Cross Country With Jim Wofford
Thought-provoking que•tion• leave Jim contemplating the future of eventing.
Jim contemplates what we ask of our horses and the future of eventing.
Questions lead to answers, but answers always lead to more questions. For example, last month I mentioned that course designers plan their courses based on a 12-foot stride. That’s the correct answer, and I was satisfied with it—until I heard from the “yeahbuts.” You know: “Yeah, but Jim … is that true in every situation?” Of course, my answer to that has to be, “Well … er … ahh, no, not really.”
Your horse’s stride can be affected by footing, terrain, size of the arena, fatigue, your technique (good or bad) and a host of other factors. Designers take all these into account when planning their courses. For example, a show-jumping course designer might not include a big oxer-to-oxer combination late in a long course; a tired horse could get “hung up” on the back Classical equitation is when we don’t ask our horses to do anything they don’t do at liberty. The next time you turn out a horse, stick around to watch the show. Chances are you will see every recognized dressage movement along with a few prodigious leaps and some moves that would leave the world’s most experienced cuttinghorse trainer sitting on air. Horses can do anything with their bodies that they want to do, especially when they do not have humans sitting on their backs and pulling on the reins. Imagine how well your “average” horse would move if you had an independent position. rail of the second oxer. Cross-country course designers might allow for fatigue in building their last few obstacles—for example, by constructing the last combination out of brush rather than solid elements. A fatigued horse can blunder badly at such a fence, yet land safely on the other side.
Another factor in stride length is, of course, your horse. His ability to control and change his stride is wonderful. Olympic gold medalist David O’Connor says a horse can do anything with his body he wants to do. The next time you turn a fresh, enthusiastic young horse out in a paddock, stick around and watch the show. You are about to see the foundation of classical training on display. You might see passage, piaffe, extended trot and canter, flying changes, pirouettes and—if he is feeling really good—levades and caprioles.
Hey, Speaking of Classical Training …
My definition of “classical” is that we do not ask our horse to do anything that he does not do in nature. What would “non-classical” look like? For example, a horse can naturally bite at a fly on his chest during an extended trot movement—but he will then open the angle of his throat again, placing his nose at, or just in front of, the vertical. Forcing him to consistently hold his chin on his chest is unnatural, and thus “rollkur” is non-classical and physically damaging to the horse.
Another non-classical pet peeve of mine: tight nosebands. The relaxed horse is mobile in his jaw. Tight nosebands of whatever variety prevent this mobility and place your horse in an unnatural state. Horses in an unnatural state are tense, thus once the noseband restricts the mobility of the horse’s jaw, the rider is creating tension in the horse. The mirror of a human’s soul is in his or her eyes, but the mirror of a horse’s soul is in his mouth.
When I say this at clinics and lectures, I quite often get a “yeahbut” that some-
one’s horse “goes better” in a crank or tight flash noseband. As an alternate view of their universe, I always offer my version of the placebo effect. Especially with younger or less-skilled riders, I can almost guarantee that if I change their snaffle from a loose ring to a flat ring, or vice versa, and tell the rider “he will go better in this bit,” chances are he will go better. But it is not really about the bit, it is about the rider’s attitude toward the bit. If the rider relaxes, thinking her horse is going to go well, the horse will sense this—and go better.
‘Elite,’ Fine—But Not ‘Almost Impossible’
A little observation suggests that David is right: What your horse does is pretty amazing, but just because your horse can do something does not mean that our sport should ask him to do it.
Thoughts like this go through my mind every spring as I drive through the lovely horse farms that surround the Kentucky Horse Park. The Land Rover Kentucky Three-Day Event is always the best event of the year, and there is a great deal going on outside the arena as well as in the competition. All the eventing silverbacks in attendance study the results from each phase, identify trends and argue about where the sport should go from here.
One discussion topic that is starting to surface is the ever-increasing technical skill that elite eventing requires. The lower number of entries at both Kentucky and Badminton this spring probably heightens this concern. I share the misgivings about overly technical requirements (and I will return to this in a minute), but I think this spring’s lower numbers were an anomaly. I am confident that we will see a resurgence in the entries at Kentucky, and it is hard to believe that England would be cursed with another incredibly wet spring; most of the preparatory competitions before Badminton 2018 were
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.