Walk into a sports bar and try to persuade the bar-stool fans to turn off the football or boxing or Indy car racing and switch over to three-day eventing. It’s going to be a hard sell. There are ingrained prejudices to overcome.
Not least of them is the fact that this is one of the rare sports in which men and women compete equally. And then there are the outfits: top hats and tails; jodhpurs; white gloves. There is clearly a social gulf between the eventers and the average jeans-and-T-shirt sports fan.
So, is there anything you can say that will induce the patrons to give eventing a chance? How about this: It is the world’s most dangerous mainstream sport, suffering more fatalities among participants than football, boxing and motor racing combined.
To witness true bravery on the sporting field, just watch a rider in full flight on a cross-country course, galloping over treacherously uneven terrain, hurdling solid wooden fences. Horse and rider must have absolute faith in each other. The slightest misjudgment could be catastrophic.
A three-day event is effectively a triathlon. The first discipline, dressage, is the least likely to appeal to our barroom audience. The competitors are dressed up like dandies, and their horses have been groomed to perfection. Riders enter the arena and are required to coax their horses through a series of movements and maneuvers under the critical gaze of the judges.
Although it looks suspiciously like equestrian dancing, the origins of dressage are military: It was an essential part of the training for cavalry horses. In the early days, eventing was known as “the militaire,” and until 1924 only serving army officers were permitted to compete.
On day two, competitors strip down to more practical gear and move out onto the cross-country course. The route may be up to four miles long, with as many as 40 fences, ditches, and water obstacles to negotiate. As they ride against the clock, the dangers are very real. If a horse tumbles, it could land on top of the rider with severe consequences.
On the final day, competitors return to the enclosed arena for show jumping, designed to test the technical skills of horse and rider. Up to 20 fences are arranged seemingly chaotically around the ring. They must be jumped in a fixed order as fast as possible. If the horse refuses a jump, or knocks down any of the fences or horizontal poles, time penalties are accrued.
Three-day events are held around the world throughout the year, and are classified under a star-rating system according to difficulty. At the highest level, there are five 4-star competitions, including the Kentucky Three-Day Event, which will be held in Lexington April 23-27, 2008.
In this true team sport, riders form strong and trusting bonds with their horses. Not only are the divisions between the sexes removed, but also the divisions between species: Men and women, humans and horses, competing together and risking everything. That ought to be enough to earn the admiration of any sports fan.
Photo credit: USE/Emily Daily
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