On November 15th Dressage Olympian Robert Dover wrote in his blog, Dover’s World,
The problem for me is that I am having greater and greater difficulty as I get older, finding a way to legitimize Eventing while horses which have no choice in the matter end up getting killed for the sake of sport.
His article prompted a reply, published in the Chronicle of the Horse, from William Micklem. Both articles are worth reading as are the comments that were added to Dover’s blog posting.
In Defense of Eventing, Micklem talks about the enjoyment of riding cross country for both horse and rider. But he also touches on the importance of what he calls “fifth leg training.”
Fifth leg training is all about preparing your horse to cope when the unexpected happens or the rider makes a mistake—finding a fifth leg to keep themselves upright and safe. To do this, the horse has to take responsibility for the fence. To make this possible, the rider has to give responsibility to the horse by allowing him to learn from mistakes and jump with minimal interference.
This is such an important concept. And it’s one that I really have struggled with. I have always wanted to see “the spot” when jumping my horses and have the bad tendency to fuss with my horse coming into a fence. The problem with riding that way is that you can end up with a hand ride without the impulsion you need to jump safely. Foxhunting is a good cure for this because you have to gallop and keep up. Forward is a given.
Micklem also emphasizes that “in general cross-country horses are not and should not be taken near their limit.” How true. When you are coming down to a solid fence, you don’t want to worry about your horse’s scope.
The debate over eventing safety is not new. There have been too many accidents, and yes, fatalities, among eventers. Many people attribute the plethora of incidents to the adoption of the “short format” in eventing, which has resulted in courses that are tighter, trickier and more dangerous for horses.
However, dressage is not without controversy. While horses rarely die as a result of dressage training, the discipline has its own issues. Rollkur has been the target of numerous articles, and an increasing number of studies, because of it’s potential harm. And a study last year that correlated horse’s stress levels with their jobs found that dressage horses showed the highest incidence of stereotypies with several of them displaying two or more behaviors. They also gravitated toward more serious “vices” such as cribbing, windsucking and head shaking.
I’ve had people ask me if jumping a horse is cruel. My response is that you cannot make a horse jump. Maybe you can a few times, but then they start to stop. I’ve seen horses that were overfaced, or who were in pain. They were often very clever at finding ways not to jump — one horse I knew would just stop on course. Not near a jump, but after leaving the start box. It was clear that eventing was not enjoyable for him.
There is a real joy in jumping when your horse enjoys it too. When your horse takes you to the jump and looks for the next one, the feeling is incredible. Now, if we can only work to make eventing safer. The good news is that it is being investigated and changes are being made. Frangible pins and maybe some changes to the short format may help keep eventing fun and silence the debate for good.
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