Is the training of eventing horses falling short of what is required in the most demanding and dangerous equestrian sport?
And is the obsession with dressage and showjumping training working to the detriment of the punishing demands of the cross-country phase?
Leading eventer Andrew Nicholson has spoken out about the training of young – and advanced – horses, and what he feels is a lack of understanding of the basics of cross-country riding.
Nicholson, a six-time Olympian representing New Zealand, spoke at the FEI’s recent Eventing Risk Management summit, providing a stark view of the current state of the sport.
Nicholson said Britain has several well equipped cross-country schooling venues, but the majority of jumps were soft roll tops options on a flat area and didn’t offer proper training over varying terrain.
He said riders were not undertaking training “that was worth doing for cross-country”. He said the training of horses should start at a young age. This would include exercises where they needed to look at the jump, find their balance and jump, then take the next jump four strides later. “This is done over and over to develop rhythm. The jumps were then put higher up and the process is repeated.”
Nicholson said while riders felt that they were “training” as they were regularly schooling, but they were going to the same place, with the same type of fences. “It only took one training session for the young horses to know the fences, the water, the ditches, no matter how they were altered.”
He said that few athletes from one to three star levels were building challenging enough fences at home for their one-star horses. “A vertical at 1.10m with a 90 degree bend, to another 1.10m fence”: challenging the horse to jump one, turn and then jump the other, was the sort of training that was needed more, to push the boundaries.
“It is necessary to use two verticals with a 90° angle to train and then increase the height as it changed a lot of things. Young pupils then understood what was meant by sitting on the horse’s back to be able to land and turn. Very simple things needed to be learned,” Nicholson said.
“At one and two-star level the fences were encouraging you to ride forward and often the jumps although to us they might look different, for the horse they were very similar. When many similar fences were jumped, the horse could start to take chances. The fences need to be kept interesting to keep the horse looking.”
His thoughts were echoed by Mike Etherington Smith and Mark Phillips in a later presentation on Course Design Theory and Trends. They said: “It was felt that the horse’s intuition was being trained out of them and they were waiting for instructions from the athlete without thinking for themselves.”
Nicholson felt too many riders did not know the difference between rhythm and pace. “They are told to ride in a rhythm and they think it is riding in top gear around the course. It is upsetting to hear experienced riders saying that they ‘just’ galloped at fences. It is necessary to look for a distance and the strides need to be fixed by either holding the horse or putting a bit more leg pressure. It is essential to have the contact between the leg and hand, too many riders don’t have any understanding how to use that in cross-country.”
Eventing’s star system
Course designing was getting more difficult and athletes needed to ride more the “old” style, he said.
“One-star competition should be considered as a test to demonstrate that the training was working. It should be more demanding with questions leading to the next level. Qualifications should not necessarily be increased but courses needed to be made to enable the Athletes to learn from their mistakes, go home and train.”
In relation to course design, Nicholson said he felt the gap between two-star and three star was “massive”.
“Using the soft options was much worse than having courses with technical and vertical fences rather than the roll tops and oxers. It was necessary to have a learning curve to step up the levels as the athletes then went to three star and had no idea of what they should be doing. More discipline for the athlete in their homework was essential. What was not experienced at home could not be used in competition.”
On the ground
Nicholson said that course walking was paramount, and this should be paramount.
When competing at different levels, Nicholson said he walks each course separately, walking the two and three-star courses three times. But many riders did not walk the entire course and instead using the organiser’s website to check their path, he said.
“In one situation an e-mail was even sent to the athletes to warn them that the course was going to be ridden the other way. That demonstrated how bad the situation was.”