To Me, Cross-Country Is Still The Key To Eventing

I can think of many star horses of yesteryear who were extraordinary on the cross-country course but wouldn’t even be considered as team candidates today.
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I can think of many star horses of yesteryear who were extraordinary on the cross-country course but wouldn’t even be considered as team candidates today.

For the last decade, event riders have been debating the relative importance of the cross-country phase, compared to the dressage and the show jumping, and the consensus has considerably changed the sport. Some influential people’s desire to make the other two phases more important led to the demise of the classic format and increased the level of difficulty of the dressage tests and the height of the show jumping courses.

Credit: Strassburger There’s no feeling like the heart and determination of a true cross-country horse.

Credit: Strassburger There’s no feeling like the heart and determination of a true cross-country horse.

Consequently, international competitors are no longer seeking the same type of horse as they were 30 or even 10 years ago. I can think of many star horses of yesteryear who were extraordinary on the cross-country course but wouldn’t even be considered as team candidates today because of their disregard for colored rails or dressage rings.

Well, I’ll admit to being something of a stodgy old fart, because I still believe that no horse-human performance exceeds that of consistently jumping clear rounds on cross-country courses. I think it’s the ultimate in trust, training and communication, especially as you go up the levels. And I’ll always wish that hadn’t changed.

That belief has become extremely deeply felt over the last few years as I’ve developed my wonderful Quarter Horse mare Alba (who competes as Firebolt). She’s absolutely amazing on cross-country, but show jumping has been her huge weakness. She’s now jumped six clear cross-country rounds at intermediate level (including fabulous rounds in her last three intermediate starts), but I’m doubting that we’ll ever be able to qualify for a CCI2* because she lowers too many rails in show jumping.

At this week’s Twin Rivers Horse Trials in Paso Robles, Calif., she showed me again what makes her so fabulous on the cross-country course.

Heavy rains have hit California this week, a potentially huge problem since Paso Robles hadn’t had any rain since December. So the organizers very kindly changed the schedule around to run all three phases of the advanced, intermediate and preliminary sections on Thursday (instead of Friday through Sunday). Well, 2 inches of rain fell on Wednesday afternoon and night, but the course builders had done such a great job of sealing the course track and then harrowing it to dry it in the morning that the footing on the cross-country course was much better than in the dressage or show jumping rings. The organizers did a truly extraordinary job dealing with the weather in a way that allowed all of us to run, and we competitors all thank them sincerely.

Nevertheless, the footing still gave way on two jumps for us. The first was a four-fence combination about halfway around—a rail with a sizable drop, two strides before leaping off a bank, and then three strides to a one-stride combination of two narrow, angled houses.

After a 150-meter or so gallop from the preceding fence, Alba slowed obediently to meet the log perfectly, but when she landed her front feet slid down the incline half a stride or so. I sat back as she put in two careful strides and hopped gingerly down the bank, then put in four strides to jump perfectly out over the two houses.

Two fences later was the coffin combination—another drop log, one stride down the incline to leap over the ditch, then two strides back up the next incline to jump out over a narrow wedge fence. Once again her front feet slipped as she landed, forcing her to adjust quickly to get a stride in before the ditch, but then she landed perfectly and went straight to the wedge.

She jumped great everywhere else too, but her efforts at these two demanding combinations made me especially proud of her for several reasons.

First, they perfectly demonstrated her heart and determination. She sized up those two combinations, and she was going to jump all those jumps—period. Nothing was going to get in her way, and, undaunted as always, she landed looking for the next jump.

Second, the cleverness and cattiness that she has to compliment hear incredible desire to get the job done. Not every horse has these two attributes.

Third, her confidence in me, and mine in her. Through dozens and dozens of gymnastic exercises and thousands of hours of other training, I’ve developed those gifts to a far higher level than she naturally possessed. We believe in each other’s ability to meet the challenges any course entails.

But that drive to attack the fences, combined with, I think, an equine version of stage fright, is basically Alba’s downfall in show jumping. So it’s the rare occasion when we finish with fewer than four lowered rails. That kind of score keeps us out of the ribbons and keeps us from qualifying for a CCI2*, where the show jumps will be 2 inches taller.

This reality is frustrating to me as a sign of how eventing has changed, in a way that makes me sad. Show jumping used to be a relatively basic phase, the purpose of which was only to demonstrate the horse’s soundness and ability to continue after demonstrating his speed, endurance, bravery and training on cross-country. Now, show jumping is nearly as decisive as show jumping.

And that means that the only people who appreciate the heart and ability of horses like Alba are heir riders and a few knowledgeable people who watch them go.