture of the sport.

Be­ware …

And that’s my fi­nal rant about the fu­ture of our sport, the pow­ers that be and their end­less tin­ker­ing with event­ing. My ad­vice is just leave event­ing alone. Quit chang­ing and mess­ing with it. I am as old school as any­one, but I don’t think event­ing is per­fect as it is nor was it per­fect dur­ing the Clas­sic era. Clas­sic events now only ex­ist here in the U.S. and (in spite of per­sis­tent eu­lo­giz­ing by a core of en­thu­si­asts) they are grad­u­ally dy­ing out. A Clas­sic event

And the rider had to give a pretty good imi­ta­tion of a mon­key mak­ing love to a por­cu­pine to get the fu­ture four-star prospect around a nice, plain-vanilla cross­coun­try course.

A Clas­sic event these days is a lit­tle bit like a preacher’s heaven … ev­ery­one talks about it, but no one wants to go.

these days is a lit­tle bit like a preacher’s heaven: Ev­ery­one talks about it, but no one wants to go. If rid­ers don’t en­ter, we can’t blame or­ga­niz­ers for dropping a Clas­sic from their sched­ule.

Mean­while, event­ing in some form goes on. Rid­ers con­tinue to en­joy train­ing and com­pet­ing in mul­ti­ple dis­ci­plines. There are suf­fi­cient lev­els of com­pe­ti­tion for ev­ery­one, and many or­ga­niz­ers pro­vide the op­por­tu­nity for am­a­teurs to com­pete among them­selves rather than against more skilled pro­fes­sion­als. At the same time, “open” classes al­low rid­ers to com­pete on an equal ba­sis, re­gard­less of their ex­pe­ri­ence or category.

Shrewd ob­servers have ques­tioned re­cent changes to event­ing, all in an at­tempt to keep horse sports in the Olympics. The re­sults are dif­fi­cult to

ac­cept now that the Olympics and World Cham­pi­onships are not even set at the elite (four-star) level and so don’t even rep­re­sent the ul­ti­mate test for com­peti­tors. What’s the point? I won­der what our sport will look like in a few years when the In­ter­na­tional Olympic Com­mit­tee de­cides that de­spite all our ac­com­mo­da­tions, there is no longer room in the Olympics for horse sports. My ad­vice about the Olympics: Fe­hged­dah­bou­dit. For­tu­nately, as long as there are horses, there will be rid­ers who want to com­bine their ef­forts across dis­ci­plines and are not afraid of hard work. And while you work at it, do me a fa­vor: Don’t wear bling, don’t lie to your­self or oth­ers about your cur­rent stage of train­ing and make sure your ef­forts are wor­thy of your horses.

So that’s my rant. I hope some­body is lis­ten­ing. You know what Cae­sar said about the seer: “He is a dreamer, let us leave him.”

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