Tuesday, August 9, 2016

Yes, it is a sport...

Every four years, the Summer Olympics come around, and the public is exposed to sports outside the American canon of basketball, baseball, football (not soccer), and hockey (plus golf and Nascar). Every four years, we're impressed by the athletes in some of these niche sports.  And every four years, we mock other sports.

Equestrian sports fall into the second category.  I've heard it all: "horse dancing"; "the horse does all the work"; etc.  NBC's coverage of the sport doesn't do it any favors either.  Instead of explaining the nuances and technicalities and physical demands of the sport, they recite cliches like "the beauty of the partnership between horse and rider."

(if I hear or read that one more time, I will scream.  No one ever talks about "the beauty of the partnership" in volleyball or crew).

Equestrian sports can be really interesting and exciting to watch - as evidence, I present my significant other, who knew very little about either riding or running before dating me.  He now finds the horse sports exciting, while a televised marathon remains of little interest.

However, you can't enjoy watching the sport unless you understand the sport.  So here's a primer.

First of all, a disclaimer: there are three types of horse sports in the Olympic games (well actually four, but Pentathlon is its own beast).   They are dressage, three day eventing, and showjumping. Showjumping, which is being televised next week, is what I did as a teenager.  And since I did "the jumpers" to a fairly high level, I feel qualified to explain it.

I did NOT compete in three day eventing or dressage, both of which are being shown this week.  And so I understand the general demands and structures of those sports in the same way that I understand 800m running or triathlons - enough to enjoy watching, but not enough to discuss in great detail.

Thus, I'll stick to what I know.  Showjumping.


There's two assumptions that underlie most people's dismissal of equestrian sports.  The first is that the primary concern in jumping a horse is not falling off.  I've come to the conclusion that many people think that successfully jumping horses is about a) getting the horse pointed the right direction and b) staying on while the horse jumps.  Steering and not falling off are indeed essential to competing in showjumping, in the same way that the ability to run a bit further than 6 miles is essential to racing a 10K well.  But there's much more than that to the sport.

The second assumption is that horse sports are not physically demanding.    I think this stems out of each person's tendency to define fitness in terms of the physical qualities needed to excel in their chosen sport.  If you run or swim or bike, you define fitness as aerobic endurance.  If you lift, you define fitness as pure strength.

Riding is a sport of skill, but also of strength.  You need to be quite strong to be a successful rider, though nowhere near the level of a elite weightlifter.  While most strength sports focus on concentric work - lifting something, moving something, etc; riding is an isometric strength workout.  Riders work very hard to keep stuff stable, and to engage in controlled, fairly small movements.  This is why the physical work that a rider is doing isn't apparent to the casual observer - because the rider isn't making large motions (hopefully).  But as anyone that's held chair pose in yoga or done planks can testify, isometric strengthwork can be very tough.

[when I watch dressage, my abs and biceps ache in sympathy with the rider.  I'm guessing the majority of NBC's viewership doesn't experience similar]

There's also a belief that riding is not an aerobic sport at all - that "you just sit there" while the horse does the work.  This belief is perpetuated by the many people every year who go on an organized trail ride, where a horse carries them around some scenic locale while they clutch the mane with both hands.

That's not riding.  That's sitting on a horse.  Riding (not sitting) is aerobic work. Yes, the horse is working and breathing hard, but so is the rider.  Trail riding is to equestrian sports like tubing is to kayaking, or sledding is to slalom skiing.

When riding a horse at the canter, my perceived aerobic effort matches that of running at marathon pace, and my heart rate does as well (mid 160s for both).  I can still speak in phrases or the occasional sentence, with a few breaths in between, but I am WORKING.  The key difference, of course, is that I'm probably not going to be working at the canter for more than 5 minutes at a time, while I'll be running my marathon for a bit over three hours.  Running is far MORE aerobically demanding than riding.  But riding does involve some aerobic effort, combined with far more strength than one needs to run.


So, what does a showjumping rider actually do?

Short answer: many different and difficult things that enable the horse to jump the course of obstacles.  In the end, it's the horse that takes off and lands.  But it's the rider's job to ensure that the horse is able to jump the jump well, with most of that work being done before the horse and rider arrive at the jump.  That's the skill part, which in turn requires significant strength to pull off.

I stole this picture from someone
who stole it from Horsejunkies.com.
Horsejunkies is a very good site, BTW.
You should all visit it.
To understand this, we'll start with a very simple jump - imagine a hurdle similar to what a runner would encounter in a steeplechase race on the track.  Now visualize a horse jumping over the hurdle.

Or, alternately, just look at the picture on the right.

As you can see, the horse arcs over the jump, from take-off to landing.   In order to jump a fence well, the horse's arc should be centered over the highest part of the jump.   

(This jumping arc is generally referred to as a bascule, which is a pretentious sounding word that I despise, and so won't use again.)

The rider's job (in part) is to shape that arc.  Part of that job.is ensuring that the horse takes off from the optimal place in front of the fence.  Not too close, or the front legs may hit the fence.  And not too far, or the back legs may not clear the fence.   And if you totally screw up, getting to a spot from which it is very hard or impossible to clear the fence, the horse will likely refuse to jump (and often times, you're grateful, as they've just saved your neck).

The rider also controls the shape of the jumping arc, generally by shaping the horse's stride before the jump.  If you have your horse cantering with short, bouncy strides before the jump, you'll get an arc that is narrow but quite high - perfect for high jumps that aren't very wide.  If your horse is jumping out of a more extended stride, then you'll achieve an wider, flatter arc - much better for jumping very
Most of these are verticals, but there's also an oxer,
a triple bar, and an open water.
wide jumps with little height.  Of course, there's many different shapes of jumps, and so a need for many different types of arcs.   Some jumps aren't very wide (they're called verticals), some jumps are wider but still high (oxers and triple bars) and there's occasionally a shallow but wide pit full of water.


So, that's how to handle a single jump.  But of course, it's not that simple.  While you occasionally have jumps sitting out in the middle of nowhere, most jumps are placed at measured distances from each other. And this fact makes shaping the arc for each jump harder.

A horse's normal stride is assumed to be 12 feet long, and the horse generally needs 6 feet in front of the jump to take off, and lands 6 feet away from the jump on the other side (that's a vast simplification, but just go with it - if you know this sport, then this post isn't aimed at you anyway).

So...if you have two jumps with 60 feet between them, then your horse will take 4 strides between the two.  60 feet less 6 feet for landing and less 6 feet for takeoff  is 48 feet, and 48 feet equals four 12 foot strides.

[incidentally, this 12 foot stride is why, if you ever watch a showjumping competition, you may see riders "walk the course" - striding between two jumps with a slightly military step.   They're actually measuring the distance between the two jumps, with each step that they take being exactly 3 feet long.]

But suppose that the second jump is fairly wide, and so you need a more extended stride to clear it. That more extended stride is 13 feet long.  If you do 4 strides, each 13 feet long, then you've covered 52 feet (plus the 6 for landing for the first jump), and you are way too close to the second jump.

How do you fix that?  One way is to land and then take two strides that are 11 feet long and two strides that are 13 feet long.  If the jumps are set on a curving path, another option is to take the turn wider, so that you can fit in four longer strides.


Course designers get mean sometimes.   And they get meaner as the level of competition get higher.   In my example above, they could set the jumps to be 56 feet apart, rather than 60.  So how do you fit in the 13 foot stride that you need to jump the second wide jump?

There's at least three options:
1) take two REALLY REALLY short strides and then two longer ones, and hope it works out.
2) try to leave out a stride, taking three REALLY REALLY long strides. And hope it works out.
3) take four slightly short strides and hope it works out.

If it doesn't work out, you may get lucky and get over it anyway.  Or you may get over it but knock a rail down.  Or your horse may stop.  Or you may crash.   Trust me, it's an awful feeling to realize two or three strides away out from a fence that you've made the wrong choice.


And of course, it gets even harder, since horses are individuals.  Some horses lengthen their strides easily, but don't shorten well.  Some horses like to have extra space in front of the jump - preferring to take off from 7 feet away, instead of 6.  Some horses are capable of jumping very big jumps, and so you have a wider margin for error.  This is called "scope."  Some horses are more limited, and you can't stray very far from perfection without knocking down the fence or worse.

One horse I showed regularly in the jumpers as a teenager, named Bar Brat, was limited in how wide she could jump (though not how high).  She also pulled in her front legs very quickly when jumping, meaning we could take off much closer to the jump.  When I rode her, I had to ensure that we a) carried a fast pace and a longer stride, to maximize her ability to get across the width, and b) took off very close to the jump, to minimize the total width she had to clear.

There's also other details for the rider to control, like where the horse's center of gravity is - more towards the front?  More to the rear?  And whether the horse's body is straight, bent to the right, bent to the left, etc.  Going into all of that would make this entry even longer, so just suffice to say - it's hard.   People write books on this stuff.  And people buy books on this stuff.


As described above, this all sounds very mathematical.  Measure the course, do some calculations, and you're set.  But horses aren't like planes - you don't program in your flight path ahead of time. Rather, you have a general game plan when you go in the ring.  Something like "5 short strides between one and two, then turn right and open up my stride for fence three..."  But you have to adjust on the fly, relying on your feel for how the horse is moving, and your visual depth perception to measure where you are relative to each jump.

And, there are no buttons to push.  Instead you manage the horse's stride and balance physically.    It's another oversimplification, but basically you lengthen the stride by squeezing with your legs more (or kicking, if necessary), and shorten the stride by pulling with your arms.  Sometimes this is a fairly subtle thing.  And sometimes you have to apply force.  A LOT of force.  Bar Brat would pull fairly hard, and 90 seconds in the ring was enough to bring me to muscle failure at times.

Of course, your core is working very hard as well - stabilizing you on a moving animal, and giving you something to brace against when you (oversimplified) kick and pull.    Though it's too complicated to explain here in detail, your core also steers and balances the horse - the placement of your body on the horse affects how the horse carries its weight.

Think pilates on a reformer machine with heavy weights, but with the risk of getting seriously hurt.

Riders don't always have the low body fat of other sports (unless they're competing in equitation, which is a variant of show jumping judged on the rider's performance and appearance).  And that extra body fat sometimes creates a misleading impression of a lack of fitness.  However, any rider competing at a high level has fantastic core strength, and can also perform some impressive weight work in the gym.


So that, in a nutshell, is what the rider is doing on the horse.  Of course, they're doing this with a purpose, and the purpose is to place well in competition. So how is the competition scored?

In show-jumping, the objective is to jump a clear round over the course of jumps.  "Clear" means that you haven't incurred any "faults."  How does one get faults? Well....

  • If you alter the height or width of an obstacle (generally by knocking a pole down), or get a foot in a water jump - 4 faults.
  • If the horse refuses to jump a jump, it's called a refusal, which is a type of "disobedience."  It's 4 faults for the first disobedience.  The second disobedience is elimination.  If you circle while on course, or come to a complete stop anywhere on course, it's also considered a diobedience, and 4 faults are assessed.
  • If the rider falls (defined as touching the ground) - elimination.
  • If the horse falls (defined as both the shoulders and the rear end of the horse touching the ground) - elimination.
  • If you jump the fences out of order, it's called "off course" - elimination.
Each course has a start and finish line clearly marked - you only incur faults while you are between the start and finish.  Fall off after the finish line, and you're still in the game - this has occasionally led to some hilarious scenes as riders who have been jumped loose struggle to hang on until they cross the finish.

You're timed from when you cross the start to when you cross the finish, and each course has a "time allowed."  At the Olympic level, riders are expected to maintain a pace of 400 meters per minute (essentially a four minute mile).  The time allowed is calculated by combining that pace with the measured distance of the course - thus the time allowed for a 500 meter course would be 75 seconds.

If you exceed the time allowed, you incur 1 fault for every 4 seconds, or portion thereof, that you are over the time.  So, if the time allowed is 75 seconds, and you take 76 seconds, you get 1 fault.    If you take 79 seconds, it's still 1 fault.  If you take 80 seconds, it's 2 faults.

If you really go crazy, and are out there for twice the time allowed, then you've exceeded the time limit - that's elimination.


That's how each round is scored.  In a "normal" horse show, there are multiple classes for individual horse/rider combinations, each treated as a separate mini-competition, with awards given for that class.  In each class, there's a first round, and then all competitors who are tied for first after that first round (usually, this is all the clear rounds), return for a "jump-off" where they compete over a shortened course with their time in that second round being the tie breaker.

The Olympics differ slightly, in that they are a team competition.   At Rio this year, the competition will be spread over multiple days.  The first day is a "qualifier" with relatively simple course.  Placements on this day affect the starting order for future days - there's usually an advantage to going later in the order, so that one can see how the course rides.  

Two days later, the riders return for a two round "Nations Cup" that determines the team medals. Two rounds  over the same course.  Each country fields a team of four riders, with the scores from the best three counting for each round.  At the end of the two rounds, the lowest team score (after cutting the drop score) wins.

Two days later, the top 35 riders from the team competition plus the qualifier return for the individual competition.  Their scores are reset to 0, and they compete over another two rounds, with the lowest score winning gold.  If there's a tie for any medal after the two rounds, the tied competitors jump off for the medal.


If you've made it through this all, then you're ready to watch Olympic Show Jumping.  Congratulations.  The qualifying round is on Sunday, August 14 from 9:00 am -12:45 pm EST.  The Team competition is on Tuesday, August 16 and Wednesday, August 17 starting at 9:00 am EST each day.  And the individual competition is on Friday, August 19 starting at 9:00 am EST.  

See you there!  (virtually)

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