Boundaries and paradoxes

22 Jun


Horse sports are a matter of paradoxes, like so much else that humans enjoy


In dressage, we ask horses to ‘go to the line’ and display movement that a horse usually reserves for high excitement, high emotions, even sex.

A stallion piaffes, passages in front of a mare.  Another stallion sits down on his haunches, rears in front of his competitor,  gracefully pirouettes away from a hoof blow.

In jumping, a horse usually only jumps something that is in the way of a speedy exit to save his life, and he more than a few times will jump flat, barely clearing whatever the obstacle is.

Migrating across country, horses can be seen in a steady jog or ‘pony trot’ to conserve needed energy, save tired muscles.


And yet: we ask them to piaffe, passage–and then drop into the zone of serenity and calmly, confidently stride out in a measured ,stretching walk, only to pick up again into total excitement at the other end of the arena.


We ask them to jump huge fences set at odd angles and distances that require enormous push power and reaction to tiny aids that have to be very precise if the horse is to keep its focus and clear a course. The best partnerships are built on trust and confidence–the horse truly believes he can clear the moon, let alone the rails that form the course.

We ask them to gallop across terrain, hurtling over various objects, some solid, some less so, when any sane horse would go around just about every one of them.


London Olympics - Equestrian Jumping(McCool Photography)

In breed classes, those wonderful horses bred for work, Morgans, Saddlebreds, are kept in dark stalls, chased with popper bags, shod in unbelievable ‘action’ shoes, and asked to look as though they are out of their minds as they careen around the ring,to0ting a rider, pulling a light cart.

Spectators are always looking for the seam of high drama–and then bemoaning when it crosses over into unhappy behavior from the equine partner–let alone serious tragedy.

Flapping tongues, nervous sweat, wringing tails, tense performances– that’s about all the drama once can get out of a dressage arena. Of course, once in a while, the angels sing and we get to watch poetry in motion, a human-equine partnership where it truly feels as though there is a conversation going on, a sublime conversation that we are privileged to watch.

In the sports that include jumping, the drama of flat arenas is usually a spectacular round–either brilliant in the savage confidence and power on display–or the number of rails knocked down.

In cross-country, as we have seen all too often in this age of internet immediacy, we have death. And death is a pretty big show-stopper, a pretty implacable boundary. Is the solution to ‘make fences that fall down’ as Olympic medalist Hilda Gurney suggested years ago..? Gurney, a team bronze medalist in dressage , also won the U.S. Open Eventing Championship with her OTTB, the home-trained Flag’s Elf. The preparation so many years ago ,when long format was the pinnacle of the sport, prompted her to start thinking even then about ways to make it safer for the horses–the partner who does not get asked if he wants to do it that day.

And now,of course, we have endurance,which used to be a test of conditioning and horsemanship as riders tackled courses renowned for terrain, for tricky places where one had to decide whether to walk and lose time, or trot and trust in the fitness program.

But endurance has become ‘endurance racing’ and like racing itself, the seamy, polluted and corrupt part of ‘the sport of kings’ has tainted the very image of the sport. Endurance in horse sport has become flat-out racetrack courses with riders going as fast as they can for the 160 km.

The result has been death, leg fractures, drug-induced heart attacks–all of the horses. Unlike cross-country, no riders seem to get hurt in this ‘sport’.

The paradox here is that a sport that was devoted to fitness and horse management is now increasingly ruled by riders who may never have even seen their horse ‘partner’ before that day, that race–and certainly have no idea as to the horse’s fitness, idiosyncrasies, needs,preferences.

I am sure everything will go wonderfully on the big stage that is World Equestrian Games. There will be only ‘pretty pictures’ for the media and spectators–in all the disciplines.

Afterwards, it will be business as usual.


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