Handling the Cross-Country Drop Into Water

Australian Olympic three-day eventing gold medalist Phillip Dutton explains how to handle a drop into water, a common cross-country question.

| Photos by Mandy Lorraine

1. Bullet trots forward nicely to this simple 2-foot drop into water. But as soon as she picks up on what she’s got to do, her ears go up and she starts to hesitate. As long as she continues to think, “forward,” that’s fine; I want her to analyze the situation. What’s to analyze? From her perspective, this drop into water is a fair bit scarier than the crossrail on a gradual slope into water that we’ve schooled before. That was sort of familiar because she’d already walked, trotted and cantered up and down the slope when the crossrail wasn’t there.

I keep my reins long, giving her plenty of room to bring her head and neck up or go forward if she wants, and my hands a little wide to make sure she doesn’t go left or right. I sit behind the motion so a prop or a big hesitation won’t throw me onto her neck (where I’ll be anything but effective), and I brace myself with heel down and leg on. I’m even using a bit of spur (though I’m so sure she’s going to go that I’m not reverting to my stick) to encourage her, keeping communication lines open so she can hear, loud and clear, “you’ve still got to listen to me. You’ve still got to go forward.”

2. Bullet’s thinking and analyzing; that’s a positive. I like a horse to think about what she’s doing and still stay brave. But she is maybe getting just a little slower with her front legs than I’d like. I keep my leg and spur on and brace for whatever’s going to happen, because I can tell she’s questioning a little bit the ground rule I established during her training: that she gets guidance, and in some ways confidence, from my leg. Without reacting in a punishing way, I’m pushing her enough to remind her of that rule, so her hesitation doesn’t turn into a stop.

3. Her neck and haunches are down, and her hind legs have come farther under, but she’s still hesitating; her front legs haven’t left the ground. This is probably the most awkward moment for me: I’m perched and completely vulnerable as I’m trying to give her all the rein she needs, encourage her on, keep her in front of my leg, and stay behind the motion! I resist the temptation to do what a lot of people do–feel those hind legs come under and tip my upper body in anticipation–because she could still easily wheel and take off in the other direction.

4. OK! Bullet’s front legs are moving. Now I know she’s going to go.

5. I stay back, keep my eyes up, and give her plenty of rein as she leaves the ground. It’s clear that she’s thinking forward: She’s looking up, and she’s not jumping extravagantly. That tells me she’s pretty confidently treating the drop like a fairly normal obstacle.

6. This is the moment, as her front feet touch down, where she really needs her head and neck to create her own balance. And I’m in a position where I can let her have as much rein as she needs to do it. (I could try to create her balance by holding onto her mouth, but that’s never a long-term fix.) For this size drop, I’m also exaggerating my upper body back and my lower leg forward, anticipating the abrupt change in momentum as she hits the ground with a jolt and the water’s drag makes her hesitate a bit.

Here you see the advantage of doing cross-country in a saddle designed for cross-country: Because the cantle is low and long, I can sit back and vary my position quite a bit. In a higher-cantled saddle, I wouldn’t have the freedom to come behind the motion and assume a steep upper-body angle when I needed it.

7. We land and I immediately remind Bullet to think “forward” by asking her to canter softly away. If she raced away, I’d pul her up and say, “No, that’s not what I want.” And if she were very green, I’d probably ask her to trot away the first few times, giving me more control. I’m giving Bullet a pretty long rein to encourage her forward. I still have steering, and I can always shorten up gradually as we go.

Excerpted from “Water Works!” in the November and December 2003 issues of Practical Horseman magazine.