I haven't yet had the pleasure of attending a World Equestrian Games, but I take my equine-media colleagues' word for it that the spectacle makes Grand Central Station look sleepy.
At the 2010 WEG in Lexington, there will be eight (eight!) horse sports. They won't all be going on at once, but on any given day there will be multiple events.
Just what are these "disciplines," anyway? I'm very conversant in some; others, not so much. So I thought I'd take advantage of the opportunity to use this blog for (self-) educational purposes. In this and future blog entries, I'll give you a rundown of the sports that you'll be following next year in Lexington.
I'm going to begin with the sport of eventing, for two reasons. One, it's one of the three that's also an Olympic equestrian discipline, so it's high-profile. Two, it's the discipline that bridges the gap between horse sports' practical roots and their evolution to purely athletic and hobby pursuit. (OK, I have a third reason: It's a really great, fun sport.)
Eventing's original name is a big clue as to its raison d'etre. Once known as the Military, it was the cavalry's test of horses and riders. A cavalry mount had to be sturdy, fit, agile, athletic, and obedient. He could be required to traverse many miles of uneven and perhaps treacherous terrain; to jump whatever got in the way; and to be highly responsive and maneuverable in battle. And to get up the next morning and do it all again.
So the cavalry devised a three-phase test. First, while horses were at their freshest (and therefore least likely to be calm and obedient), a dressage test, in which horse and rider had to execute a gymnastic pattern "on the flat" (no jumps) to show the horse's obedience, suppleness, and general adjustability and responsiveness as a riding horse. Then came a long course of cross-country obstacles, requiring stamina, jumping ability, and boldness. Finally, after the demands of cross-country, an arena jumping course as a test of fitness and agility.
After World War II, the horse cavalry was disbanded, but its traditions live on in the sport of eventing, which for years was called three-day eventing to reflect the fact that, at the higher levels, each phase is held on a separate day.
Event horses are the triathletes of the equine world. No other equestrian discipline requires its athletes to be such outstanding all-arounders. Consider the fact that, in the so-called traditional or long format of a three-day event, on cross-country day, the horses not only gallop and jump the long cross-country course but also complete on-the-flat "roads and tracks" phases and jump a steeplechase course that, although not the British Grand National in scope, is nevertheless a galloping-and-jumping test that's done before cross-country. I get tired just thinking about it!
Eventing has had its (if you'll pardon the expression) share of hard knocks in recent years. Sport leaders and course designers have taken heat for creating technically challenging, "tricky" cross-country courses and obstacles that allegedly have led to some nasty spills and even some horse and rider deaths. A few event horses have dropped dead on course, apparently of previously undetected cardiac ailments, aneurysms, and the like. No one wants to see a horse sport turn into a blood sport, and the animal-rights community monitors eventing closely.
Fortunately, the eventing folks at the national and international levels are doing a lot to make the sport safer for horses and riders -- although, let's face it, galloping and jumping entail a certain amount of risk. Exhaustive heat-and-humidity studies helped ensure healthy horses at two notoriously sticky locales, Atlanta and Hong Kong, for the 1996 and the 2008 Olympic Games, respectively. Shortened courses and the elimination of roads-and-tracks and steeplechase phases may have helped as well. Designers and builders of cross-country courses are studying and implementing the use of frangible pins, which may help to avoid the rotational type of falls that are linked to many casualties. The 2008 Olympic eventing competition went off without a serious accident and was heralded as proof that the cautionary measures are working.
At the level that we'll see at the WEG, eventing is a challenging but thrilling sport. It may be difficult for those to imagine who have never evented, but the horses love it (well, the jumping parts, anyway; many hate the tedium of dressage). My event horse, an ex-racing Thoroughbred, was too slow for the track but could still run like hell, and he lived to be pointed at an obstacle. Horses, like humans, have distinct likes and dislikes when it comes to occupations. Believe me, you cannot force a horse to gallop and jump the way an eventer has to if he doesn't enjoy it. Watch the sport's equine Ironman competitors and you'll come away with a new appreciation for the heart, cleverness, athletic ability, and scope of a great horse.
PHOTO CREDIT: CleanPix/Courtesy of Lexington Convention & Visitors Bureau