How Many Jumps Does a Horse Have?

When USA Equestrian Team member Lisa Jacquin and her star jumper For The Moment earned their share of the team silver medal at the 1988 Seoul Olympics, the gutsy Thoroughbred gelding was at the top of his game. He was fast, powerful, and precise. He was also 19 years old. By anyone's standards, For The Moment was a dream horse, with all the bells and whistles that come standard with world-class jumpers. He had just the right mix of athleticism, ability, and can-do attitude.

But For The Moment possessed something else that's a little harder to put a finger on. In addition to great conformation and talent, he had some rare quality that contributed to his incredible staying power. His star-studded career spanned nearly two decades, several continents, and countless jumps, generating a string of victories so long that Jacquin can't even begin to name them all. At the age of 23, he was still a formidable force in a sport dominated by horses half his age.

Jacquin said of her former partner, "He was an incredible horse, with tremendous longevity in his career. He was super strong and healthy, and he had tons of stamina and soundness."

Stamina and soundness carried the superstar jumper a long way. When Jacquin bought the 15.3-hand Thoroughbred off the racetrack in 1978, he was six years old. "For The Moment spent eighteen solid years competing at the Grand Prix level," she said.

Some show jumpers seem engineered to take the grind of high-level competition in stride. Others succumb to the stress of the sport early on, and their careers are over long before they achieve the level of greatness their owners dreamed of.

By Jacquin's own account, For The Moment was "something of a freak"--a phenomenal horse with a seemingly endless supply of jumps built into him from birth. Recognizing this type of potential in horses poses a challenge even for the most experienced riders. It's difficult to determine the number of jumps that remain in a 4- or 5-year-old horse. It's even tougher to "guesstimate" the number of jumps that might be packaged up in a yearling prospect, no matter how much potential he shows.

A Multi-Factorial Equation

What is it that determines how many fences a jumper can face and clear in its career? Experts agree there are a few
common denominators in the complex equation that defines a durable jumper. Prerequisites include good genes and conformation; strong, straight legs; and a willingness to work. Even with these qualities factored in, there's no guarantee that a good horse will make a good jumper.

Sharon Spier, DVM, PhD, Dipl. ACVIM, professor at the University of California, Davis, School of Veterinary Medicine, has provided emergency care to equine competitors at numerous Pan-American, World Equestrian, and Olympic Games. Her experience has given her plenty of opportunity to assess the characteristics shared by elite athletes.

"The length of a jumper's career depends on many factors, including conformation, but also balance, coordination, and level of fitness," she says.

Of course, there are exceptions to every rule. Rachel Kane, DVM, a sports medicine veterinarian in Woodstock, Ill., concedes that it's hard to know exactly how many jumps a horse is capable of executing over the course of its career.

"Conformation is important," Kane says, "but I've seen horses with less than perfect conformation compete at high levels for years. And I've seen some horses with great conformation that didn't last long." A jumper's performance longevity, she explains, is determined by "a combination of genetics, conditioning, training, and vetting."

Equine biomechanics researcher Pippa Powers, BSc, PhD, of the University of Limerick in Ireland, says, "Conformation is an aspect on which many people place a lot of emphasis. It's probably true that horses with good conformation have a better chance of staying sound and performing for a long time."

Staying Sound Is Key

The ability to stay sound is critical for every equine athlete. Jumping is a rigorous sport, and even the strongest horses are susceptible to injury. The "hang-time" is easy--horses spend less than a single second suspended in the air over each fence. It's the ground work that can be grueling. Explosive take offs, tight turns, and high-impact landings eventually take a toll on every horse.

Years of repetitive impact contribute to the development of degenerative joint disease, a condition that is responsible for the premature retirement of most sport horses. The early stages of disease are often silent, and by the time lameness becomes evident, permanent damage usually is a reality.

Proper shoeing and working on good surfaces are two factors that can significantly reduce the damage of repetitive impact. "Poor footing and over-aggressive use of calks on shoes can predispose horses to injuries," Spier explains. "It's important to have the best farrier possible." Footing that is too hard increases concussion on limbs, while too-soft footing can make the horse work too hard for traction, over-stressing tendons and ligaments. Calks stop feet from sliding on a surface, which can be good and bad. A tiny bit of slide on landing is normal, and removing that slide (effectively stopping the foot instantly on landing) can stress various structures in the limb.

Spier also encourages riders to look out for the safety of their mounts. "Some horses definitely have a better sense of self-preservation and are more careful and better balanced than others, and some riders prepare their horses better for turns and see the distance better," she says. "It's probably not the number of jumps, but rather the number of unbalanced turns and bad landings that cause injuries."

Minor Injuries, Major Problems

Like human athletes, jumpers will necessarily experience their share of strains and sprains. But unlike humans, horses can't voice their complaints. "This is where the art of it comes in," says Kane. "You've got to pay attention to your horse. If you want his career to last, you need to study his legs like there's no tomorrow, so you'll know when he gets so much as a pimple or a hint of puffiness."

Noticing small changes is important, because minor injuries can lead to major problems. Left untreated, they can end up becoming debilitating, career-ending conditions. According to Spier, "It's usually chronic, degenerative joint diseases that take horses out of competition. Degenerative joint disease can be initiated by an acute injury that is undiagnosed or not rehabilitated properly."

Prompt recognition of problems, followed by immediate intervention, can make the difference between missing a few days of schooling and missing an entire show season.

"As soon as you find a problem," Kane says, "that's when you address it--right away."

Addressing problems often requires the skills of several professionals, including the rider, trainer, veterinarian, and farrier. "We ask so much of our jumpers," Kane notes, "It takes a team effort to keep these horses going."

A Little R and R

There's no doubt that injured horses need time off for healing and recovery. But too much of a good thing is bad for any elite athlete, especially a jumper.

"Rest and recovery time are vital for any sporting activity," says Powers. "If a horse is recuperating from injury, time off will improve the length of its jumping career. If, however, a horse is competing successfully without signs of physical injury or disease, it's best to continue on and not take a lengthy break.

"If it's not broken," she advises, "then don't fix it."

Use it or Lose It

You might not want to squander your horse's jumps, but if a horse is "saved" for competitions and allowed to stand idle between shows, his strength, fitness, and flexibility are compromised, making the horse more vulnerable to injury.

When a horse jumps regularly, the bones, ligaments, and tendons are worked in specific ways that cannot be achieved by any other type of exercise. Even mature, experienced jumpers should be schooled on a regular basis to maintain the strength and suppleness demanded by the sport.

When exercise resumes after a layoff, the horse's muscular strength and cardiovascular fitness improve relatively quickly. However, supporting structures--including ligaments and tendons--respond more slowly and take longer to regain their strength and flexibility.

"Use it or lose it," quips Kane. "This is especially true for older horses. You don't have to work them hard every day, but they need to be using their minds and their muscles. They've got to stay legged up. It's hard to bring older horses back, so it's best to work them out regularly."

That said, there's a fine line between adequate schooling and over-training. Striking a balance between working out and wearing down can be difficult. According to Powers, over-training occurs when there is an imbalance between training and recovery time.

"Over-training is quite detrimental and should be suspected when the horse shows a decrease in performance ability when there's no sign of disease or injury," she says.

More Than Just Work

While jumpers need regular workouts to maintain their edge, all work and no play can cause horses to lose their enthusiasm for the job. "All horses can use a break mentally, as well as physically," says Kane. "Just letting your horse be a horse every once in a while is good for him."

It's entirely possible to rest a horse's mind without sacrificing hard-earned cardiovascular fitness or letting his muscles turn to mush. Short periods of active rest are best. "You can keep horses fit with trail riding or hacking, and by allowing them to live outside as much as possible," Spier explains. "In terms of fitness and soundness, these are some of the most protective things you can do."

Off to a Good Start

One of the best ways to ensure longevity in a young horse's career is to start off on the right foot. Spier encourages riders to give horses a solid foundation first.

"A young horse should be well-trained, responsive to aids, and balanced before he starts to jump," she advises.

Research suggests that horses' musculoskeletal tissues show the best adaptive response if conditioning begins at two or three years of age. Because the workload must be increased slowly in younger horses, the process takes longer than for previously conditioned horses.

"The horse that starts earlier may well stay sound for longer," says Powers. "On the downside, starting jumping and training earlier may sour the horse and have consequences on how long its career lasts."

Regardless of age, horses take time to adapt to particular training regimens, especially when it comes to learning sport-specific skills, including jumping. "The learning of a skill can take months or years to perfect, whereas cardiovascular fitness can be achieved in a much shorter time period," explains Powers. "Overzealous owners who are keen to see their talented young horses move up the ranks of jumping success run the risk of over-jumping their horses, possibly resulting in over-training and serious injury."

Career Planning

Whether a jumper is in the middle of his career or just starting out, planning is a key factor to maximizing the number of jumps he'll ultimately take. "It's important to make judicious use of your horse," Kane emphasizes. "You've got to set a goal, then come up with a plan to reach it."

Reaching that goal involves patience. "You might not be able to compete in every class at every show," Kane says. "You have to pace yourself."

Olympian Jacquin did just that. When she bought For The Moment, she was still in college. "In the back of my mind," she says, "I was aware of the fact that he was the only horse I had, so I knew I had to make him last."

Jacquin cautions riders to avoid pushing their horses too hard, too soon. "It's important to have perspective about what you want to accomplish with your horse," she says.

Early on, she developed a game plan for her horse, then followed it to the letter. Sticking to her strategy paid off: For The Moment enjoyed years of remarkable success and soundness. He had enough jumps in him to give him one of the longest show jumping careers in history.

"When you have the horse of a lifetime," Jacquin says, "it's your job to manage that horse's career. If you have a special horse, and you plan carefully, you'll be able to accomplish great things."

About the Author

Rallie McAllister, MD

Rallie McAllister, MD, grew up on a horse farm in Tennessee, and has raised and trained horses all of her life. She now lives in Lexington, Ky., on a horse farm with her husband and three sons. In addition to her practice of emergency and corporate medicine, she is a syndicated columnist (Your Health by Dr. Rallie McAllister), and the author of four health-realted books, including Riding For Life, published by Eclipse Press and available at www.ExclusivelyEquine.com or by calling 800/582-5604.

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