The World Equestrian Games (WEG) are the largest sporting event in the US this year … the featured competitions offer an intriguing and dynamic look at the history of civilization.
Driving: An echo in time
Mankind’s first records are seen in prehistoric cave paintings over 20,000 years old, and are filled with images of horses … even so, humans apparently didn’t start taming and using horses until about 6000 years ago.
It seems logical that riding bareback would be humanity’s first act of horsemanship … so naturally we probably didn’t. According to the most reliable evidence yet found, instead of riding horses, humans spent the first thousand years or so of horse ‘domestication’ fooling around with straps and restraints hitching horses to various carts to begin the activity we call Driving.
The fooling around got much more serious with the invention of chariots which, besides giving us empires like the Hittites and ancient Egypt, eventually treated antiquity to a peculiar insanity called ‘chariot racing’ that became the world’s first mass spectator sport.
By the time civilization emerged from the ensuing Middle Ages, driving had spawned a fleet of vehicles from wagons and buggies to carriages and coaches, with a similarly varied lineup of horsepower’s namesake, including the beer-truck pulling Clydesdale and high-stepping roadster pony.
The modern sport of Driving distills this ancient knowledge into a multi-phase event which includes precision and teamwork in an amazing and picturesque display of horsemanship. Every buckle and strap has not just a purpose, but represents a centuries-long pedigree of trial-and error testing … in seeing Driving at the World Equestrian Games (WEG), we are watching one of mankind’s oldest and most valuable technologies.
Endurance: The marathon of horsemanship
The sport of Endurance at the WEG will cover a 100-mile distance in one day … this feat is a sane result of much prior historical insanity, and the results would have amazed the horsemen of old.
Evidence remains sketchy, but at some point several thousand years ago, after an epoch of attempts to harness a horse without choking it (with varying success), the idea occurred to dispense with the cart and mount up. Early riders apparently sat back on the horse’s hindquarters; nose rings were an early misfortune, and military imagination did not extend beyond leading the horse into battle as a kind of mobile archery platform — but evidence shows early riders were indeed faced forward to the front of the horse, so a good start was made.
Progress came slowly to man’s early cultures, which seem to have preferred the route of dying out rather than updating an opinion. New ways to steer the horse were ironed out eventually, even if learning to stop the animal may have taken an extra millennia or so. Chariot-using Empires of Old preferred ground-rumbling war machines to the simpler virtues of mounted riders, perhaps on the basis of a rider’s vulnerability to being squashed by said chariot. Nomads took up the slack and began the fruitful cycle of raiding settlements, settling down themselves, and being wiped out by other nomads in a few years time.
Nomads may be the answer to why the champion of distance is the Arabian horse, a fountain of equine beauty and “hot” blood. Stamina and endurance were likely of value in surprising sleepy villagers — or escaping wide-awake ones — and to accomplish great distances between watering holes. Legends formed around remarkable feats of endurance, especially about the Arabian breed. Such boasts were perhaps nodded to politely, though not quite believed, until stopwatches and measured courses gave proof in the envelope-pushing sport of Endurance.
Dressage: humane school for horses
Horses are herd animals willing to follow a sound leader, but ancient humanity strenuously avoided this knowledge: the binding-down method seems to have been more the flavor of the day.
Ancient Greece gives evidence of a break with that tradition, advancing the notion that the horse was an individual instead of mere emotive force. Our Western forebears engaged a method of training that emphasized cooperation and harmony that still flourishes today in the noble art, science and sport of Dressage.
Even the earliest appearances of dressage were as an exhibition art, one whose spark helped kindle the original Olympic flame. Despite its artistic character, the most compelling reason for dressage’s early success was the improvement it gave cavalry through greater control of one’s mount.
The empathetic methods of dressage were lost with the fall of Rome and destruction of ancient Western Civilization, and horsemanship returned to brutal methods for the long sleep of the Middle Ages. Ancient writings of Xenophon, a Greek general who wrote about dressage, were discovered in the 15th century and led to a revival of this equestrian discipline. Dressage was one of the first rediscovered Classical arts of the Renaissance.
The arena became a laboratory for studying methods of training the horse, whose results spread to different forms of horsemanship: the famous Spanish horsemanship of the Conquistador era, ancestor of the WEG sport of Reining, resulted from the rediscovery of Classical dressage.
Dressage competition at the WEG is contested at the highest level, and a more modest test is part of the Eventing competition. Every level in dressage proceeds through ancient principles, most of which exist fundamentally unchanged from the times of the Greeks. The beauty of a horse schooled in dressage comes from the encouraged expression of the horse’s natural movements, so the horse’s motion remains organic and natural at its core.
Modern dressage seen at the WEG is a celebration of humane partnership with the horse, honoring our ancient partner and displaying the triumph of cooperation and harmony over more ‘physical’ methods.
Vaulting: putting the Pommel Horse to shame
The equestrian sport of Vaulting dates from whenever man decided handsprings off horses was worth the hospitalization cost. In all seriousness, vaulting is an ancient entertainment: there is reference to such horse acrobatics in the Iliad. Horse acrobats were very popular in antiquity.
The Latin word for a vaulter was a desultor or ‘one who leaps down’ … between the Coliseum and Circus (chariot racing) intermissions, the crowds of the ancient ‘developed’ world kept such equestrian gymnasts in constant demand.
Compared to the active performance partnerships of other horse sports, the horse seems incidental to the action here, but there is a direct link. Every vaulter must be intimately aware of the status of the horse at all times — his speed, direction, balance and mental outlook — which is the essence of a horseman’s skill.
Show Jumping: ‘To Fly without Wings’
Moving to the next WEG sport on human history’s timeline, we must pass over the medieval era in which Jousting was the new equestrian pastime, and arrive at an activity which served to rescue horsemanship from obsolescence after the invention of the combustion engine: Jumping.
Just as the horse’s role as transportation was being replaced by technology in the early 20th Century, horse jumping exploded onto the world scene and drove a new recreational wave of horsemanship.
Jumping was first discovered and practiced in the mid-to-late 1700’s as a way to continue hunting despite the Enclosure Laws in Britain, which mandated the fencing of English farmland. Daredevil riders found that some horses were willing and talented jumpers, and events were arranged to show buyers the aptitude of their sale horses for this new activity. The sport might have been called Sale Jumping and not be technically misnamed.
As a result, Show Jumping has the distinction of being created specifically as a spectator attraction: the original ‘leaping’ competitions that began in the early 1800’s were set in a field; when spectators complained they could not see the rides, the jumps were moved into an enclosed area and a new sport was born.
Today Jumping has grown into a world-wide sport with millions of competitors and supporters. The game is simple to understand: competitors begin a set course with zero “faults” … a knockdown counts 4 faults, refusals by the horse or exceeding the time limit cost additional penalties, and a fall is elimination. The size of the fences is a factor, and also the distances between, since a horse’s depth vision is limited and the rider must set the pace and stride.
Interestingly, the spirit of medieval Jousting lives on in Jumping, and not only as a clash between mounted riders, or for the danger involved, nor the colorful spectacle, or even that nobility “VIP’s” repose in catered boxes while mere peasants spectators get cheaper seats or just grass to sit on. Top Jumping riders follow in the footsteps of medieval “free lance” knights, who traveled from match to match in pursuit of awards, fame and prize money (though not necessarily in that order).
International competition such as the WEG also provide a distant mirror of medieval times, when a hapless King facing a battle would put out a call to assemble the “free lances” of his kingdom to bolster his troops and face the enemy: today national jumping teams are formed from top individual horses and riders that come together not so much as an interdependent team, but as the strongest force a nation can muster.
Eventing: ultimate test of horse & rider
Besides Show Jumping, another sport grew from the military, one designed as a challenge for the ideal cavalry horse. The sport has grown in the past century and is or has been known by several names — The Military, Horse Trials, Combined Training, 3-Day Events — which have distilled to the happy noun of: Eventing.
The competition is divided into three phases: Dressage, Cross-Country and Stadium Jumping. In competition such as seen at the WEG, each phase is held on a separate consecutive day — hence the older name, 3-Day Event. (The first phase of Dressage is often held on two days, to add to any possible confusion.)
The first phase (Day 1) tests the horse/rider partnership’s communication and obedience with a Dressage test on the flat … it mimics the parade grounds or drill exercises of cavalry troops. The second phase (Day 2) is the singular specialty an Event horse can claim: the Cross Country. Originally intended to test the skills of a cavalry mount as a courier — crossing the county quite literally — this unique challenge of galloping a course of solid fences over varied terrain including water, ditches, banks, drops, and various combinations is the soul of Eventing, and one of the most spectacular spectacles in sport.
The final phase (Day 3) is the Stadium Jumping, a winding course of jumps set in an arena over knockable fences. The purpose of the this final phase is to show the horse’s stamina, soundness and willingness to persevere.
In recent years Eventing has followed in Show Jumping’s hoof beats, establishing a World Cup circuit, greater prize-money and an increased profile. Eventing will be one of the most exciting spectator attractions of the WEG.
Reining: equestrian sport’s new spin
Reining can be called a form of equine acrobatics, and is a new horse sport only recently added to the WEG program in 2002.
Reining may be seen as the mixing-in of dressage principles with the horsemanship of the Old West, or perhaps what happens when the needs of the cowboy and the training of a cow horse become a form of popular art. Sound principles of dressage are evident in a well “reined” horse, most especially the calm communication and focus on the horse’s movements.
However, reining pushes beyond what the horse would naturally offer, executing crowd-pleasing extreme movements such as the spin and sliding stop. The flashy hair-trigger response of the Reining horse demonstrates reflex obedience and set movements, rather than being purely a focus on the horse’s expression itself, as in dressage.
ParaDressage: spotlighting a new role for the horse
In recent years, horses have been proving therapeutic in many ways: in physical therapy programs, for emotional rehabilitation, to uplift the disadvantaged, and here, as seen in WEG competition, to physically free a human from disability. Aboard a horse, the disabled may be equal to all … a vivid example of the freedom the horse has always offered mankind.
It’s a big year for this vibrant emerging field of horsemanship: riding by the disabled is the newest sport at the WEG. The “para” in Para-dressage means a contest run in “parallel” to regular equestrian sport — different degrees of disability are separated to allow meaningful competition with others of the same physical limitation. Therapeutic roles are recent for the horse, and offer new possibilities for the future of horsemanship.
The Amazing Journey has not Ended
The historical tour of horse sports contested at the WEG travels from still-living sports created long ago to new modern competitions of advanced riding, and comes to ParaDressage and the potential to go further into the future. The 2010 World Equestrian Games represent an evolution in horsemanship, a coming together of horse enthusiasts and the chance to spread the love of horses while growing something new for humanity.
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