Monthly Archives: August 2012

Riders and Writers


What I’m reading: Gnome on the Range by Jennifer Zane

While watching a video of an Olympic equestrian contest, I nearly fell out of my chair at a commentator’s remark to the effect that “the riders weren’t really athletes.” After regaining my equilibrium, I came to the conclusion the guy must never have ridden at a competitive level. What was even more jaw-dropping was he made the comment about a rider in Three-Day Eventing—the equestrian equivalent of the triathlon.

As the name implies, a three-day consists of three separate competitions whose scores are combined to determine the winner. The first day is a dressage test, the second is a cross-country race against time over jumps, and the third is jumping in an arena.

On the first day, the horses are well aware of what is coming and most will be eagerly anticipating the exciting cross-country. But in a dressage test, the horse and rider must execute a series of precise movements at specific points within a small arena. Even the slightest error adds to your overall score. (Eventing is scored sort of like golf. Lowest number of errors wins.) So you have to get your horse into a quiet, relaxed mode where it is listening to you and concentrating on the dressage moves. This can be quite a challenge and at times the riders look like they are mounted on powder kegs ready to explode. To achieve the calm focus, you must be still and quiet, and communicate with subtle, precise cues, which require superb muscle control.

Day two, the horses and riders gallop plus or minus four miles at top speed over varied terrain while jumping 40-45 solid and challenging obstacles. The horses have to be extremely fit, amazingly courageous and highly motivated. To ride an equestrian athlete of this level, you have to be equally fit, courageous and motivated. Among other things, you ride most of the course in what is called a two-point position, where you are partially standing in the stirrups with your seat out of the saddle while maintaining your balance over hills, drops, water, or whatever else the designers throw at you. And this is not counting the jumps themselves. Can you say wet noodle legs by the end?

Since every movement of your body affects the horse’s balance and ability to perform, you need tremendous core strength to keep still and not interfere. You also need strong legs, as I mentioned earlier, and strong arms to control and sometimes contain an overly excited, 1200 pound animal that has a mind of its own. As a result, most competitive riders do extensive aerobic and strength training, cross-train in another sport, and spend hours each day on a variety of horses, perfecting their skills.

The last day is the show jumping phase, where the horses must negotiate a demanding, intricate jump course within a specified time. Knocking down a rail or refusing to jump affects your score. These jumps are much higher and closer together than those of the previous day, which add to their difficulty. Again, balance and control are imperative.

To make it even more demanding, many of the top riders compete more than one horse at a time. This means double the physical effort and double the mental stress of having to get the best out of distinctly different equine personalities. Don’t tell me these riders aren’t athletes!

Of course, most casual riders, like most weekend skiers or tennis players, aren’t superbly fit athletes. And lots of people have taken horse rides where they’ve just been passengers, so they tend to think that’s all there is to riding. They couldn’t be more wrong. To compete in any sport, including equestrian events, it takes dedication and skill and athletic prowess.

This attitude reminds me of the mindset writers often encounter when talking to non-writers. Most people have no concept of the effort, dedication and hair-pulling mental agony writers go through for their art. The off-hand dismissive, “anyone can do that” attitude is infuriating to say the least.

Have you experienced this kind of put-down? What has been the most objectionable or ignorant comment that you’ve had to deal with?

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