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The Olympic Sport of Eventing

Michael Hillman

The Equestrian sport of combined training, or 'Eventing', traces its origin to the days when each country depended upon the cavalry in battle and horses were a vital part of the Army. Friendly boasting at the end of a day's campaign as to the relative courage, speed, and stamina of particular horses evolved into a series of tests to prove these claims. In track and field, the decathlon represents the ultimate in testing the all-around skill of an athlete.

In equestrian sport, combined training is considered the ultimate test. This competition encompasses three separate tests (hence, its name): dressage, endurance, and show jumping, each scored individually but added together for the final score. Unlike other sports where only the human will and body are working against the clock, in combined training, two minds and bodies have to work as one, and a true partnership between horse and rider is necessary to win.

I began riding on a dare at the ripe old age of 21 and became quickly addicted.  My ridding career has been governed by the advice of my first instructor: "Always seek out the best riders and learn from them; and when you think you have learned it all, it's time to quit, because its all downhill from there." True to this guidance, my short list of past coaches reads like a Who's Who of the equestrian elite, including three Olympic gold medal winners. Since moving to Emmitsburg, I have trained with Julie Gomena, a long-time friend and internationally ranked rider, in Middleburg, Virginia.

Soon after moving to Emmitsburg, I lost my competition horse to a freak riding accident and because of job commitments, figured my competition days were over. A year later, however, I found myself itching to get back in the saddle again, and with the help of Julie, acquired Lt. Worf. Being only 3 at the time, Worf's training began at the basics. We had to teach him how to carry a rider, jump a jump, patiently stand on cross-ties, and a plethora of other things that go into making a winning event horse.

Recognizing the potential in Worf, I made every effort to ensure his successful education. For the past four years, beginning in early March and continuing until early November, twice a week, Worf and I religiously make the three-hour trip down their coach's farm for lessons, and like all students, between lessons, we practiced, practiced, and practiced. I had to discipline myself to go straight to the barn and ride when I get home from work. Everything else comes after that.

 At the beginning of each year, a training schedule is drawn up that details each day's activities, be they dressage, jumping, galloping, hacking, and yes, even Worf's days off.

Mondays are usually Worf's day off. He's constantly under pressure to perform. He needs at least one day off to unwind, relax, and recover. Tuesday's fare usually consists of half-an-hour of dressage and trotting for 40 minutes up and down hills to improve physical stamina. Wednesday is usually a lesson day, where the results of the most recent competition are reviewed. Wednesday's lesson are usually dedicated to expanding the scope of our abilities, be it mastering some particular dressage movement, tackling a technically challenging cross-country obstacle, or improving Worf's agility over twisting stadium courses. Thursday's workout is a repeat of the Tuesday schedule.

Non-competition weekends are usually spent hacking around the Emmitsburg countryside. Competition weekends, however, are dramatically different. I usually take off from work the Friday before a competition. There's just too much to do to get ready. First on the agenda is the 3-hour trek to Middleburg to fine tune our performance.

Following their return from the lesson, Worf is handed over to my wife, Audrey, for grooming. Long before she met me, Audrey had established herself as a highly sought-after, world-class groom who served on the gold-medal-winning United States Equestrian Olympic Team at Montreal and at numerous world championships.

For Audrey at least, competition weekends usually start long before the sun is up. By the time I join her in the barn, Audrey has seen to Worf's feeding, grooming, and is usually halfway through braiding his mane. Just as she did when she was a member of the Olympic team, Audrey pretty much calls the shots on handling both equipment and the horse at competitions, and after 4 years of competing together, both Audrey and I have our routine pretty much down pat:

Audrey hands me the horse all tacked up and ready to go for dressage. All I have to do is get myself dressed. While I do my dressage test, Audrey is getting ready for the cross-country phase of the event. As I come out of the dressage ring, Audrey will grab Worf and I'll head off to look at the cross-country course.

The dressage test is a series of complicated movements performed in an enclosed arena. Precision, smoothness, suppleness, and complete obedience show off the horse's gymnastic development. Ideally, it should look as if the horse is performing of its own accord. The test is scored on each movement, rather like the scoring in figure skating, with overall harmony and precision taken into consideration. The endurance test is designed to prove the speed, endurance, courage, and jumping ability of the true cross-country horse brought to the peak of condition. At the same time, it demonstrates the rider's knowledge and skill at riding at speed over cross-country obstacles.

While Worf excels at dressage, he's brilliant on cross-country, which is what it's all about. Horses never get a chance to see the obstacles on the course until they're asked to jump them at a gallop. Obstacles come in all shapes and sizes—a 6-foot-wide ditch, a 4-foot-high hedge, or a 3½-foot log in front of a 5-foot drop into water. As a result I have to plan my cross country ride carefully, for a single stop or fall is all that separates the winners from the losers.

A typical cross-country course will have between 20 and 25 obstacles.  At every one, I have to think, "How will Worf react when he sees this fence?" Twisting and turning over two miles of hills and broad plains, the cross-country phase of the event usually takes 5 minutes to complete. Just when you're getting into it, it's over, but it’s the most addicting, thrill-packed, challenging 5 or 6 minutes one can have. Cross-country jumps are solid and don't fall down; the horse and riders do.

Audrey rarely gets the chance to watch Worf while on course. She's usually too busy getting ready to see to Worf's post-run recovery.  We put a lot of effort into conditioning Worf, but on hot days, he'll come off the cross-country dripping with sweat. A proper cooling down regiment not only ensures that he will be ready for stadium jumping, the final phase of the event, but more importantly, it ensures he'll not 'tie-up' or colic. Audrey will also be standing by with a medical kit, ready to treat any cuts or abrasions incurred while on course. Fortunately I've never had to use it, but eventing is dangerous and accidents do happen, so I'm always ready.

The last phase of the event, Show Jumping, is designed to demonstrate that following a severe test of endurance, the horse has retained suppleness, energy and obedience. Following stadium jumping, the penalty points incurred in each phase of the competition are tallied, and the lowest six riders in each division are awarded ribbons. There's no prize money in this sport. It's definitely a financial loss, however, because only the top horse and rider combination receive ribbons, even a sixth-place ribbon is highly prized, especially when you're competing against past and present members of the Olympic team. In combined training, it's the experience level of the horse, not the rider, that determines the division in which you participate. It's always neat to compete against Olympic riders. They're a good yardstick to measure yourself against. It's even better when you beat them."

Once back on the farm, tack and equipment must be unloaded and cleaned, and friends are called. The first person I call is Julie, who is always eager to hear me recount the day's events. Back when Marcus—who was on the gold-medal-team at Montreal—was alive, Worf used to seek out Marcus as if he, like me, was debriefing his coach. Although I can imagine Marcus making comments like "That's nothing. Back in my days on the Olympic team, I had to jump the Grand Canyon."

In a typical year, Worf is capable of competing 13 times. An event takes a lot out of a horse. The higher the level of competition, the more it takes out of a horse, and the less frequently you can compete. To compete successfully at his level, I depend heavily on the support of many others. Julie, as coach, is not only responsible for training Worf and I, but also lays out the yearly goals and strategies for achieving them.

Audrey not only looks to Worf's physical needs, but more importantly, she calls all the shots when it comes to his mental well-being. Audrey's the only person Worf will come to in the field. Everyone else represents work"

Lastly Gary Kubala of the Emmitsburg Veterinary Hospital oversees Worf's physical health. Gary's one of the best equine sports veterinarians I've met. He clearly understands what will be demanded of the horse, and thus makes the final call on Worf's fitness before a competition. One can be pretty well assured that if Gary's not at home or on road calls, he's at our farm looking at Worf.

Read other Horse stories by Michael Hillman

Read other stories by Michael Hillman