Sue Baxter: don’t overlook the ‘golden thread’ *H&H VIP*

  • Sue Baxter was the president of the ground jury at the 2015 eventing European Championships

    The eventing team competition demands consistent jumping phases of predominately clear rounds with few time-penalties. Only then do dressage scores come into play.

    With today’s elevated standards, winning teams need dressage scores over 74% (38 penalties), with most team members striving for 80% (30 penalties). This implies “technically clear” movements of good to excellent quality, scoring some nines.

    Riders must be objective and if winning results are elusive they will, like all top sportsmen, need to take a critical look at their performance starting with the basics. Then, like those such as tennis player Novak Djokovic, prioritise the work that needs to be done.

    The “golden thread” woven through the three phases of eventing is largely overlooked, as each is traditionally viewed in isolation. But in every phase the horse must have balance, rhythm and a seamless ability to change gear, with the suppleness and flexibility that makes him rideable.

    When muscles are used in a relaxed way, energy is transmitted from powerful hind legs through the back and neck towards the bit, and then the expression in his movement and cleanness of his jump is maximised with the minimum of effort.

    Course-designers, in both jumping phases, achieve results by placing fences to affect how the horse travels  across the ground and arrives at the next fence. A loss of line, balance or inability to adjust the stride before the fence will cause an error. Flatwork not only prepares for the dressage, but is instrumental in achieving clear rounds.

    Prioritising the development of horses’ athletic ability with training on the flat, and observing how muscles move and develop, should guide progress. Sessions with perceptive and honest “eyes on the ground” are  vital, as is using mirrors.

    If reaction to an aid produces stiffness or loss of flow, the horse’s muscle development and agility suffers. Attention to saddle fitting is essential for topline muscle development. Easily adjusted trees, with the gullet wide enough to clear the spine, facilitates freer shoulder movement and suppleness through the back. Both are vital for clean jumping, self-carriage and extravagant extended paces.

    The rider’s role

    Equestrian sports have two athletes to consider. Both should be ambidextrous, with the support of a strong middle “core” allowing the limbs to work independently, maintaining balance and position. Instead of mucking out (which makes you one-sided), riders should prepare to ride by stretching with yoga and Pilates.

    Optimising the horse’s performance occurs only if the rider’s body allows it to happen. In dressage, restricted flexibility in the hips or stiffness in the back makes it diffcult to sit with suppleness or balance. A tendency to lean back and stiffen against the movement makes the horse’s back feel “jammed”, flattening the stride and contracting the neck.

    These rider issues inhibit quality of movement and muscle development; the difference in scoring sevens instead of a nine or 10. In a cross-country combinations, a rider can lose balance and co-ordination on landing due to a weak core. Slow recovery can lead to a loss of direction and 20 penalties.

    For horses and riders it’s not what exercises they do, but how well they are performed. For riders, regular
    sessions on a Pilates Reformer machine can precisely target areas that are weak, lack flexibility or control. And the resulting enhanced body awareness allows more to be gained in every exercise session.

    In the UK there are some very talented, hard-working riders. A few have successful senior team experience and are exceptional in all three phases, but lack horsepower at the moment. This is a serious
    drawback for Team GB.

    Be self-critical and find the “golden thread” to produce the winning partnerships for Team GB in Rio.

    H&H 24/12/15