How is it that in almost three years, we have never been to Spruce Meadows?! It’s amazing: a world-class equestrian event facility that hosts top events right, including the National, held last weekend, and the Masters, held in September. In between, there are numerous events to delight horse event aficionados.
Before Saturday, we had never seen a horse jumping competition live. It was a day to remember, watching some seventy competitors, horses and riders, sail repeatedly over gates that were 1 meter 60 centimeters high (about my height).
We were guests in the West Skybox at the International Ring and had excellent seats. Spectators can also sit in the stands for a nominal price, or on the grass for free.
Our enjoyment of the event was greatly enhanced by expert commentary provided by our hosts’ daughter and two equestrian event veterans who were also guests at the event. They patiently explained the course and the finer points of jumping. For instance, I learned that the single-stacked fences are called verticals, the double-stacked gates are called oxers, and the triples are called triple bars. Each presents a different challenge to horse and riders, requiring altitude of jump (verticals), length of jump (oxers), and vertical and length (triple bars).
Each fence requires horse and rider to work in tandem to achieve the correct number of strides before the fence, the point of lift-off, and the number of strides from the point of impact after the jump.
Before each competition, the riders walk the course, pacing out the carefully designed spacing between the fences. Typically, four human strides equals one horse stride (avg. 12 feet), so the rider is able to mentally map the number of strides needed between each fence, leaving a final 6 feet for the takeoff. As I said, some takeoffs have to be high (for the verticals) and some have to be lower and longer (for the oxers), and some have to be both high and long (for the triple bars).
During the event, it is amazing to see the rider controlling the horse, urging it to go faster or slower, depending on the need for each particular jump.
At takeoff, the horse bunches its muscles to launch itself and the rider over the fence, and it is the rider’s task to balance himself or herself over the horse’s shoulders, so as not to impede the horse’s trajectory by going too far forward or being left behind over the horse’s rear end.
This equipoise is thrilling to watch, even when the horse shies away from a fence, not certain about completing the jump.
In addition to fences, there are other obstacles, such as flower pots and water hazards, at the fences, place purposefully to create anxiety in the horse, which the rider must then encourage the horse to ignore. There are faults for hitting rails or for refusing to jump.
One fun fact that I learned is that these horses are shaved for the event, and run the risk of sunburning, especially the lighter horses. About the lighter horses, it seems that gray horses don’t stay gray, but get whiter ever year. They are especially prone to sunburn, which is why you often see them wearing protective sun coats. During the race, horses have protective “boots” to guard their shins, and “bonnets,” to help dampen the noise and help them focus.
The day also included a parade with two bands, several fire fighter and police vehicles, and a charge of Canadian Horse Guards (perhaps not their official name…).
It was a great day, and we will certainly return for more events.