Jim Wofford: Change the Rules—And Change the Sport

Breeding sporthorses is a big business, and the people involved in it are very sophisticated. When the demands of a sport are changed, the breeders change the type of horse they produce. Modern dressage horses need to have calm temperaments and extravagant paces. Passage and piaffe are awarded extra points by dressage judges, so breeders have emphasized the breeding of horses who passage and piaffe for fun. The Netherlands’ Edward Gal established an extraordinary partnership with Moorlands Totilas and had several very successful seasons with him, as shown in this lovely photo taken at the 2010 World Equestrian Games in Lexington, Kentucky. It always impressed me that Edward seemed to allow Totilas to piaffe and passage rather than demand the movements. When this pair was at their best, they were hard to beat. Certainly a great deal of that success is due to Edward’s skill, but credit must also go to the breeders for producing horses such as this. | © Amy K. Dragoo

I have been watching the changes in our international equestrian disciplines for a long time now and, as usual, I have some opinions. Not every change is good, not every change is necessary, but every change to the rules has an effect on the sport as a whole and on the horses we use to participate in that sport. Here are some cases in point.

First Example: The Olympics Go Pro
Look what happened during the 1980s, when the International Olympic Committee professionalized the Olympic Games. Before this, riders were not supposed to make money from their riding. They had to have outside sources of income, which a few had, or had to cheat, which most did. At every Olympics there was a conspiracy of silence between the various nations—they would not protest our riders’ amateur status if we would not protest their riders’ status. This was cynical and hypocritical, but that was the way it was.

I was heavily involved in equine politics during the 1980s and participated in the discussions regarding the change from amateur to professional participation. When someone insisted we change our national rules in advance of the 1984 Los Angeles Olympics as an example to the rest of the equestrian sporting world, I said, “You leave the rules alone right now. We have got the best amateurs that money can buy.” I already knew that changing the rules would produce revolutionary changes in the sport.

Once the Olympics were professionalized, the quality of the riding improved markedly because riders could devote themselves to their sport full time. The expertise of present-day elite riders is marvelous. They love their horses as much as amateur riders from earlier times, but they are also able to make a living riding them.

Breeding to Suit Rules
Even more appealing to me than the growing proficiency of elite riders is the fact that our horses are getting better as well. I noticed this at the 2010 World Equestrian Games where I first saw Moorlands Totilas competing in the flesh rather than on YouTube. Totilas gave me the impression that he would rather passage and piaffe than open a Christmas present, and I suddenly realized that sporthorse breeders had for years been aiming their programs toward producing just such a creature. This was a result of the change in the dressage scoring rules, which ensures that piaffe and passage movements receive extra marks in Grand Prix dressage tests. Obviously, horses who can do those movements well are going to be more competitive; once again, a change in the rules changed the sport. We are now witnessing an influx of horses purpose-bred for modern Grand Prix dressage.

Modern show-jumping courses require a special horse with the power to jump huge obstacles, the desire to leave the rails up and the athleticism to change gears quickly. The time required at major competitions is tight, so riders need careful horses who can gallop, slow down quickly to make sharp turns and then immediately accelerate toward the next series of obstacles. Beezie Madden and Simon were fourth at the 2015 Longines FEI World Cup Jumping Final in Las Vegas, Nevada. Beezie would probably agree that it is a lot easier to be successful when you are sitting on horses bred for the job. Simon is strong enough to jump a 5-foot vertical but careful enough to leave plenty of air above the jumps. From the look on his face, Simon, the 2013 World Cup Final winner with Beezie, completely enjoys his job. | © Amy K. Dragoo/AIMMedia

I have recently heard dressage experts comment that breeders are producing and judges are rewarding horses with extravagant movement. However, some say that this extravagant movement comes at the expense of the clarity and correctness of the horse’s basic paces. This argument is occurring far above my pay grade, but it proves my main point—that when we change the rules, we change the sport and we change the horse.

Jumping into Big Bucks
And speaking of pay grades, international show jumping is taking place far above our pay grade. Riders now routinely compete for millions of dollars at some shows every week, and if you are able to sell a good prospect into the show-jumping ring, you can buy a small farm with the proceeds. In this instance, the sport and its horses changed when the FEI (Fédération Equestre Internationale), the international ruling body of equestrian sport, changed the rules to encourage organizers to offer more prize money to obtain a certain designation. International show-jumping competitions now have a star rating system, ascending from one to five stars. A five-star competition is required to offer at least half a million dollars. Five-star competitions that meet these requirements attract the best horses and riders. This brings crowds, which brings more sponsors and more television and so on.

If you are the owner of a big-time show jumper and you want to watch your horse compete from a ringside seat, you will pay more for a table at the hypothetical “Inner Circle Club” than I paid for my first house, and the waiting list for those tables would fill the club a second time. That kind of demand spells success for the organizers, riders and owners associated with international show jumping, but the breeders share part of that success as well. They are now consistently producing horses bred specifically for modern show jumping. The 21st century equine show-jumping version is athletic and sensitive and exhibits the strange mixture of caution and courage that is always the hallmark of good jumpers.

Eventing: Unintended Consequences Abound
The third of our Olympic equestrian sports, eventing, is composed of three different disciplines, which means that any change to the rules of one part reverberates throughout the other parts as well. This makes eventing a petri dish for the Law of Unintended Consequences. For example, in 2004 the FEI changed eventing’s format by removing the endurance element from the cross-country phase.

Theoretically, this placed dressage and show jumping on an equal footing with cross country, which until then had been by far the most important of the three disciplines. As a result, riders and trainers thought that dressage and show jumping would now have more influence than cross country on the final results, so they naturally selected horses who were good movers and careful jumpers in order to excel in these phases. I firmly believe that these rule changes were intended to raise the standard of event riders’ technical skills, and in two of eventing’s three parts, the rule-makers succeeded beyond their wildest dreams.

However, while endurance was removed from eventing, the risk factor remained. Eventing has always been the most dangerous of the Olympic equestrian disciplines, but the change in the format did little to improve the situation. When the rules were revised to increase the importance of dressage and show jumping, the rule-makers forgot that the risk factor in dressage is low and only slightly more so in show jumping. Yet as another unintended consequence, the change in the rules caused riders to select horses who lacked the qualities needed to reduce the risk of galloping over fixed obstacles. The rules were changed, the horses were changed, but the risk remains.

What’s the Answer?
Eventing is often referred to as “the triathlon of the horse world,” a handy explanation for the general public and one I use myself. However, there is not enough consideration of the sport as a whole rather than as three distinct parts. Eventing is more than a three-part competition. In my opinion, the organic and holistic qualities of eventing distinguish it from other horse sports.

Winston Churchill said, “Out of intense complexities intense simplicities emerge.” I wonder if he was talking about eventing?

When you analyze the sport, you realize that it is based on antithetical requirements. Dressage requires above all else calmness and submission. However, cross country demands a high degree of physical fitness, which can produce tension in horses, and tension is very detrimental to dressage scores. Another example: Cross-country horses can jump from unusual situations; are not afraid to brush through soft obstacles; take a very flat, fast bascule; and can give the occasional log a pretty good bump. Show jumpers, on the other hand, act as if they are allergic to paint. They are ultra careful, often jumping well above obstacles, and are happiest jumping from predetermined takeoff spots. Again you can see the opposing nature of the requirements for event horses. A final example: Both dressage and show jumping require submission from the horse, yet cross country requires initiative. Two parts of the competition are based on submission while one part—the dangerous part—is based on the horse’s initiative and self-reliance.

Rather than view my sport as a bundle of contradictions, however, I view it as the opportunity to train the complete equine and human athletes. Done correctly, the antithetical nature of eventing’s requirements produces a final synthesis—a superbly trained horse, ridden by a superb rider and horseman. 

More Changes Ahead?
Given the effect of rules on our sport, where does eventing go from here? First, our committees do not think enough about a sport that uses antithetical elements to produce the perfect equine athlete, a sport where any change to one part always has subtle, unintended effects on the other parts. For example, the FEI has recently changed the order of the phases in CICs and may also implement the same change in CCIs in the future: Where we once went dressage, then cross country and then show jumping, quite often we are now running dressage first, then show jumping with cross country last. It’s a better spectacle for TV, the marketing experts say. Horses jump better, the riders say.

All true. However, if this new order is implemented throughout the sport, I predict that in a few years we will hear a cry from the riders’ associations: “There are too many clear show-jumping rounds. We need to increase the technicality, heights and spreads of the test.” Naturally, horses are fresher before cross country and will jump better in the stadium. But an unintended consequence of this change would make it possible for unscrupulous riders and trainers to resort to abusive practices such as tack rails and offset rapping bars in preparing for show jumping. As presently constituted, these practices do not have much effect. Horses forget their experiences after galloping cross country, so trainers rarely “rap” their horses before competitions. If we change the sequence of the three disciplines, in the future rapping will be part of our horses’ lives.

In addition, if the cross country comes last, riders may be more willing to press tired horses. At present, competitors conserve their horses during the cross-country phase, knowing that they must present their horses at the final vet check and then jump a stadium course. The historical sequence of the three parts of eventing served to protect the well-being of our horses. If we change that sequence, will our horses be safeguarded as well as in the past? I think not. 

We need rules to protect our horses and to provide a level playing field for us. But we need to very carefully think through the effect of proposed rule changes because every time we change the rules, we change the sport. We may want to change our sport, but it should happen on purpose, not by accident. Accidental and unintended effects can cause accidents, and we want to prevent accidents, not cause them.

This article originally appeared in the August 2015 issue of Practical Horseman.

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