Riders take horses cross country

A horse is a horse of course, unless that horse is galloping more than two miles and jumping over fences that are approximately four feet high along the way.

The Whidbey Island Pony Club presented its 28th annual Horse Trials July 9-12. The event drew more than 230 participants who rode their horses in three different events, the most exciting of which is the cross-country race.

In that race, riders guide their noble steeds across a course lined with jumps of various heights and widths. Right in the middle of the course is the water pit, a series of obstacles centered around a pool of water.

Louise Leslie took her horse Jack O’Lantern to what she describes as the triathalon of horse sports. Leslie rides in the intermediate division, which is one step below Olympic-caliber competition.

“I’m here for the cross country,” she said. “I’m an adrenaline junky and the horse loves it. He comes off with a bigger smile than I do.”

Linda Chatfield, who helped to organize the event, said the sport originated from the practices of military officers training their horses for war. Eventing, as the three-day competition is also known, became an Olympic sport in 1912 at the Stockholm games.

Chatfield said the complexity and excitement of the skills required have helped the sport remain popular.

“It’s different than a lot of other horse sports because horse and rider have to be proficient in three areas,” she said.

In addition to the cross-country race, horses are judged in the dressage event, which is a series of precision movements, and a show jumping event that is a smaller course than cross country.

“The cross country is the exciting part, you’re out there in the country encountering something the horse has never seen before,” Chatfield said. “The excitement of cross country is you never know what’s going to happen.”

Going into a cross-country race, the horse has never been on the course, Chatfield said. The rider has been able to walk the course, however. The horse must trust the rider in order to want to jump over fixed fences that can be approximately four feet high.

“It’s really hard to make a horse do that kind of thing,” Chatfield said. “You really must build a partnership.”

Some riders, however, chose to forgo the trust building and rely on a horse’s talent.

“My horse was phenomenal,” Open Novice rider Anni Grandia said.

Grandia had only ridden her horse, Minnie, three times before trekking the cross country course — one of which was in the previous day’s dressage event.

“(The horses) have to be bold and willing,” she said. “They have to be able to trust the rider. It’s about the partnership between horse and rider.”

Chatfield said the horse and rider must be in rhythm before a horse will jump over an obstacle or dive into the water pit.

“The biggest challenge is the horse has to have confidence in the rider to gallop to a jump he’s never seen,” she said.

The horses also need to possess some special traits, Chatfield said.

“Some of them have to be a little crazy,” she said. “I have a horse that would jump over Deception Pass Bridge if I pointed her at it.”

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