William Micklem: Fit to Do the Job, Part 6 – Limits of Fitness

If you haven’t been reading William Micklem’s series on fitness, you are seriously missing out! In case you missed it: Part 1 – So Much More Than Canter SetsPart 2 – Keeping You and Your Horse SafePart 3 – It’s All About Balance, Part 4 – Fit to Train and Fit to Compete and Part 5 — Warm Up and Warm Down. Many thanks to William for writing, and thanks for reading. Go Eventing.

Denny Emerson and Epic Win tackle steeplechase at Bromont, via Denny’s Facebook.

“This inane talk about how wonderful it is to ride and compete after the age of 40. Are you nuts? Get a grip. 40-50-60, what is the big damn deal? You think 55-65 is over the hill in a riding sport? What rock do you live under?? Try 70 or 75.

“Stay fit, have some drive, screw what people say you shouldn’t do, and go do whatever you want. Fear rubs off on you if you let it. If you are surrounded by fearful, careful, ‘sensible’ people, you have to be damned vigilant they don’t turn you into someone who is careful and sensible, and cautious and in control, and all those other dream snuffing qualities of rational, normal folk. When they say, ‘You can’t—-‘ Or ‘You shouldn’t—‘ what they are so often actually saying is ‘I can’t’ and ‘I shouldn’t.'” 

— Denny Emerson

It was 1954 in Ireland. The 15.2 Thoroughbred mare Molly Brant, named after a Mowhawk Indian, was ridden the eight miles to Fairyhouse racecourse, that today sits opposite the site of Tattersalls International Horse Trials. She then raced in a three-mile steeplechase and was beaten by a head carrying 158 lbs, before being ridden back the eight miles to her stable. The following day she made the same journey back to Leopardstown and was beaten by a length in another three mile chase … before riding home again!

Expectations and Possibilities

In our modern world this appears almost cruel, but this type of activity was not unusual in these post war times. Molly Brant was had been well hunted for two years before these exploits and was like a human prepared for a triathlon challenge today. And consider this: In 1823, in Jamaica, New Jersey, 60,000 watched The Great Match Race, between American Eclipse representing the North and Sir Henry representing the south. In three heats on the same day they ran the equivalent of nine Kentucky Derbies with American Eclipse prevailing to win the $40,000 purse! (Close to $1 million today.)

What is certain is that in the 21st century our expectations of what is possible in terms of fitness have been greatly reduced, to the detriment of the horses who are not made sufficiently fit to do the relatively modest challenge of a modern competition cross country.

The same can be said about our expectations and possibilities of ourselves as riders, as so passionately expressed by Denny Emerson above. It is a message echoed by the Irish equestrian legend Hugh Leonard, who was the rider of Molly Brant in 1954. He has always hunted hard, has played high goal polo and loved every minute with his horses. Now 83, yet chairman of the Traditional Irish Horse Association, a judge and breeder and senior steward at the Royal Dublin Society, and still rides young horses every day, and competes in team chases, where teams of four race against each other over fences in a relay!

Irish equestrian legend Hugh Leonard. Photo courtesy of Susan Finnerty.

As a lifelong follower of the Ward Union and Meath hunts, Hugh has enjoyed some memorable days hunting with both packs. He describes his two favourite days hunting: The first was with the Meath Foxhounds “55 minutes as fast was we could do and we must have jumped over 100 fences,” and secondly on a private hunt around Beauparc and the Hill of Skyrne, “It was three hours without a check for 23 miles and only three horses finished. I was on a small thoroughbred mare, just 15.1. She was some mare, she trotted back to Drumree as fresh as she’d started.”

Hugh comes from ‘good stock’ as they say, as all his extended family are also exceptional. Longevity and a spirited approach to life runs in the genes.

Traditional Irish Horses

Longevity, soundness and spirit are also hugely important in horses, but I worry that we now breed from too many horses that have not proved their soundness with sufficient work. The extraordinary success of traditional Irish horses is in great part due to the fact that their ancestors were proven to be tough and sound doing huge physical challenges. The success of Irish international record breakers from Grasshopper (Michael Page) and Kilkenny (Jimmy Wofford), to Custom Made (David O’Connor) and Biko (Karen O’Connor), and in more recent times from Lenamore (Caroline Powell) to Avebury (Andrew Nicholson) has made Ireland synonymous with sound horses.

Even this year at Rolex there were two traditional Irish horses in the top prizes who have out performed the vast majority of other top horses in terms of longevity and work done. In third place was my own homebred, the 16-year-old High Kingdom, who has completed 25 international events at 3*/4* level; while in 4th was the 18-year-old Mr Medicott who has completed 30 at this level. As a comparison Lenamore did 31 at 3*/4* level and Avebury 26. This is twice the number of high level events completed by the record holders in long format days. 

Nereo and Sam

One fact that has been missed in the fairy tale Badminton win of Andrew Nicholson and the 17-year-old Nereo was that this was Nereo’s 100th competition at all levels. It was his 33rd at the 3*/4* level, a truly amazing total, but the 17-year-old La Biosthetique Sam beats him with 34 completions. In addition Sam has a competition record that is unlikely to be beaten, having never been out of the top six and only six times out of the top three in all his 57 internationals from 1* to 4*. Not bad for a horse that was originally rejected by the German licensing commission as being “mediocre with a big head”!

Nereo is by the Thoroughbred Fines, who was both a good racehorse and has the type of back pedigree that is ideal for producing event horses. But Nereo is also the exception because Andrew openly admits that he has to “dig deep” to make the time. Sam is ¾ Thoroughbred, by Stan The Man, also sire of Leslie Law’s great grey medallists Shear H2O and Shear L’Eau, and out of a mare by the TB Heraldik.

Chris Bartle has recently pointed out that Michael Jung only became a winning machine when he started riding horses that were ¾ Thoroughbred with enough gallop. Of course it is not just a matter of having enough gallop to make the time but to do it going within their maximum gallop that helps enormously with staying injury free over many years. Interestingly the galloping machine Lenamore was by the Irish Draught Sea Crest, and Grasshopper, who was invariably fastest across country in long format days, was by a Thoroughbred horse but out of a Connemara mare!

Get the Right Horses Fit

So gallop and endurance can also be found in these native Irish breeds, and of course in a number of other individuals, but it is definitely missing in some horses. Even if their dressage and basic jump is exceptional it is important to recognize that some horses are just not equipped physically, or often mentally, for cross country.

Andrew Nicholson says that if a horse is short of blood that “you’ve got to gallop them a lot more, you’ve got to gallop them a lot harder than a Thoroughbred. I think that’s where a lot of riders get a little disheartened, they try to do the same preparation that you would with a Thoroughbred and they haven’t got the engine for that. That’s why I like to buy them when they are young, so I can start galloping them when they are relatively young, stretching their lungs, getting them hard.”

However this is not something that many like to do. Chris Bartle simply emphasises that you need to start off with a horse for three phases and that includes not only plenty of gallop but also the right type of jump. “A horse that has a big showy jump is often not suited to cross country.”

Chris also agrees with me that the training for the dressage and show jumping must be complementary to the cross country training: “There have been trainers in the dressage world, and this takes us back to the whole discussion of rolkur, where you are taking away from the horses, their spirit, their ability to look after themselves, you are internalizing them too much. That type of dressage training is contradictory to eventing.”

So as ever good training is vital and good training will not only bring more success but more success over a longer period of time. You will not find badly trained horses rivaling the longevity records of Kilkenny, Mr Medicott, High Kingdom, Nereo, La Biosthetique Sam … and my favourite the 15.3 Lenamore, who completed 24 four stars with Caroline Powell, was seven times placed at Badminton and won Burghley at the age of 17.

NEXT TIME: The concluding article in William’s “Fit to Do the Job” series, “Feeding for Fitness”