Ease the Stress of Eventing on Your Horse

Veteran eventing coach Jim Wofford offers some coping strategies to ease the stress of eventing's 21st-century pace on our horses.

Eventing has gone through tremendous change over the past 50 years. The most obvious has been the change from the classic to the short format. This change alone would have been revolutionary, but the sport has changed in every other aspect as well.

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Veterinary medicine has improved so much that old-time horsemen can scarcely believe it. Injuries still occur, but the diagnosis and treatment of them, and the recovery from them, seem almost miraculous to observers raised in another century. In addition, the range of medications available to us to treat a wide range of conditions is highly sophisticated.

Farriers are better trained these days, modern grains and supplements are much improved and your local equine dentist comes equipped with a dizzying array of power tools.

Organizers provide competitions at very high standards, judges are better trained and trainers are now able to undergo a rigorous certification process. Events are not only better now, but there are more of them. The opportunities to compete are so numerous that if you have a fast horse trailer, you can compete every week of the year. And with the advent of the “sunshine circuits” in Florida and California, it is a very attractive prospect to spend the winter where you can ride outside in your shirt sleeves every day.

In addition, there are more and more high-point awards available to riders, and more and more recognized and unrecognized competitions at which to chase those points.

What is my point with all this? My point is that the only aspect of our sport that has not changed dramatically over the past 50 years is the horse. The problem I see developing along with our expanded calendar is that just because we can compete every week does not mean we should compete every week. Competing every week means training every week, and the horse is not designed for ceaseless training.

One of the trends I have noticed in eventing is the ever-increasing incidence of stomach ulcers in horses. Most vets agree that stress is the major contributing factor. The increased competitive skills required to succeed compel riders to train harder and harder to achieve those skills. In many cases, the rider gets the ribbons and the points, but the horse pays the price. Many competition horses are kept in box stalls 23 hours a day, and this cannot be doing them any good. Eventers are also using specialized coaches for each of the three disciplines, which means that the only person who has an overview of how much total stress their horse is subjected to each week is the person who is scheduling the stress–the actual competitor.

You can see that it might be easy to lose your overview when all you wanted in the first place is improve your own and your horse’s performance. Add to this a new “dually,” and it is a pretty good bet that your horse will have stomach ulcers before long.

There are several ways to help alleviate your horse’s stress. The first is to be aware of it. Next, make a schedule of your week’s activities and plan something every three or four days for your horse to do that will allow him to relax. Hacking on a loose rein in a natural environment comes immediately to my mind. However, this is not always possible. What about moving to a stable with good turnout facilities, or even better, turnout and good hacking trails? Maybe it adds an extra few minutes to your commute every day, but you have already devoted most of your spare time to your horse, so a little extra effort on your part can pay big rewards in his health and attitude.

Another simple stress reliever is to plan different activities for your horse each day. Event horses thrive on variety, and will look forward to their day’s work if they know they will be doing something new and different every day. I do not mean you should do only those things that your horse naturally enjoys, but that you should ride and train your horse in such a way that he looks forward to his dressage lessons just as much as he does to galloping and jumping. For example, the next time you schedule a dressage day with your horse, do your dressage work in a large field. Ideally, the field will have some mild rise and fall in the terrain and this will help muscle him up, and make him suppler at the same time. In addition, he will become more forward due to being ridden in longer lines, rather than continually turning. Finally, just changing the scenery will improve his attitude, which will have a positive effect on his performance.

While you are scheduling your horse’s activities, find ways to cut down on his trailer time. Does your dressage coach ever come to other facilities to give lessons? Would she do it if you organized several lessons at your barn with other people who also want to keep their horses off the road as much as possible? Maybe that facility I was talking about, the one with good turnout and hacking, is run by a hunter/jumper trainer who enjoys and understands eventers and can teach them. That would be several hours less of trailer time every week, if you do not have to ship out for your jumping lessons.

Speaking of scheduling, remember that just because you live in an area with events every weekend does not mean you should be competing every weekend. Although the racetrack schedules races every day, trainers do not run their horses every day–they pick their spots.

When I map out my students’ schedule for the season, I first decide on their “destination” event–their goal for the season–and schedule backward. I have to take their qualifications into account and plan to satisfy all the FEI requirements if a destination event is FEI-recognized.

Even if a destination event is not an FEI event, I may have to include qualifying events, for example for the American Eventing Championships or the various area championships. Then I figure out how many events it will take to have each student’s horse at his best possible state of training and fitness.

How many events does it take to get a horse prepared for each season and qualified for a destination event? That is a tough question and the answer varies from horse to horse. The answer also changes depending on the weather and the state of the ground. I ask my horses to compete less when it is hot and the footing is hard than I do when conditions are more suitable. I don’t mind running back-to-back weekends with Novice and Training horses if the footing and weather are good and will occasionally run Preliminary horses back-to-back, but my Intermediate and Advanced horses never run back-to-back. I tend to run my younger and lower-level horses more often, while my three- and four-star horses will only go to from two to four horse trials before they arrive at the Jersey Fresh CCI*** or the Rolex CCI****.

Regarding the competitive schedule for upper-level horses, I think that in the years to come, we will see an increasing “churn” or turnover on our international teams. It used to be that once horses and riders got to the classic four-star level and were successful, they became dependable team members for three to five years. However, it takes an enormous amount of “drill” to produce a successful short format four-star horse. My guess is that our horses are going to reach very high states of training–much higher than in my day–but they are not going to last as long.

I make this prediction not because of the physical demands on our horses, but because of the mental stress that is increasingly placed on them. They are going to lose their form, not because they lose their skills but because they are going to lose their desire. It takes good riders to produce successful upper-level horses, but it is going to take good horsemen to keep them there.

Regardless of your level, keep in mind that the only thing that has not changed in our sport is the horse. When we ride him, we need to remember that he is not a means of transportation; he is not a trampoline for our ego; he is our friend. He does not change, so our unceasing devotion to him and his well-being must not change. That is what horsemen do–they care for their horses.

Reprinted from the May 2007 issue of Practical Horseman magazine.

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