Water jumps. Banks. Ditches. Drops. These natural challenges found on any cross-country course can cause the most anxiety for inexperienced event riders and inexperienced horses. Preparing yourself or your horse for these and the other challenges of a cross-country course requires some specific planning, but learning how to safely navigate them isn?t a skill that exists in a vacuum.
Riders and horses who are comfortable and confident galloping across uneven terrain and jumping over solid fences look that way because they?re prepared for the test. The rider has a balanced and secure seat; the rider is confident about his or her ability to communicate with and direct the horse; and the horse is physically fit for the job and confident in his ability and in the rider?s directions.
This results from months of training at home beforehand, both in a ring and while riding across the countryside. Our article will help you prepare a horse and/or rider, but, as always, we strongly recommend that you work with a competent trainer to be fully prepared.
THE BUILDING BLOCKS. Before you even think about jumping a cross-country fence, you and your horse need to be solid in the basics of flatwork.
That means: The horse must go forward willingly and confidently; the horse must respond willingly to your aids, especially your driving leg and seat aids and your turning aids; the horse should be basically well-balanced. It helps if the horse can lengthen and shorten his frame and stride somewhat, allowing you to adjust speed and the length of his stride safely and easily.
Developing fitness goes hand in hand with developing the flatwork. The horse should be able to work comfortably for 45 to 60 minutes and be able to comfortably trot for 15 to 20 minutes at a time. Don?t begin until you?ve been regularly riding the horse three to five times a week for at least three months.
As part of your horse’s conditioning work, you should be riding him across the countryside. There, you should be teaching him to adjust to changes in terrain and footing, to go up and down hills, to step or jump onto or off of natural banks, to go into and through streams and puddles, to deal with slipping on wet grass or muddy ground. Dealing with these challenges should be second nature to you and to him.
LEARN TO JUMP. To jump successfully outside the ring, you first must be able to jump successfully inside the ring. Gymnastics and footwork exercises are important educational tools. They teach horses to hold their balance on take-off and landing while developing an agile athlete who knows how to jump and how to take care of himself and, therefore, you.
That knowledge gives the horse self-confidence. We do a wide range of gymnastics and footwork exercises so that our horses understand how to solve the challenges of a jump they haven’t seen before, instilling a self-confidence that tells them, ?Yes, I can do that.?
And that confidence begets a deep trust between horse and rider, a trust that is the heart of cross-country riding. Approaching a jump, the confident horse is thinking, ?My rider will let me jump this.? And the rider is thinking, ?My horse knows how to jump this.?
EXERCISES YOU CAN SET UP. There really isn?t any limit to the variety of training exercises you can set up in your ring, as long as you have the materials. For inspiration, find books by event riders (or even some show jumpers) or go to an event and take notes on the questions presented at the lower levels. Then go out to your ring to set up and jump versions of them.
If you’re competing at training level or above, these exercises would certainly include things like skinnies and corners, angles and offset lines. If you set them at low heights, you can introduce less experienced horses (and riders) early to narrow fences, angles and corner-type jumps. They?re good exercises to develop confidence, willing response to aids, balance and agility.
For the lower levels, though, the basic cross-country question is, ?Can you turn to jump a jump’? So, in these early stages, what you most want are exercises that require your horse to turn from your aids, especially your legs, seat and eyes?not just your reins.
For instance, set two fences on a roughly 90-degree angle to each other, at no particular stride, but eight to 10 strides distance apart. Then place another jump, a golf cart, barrels, or some other kind of large (but safe) obstacle in between them, so that horse won?t see the second jump as he jumps the first, preferably so he won?t see it until He’s gone around the obstacle between them. This makes horse (and rider) learn to look for another jump, to quickly focus on the next jump and go to it as they?re sorting out the question.
Similarly, set jumps next to or in between other jumps or combinations to make the horse and rider focus on the task in front of them and react quickly and confidently.
You can teach horses to willingly jump unusual or optically confusing fences they haven’t seen before by creating ?scary? fences in your ring. These will teach the horse to be confident in your aids. They will help teach him that if your aids say, ?Go forward and jump,? it’s because you know what’s there and that he can trust you.
BE CREATIVE. Place flower boxes with artificial flowers under jumps, or have fun with a wild paint job on a panel or two. Place tarps under jumps (like a fake Liverpool), or drape a tarp or a blanket (a horse blanket or something off a bed) over a pole?just be sure that they?re heavy enough to not flap in the breeze or that you weight them to the ground so they don’t flap. A flapping tarp will likely legitimately frighten your horse and defeat the purpose of this exercise.
Place traffic cones in front of or underneath the jump rails. You could even set the cones before a jump, creating a tunnel that your horse has to go through, forcing him to focus on the jump.
You could also take your show jumps out into a field and jump them there. Practice jumping them from a gallop (at roughly 400 meters per minute), or set up other exercises to practice jumping with terrain challenges. Jump single jumps going up or down a hill, and then place two jumps on a related distance (five or six strides) so you can practice regulating your horse’s balance, frame and stride going up or down hill?go forward and lengthen his stride going up the hill, then shorten his stride going down the hill.
For instance, if you jumped two fences set on rising ground in five strides going up the hill and four strides going down the hill, do it again in the opposite way?four strides up the hill and five strides down the hill. You?re practicing opening up your horse’s step and then shortening it, for a reason.
BOTTOM LINE. While exercises like these help prepare you and your horse for the challenges of a cross-country course, the hard truth is that, to be fully prepared, You’ll want to school over a cross-country course before your first event, as you prepare to climb to a higher level, to solve a problem you have in competition, or as a refresher between events or between seasons. Think of a formal cross-country school as a dress rehearsal.
Most parts of the United States do have cross-country schooling courses of some type, and the majority of event sites offer cross-country schooling, although the availability varies. Some are open throughout the year (except for the several weeks before a competition), and some have only a few designated schooling days.
If you live in a part of the country where events and schooling sites are hundreds of miles away, consider stopping at an open schooling course on the way to the event, or stay to school after the event, as many are open Sunday afternoon or on Monday for schooling.?Click here for Cross-Counntry Schooling Tips.
?Article by Performance Editor John Strassburger