What is the true cost of the progress of equestrian sports?

 By Cristina Wilkins


Social media is full of groups and pages discussing how much dressage has changed since 1992 which is both, when the Olympics fully embraced professionals and when hyperflexion or rollkur first hit the dressage scene.

The performances today are both stronger and more spectacular, and the horses are expected to dance expressively to music, keeping the beat and their posture almost like clockwork robots.

The organisers deliberately wanted to attract commercial interests, and in order to keep the public and the sponsors interested (or at least awake), the tests were gradually shortened and the ‘boring’ slower sections were either removed or cut back.

Breeders responded to the call for higher and more spectacular gaits by producing horses that are hotter and flashier. And the market followed happily. Warmblood auctions have flourished with ‘extraordinary horses’ being sold to billionaires for multimillion euro figures.

But what has been diminished or been disincentivised? What has the sport lost?

I am not the only one to say we have lost the incentives to train for correct biomechanics and self-carriage. So much so, that the latest change in the 2023 FEI rules is to remove the entire section that describes the objectives of dressage, the correct posture, paces, figures, and movements that riders should aim for. They are no longer in the rules but have been moved to the ”useful” documents section as guidelines only.

And what about the horses? The focus on exciting, extravagant movement and clockwork rhythm means horses are being ridden under a lot more relentless bit pressure.

And the top levels are becoming more and more inaccessible to aspiring riders – unless they have billionaire backers who can afford the multimillion-dollar auction prices. This has created unequal and potentially unhealthy power dynamics.


Eventing has also changed. The cross-country phase in eventing has always been fast, exciting, and dangerous. Risk was always baked in, and the jump dimensions and speed have not been changed in the rules – so what has?

One big change which made the sport massively more ‘efficient’ economically, was to remove the endurance aspects of the cross-country test, which also happened after 1992. This makes it easier and cheaper to organise the events, you need less space, fewer judges and officials. And horses don’t need to be as fit, which means riders have more time to ride and produce more horses. All of which was good for the breeding and sales market, especially of warmbloods.

The top horses can also compete at more major events each year. Previously, two long format three-day events per year were the norm for one horse, now horses fly all around the world to compete at many more.

Perhaps in eventing, the real loser has been rider and horse safety. Professional riders have become so good that, to make the tracks more difficult without making the jumps bigger, they’ve made them narrower, and they add more optical illusions and difficult angles.

Technically, the speed has not changed, it is still 520m/min just like it was when I evented before 1992. But to jump very technical combinations you need to slow down, so you end up having to gallop the horse much, much faster at other times, and you have less margin for error.

It is all very good increasing the technical difficulties to test and sort the very best from the very best, but designers are playing with fire because behind them is a cohort of other horses and riders who are being exposed to unnecessary and considerable risk.


Show jumping has also changed

Today, the tracks are much bigger, about as high and wide as is physically possible, and more technical. The distances between related jumps are trickier, the poles thinner and lighter, and the cups that hold them flatter, to make them easier to be knocked down.

The latest design trend is to remove ground lines and poles to make it harder for horses and riders to gauge the take-off distance. The top riders on top horses just get better, and the margin between the first few placegetters can be a fraction of a second.

But once again, at what cost do we keep pushing these athletes? What are the externalities?

Horses tend to flatten their jumping arc when they go fast, and with such lightweight poles and flat cups, the penalty risk is higher. Today, horses can’t get away with just clearing the jump like in the old days, they have to give it much more air than is natural.

In the jumping world, people talk about horses becoming ‘careless’ (as if it’s a character fault) and that narrative, combined with speed making penalties more likely, is why many riders end up telling themselves that, although it is illegal, ‘rapping’ is OK (if not necessary) to keep a horse jumping clear.

In its most simple form, rapping involves raising a pole just as the horse is jumping a practice fence. During the approach, the horse has gauged the height he needs to jump the fence, but the pole is raised to hit his legs, so that next time, he will jump higher than he would otherwise need to.

The incentive to rap is very strong, and the FEI rule book is in an arms race trying to keep up with catching out all the creative ways that some trainers use to sensitise the horses. Some of the techniques are brutal.

It is no coincidence that the trend to make jumps transparent has coincided with an explosion in ever more severe combination bits and fancy nosebands, all designed to control horses who are being specifically trained to be explosive, and hyper-reactive.

Interestingly, a blanket ban of combination bits is one of the recommendations made in the French Parliament’s report for making the Paris 2024 Olympics a model of welfare. But I doubt that this will happen, because so many riders have come to rely on that level of control. Plus, the current FEI governing trend is to make it a rider’s responsibility to protect their horse and navigate their own ethical boundaries.