Eventing: 3 Disciplines Done Inadequately


a horse eventing spill

Eventing has slowly been getting a bad rap these days. With the 12 rider deaths in the past year and a half with six horses dying in the sport just this year; no wonder 3 Day Eventing has been under scrutiny. Because of Eight Belles’ recent death at the Kentucky Derby, Congress is holding a hearing in June to examine breakdowns, medication use, and breeding practices in Thoroughbreds. I’m actually surprised there isn’t more investigation in the Eventing sport.

Not to compare Eventing with horse racing; racing has so many flaws with the most apparent being the poor, unsound, and over breeding of Thoroughbreds. The two industries just do not compare; but in so many ways, there are some similar questions about safety concerning horses that overlap in each sport.

Eventing poses a huge question of safety to the horses. There is no doubt that the fences are often too much for a galloping horse with no fear to conquer. Possibly, making some safety adjustments to certain obstacles could curtail the need to make the cross country phase “easier” with smaller or less obstacles.

Eventing riders are in serious need of some basic training.

The safety of the rider is not one I believe should be up for debate. I am unsure of the riding ability of the 17 year old girl that recently died, with parents now suing for “wrongful death”; but the parents were obviously supporting their daughter’s riding. Knowing that eventing is dangerous for riders, they need to actually take responsibility for deaths or injuries. I can only assume this family is located in California. People are able to make decisions on their safety and their willingness to put their safety at risk. Getting on a horse in the first place is taking your life into your own hands; same goes for driving a car, a motorcycle, skiing or snowboarding, just to name a few.

But the problem with Eventing, and the parallel to horse racing cruelty is the Eventing horse doesn’t have a say in the matter. The horses, especially the good horses, in Eventing, are fearless with a tremendous amount of heart. As Eight Belles was described, she ran harder than she was physically capable of. These Eventing horses jump obstacles that they may not actually be physically capable of. And yes, in a way, we are awed by their determination.

What’s more up for scrutiny though, is the capability of the riders piloting these generous, fearless horses. Of course, the best horseback rider in the world COULD fall off, could crash, and could DIE riding a horse. Ability and experience cannot make a lick of difference when it comes to bad luck or a bad ride, which every rider has. But, within Eventing, there doesn’t seem to be a very starting base for either horse or rider.

Now, I hate to be the person that lumps everyone into one category, but I have to say that out of the 200+ lower-mid level eventing riders I have seen, 195 are atrocious. I don’t know what it is, did they want to do hunter/jumpers but couldn’t cut it? Maybe dressage was what they started with and it was too tedious, or they wanted the adrenaline rush of jumping. All I know is that within the events I have witnessed, beginner-novice through training level were scary. Not only did the riders not have any right to even be cantering, but the horses under saddle were also green and in need of experienced riders. The exception to these bad matchups of riders and horse were the young kids on school horses, but let me say, from a safety standpoint, those kids STILL had no business jumping.

I guess I come from a background of earning the “right” to jump. And earning that right wasn’t easy. Lots of riding without stirrups, lots of two-point with and without stirrups, lung line lessons without reins and without stirrups: we paid for our horse jumping rights.

When I was a kid taking lessons, you had to be a solid rider on the flat before you started jumping. Trainers punished you before even letting you look at a fence. It forced hard work, because obviously, the ability to jump was the end goal. Riding for an hour and a half a day without stirrups was done without complaint!

There seems to be no guide, no earning your “wings”, or just plain common sense when it comes to Eventing. I can’t say it’s the riders fault, entirely. I have witnessed several lessons while boarding at a primarily Eventing barn with an Eventing “trainer” and primarily Eventing riders with many trailer-in lessons.

One lesson I saw was a woman on a somewhat green horse (a very honest, sweet green horse). This woman could not keep this horse in a straight line in the walk, trot, or canter; she was not able to keep a consistent stride in any of the gaits either, yet, when the jumping started, she wanted to jump 3’6”. The poor green horse had a hard time trotting an X since she couldn’t get there in a straight line, there was no release, and upon landing, the woman did not look where she was going, gave no cue to the green horse, and would just suddenly pull hard with one rein to turn her, giving absolutely no leg aids, all this about 3 strides after the X.

Once a month, this woman actively COMPETED at training level Eventing.

On one particular day, I continued to watch this lesson followed by two more just the same. Not only was I watching in awe of the absolute disregard for safety, I was also watching because, with this being a lesson, nothing else was being taught besides what fences to jump. Needless to say, every lesson included people who should not have been jumping riding horses that needed guidance of an experienced rider and fences being jumped way too big for either horse or rider’s ability.

Those problems, to me, are the trainers fault. Mind you, this was considered a very reputable Eventing trainer who had competed through the upper levels of Eventing, and I was told by many people outside the barn I was at that she was REALLY good. I never actually saw the “trainer” ride, so I can’t judge her riding, only her teaching, which was horrifying. This trainers’ teaching was not only irresponsible to the rider, but also irresponsible to the horse.

Why not set everyone up for success by teaching the basics first?

The worst part of the above was going to an event to watch the people in the barn ride. Now, I never opened my mouth on how scary the training and riding was. No one asked, I’m not going to criticize, it was not my place. But, I was sure once we got to the event, the poor and reckless training would be proven by the results.

In horse riding, riders used to have to “earn” the right to jump. Most Eventing riders “earn” their right shortly after the lesson fee is paid.

The scary thing was, that while each one of the barn riders jumped every fence on the cross country course without releasing, almost fell off at many (if not most) of the fences, and barely navigated the stadium course by not hitting a good distance ONCE, knocked down fences, and wove all over the course, they then went into the Dressage ring only to look like the were riding a horse for just the second time, ever. You know what beginner horse riding looks like; over corrective steering with the hands only, too much (obvious) leg for upward transitions or pumping the body to make the horse go, and of course, leaning forward to slow down. Yeah, and the worst part of it; the gals at my barn were some of the BETTER riders there!

Am I a snob to expect good riding? I don’t think so. Eventing is already getting a bad rap for being dangerous for horse and rider. Maybe it’s the ability of the people riding in these events; perhaps a qualifying section before anyone can even ride in the beginner-novice is in order. I’m not talking about qualifying enough just to be able to stay on or even win, I mean qualifiers, yes, possibly judging, just on safety aspects that requires riders to be able to REALLY ride.

Don’t get me wrong, Equitation is boring, but it serves a good purpose. You can’t be a loose, ineffective rider if you have great equitation; I’m not talking the stiff, rigid, smile at the judge crap, I’m talking solid leg, good position, good hands, and good use of eyes, head and shoulders. Maybe there should be some sort of Equitation over fences or something.

Sure you can have good equitation and ride poorly. But, many event riders need to learn how to adjust their horse (collection), how to effectively use their body, leg, and hands, and most importantly, RIDE to a jump, over a jump, and away from a jump. Not every Event rider is a bad rider, but people need a reality (safety) check before moving up levels.

I have not ridden a cross country course (well, once, but it was under 2’), so I am not in a position to give ANY kind of suggestion on how to better ride a cross country course. I do know that you can’t ride a cross country course if you can’t competently ride through the three basic gaits on the flat, keep a solid 2-point, ride without stirrups, or have an understanding of your body, leg, and hands and how those three components effect your horse.

Eventing has always seemed like a cool sport to me because the “community” of the eventing world appears so much more laid back than the stuffy Hunter/Jumper or Dressage worlds. I hate to think the laid back attitude is because most of the riders suck. I mean most of the Hunter/Jumper riders aren’t good, technically, but they look good and are usually at an appropriate level, and worst case scenario, they’re on a push button horse. I know push button horses suck too, but no horses OR riders are getting killed when a green rider sits atop a puch button Hunter/Jumper or Dressage horse.

Please, someone get Event riders to learn how to ride, not just hang on for their lives. So far, Eventing is just three disciplines done badly; let’s try to excel at maybe two of them.

Or instead, let’s just get the walk, trot, canter down.