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.
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 Fédération 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 2008 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.