Cruise Control: Adjusting Cross-Country Speed

Tips from Olympic eventer John Williams on achieving the rate of speed you need for a successful cross-country ride.


1. Measure the course. A technical director (TD) wheels the course officially, and that number is used to set the optimum time. At novice and training, most TDs wheel with the average horse and rider in mind, following a generous track that passes through the center of each fence–but every TD measures slightly differently. To figure your pace, you need to know how long the course is and the way you’ll ride it. For that, you’ll need to wheel it yourself.

2. Figure your pace. Divide the distance by the optimum time to find the average speed you need. Here’s where your measurement is important. If the official length of a training-level course is 2400 meters and the optimum time is six minutes, the average speed should be 400 meters per minute (mpm). But if your track is closer to 2600 meters, you’ll need a speed of about 430 mpm.

3. Plan your ride. Now you need to figure out how you’ll make that average speed. As you walk the course, try to get a sense of how it will ride. Where will you have to slow? Where can you make up time? Terrain, footing and jump type and location will tell you. For example, many horses slow coming into a closed-in area, such as a stand of trees. A novice horse needs to slow to a simple step-off and lower his head to see where he is going.

Pay special attention to places that will slow your pace for an extended time. A twisty, narrow trail through the woods will do it, even if you think you’re going fast because trees are whizzing by. So will a series of obstacles–a jump down into woods followed by two more jumps, for example. You may have to drop back to 350 mpm and make up time elsewhere. Look for places with good footing and no jumps for 30 seconds or so, where you can comfortably increase your pace to 450 or 475. Most courses include a stretch that’s open or has one simple fence two-thirds or three-quarters of the way through.

4. Map it out. Now walk the course again, this time picking out markers to help you judge your pace when you ride. If the optimum time is six minutes, find the spots where you want to be one, two, three, four and five minutes into the ride. (Even if the optimum time is a messy number, like five minutes and 49 seconds, divide the course into simple increments–quarters or full minutes.) At three minutes, for example, you should be halfway through, or about 1200 meters into a 2400-meter course. Pick out a marker there–something easy to see and remember, such as a big tee on the left between jumps 9 and 10. Mark these spots on the course map, and review them as you walk the course for the third time. I find that once I’ve done this, I don’t need to carry the map with me; the markers are in my head when I ride, prompting me automatically to look at my watch and check the pace. All the same, the markers are never as important as the jumps.

Click “Next” for tips (and photos!) on how to adjust your speed.


1. While I may have seen the fence, Bailey isn’t thinking “jump”; he’s just galloping in a way that’s quite typical for him–not looking for anything, not expecting to see anything.

| Photos by Mandy Lorraine

2. Eight or 10 strides out, I brought my shoulders back and got a little closer to the saddle to begin shifting his balance back over his hindquarters, clueing him that a fence was coming, and he picked his head up in search of whatever I was trying to tell him was out there.

After you’ve made this initial change in your horse’s balance, ideally you want him to be “between the fence and your leg”–to take responsibility for balancing himself as he sizes up his job, so your hands don’t have to do anything more than follow as he shortens his frame. If he does, you can leave him alone so he can focus on what’s in front of him, not what’s sitting on him. That’s just what I’m doing with Bailey, who’s galloping at about 400 to 450 mpm, a novice- to training-level speed; though he’s soft in the bridle, his raised head and pricked ears show he’s got his eye on the jump. If your hose acknowledges the jump this way (and your speed is appropriate), most of your job is done. He’s in balance.

3. Looking at this sequence from the beginning, you can see how the subtle changes in my position have taken Bailey from galloping along with nothing much on his mind to recognizing and readying himself for what’s in front of him. As he’s shortened his stride, I’ve become more upright and brought my elbows back to accommodate his shortening frame. Here, with the fence only a couple of strides away, he’s raised his front end slightly, putting himself in a better position to jump the jump.

A member of the 2004 U.S. Olympic eventing squad, John Williams trains and competes from the farm in Marshall, Va., where he lives with his wife, Ellen. He is also a cross-country course designer; recent projects include the 2006 Jersey Fresh CCI***.

Excerpted from “Cruise Control” in the September 1996 issue of Practical Horseman magazine. For more tips on riding at speed for cross-country, see Jim Wofford’s column “Stars in Your Eyes!” in the July 2006 issue of Practical Horseman.