Thursday, August 2, 2012

Once every 4 years, with feeling

Horse jumping is silly, and equestrian shouldn't be in the Olympics.  The horse does all the work.

Not exactly. And it's definitely not "horse does all the physical, rider does all the thinking."  Nor is it "the rider just steers.  And if you've sat on a horse during a trail ride, you haven't really ridden -- you've just been toted around.  Comparing a trail ride to riding a horse is analogous to sitting on a snowmobile versus skiing.

Above is a great example of someone who isn't doing much more than steering and letting the horse do all the work. Doesn't work very well, even over fairly small jumps, does it? That's from the 2008 Beijing Olympics, in the modern pentathlon. And most of the rounds were like that - it was really sad to watch.  Pentathletes do train for the sport, but not enough, because they have to focus on 4 other sports as well.  And... it shows.


Here's the best way I can think of to explain it. If you've ever run the steeplechase or hurdles, then you know the importance of meeting a jump in stride.

Meeting a jump in stride is crucial in jumping horses. But it's more complicated, in that a) you're getting a horse to meet the jump in stride (rather than just yourself) and b) there's a wide variety of jumps. Verticals (just straight up and down) usually require the horse to jump from a shortened stride and a slower pace, while wider jumps (oxers and triple bars) require a faster pace and a different take-off spot.

And, each horse is different in just how they need to be placed at the jump.  Some jump best from 3-6 inches further away, some from 3-6 inches closer.  Some jump better from a faster pace, some don't. Some have longer strides, some have shorter.

Plus, unlike track and field steeplechase or hurdles, you're not jumping all single hurdles arranged in a large oval.  Obstacles are arranged off of tight turns, or in combinations - for example a course might be set as a vertical followed in 3 or 4 (depending on your horse) strides to a large oxer, and then a right turn to another oxer before turning left to three jumps with a single stride between each (a triple combination).

 As for the physicality, there's a lot more involved here than just staying on (though that can be challenging in itself).  Placing the horse at the jump is very physically demanding. You're accomplishing it via a combination of shifting your body weight around, pulling on the reins (sometimes REALLY HARD) and squeezing with your legs (again, sometimes REALLY HARD).  And you're doing the same thing between fences to keep your horse active and ready.

You're also balancing the horse - again using your own body weight, plus legs and arms, to cause the horse to carry its weight in a certain way so that the horse can best jump the fence.  Generally, you want to "package" the horse so that its center of balance is further back towards the haunches, with the rear legs reaching well under the horse, in order to have the most powerful jump.

 One of our top US riders, Margie Goldstein --
this is a good example that shows how
the rider is packaging and placing the horse.

And, once you're in the air, you need to position your body in such a way as to enable the horse to jump its best. Which is pretty darn hard.  Depending on the horse, you may need to hold your body a bit back on take-off, and then catch up in the air, or take extra care not to let your rear touch the saddle until you've completely cleared the fence.  I showed a horse in a division that often required tight turns, but I couldn't touch her mouth in the air at all - as soon as I did, the legs went down, and we pulled a rail.  So, had to be very careful to look and shift my weight, but NOT touch the reins, until we'd landed.

Looking and shifting weight for a tight left turn, but NOT pulling on left rein.


It's a physical sport, and a tough one.  Riders have very strong inner thighs, biceps, and core. Ridiculously strong cores.  Heck the Koreans want abs like ours.

And though riding is not as intensively aerobic as running/cycling/endurance sport of choice, it does have an aerobic component to it.  I was still riding when I first got a HR monitor, so I wore the monitor for a few rides for the heck of it.  Riding at the canter (not just sitting on a trail horse, but riding) put my HR into the 160s, below tempo but above easy run HR for me.  I never wore a monitor while jumping, but I'm willing to bet that it got up into the tempo range, based on how I'd breathe while riding a course.


So yes, it's a demanding sport.  I promise.  And with that, my rant is concluded for the next 4 years.  Or until someone else tries to tell me that the horse does all the work.


  1. I've always known this was difficult from an athletic perspective, but I've never had anyone break it down for me like this. All of the zebras at my house have been enjoying these equestrian events!