What advice do you have for deciding whether to run your horse cross-country or not, based on the footing conditions?
One of the realities is that the sport of eventing is an absolute outdoor sport. We all dream of perfect conditions, but sometimes Mother Nature has different ideas and often conditions aren’t perfect, especially on cross-country day. Obviously in the spring and winter, with lots of moisture and rain, conditions can get wet and muddy and the ground can get deep and holding; when the ground gets hard in summer it can also be not ideal to run because there’s no cushion in the ground.
With the ground wet and footing heavy, the big concern is soft-tissue injuries. There’s a higher chance of the horse slipping or sinking into the ground and stretching a tendon or ligament. When the ground is dry and rock hard, I think the biggest concern is concussion: With the horse landing after jumps and galloping on the hard ground, each joint receives concussion, especially the front end, and this can result in bruising of the horse’s feet. I also think it has a cumulative effect: Your horse might trot up sound the day after an event but after years of running on hard ground, your horse will start to show wear and tear.
When you’re in a competition, things get nerve-racking and the easiest thing to do when you’re not convinced about the footing is pull out of the competition. You listen to other riders talking about saving their horse and it’s easy to agree with everyone, do the dressage and show jumping, and put your horse on the trailer. But here in America, like in Australia, your next event could be just the same. So at some point you have to take a deep breath and run your horse.
Hopefully you’ve been training on good footing at home, in the ring for dressage and jumping, and on a track with prepared footing for fitness work. At the competition, your horse is only on the rough ground for seven or eight minutes. I think running a little slow across country also reduces the effects of hard ground and it’s worth the time penalties. If it’s a big competition like the American Eventing Championships (AECs) or a certain event that has been your big goal, it is what it is. There’s also a time you have to look at the horse and its performance, realize it’s not a critical event, and even if you skip the cross-country you can still reach the goals that you set at the beginning of the season.
As far as hard ground goes, a lot of events are using agrivators and aerovators and spiking the footing to break it up, so if you stick to the track laid out, the footing should be in decent shape, if not perfect. Farriers can also use things like Equithane™, rim pads, leather pads and all sorts of weird and wonderful designs of shoes to cushion the feet and reduce concussion.
All in all, I think the decision has to be made based on the horse and the time of the year. The age and experience of the horse also come into play: Young horses can bounce back a bit but with older horses with more mileage, I do believe we have to save for better footing.
My last piece of advice is to try not to be swayed by other riders. For sure, talk to one or two people you really respect, or your mentor, but anyone who decides to withdraw always loves company — it’s important to think through your own set of circumstances and have a true feeling of what’s to be gained by running or not running your horse.
How do you plan the competition season for your horses?
At the beginning of the year, I have a list of horses that are fit and sound. Because it’s the beginning of the year, everyone’s full of energy and you can’t wait to get started. You have to step back, look at each horse as an individual and really try to imagine what you think are some goals that your horse could meet throughout the year. Start looking at some events that will help you best reach these goals. For me personally, I try to do these calendar schedules about six months out; I think in that time a lot can change — some horses progress at a fast rate while others need more time to plan for.
I like to map out a few ideal or key competitions, and work backwards from there. For example, the AECs are a wonderful goal for many riders. I hate running a horse closer than two weeks apart; I always try to take three or four weeks between events, or try to take a horse to a horse trial once a month. Any more than that is hard on the horse and you’re risking injury by running cross-country too close together. With competitions three, four or five weeks apart, I like to throw in a jumper or dressage show on one of the weekends; it’s a great exercise to compete your horse against other horses specialized in these events. It’s also humbling to show up with your fit, sleek Thoroughbred and warm up with the big, shiny warmbloods, but it’s a good experience to compete against people who are better than you.
I think it’s always important to be flexible enough to change your plan mid-season. Obviously, you always like to stick to your original plan, but one thing I’ve found with horses is nothing ever goes as planned. Horses and riders get niggling little injuries and you might have to choose another show due to soundness reasons. In the spring and summer, we’re always chasing ideal footing and it’s a good idea to have an alternate event on the calendar in case your first choice has less than ideal footing, especially on cross-country day.
I’d try to not do more than four or five horse trials before giving my horse a mini vacation. The schedule in America is such that you could run nearly every weekend and it’s easy to fall into the trap of competing too often.
With the first event, I like to start out at a level lower than the horse is ready for, and take it nice and slow for a nice, quiet, confidence-building experience, not even worrying about the optimum time on cross-country. The next couple of events, I try to get more competitive, looking for a small improvement at each event. The fourth event on the list would be my big goal: the AECs or an event like Stable View or Plantation Field, and that’s where I’d try to give my personal best performance. After that event, I’d give my horse two or three weeks of vacation for a break from the mental and physical demands of training.