Going For Gold: the Primer in Olympic Eventing continues!

As promised, here is part two of my primer on the equine sport known as Eventing.  For part one, check out my blog post here.

A quick recap: eventing is the triathlon of the horse sport world, made up of three phases, dressage, cross-country, and stadium (or ‘show’) jumping.

Dressage is often the hardest phase for the observer to understand. Each horse and rider must perform specific elements of a test where they ride a precise pattern. Unlike the straight discipline of dressage, the individual elements are usually a bit less complex, and the scoring is different as well. In straight dressage (also an Olympic event), horses are scored out of a possible 100 points, so a high score is good.

A short excerpt from Lightening in a Bottle to describe the importance and scoring of dressage in eventing:

Having a good dressage score is critical to winning. Each movement in the test is scored on a scale from zero to ten, with the total score depending on number of movements and the difficulty of the test itself. The marks are then added together, converted to penalty points, and subtracted from 100. Because of this convoluted scoring system, the lower your dressage score, the better the rank. After dressage, the only way to move up is by someone else making a mistake.

The purpose of dressage is to show that you are able to ride in a controlled manner, communicating complex changes of direction and movement with your legs and hands in such a way that it doesn’t look like you are signaling the horse at all. A well executed dressage test is like watching a dance between partners who know each other so well they do not have to speak. Dressage means ‘training’, and it was originally a discipline created around military maneuvers and the ability to riding horses in formation, changing direction at will, while still having hands free to fire a weapon or wield a sword. The upper level movements that some of you may have seen the Royal Lipizzaners perform are called Airs Above the Ground, and all have their origins in defending a rider from attack.

Did you see Colbert’s report on dressage on his show, the Colbert Report? Though it was a hysterical tongue-in-cheek report (full of risqué allusions as well), it does give you an idea of the difficulty involved in the training. The dressage movement in the video, the piaffe, is not performed in evening dressage, that is considered an upper level movement for the pure dressage format. Colbert on Dressage

I include it here because, damn, Colbert cleans up nice. And in his final outfit, he is dressed in the appropriate attire for the show ring, wearing a top hat, a coat known as a shadbelly, white breeches (pronounced ‘britches’ by most people in the US), and tall boots. So when you are picturing Jake preparing to enter the show ring, that’s what he’d be wearing.

The cross country phase is admittedly my favorite. I suspect that had a lot to do with the fact that my very first horse (purchased for eighty-nine cents a pound when I was a freshman in college), enjoyed it too. He would light up when he spied the first fence on course, flattening his body and making for the fence at a hard gallop. When you consider that I normally had to push him into doing anything, it was a surprise and a joy to find my horse’s heart singing with mine as we took the obstacles.

Because that’s what they are: obstacles. The cross country phase has you jumping down off banks, over ditches, into ponds of water, out over stone walls, you name it. You might have to jump through the center of a hedge, or in out of a tricky combination of fences designed to encourage your horse to run out to the side to avoid them. Typically done at a gallop the entire way, the course can be as long as 3-4 miles. There are usually multiple possible approaches to a fence, to allow for an easier jump that might earn you time penalties. The course must be finished clean with no refusals or falls, and under the optimum time to avoid penalties. Due to the challenging nature of the course, elimination at this phase is not unusual. Three refusals, a fall anywhere on the course, failure to wear appropriate medical information in a band on your arm, or the rider’s decision to pull the horse from the course—these are all reasons why a horse might get eliminated in this round. In the 2012 Rolex Event in Kentucky this past April, nearly half the field was eliminated on cross country.

The riders here typically wear ‘colors’ similar to a jockey on a racehorse. Often the colors represent a barn if there are more than one rider/horse combination present. The riders typically wear breeches of any color (though on single day trials, riders often remain in the white breeches from the dressage phase), and a pleasing combination of colors—mine were Kelly green and black, though I have Jake wearing red and black, another combination that I really like. There are no rules on color here—only that you wear the appropriate protective helmet and body protector (which we jokingly call ‘body bags’ around our barn).

The final element is stadium jumping, which is a bit of a combination of the two former phases, in that you are asked to ride your horse through a series of challenging obstacles, but due to the tight turns, tricky combinations, and the precise spacing between the fences, you must have precision riding through the entire course. The fences are laid out in a manner such that if you come into a combination wrong, it will be very difficult for you to get out of it without knocking something down. And unlike cross country, where the fences are large, immovable objects, the stadium fences are designed so that brushing against a rail can bring it down. Competitors are penalized (given ‘faults’) for dropping rails, refusals, and going over time. The winner of the event is the horse and rider with the best score after all three phases.

I look back on this summation and think, “Man, you have to be a little nuts to be an event rider.” It’s true, you do. It’s hours of training no matter the weather or the time of day. Unless you are riding a minimum of four to five days a week, neither you nor the horse will be safe out there. You will ride until every muscle in your body begs for mercy, and you will break bones and your bank account too. Prepping for an event takes a full day of cleaning tack, shampooing and braiding your horse, and loading the van so you can pull out of the stable in the pre-dawn light and drive to the event hours away. It’s sunburn, and heatstroke, and hypoglycemia, and nerves that make you want to throw up. Your day isn’t done until you’ve taken care of your horse, cleaned the van, and stowed your gear so that you can come back the next day and wash everything for use the next time you head out. It’s a brutal way to spend a weekend.

And I miss it very much.

I chose to retire my horse from the sport earlier this year, after having almost lost her twice in the past six months. I don’t need to compete her to know that I have the most marvelous horse in the world, but I miss it just the same.

Which is why I chose to write about this world for my submission to the Going for Gold Anthology soon to be released by MLR Press.  I can’t tell you how excited I am about this story.  This environment and the characters are so real to me, it was as though I was a reporter recording their story as it played out in front of me.  Jake, his determination and fearlessness over fences, but his need to guard his heart.  Rich, who has lost everything and put his life back together from scratch, setting aside his own dreams to help others chase theirs. I can’t wait to share their story with you!  Hear those hoofbeats?  The horses are coming very soon!

Out now! Going for Gold from MLR Press!

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