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The Sporting Horse


Review by Nancy Brannon

As the FEI World Equestrian Games™ Tryon 2018were happening, with sport horses in eight equestrian disciplines, it seemed appropriate to review the beautiful coffee-table book The Sporting Horse: In Pursuit of Equine Excellence, by Nicola Jane Swinney and Bob Langrish, MBE. Swinney is a former newspaper journalist who was hunting editor and chief subeditor for Horse & Hound. Langrish is one of the world’s leading equestrian photographers – as is obvious by his stunning photos throughout the book.

The book is a celebration of the athletic abilities of horses, and the unique relationship between horse and rider that is most evident in the sporting arena. Developing four key characteristics – athleticism, speed, agility and endurance – each with its own chapter, journalist Nicola Swinney explores how hundreds of years of selective breeding and careful training have developed and refined the horse’s natural ability to perform a diverse range of sporting pursuits. From dressage to polo, snow sports to carriage driving, steeplechasing to barrel racing, the book reveals how horse and rider work as one to achieve sporting excellence. Horses are simply amazing athletes! Naturally fleet of foot, they have strength, stamina and intelligence to match. We ask a great deal of these amazing creatures when we ride them in competition, and the horses always deliver. 

This is a book you’ll first want to turn through from start to finish, soaking in all the lovely photos that make up a substantial part of the book. The foreword is by eventer Jane Holderness-Roddam, who has won both Badminton and Burghley, represented Great Britain as the first woman to ride at an Olympic three-day event, and won team gold medal in Mexico in 1968. She writes, “My own career has been built upon the synergy between myself and my talented equine partners, and this collection is a beautiful testimony that relationship. The horse is our stalwart companion, our most loyal friend, and our devoted colleague.”

In the first chapter, “Agility,” Swinney examines poise and control, as exemplified by the exquisite movements of the dressage horse. I love the photo of extended trot with Charlotte Dujardin and Valegro! What a star!

From the ridden dressage horse, she moves to the driven dressage test that is the first element of the four-in-hand driving trial. These horses show such great agility at negotiating marathon obstacles, as shown in the photo of four-times World Champion four-in-hand driver Boyd Exell splashing through the water obstacle. [He won individual gold at this year’s WEG.]

Swinney writes, “As with dressage, Western riding should look effortless…Western riding comes in many forms, but the most demanding in terms of agility are reining and barrel racing.” Here I would add to Swinney’s list – cutting horses, who exemplify tremendous agility as they closely watch and work the cow, ready on a split-second to move in response to the cow’s moves.

The remainder of the chapter on Agility continues with Langrish’s fabulous photos of dressage horses, driving, reining, and barrel racing horses.

Key elements of “Athleticism” are energy and impulsion, as exemplified by show jumping. One stunning photo of the horse jumping is taken from below looking up. “At the point when it is in the air over a jump, the athletic horse stretches every sinew and brings its hind legs up and underneath its body,” reads the caption.

Next in the chapter is polo. ‘Polo is a fast game – the little horses reach speeds of 50kpf (30 mph) – and its players, human and equine, must have quick reflexes,” Swinney writes.

The remainder of the chapter showcases photos of jumpers (my favorites are the head and front legs shot, page 93, and the jumper Chivas Z receiving a treat from his rider Richard Spooner, page 105) and polo, with a great close-up of the horse galloping with all four legs off the ground as the rider is about to hit the ball (page 113).

The chapter on “Endurance” features the elements stamina and power, beginning with the three-day eventing horses. “Peak fitness is vital for the cross-country phase of a three-day event,” writes Swinney. The culmination of an eventing champion is the “Rolex Grand Slam,” most recently won by Michael Jung: the Kentucky Three-Day Event, Burghley, and Badminton.

“Of all the equestrian disciplines, the sport of endurance is arguably the one that demands the greatest knowledge of the individual horse’s abilities and limitation,” writes Swinney. She tells the interesting story of George Beck, a 30-year-old American who planned, in 1912, to ride his horse, Pinto, from his home on Bainbridge Island, Washington to every state capital, a journey of over 20,000 miles! Beck and three companions, who called themselves the Overland Westerners, did complete the trip in 37 months. But Pinto was the only horse to complete the whole distance, as the others were traded for fresh horses.

Endurance didn’t become a competitive sport until the 1950s, when Wendell Robie rode the rugged 100-mile trail from Lake Tahoe to Auburn in less than 24 hours. He subsequently founded the Tevis Cup.

Foxhunters will enjoy the part of this chapter on foxhunting, as well as appreciating the wont for hunt storytelling.  “Huntsmen will tell tales of horses that knew where the fox was before they did, that will jump five-bar gates with barely taking a breath, and gallop all day.” I once hunted a horse who knew where the ditch crossings were, even if I forgot.

The remainder of the Endurance chapter includes thrilling cross-country photos (my favorite is Alex Bragg obviously enjoying the ride on Zagreb at the British Open Championships, page 161), endurance horses, and foxhunting photos.

Perhaps the most impressive photo of the book is the two-page spread of racehorses at the beginning of the chapter on “Speed,” featuring pace and acceleration. “There is little more exhilarating than watching a racing field stretch across the course…” Swinney describes. Another is on page 183, with two horses running side-by-side, their front legs in perfect synchrony. Swinney describes the history of racehorses in art (George Stubbs) and photography (Eadweard Muybridge), as well as the origins of the modern racehorse with Byerley Turk (1690), the Darley Arabian (1704), and the Godolphin Arabian, imported from France in 1729 by Edward Coke. “It seems astonishing that the DNA of those three horses is still found in today’s Thoroughbreds,” Swinney writes.

Of course Secretariat is profiled, as everyone knows of his prowess on the racecourse. Sadly, he had to be euthanized at age 19 due to laminitis. But there was a remarkable discovery about the famous horse by Dr. Thomas Swerczek, professor of veterinary science at the University of Kentucky, who performed the post-mortem examination. “I’ve seen and done thousands of autopsies on horses, and nothing I’d ever seen compared to it,” he said. “The heart of the average horse weighs about nine pounds. This [Secretariat’s] was almost twice the average size, and a third larger than any equine heart I’d ever seen. And it wasn’t pathologically enlarged. All the chambers and the valves were normal. It was just larger. I think it told us why he was able to do what he did.”

“It is often said that the great horses have plenty of ‘heart,’ and Secretariat had more than most,” Swinney wrote.
Another famous racehorse was Seabiscuit, whose lineage traced back to the Darley Arabian. In the American racehorse museum, Seabiscuit and Secretariat are joined by Man O’ War, Phar Lap, Citation, and Seattle Slew.

Famous steeplechase racecourses are also profiled, such as Newmarket in England, the world-famous Epsom Downs Derby, and the National Hunt. Swinney relates the uplifting National Hunt story of Aldaniti and his jockey Bob Champion.  In 1981 Aldaniti won the Grand National with Champion riding – only after he had gone through some serious health problems and almost died!

Then there’s harness racing, and trotting races became hugely popular in the U.S. in the late 1700s and early 1800s. The American Standardbred is so named because, in the early years, the only horses who could trot or pace a mile in a “standard” time of two minutes and thirty seconds were admitted to the studbook.

A new sport to many will be racing on snow at the Alpine resort of St. Moritz in Switzerland. “Horse racing has been held on a vast frozen lake at the ski resort for more than 100 years,” Swinney reports.

The remainder of this chapter on “Speed” includes stunning steeplechase and flat racing photos, with an interesting “parting shot” of jockeys, and harness racing. There are snow sport photos, including racing, horses pulling humans on skis, snow polo, and harness racing on snow.

Interspersed throughout are photos of horses – just horses – without tack or riders, just being beautiful horses. The last photo, appropriately, is of horses running in snow.

This is a book of fabulous photos and interesting tales of the wide variety of activities that horses are capable of and willing to do for humans. In every issue of the Mid-South Horse Review, I am amazed at the varying capabilities of equine athletes and how adaptable they are. These truly are amazing animals with a lot of heart!

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