What Makes Them So Good?

William Fox-Pitt and Chilli Morning. Photo by Jenni Autry. William Fox-Pitt and Chilli Morning. Photo by Jenni Autry.

I was wondering: What makes the riders who are often at the top of the standings so good?

While it was not the fairy tale ending we were all hoping for, the 2014 World Equestrian Games were still exciting to watch, even though I was not over there. I did turn into a bit of a cyborg since I might was well have had a few electronic devices embedded in my hand, and I pestered the living daylights out of the people I did know who were there.

I personally think the ladies rocked it, and this was a major bright spot for Boyd Martin, who has had more than his fair share of obstacles. But, the U.S. didn’t come close to a medal, and while the cross country course was a mess due to the weather, and only 65 percent completed the course, there were riders that did complete the course and in outstanding fashion. Most of these riders were European!

What makes them so good? I’m am doing my best imitation of Judith Miller and not naming my sources, but here are what some of my “across the pond” friends think about the differences in the eventing horse world here and in Europe:

Them Us
1. The culture of horses. Riding is just not as popular as other U.S. sports.
2. Fox hunting event horses. Very little cross over with eventing.
3. Horses condition on the road through villages. In most places, you’d be run over by soccer moms.
4. Government funding. Sponsors, organizational, private grants.
5. Availability of horse shows. Only on the weekends and plan to travel.
6. Large numbers competing at upper levels. Numbers of Advanced riders is around 13 per division.
7. Proximity of 4* courses. Only one in the U.S.
8. Familiarity with course designers. More courses = increased designers.
9. Access to sale horses. Not many come to the U.S to buy.
10. Access to top trainers. Travel time and expenses.
11. Accustomed to the weather. We go south to escape it.

Let me be clear, none of this is coming from the likes of Yogi Breisner or Michael Jung. Just me and some buddies emailing, Twittering and generally being electronic armchair coaches — plus some of my own personal observations from my time spent in Europe.

When I mention the culture of horses, what I mean is that everyone has horses over in the UK. Even at my B&B in the middle of a quaint English village, there was a horse in the yard (garden) next to me — woke me up every morning with a sweet neigh — smack dab in the middle of a residential area. That is not going to happen here — not if you live in a development or townships with covenants.

In some neighborhoods people are even given citations for having their horsey friends over and having three or four dually trucks parked in the driveway and on the lawn (Florida friends know who I am talking about!).

Then there is fox hunting. There are 163 registered fox hunts in the U.S. and Canada, according to the 2013 Masters of Foxhounds Association. The combined square miles of land in North America is 7,649,186. In the UK, between the hunts listed with the Masters of Foxhounds in the UK, as well as the Federation of Welsh Packs and Fell Packs, there are 241 registered hunts as of 2013.

On Boxing Day in the UK in 2006, 320,000 people turned out at meets — the highest ever recorded. The total square miles of the United Kingdom is 94,058. It doesn’t take a statistician to realize that there are more people hunting over smaller land areas in the UK than in all of North America.

The thing about fox hunting a young horse is that it puts a strong base of fitness on them, and just as with humans, a horse that has a well developed physique as a youngster will stay fit and be easier to maintain as they age. Hence, being able to go the distance on cross country. Now I am not saying eventers put their horses in many of the situations shown here with these crazy Irishmen, but I think there is merit in the hunting for base of fitness argument.

Another thing I noticed during my time spent in the UK is that many people condition on the hard road — right through the village they go!

I have had upper-level riders tell me a good way to strengthen or rehab tendons is to walk on an asphalt driveway or quiet road. The theory being that the concussion of hoof on road will send a bit of a shock up the tendon and strengthen it. I don’t think that has ever been proven, but I once did count 11 riders trotting through a nice little village near Cirencester as I sat in the pub and looked out the window. Personally, I would be afraid to trot on the roads, but I am not brave at all.

Some of the points mentioned in my chart above can be grouped together. The availability of horse shows, competitions, schooling opportunities, gallops is amazing in the UK. Wednesday afternoon and going to a horse show? Not in the U.S. unless you are in Aiken, S.C., during a few weeks in the winter.

Nicola Wilson mentioned in an interview that she was a bit tardy in leaving for the WEGs on Monday, Aug. 25 because she was showing that day — on a Monday! Interesting! And it seems that most of the time people in the U.S. are going across the Atlantic to buy horses — not sell them (unless you are Doug Payne!).

In the Nutrena American Eventing Championships, there were 12 entries for the Advanced level, which is a reflection of the competition being held after all the big gun venues of four-stars in Europe. However, last year there were only 13 entries; there have been many discussions on reasons for the low numbers at the top — travel time being a big factor.

A good case can be made that the eventing mecca in the U.S. is located on the East Coast, specifically the Mid-Atlantic states; I am not sure how it would be to see Andrew Nicholson or William Fox Pitt weekend after weekend. I would think it would ratchet up the motivation/inspiration. You know the saying “keep your friends close and your enemies competitors closer.”

But really, when it comes down to it, could it be the funding? In the UK, elite riders are funded through the National Lottery in a two-tier system under the auspices of the “World Class Performance Programme.” UK Sport funds the governing body which provides up to £55,000 of “in-kind” support to “podium-level” athletes. Those on the “development stage” are eligible for £30,000 of in-kind support. In-kind support is described as having access to:

  • World class coaches
  • Sports science and medicine support
  • Warm weather training and acclimatisation
  • International competition schedule
  • Athlete development programmes
  • Access to appropriate training facilities

There is also an Athlete Personal Award given to the riders. The amount is determined through a series of criteria based not only on the number of Olympic or World Championship medals a rider earns, but also the winnings from competitions.

It usually equals about £37,000 but can be reduced if the person has won a boat load of cash throughout the year. If you want to read in depth about the system, click here. If you want to see recent recipients and how much loot they got, click here.

However, all of this talk of subsidizing riders doesn’t explain the phenomena of New Zealand eventer Andrew Nicholson! That man can just ride, and that is all there is to it. Let me end with a video of one of the greats talking about his horses. Here is William Fox-Pitt in an interview last spring projecting how his year would unfold. Pretty accurate I would say!

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