Is “over-horsing” a problem in Eventing?
I’ve been lurking in various discussions on the world wide web in which participants attempt to identify and solve a host of problems in the sport of Eventing. I’m not really one to stick my neck out, I don’t like confrontation and unless I’m certain I can really add something of value, I tend to keep quiet and observe.
In one particular instance, the value of coaching and quality instruction is blamed for “what is wrong” with the sport in America. While I agree that lower-standard training is a problem, I got to thinking about another part of the equation… the equine teachers. And I’m not just talking “schoolmasters” or lesson ponies here– riders can (SHOULD!) learn from every horse, and some of the best teachers are horses who point out your mistakes and make you get better.
In horsey circles, the description of “too much horse or “over-mounted” typically conjures an image of a timid rider on a strong, aggressive horse; or perhaps a green rider on an equally green horse. “Too much horse” can be a dangerous situation, with lack of control leading to an accident.
As I was cleaning stalls today, though, I pondered a different version of “too much horse” that may be affecting our riders. Looking down the entry list at popular east coast events, there is a plethora of “Fernhill” this, “Cooley” that, “FE” something or “RF” something else.” The designer labels usually indicate a European import, typically fancy, scopey, and talented at Eventing. Trendy imports aren’t new…remember when NZ and AUS-bred was “in”, with the Clifton moniker? My point is not so much with import vs American-bred, but rather the extraordinary quality of many of these horses. Quality is a GREAT thing and should be supported…but does it also have a downside?
Fifteen years ago, there were far more “average” horses at all levels. In some ways, “average” horses make better riders– because they don’t have gobs of talent to make up for typical rider mistakes. When a Preliminary level rider has a horse who is maxed out at 3’9″, she’s forced to be more accurate in finding her distances, riding a correct line, and paying attention to detail. When a Preliminary rider is sitting on a jumper-bred import who eats 4’6″ for breakfast, the horse is more able to cover up some mistakes in balance, takeoff, or direction. A weak distance to a prelim table on Mr. Scope To Burn doesn’t teach the rider very much; on Max 3’9″ that poor distance will feel pretty rough, if he even jumps at all. The horse gives the rider immediate feedback on incorrect riding, with or without a competent trainer present.
I notice a trend for lower level riders with high aspirations (particularly juniors and YRs) to go buy a horse that far exceeds their riding level, with the intention of “growing into it.” To be clear, I am NOT discouraging the practice of learning on a BTDT schoolmaster; I’m talking about a 14-year-old novice kid’s parents buying a 7-year-old Holsteiner two-star horse in hopes to win Young Riders in a few years. Not saying that YRs is a bad goal; just questioning will this plan create the best well-rounded rider for the future? The kid will make some mistakes, as we all do; and yes, the horse will have the talent to cover those mistakes; but is it worth it, just to rush up the levels and gain qualifying scores? What happens when the horse is in a situation where he NEEDS HELP, will the rider know what to do? Will the rider even recognize the problem, when she’s been living on the horse’s talent and generosity all along? Will that rider have any idea how to train a green horse, later in life?
To my thinking, novice riders should be appropriately mounted on experienced horses. But those horses DON’T need to be fancy imports capable of clearing the standards. An “average” horse who can safely perform his job at the desired level shouldn’t be discounted because he’s lacking a prefix or suffix in his name. You don’t buy your kids size 12 shoes when they fit in a size 5; why should you buy a horse any differently? Yes, if we wish to progress as riders, sometimes we will “outgrow” a horse’s ability. And that’s ok!! Part of riding is learning to build a partnership, figuring out new horses and learning what else they have to teach us. Learning to ride a horse who requires accuracy and attention to detail can be far more rewarding– and far more educational– than the animal who hides his rider’s mistakes with his own superior athleticism.