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The Diary Of An FEI Top-level Horse

The sport of show jumping is a physically demanding endeavour for horse and rider. But for the horse specifically, it requires not only the strength and stamina to speed around a course for a dozen or so obstacles, but also the lightness and finesse for a 1,000-plus pound animal to leap over obstacles without a single fence being knocked down.  

We have wondered what it takes to be an international show jumping horse viewed from a horse’s perspective. To let us in on this topic, we have allied ourselves with Dr. Tim Worden, whose research is centralized around rider and horse performance. Worden specializes in producing statistical material based on FEI’s top-100 show jumping horses, and while it may sound a bit long winded (read: boring), we promise it will probably make you raise an eyebrow or two… 

How Old Is An FEI horse? 

Let us begin by examining some general information about the horses who compete at the highest level. By looking at the available data, certain trends become apparent which can give us insight into the current state of show jumping sport. Firstly, we will take a look at the age spectrum of the top horses: 

The average age for a horse competing at a major championship is 11.5 years. One may thus assume that horses peak athletically around the age of 10 or 11, and after 12 years, their ability to reach championship form decreases exponentially. Although this may be the case, there are several other factors to consider in determining why the horse peaks at a certain age:  

Horses peak around age 11. Illustration: Dr. Tim Worden.
  • Many horses are sold after reaching a major championship. If they are sold to another rider not competing at championship level, the horse may never reach this level again. Training injuries become more prevalent as the age of the horse increases. The older the horse gets, the more it is at risk of being injured, Worden says, on his Instagram account.  
  • Riders tend to preserve older horses, and may perceive the championship format to be too physically demanding on their senior horse. 

The strange thing is that stallions tend to be older than geldings and mares when they reach top-level. One possible explanation for this could be that good quality stallions may be kept at top-level to continue to demonstrate the horse’s breeding potential. The same goes for dressage stallions. Show it, do not tell it, is what it is all about. 

What About The Gender? 

You do not have to be in the equestrian world for long to understand that people have different opinions on why they prefer a mare, stallion or gelding. Although there may be some good reasons for their opinion, does the gender of the horse actually matter when looking at which horses reach the top of the sport? 

Gender does matter when it comes to top-level show jumping. Illustration: Dr. Tim Worden.

Apparently, it does. There is, in fact, a clear overrepresentation of geldings at top-level. But what may also seem surprising is that the mares and stallions share 2nd place. So, the fable that mares are not suitable for top-level show jumping is untrue. The question is whether the same gender distribution is present in dressage sports?  

What Color Are They? 

Just as there are a myriad of attitudes about what gender the horse should have, the same goes for what color the horse should be. In general, you can say that within the show jumping world there is a greater variation in the color pallet than in dressage sport, where the majority of horses are bay or brown.  

Preferred colors among top-level horses. Illustration: Dr. Tim Worden

The coat of a bay horse can range from pale to bright orange brown to a very dark brown. The legs are black from the knee or hock downwards (except for any white leg markings).  The eyes are brown. Brown horses have a dark brown coat, black lower legs, mane and tail and a lighter brown muzzle. Although the color brown and bay appear to be most dominant among jumping horses, almost 30% are red and 20% grey.  

What’s The Horses Show Schedule Like? 

What is the horse’s show schedule like? Do they compete every weekend or only a few times a year? We have asked ourselves this question, and luckily Worden has been able to produce valuable statistics on the matter. Worden has examined the number of months each horse belonging in the top-100 ranking competed over the course of a year. The percentage of horses competing 6, 7, 8, 9 or 10 months out of the year is relatively the same.  

No horses compete all 12 months in a year. Illustration: Dr. Tim Worden

However, we are not aware of the reason for the breaks. Whether it is due to the emergence of minor injuries, the need for recuperation, or something completely else is unclear. Though, research shows that horses competing at top-level need recovery breaks for longer than five days in a row. Otherwise the muscles suffer from excess stress levels due to metabolic changes in muscle enzymes, leading to a fatigue that just gets compounded in the muscles.  

Few horses competed for less than 5 months or more than 11 months, while no horse competed for all 12 months. 

How Often Do They Knock Down Fences? 

Why do horses knock down fences? Every horse is born with a certain jumping technique; we can improve it somewhat, but can never completely change it. When it comes to FEI horses, you can say that they are born with an exceptional technical advantage compared to regular horses. Horses with excellent technique, like the FEI horses, can still knock down fences, but have you ever wondered how often? And from which side?  

Jumping involves three primary types of obstacles depending on the level of competition. The fences are brightly colored and may include a wide variety of creative designs. Most commonly seen in show jumping are courses made up combinations of fence types with cross rails, verticals, oxers and water jumps.  

Illustration: Dr. Tim Worden.

Worden has chosen to divide them into two main categories; Vertical fences and oxers. But surprisingly enough, the two types of fences do not differ in the statistics. The horses seem to jump with the same certainty whether it is the lower, but wider oxer, or the high and narrow vertical fence. The interesting difference arises when we look at the lead. More faults were observed when horses approached jumps on the left lead as compared to the right. Just as we humans are either right-handed or left-handed, so is the horse. Most horses prefer one lead over the other, just as one rear leg pushes more than the other. 

About Tim Worden: 

Dr. Tim Worden is a Ph.D. and consultant that specializes in the translation of human high-performance training theory and techniques to equestrian athletes. With expertise in both equestrian sport and sports science, he is uniquely positioned to move training techniques from ‘human to horse’; improving the performance of horses and reducing injury risk. Tim completed his MSc (Biomechanics and Neuroscience) and Ph.D. (Biomechanics) at the University of Guelph, Canada. He has published a number of peer-reviewed articles on human navigation through complex environments and the control of stability during locomotion. During his time as a doctoral student, Tim concurrently worked as an equestrian sport scientist, with a clientele composed predominantly of FEI-level show jumping riders. Follow him on Instagram – @twordentraining

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