Harry Meade: ‘The best cross-country horses in the world are no longer the best event horses in the world’ *H&H VIP*

  • Many factors contribute towards cross-country safety, including fence design, qualifications, horse and rider fitness and training. But perhaps the most significant factor that influences safety at the higher levels is the type of horse that we are now riding.

    Traditionally event riders competed horses primarily chosen for their stamina, courage, sure-footedness and agility, and they were trained to bring out the best of their ability in the dressage and showjumping phases. Horses were naturally fast, nimble and quick-thinking to be good across country. The ability to travel easily within themselves at speed and jump out of a gallop was instinctive.

    The modern sport promotes big-moving horses with a deliberate, careful jumping technique. They are not as economical in their gallop or able to jump out of their stride as naturally. Some are perhaps more likely to lack that vital fifth-leg instinct. Essentially we are asking these horses to do something which evolution did not intend.

    From a safety point of view it is more nerve-racking going into the start box on such a horse — even if it feels good to be leading the dressage and the rider is confident that the horse will showjump clear. But under experienced and skilful riders, these horses are more usually the winners, especially if stamina is not fully tested due to benign terrain, ground conditions or weather. The best cross-country horses in the world are no longer the best event horses in the world.

    The solution

    So what are the options? Perhaps we could all be self-disciplined and only ride horses that are naturally good across country. But that is unrealistic — riders want to be competitive and so will opt for horses that can score in the 30s in the dressage and are near certain to showjump clear (as per most National Federations’ selection policies).

    Perhaps we could lower the demands of the cross-country? But that’s a self-defeating circle — in a few years we’ll have the same problem again. One solution may be to remove the dressage coefficient — an idea suggested by the experienced team vet Mark Lucey. The coefficient is used to calculate dressage scores in FEI eventing competitions. A rider’s “good” percentage (for example 70%) is deducted from 100 (100-70=30). This number is multiplied by 1.5 (the coefficient) to give the final penalty score (30×1.5=45, so 70% results in a mark of 45). The overall effect is to spread out the dressage marks. With the coefficient, riders scoring 60-70% receive marks of 60-45 (a range of 15); without the coefficient they receive 40-30 (a range of 10).

    The coefficient dates back to the long format, when the level was variable and set by officials at each event to reflect the likely difficulty of the speed and endurance test — if conditions were good and there were likely to be fewer penalties, the coefficient would be set lower to bring the dressage marks closer together and vice versa.

    In the modern sport, the spread of penalties received on speed and endurance day is significantly reduced, so the level of influence that dressage has on the overall result is disproportionately high; the coefficient is now redundant. Removing it would readdress the balance of the phases, enabling true cross-country horses to be in contention after the first phase.

    More importantly, it would encourage riders to compete horses that are designed by nature for the job of cross-country, bringing significant safety benefits.

    With the abolition of the coefficient, this improvement would bring FEI scoring in line with BE’s and simplify results for spectators.

    Ref: Horse & Hound’ 30 June 2016