BY RENNIE DYBALL
For most of us in the horse show world, the idea of guiding a galloping horse around at 35 miles an hour with your stirrups hiked up is a foreign, daunting concept. Add in terrain and big jumps to that equation and you’ve got a fascinating equestrian sport that most of us know little about.
So what exactly is the sport of Steeplechase, also known as Jump Racing? According to the National Steeplechase Association, steeplechase is a race for Thoroughbred horses over fences. The horses are typically a bit older than those who race only on the flat, and they are unique in their stamina – these horses carry their jockeys (who are somewhat taller and heavier than flat race horse jockeys) over miles of jumps. Most steeplechase horses are geldings, per the NSA, and many are continuing their careers racing over fences after experience on the flat.
Unlike race horses who are trained on racetracks, steeplechase horses are generally trained in country settings. As for steeplechase fences, most are called National Fences and they are portable jumps consisting of a steel frame filled with plastic brush and green canvas covering the takeoff side. They measure approximately 4’6″ (though much of it is the brush). Other obstacles are called timber fences, which are the classic looking wooden post-and-rail jumps ranging from 3’6″ in most races up to 5 feet. And there are a lot of them: At The Maryland Hunt Cup, for example—known to be among the most challenging races—horses and riders face 22 jumps over 4 miles.
“For me, sitting on a good jumping thoroughbred and galloping down to a fence is the ultimate adrenaline rush,” former steeplechase rider Erica Gaertner tells The Plaid Horse. “When I compare it to riding hunters and jumpers, you have to be comfortable with feeling that you don’t have the same level of control and be able to contend with the other horses and riders around you.”
Gaertner, now a medical resident, started working for Maryland horseman Bruce Fenwick in her teens and began riding races as a senior in high school. She showed horses off the track in the hunters and jumpers before racing again—and winning.
“On the right horse,” Gaertner says of riding in steeplechase races, “there is no better feeling.”