William Micklem: Safety and Forwards

We are delighted to start the new year with a series on safety in eventing from EN guest columnist William Micklem. This is the fifth column in the series: part onepart twopart three, part four. Click here to read all of William’s guest columns on EN. Many thanks to William for writing. Go Eventing.

Lucinda Green and Be Fair forwards and in flight over the notorious Fence two at the Kiev European Championships in 1973. Photo courtesy of Lucinda Green.

Lucinda Green and Be Fair forwards and in flight over the notorious fence two at the Kiev European Championships in 1973. Photo courtesy of Lucinda Green.

Over 4,400 Allied soldiers were killed on Tuesday 6th June, 1944. ‘D’ day in World War II. The Allied landings in Normandy were not for the faint hearted as they came under heavy fire from gun emplacements overlooking the beaches, with a shore that was mined and covered with wooden stakes, metal tripods and barbed wire.

Commanding the floating tanks on this day was Col. Errol Prior-Palmer. He went on to become a Major General, and was awarded a Legion of Honour, a Croix de Guerre and a DSO for bravery and service.

His natural modesty meant that few in the eventing world ever knew of his military life, but as many know his daughter Lucinda was for a time the most famous event rider in the world, with six wins at Badminton and seven championship gold medals in the 1970s and 80s. She is pictured above flying high on Be Fair at the notorious fence two at the Kiev European Championships in 1973.

Blood, guts and thunder

So is there some genetic predisposition here? Were father and daughter both natural warriors? Does a good cross-country rider need the attitude of a warrior? One often reads in the sports pages of various individuals or teams ‘going to war’ and the last thing my father always said to me before starting a show jumping or cross country round was “over the top.”

Getting a rider and horse ‘in gear’ for cross country is obviously vital, but does it mean that we should ‘stiffen the sinews and summon up the blood,’ as though we were going to war?

This is a serious point because it is a safety issue. The ‘old school’ riders often describe many of today’s riders as soft, lacking in both physical and mental strength, and forgetting how to ride forwards boldly. Getting your horse to go forwards is vital, but using ‘blood, guts, and thunder’ to put a horse ‘in gear’ will not produce what is required, and will put the rider who does this in danger.

This approach will never produce a partnership. It may produce a horse that submits to the rider’s dominant will, but that horse will run into difficulties as soon as the rider makes a mistake, or it may produce a horse that is so fired up it just runs blind, and that is a result that has killed riders in recent years.

Of course the other side of this coin is a horse or rider that is not in gear. This is a serious problem, particularly at a slow speed, and we all know it will bring things to a grinding halt very quickly. Perhaps this is why it is so tempting to err on the side of a little extra fire and brimstone!

Adrenalin is not the answer

However there is no point riding in a way that creates considerable tension and anxiety, because this tension inevitably has a paralyzing effect on the horse’s performance. And exactly the same applies to you as a rider! No human athlete will perform at their best if they are stressed and tense. Instead they need to be calm, focused and confident … ‘in the zone.’ Without these positive mental qualities high-level physical performance is impossible … and some degree of blind panic is the more likely result.

‘What we need is a bucket of adrenalin’ many will say. But what we need to understand is that although it increases blood flow to muscles and raises the pain threshold it helps neither horse nor rider to think more clearly or more positively. So don’t hope for self-control or good decisions or a positive experience under the influence of large amounts of adrenalin, as it largely just helps the flight or fight response, neither of which are conducive to a happy cross-country experience. A little adrenalin is sufficient.

What is so interesting is that the research shows clearly that the greater amount of adrenalin there is the greater the state of negative feelings. So with humans there is a greater sense of fear and awareness of the things that could go wrong, and with horses there will be the unhappy memories of these experiences. So much so that when in a similar situation they become less willing or even unwilling to perform. This is not uncommon with young racehorses and young sport horses that have initially been asked to perform in a stressful environment that has meant they were full of adrenalin.

Of course there are degrees of all these responses, but it shows clearly how important it is to take the time to build acceptance and calmness alongside forwardness, and take the time to get a horse used to the whole competition environment a step at a time. Then they can be taught to go with ‘controlled impulsion,’ which is another way of saying the horse is ‘in gear,’ and ready for the right exercise in the whole progression of exercises.

Therefore for rider safety it is vital that riders across the board understand what being ‘in gear’ means and understand that to have either horse or rider too full of adrenalin increases the risk of an accident. Our coaches and our training material need to sell this message more powerfully.

Coolness under fire

Looking to the best is a good start to gaining this understanding. Andrew Nicholson, William Fox-Pitt, Michael Jung and their horses always seem cool, calm and confident yet fully committed. And those such as Philip Dutton, Caroline Powell and Mark Kyle demonstrate this same fluid and invariably foot perfect forward style across country. These days we are also lucky enough to be easily able to study these riders as there are hours of film footage available, as well as written details of their training programmes.

There is another rider who opened my eyes to how a supremely positive approach does not mean ‘blood, guts and thunder.’ It was Lucinda Green. In 1973 I was at Badminton to see close up how a 19-year-old first-timer shut herself away in the stable with Be Fair, in advance of what was then called the ‘speed and endurance,’ and put herself in the zone and at ease with the task ahead.

Their partnership across country was extraordinary. They totally believed in each other, as befits a talented pair that had literally grown up into adulthood together with the same ‘yes we can’ outlook, and together they won Badminton. What is fascinating is that Lucinda has a different opinion, feeling that adrenalin is essential! But communication is not easy and I firmly believe that my ‘in the zone’ is her ‘adrenalin.’ To me she has always epitomized coolness under fire, able to think clearly under pressure, unlike competitors who are stressed.

More than just a massive fence

Later that year Lucinda and Be Fair went to Kiev in the British team for the European Championships. This competition has become famous because of the notorious fence two on the cross country. A maximum dimension oxer over a massive ditch off a short right hand turn on hard ground … and yes it was just fence two!

However with the steeplechase and roads and tracks in advance of the cross country horses were more warmed up than is often the case today, and few felt it was going to cause so many problems. Horse after horse struggled over it or fell there, including both Princess Anne and Janet Hodgson of the British team. It was not pretty!

Lucinda was well aware of the challenge when her turn came. Deliberately she approached slightly faster than the turn allowed, meaning that she had to jump slightly across the oxer but was truly in gear. She also took out her stick. “I put my whip like a fishing rod in my right hand. It was something that I have never done before or since.” From the photograph at the top it can be seen that all looked well in mid-air, but this is what happened:

Photo courtesy of Lucinda Green

Photo courtesy of Lucinda Green.

So why did Be Fair almost fall on landing? Lucinda believes that Be Fair was simply short of scope, but there were many who fell who had bags of scope, including Princess Anne’s Goodwill who was a high-level show jumper. My theory is that the fence created an optical illusion, as often happens when you get parallel lines with connected offset lines at 90 degrees, and this is something that needs research. In general we need to know more about how and what a horse sees.

For example we all know how much a ground line helps a horse judge a fence but we see tables without ground lines contravening most guidelines. Should this be allowed? Many of the falls at tables are probably caused by poor training and riding, but without doubt horses can misread a fence, particularly without ground lines, and then rotational falls happen. In addition to using deformable technology the whole area of optical illusions needs to be examined to see how they can be countered.

Seeking mastery

In terms of horses being able to read a fence better I was heartened this week, reading on Eventing Nation about William Fox-Pitt’s clinic in Ocala, when he emphasized about a horse looking and thinking for themselves when jumping. “The most important thing is for the horse to be thinking on its own. Unless you’re Michael Jung, you make mistakes and things go wrong. You have to teach the horse the stride isn’t always right, the line isn’t always right, and that’s why we start from trot.”

I was lucky enough to jump Be Fair a couple of times, albeit over small fences, and it was the first time I had felt a horse slightly lengthen or shorten all by themselves. It was the something that I won’t forget, but most of all I will remember from Lucinda that good cross-country riding is not going to war or a kamikaze exercise.

As the Washington Post sports journalist legend, Sally Jenkins says, “What separates risk takers from suicidal idiots is mastery.” The same applies to cross-country riding, so progress must be dependent on establishing quality cross-country work at each stage for each partnership. This quality progression makes riders safer, but it does require specific training for the cross country. It is simply foolish and dangerous to only do dressage and show jumping training.

Relative danger of different activities

It is the accidents waiting to happen because of bad training, bad riding or bad fences that we need to prevent if at all possible, but we should not fall into the trap of thinking that riding across country is in the same category of dangerous sport, as for example motorcycle racing and mountain climbing, or indeed war.

Statistics are notoriously difficult to compare but in terms of the number of fatalities, water sports are the big killers in Ireland, with an average 140 people drowning each year. In 2014, when I last looked at this subject, I found another interesting comparative statistic. That year there was one fatality for every 16,447 starters in FEI horses trials, which means this is almost exactly the same degree of risk as childbirth in Ireland, with the year’s figures showing 1 fatality per 16,666 births … a country that has fewer fatalities in childbirth than many.

Another disturbing comparison is with car driving in Ireland. That years figures show 1 fatality for every 13,025 drivers on the road! While World War II produced a mind-boggling, heart-wrenching estimated total of over 15 million military fatalities.

It is therefore not surprising that there is a generational amnesia about such horrors, and although not comparable in any direct sense it is not surprising that attitudes were different in the early days of eventing. At Kiev, Janet Hodgson and her brilliant Irish partner Larkspur, winners of Burghley the year before, both went face first into the stoney ground on the landing side of fence two. Janet broke all her front teeth in the process and damaged her shoulder, but pouring blood she remounted and completed! Different times and different attitudes.

Sport not war

So when I shout “forwards” in a lesson I often remember my Father having to go ‘over the top’ into battle and how lucky my generation is. I also never forget that horse riding is an activity where peaceful humane attitudes, progressive training and good sportsmanship should always prevail. And when going over the top down to fence one on the cross country riders should have every expectation, not of traps and danger, but of a course that is fair and appropriate for well-prepared partnerships … and a course that makes full use of deformable technology.

Next time: The final article in this series, SAFETY AND US, including the safety issues of the new FEI championship rules and why we should be heartened not depressed about our sport.