I've thinking a lot recently (perhaps I should stop) about the current short format and how the sport has evolved through the decades, and I still keep coming back to the same conclusion - we should mix up the format a little to crescendo rather than peak early!
When the short format was introduced in the early naughties I remember being surprised at how much resistance there was to this change. If you look at how the sport started (in the 1912 Olympics) it has gradually changed since then for the better and I for one think the removal of roads & tracks and steeplechase was long over due. You only need to see the difference in pre-second horse inspection preparations in the stable yards to see the benefits. Prior to short format there was so much more pressure in the stables at the end of cross country day to get horses sound for the second trot-up. Training and preparation for 3 day events has not needed to change at all really since the introduction of the short format, so horses have benefited.
And so to my master plan! And it's undoubtedly not a new idea. I think we should run the 3 day format to finish on cross country, rather than showjumping. I have 2 key reasons for suggesting this, 1) It would be better for the horses, 2) Cross Country is the highlight of any 3 day so it makes sense to finish on a high note, and here's why:
9-11 minutes of cross country saps a hell of a lot of energy out of horse and asking it to then show jump the following day with sore shins, burning tendons, stiff joints (remember a lot of the top horses are older) and muscle fatigue just seems unnecessary. Here are my arguments for the change:
The sport evolved out of the need to train and test cavalry horses for the rigours of military service:
Obedience, Discipline and Accuracy in the Dressage
Speed, Stamina and Athleticism in the Cross Country
Speed, Accuracy and Agility in the Show Jumping
We haven't sent horses into battle for some time now (phased out in WWI and almost gone by WWII), so given this is purely a sport these days it would seem needless to test a horse's agility after their Cross Country.
Our one day format, generally, runs in my preferred order and whilst these do only run 6 or 7 minutes, they're still testing enough on horses. You'll also find a number of horses that perform well in the one day format and not in the current 3 day format.
Now whilst I'm on the subject of changing the 3-day format.....
Horse Trials has always fallen between the cracks in sporting terms really. It's not a race, it's not an adversarial game or match and it's not about jumping higher or longer, etc, like most other sports are, and there's no 'freestyle' element, like say gymnastics. It's a test, set by the event organiser/course designers, with a rather complicated set of scoring matrix's that require an 'ology just to work out the scores. I've not thoroughly researched all olympic disciplines but I can't think of one that is so "complete this test" or "entirely built around penalty points".
I really would like to see a change to the scoring concept of penalty points, and this 'lowest score' wins, because I think this system has two very negative impacts:
- Its seriously tricky for the non-horsey spectator to get to grips with when we start talking about things like co-efficients.
- There are too many negative connotations for this type of penalty system. You don't gain the lead, someone else loses it.
Dressage: Let's just use the good marks, and forget the co-efficient. If we can't devise a test that has the right level of influence without using a co-efficient then it shouldn't be part of the competition. I would go even as far as making the dressage freestyle with a number of required and optional bonus 'movements' being available to competitors, and hey, let's set it to music too.
Cross Country: award points for each fence that is jumped at the first attempt. The number of points would need to be set to exert the correct influence. Deduct point(s) for each second over the allowed time.
Showjumping: Here I'd make things a little more interesting too, and borrow a concept from pure showjumping. Award points for each fence jumped. Build a fixed course (as we do now) but add a number of bonus fences that allow competitors to gain extra points. Bonus fences would have varying degrees of difficulty and points attainable, and rules like you can only jump the same fence x number of times, and ofcourse maintain an allowed time.
The upshot of all of this is we would have a very exciting showjumping day as competitors push themselves to build up points before the rigours of Cross Country Day. Dressage would become far more exciting to watch, demanding much more skill as riders will need to work on evermore elaborate routines to get in the top slot. Cross Country, the best bit, will become the crescendo as riders head round the course with everthing to play for, as only clear inside the time provides any guarantees.
Most importantly of all, horses will thank us for making the it easier on them physically and more interesting mentally.
Undoubtedly there will be a number of event organisers who foresee issues but I think these will just be logistical ones rather than show stoppers. And perhaps this whole idea should just be saved for the 4* events.
It may be another ten or twenty years before we see some changes like this, but I firmly believe we do need to see some changes to make the sport more accessible to the general sporting public, more interesting and demanding, and better for the horses.