How racing and eventing training techniques can benefit each other *H&H Plus*

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  • Each equestrian sport can benefit from the specialist expertise of another. Catherine Austen investigates the advantages of interaction between eventing and racing

    If you placed racing and eventing in a Venn diagram, there would be some obvious shared characteristics: adrenaline, physical risk, equine athleticism. But the sports, despite descending from a shared heritage, are often poles apart – and that distance is increasing. Sam Watson, the Irish international event rider and co-founder of data company EquiRatings, thinks they would both benefit from learning from the other.

    He is in a position to judge; not only does his work with EquiRatings mean that he looks at equestrianism, in all its forms, in an analytical way, but he is also a big racing fan and has worked with horses – and riders – at some of the biggest yards in Ireland.

    “Look at the improvement in performance in human athletics in the past few decades, and then at horse race times, which have stayed fairly static,” Sam says.

    “Some people believe that racehorses have evolved as far as they can; I don’t think so. Human athletics has placed significant emphasis on strength and conditioning – racing hasn’t, really, and that’s where I think improvement in that sport could come from.”

    Something racing does brilliantly, he says, is getting horses fit, maintaining that fitness and managing performance, using stress and rest – knowing when to push and when to back off – and eventing could learn a lot from the way trainers do that.

    “But what equestrian sports do really well is making horses strong and symmetrical, which gives them straightness, which makes them powerful and effective. Every day I watch races in which horses are hanging in a finish; if they were straighter through their bodies, they wouldn’t do that. I don’t think a lot of racehorses are as strong and supple as they could be.”

    The intrinsic difference is that eventers train their horses from the saddle, and trainers (usually) from the ground. They have many more horses in their charge, and employ staff to exercise and work them. No one is saying that staff within the racing industry can’t ride – many of them are outstanding horsemen – but the skills generally required are different to those developed by people who event.

    From 2015 to 2017 Sam coached the multiple champion National Hunt trainer Willie Mullins’ staff in flatwork.

    “I was terrified the first time I turned up at Closutton [Willie’s yard in Co Carlow],” remembers Sam. “It was Willie’s idea, spurred on by his wife Jackie, who used to be an event rider. There were 40 horses cantering round a big sand arena. I asked which of them were going to be doing flatwork. He said all of them! Imagine teaching 40 people on 40 horses. Your communication has to be very clear and direct.

    “We did 45-minute sessions, and I needed to keep it simple and target what matters – symmetry. Most horses will lean out through one shoulder or another, which is what makes them stronger on one rein than the other. If you can train people to be aware of that, it’s a good start.”

    He praises the quality of rider Willie employs, particularly those who ride his top horses.

    “It’s very notable – they are skilled horsemen,” Sam says. “And to give Willie credit, he really champions them.”

    Sam worked on the riders’ seats and balance, making sure they weren’t sitting as though they were in a chair and making the horse beneath them hollow.

    “And they know how to keep a horse on the bridle and connected in canter, so it was about getting them to do it in walk and trot as well,” he adds.

    Riding skills

    Ben Pauling trains National Hunt horses in the Cotswolds and grew up doing Pony Club, eventing and hunting.

    “I’m a stickler for making sure horses are ridden properly,” he says. “Every day, our horses go into the outdoor school and are walked and then trotted on either rein to check soundness and to see how they are moving. Some horses in racing aren’t the best movers – that’s much more important in eventing than it is in racing – but I want to see that they are moving as well as they can. Ours never slop along with their heads on the floor. The second a horse of ours isn’t moving well, we’d want to find out why.”

    He emphasises the difference in the generally required riding skills, though.

    “Judgement of pace and the ability to hold very strong horses are important in racing – a lot of people who work in eventing wouldn’t be able to do that – but my riders, good as they are, would struggle to keep a horse in what is considered a correct outline,” he says.

    He did bring in eventer Charlotte Agnew a few years ago to work with his staff on flatwork.

    “For some of the older staff, she may as well have been talking Japanese,” he admits. “They didn’t get it. Now we have younger people who want to improve – they are very able to ride, but aren’t educated in that manner.

    “The racing schools do an amazing job to turn out good staff in nine weeks, but there isn’t time to teach them the horsemanship skills you learn from Pony Clubbing and hunting, riding from your leg to your hand.

    “That’s down to us [as trainers], I suppose, but time is a major factor, and it’s probably a dream, not reality.”

    He believes strongly in the benefits of flatwork, however, and he and jockey Nico de Boinville, considered an outstanding and educated horseman, do polework and gridwork with the horses every Monday morning.

    “And I’ve been sending horses to [local eventers] Lucy Jackson and Laura Collett a lot this season to get them to use themselves better,” he says.

    He gives the example of a horse called The Macon Lugnatic, who won his bumper at Newbury in January 2019.

    “He schooled beautifully over hurdles at home, but in his first race over them in December he kept diving right and got very low at them. We got his back looked at, but it turned out to be a problem in his shoulder. Lucy did a huge amount of flatwork with him and got him supple and straight, and he has since won both of his races over hurdles very nicely,” says Ben.

    “But you can’t ignore the fact that plenty of trainers do none of that, and their horses jump brilliantly and win a lot of races.”

    Sam often has racehorses sent to him for schooling.

    “Often I get a horse which has run and shown a lot of potential, but possibly didn’t see out its race for a physical reason,” he says. “And I’ve had some very nice unraced ones.”

    He is discreet about names, but he has worked with some very famous horses.

    “Of the top 10 equine athletes I have worked with, eight have been racehorses and two have been event horses,” he says. “Sizing John came to us, for example, the summer after his Cheltenham Gold Cup win for Jessie Harrington. A friend from the UK saw me riding him in the school and thought I had a new secret eventing weapon – he’s gorgeous, a beautiful mover and has a great attitude. He really wanted to please.”

    The newer generation

    What about the other side of the coin? “I do think a lot of eventers, particularly the newer generation, don’t work horses enough early enough in their careers,” Sam says. “I’m not saying we need to run our two-year-olds flat-out over a mile, but a lot of sport horses aren’t broken in until they are four. Yes, usually their bodies are pristine, but we also need them to be real athletes, and ‘stress’ shouldn’t be seen as a bad word.”

    If people saw Sam’s three- and four-year-olds, he says they would probably think he was pre-training point-to-pointers, not starting event horses.

    “I want them to go forwards,” he says. “Heart and lung and aerobic fitness is important at this time; strengthening comes later and keeps developing all the way through a horse’s life.”

    Load needs to be considered when riding very young horses – after all, the people who break in Flat yearlings and who ride two-year-olds are very light – but he thinks that simple work at an early stage helps condition their bodies and lay the foundations for fitness.

    It doesn’t even need a rider in the saddle.

    Sam says: “Loose-jumping horses as three-year-olds can be great, but not necessarily the type you see at sales, where they make a high, big shape over a big oxer. I like little fences and bits of gradient, where they get their footwork and coordination sorted out – think of kids playing football – and it is good for their lungs to have a bit of a blow.

    “Longevity in a horse’s career is a great part of eventing and I am not advocating that we ‘use’ our horses early so there is less in the tank later on, but by doing a little bit more, earlier, they will be sounder for longer and it will be easier to get them properly fit. Take Andrew Nicholson – a high proportion of his horses make it to five-star, and people need to look at why that is.

    “You can do so much in eventing without having a horse that fit, and I think that’s the case for a lot of people who don’t do long-format three-day eventing. Be careful with that – don’t leave it too late to get a horse to have a proper blow and to extend his stride.”

    Perhaps, in this time of a forced break from both very busy sports, a few participants may have the time – and the inclination – to study what the sports around them excel at and use those traits to their advantage.

    Henrietta Knight’s view…

    As a former top-level event rider and British eventing team selector, as well as a highly successful National Hunt trainer, Henrietta Knight is very well placed to compare eventing and racing.

    She says: “I have always taught young racehorses to carry themselves properly and to go in a balanced way. Topline is very important; all the power comes from behind and they need muscle on either side of their spines.

    “Trainer Aidan O’Brien does a tremendous amount of work in the early part of the year using bungees and running reins to make his [Flat] horses use themselves and develop topline.

    “But there’s no point making it too complicated. If a horse is comfortable and going in a nice outline, you’re halfway there. Racehorses don’t need to be able to canter a 10m circle.

    “So many event horses aren’t fit enough now, and I’ve seen some terrible riding and unfit riders. In both sports riders lack balance; in eventing they never ride without stirrups and rely on their hands, while in the racing world they perch on top and bump about.

    “In terms of times of races not having improved, I think that is probably down to poorer, overraced surfaces on racecourses, but I think the standard of competition now is as high as it has ever been.”

    Ref Horse & Hound; 28 May 2020

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