Event riders are different than other jumping riders in that they are not just able to jump outside of the arena, but look forward to it with a zeal that is almost religious. But many people perceive cross country riding to be about going as fast as you can and jumping from any available distance (good or bad), all while wearing brightly colored gear. Those who do not understand what it takes to ride cross country may also be heard to say that while an equitation rider is expected to look a certain way on her courses in terms of form and function, cross country riding is simply about getting to the other side of the obstacle and how the rider looks while doing it matters little.
Clearly, these individuals have never attempted to actually ride cross country.
In fact, one of the hardest aspects of eventing is learning how to ride cross country well. It takes proper form, technique and a unique set of skills, some of which can be simulated in an arena but most of which require practice over actual cross country fences. Learning about and practicing this unique skill set is probably the best, most effective way to increase safety (and fun) for horse and rider. It also requires a certain degree of confidence and bravery that not all horses and riders have. In fact, even the best horses and riders have their limits, and it is when you push beyond these limits that accidents are more likely to occur.
We have had several occasions to work on cross country technique this summer; those horses that are currently on the farm represent levels of expertise quite literally from “grasshopper” to intermediate level, so there is quite a range of capability. However, in all cases, the same basics are emphasized.
Cross Country Variables
One of the hardest aspects of riding cross country is learning to handle changing terrain and its effects on your horse. In addition, most cross country fences are meant to be jumped from a forward canter or gallop, so a rider must become aware of speed, not just in terms of how fast they are actually going but also in terms of its effect on the horse. The faster horses travel, the more they have a tendency to go downhill with their balance and to get long and flat. Of course, this is exactly the opposite of how the horse must be balanced in order to jump well. Denny frequently quotes cross country master Lucinda Green in saying that when you come to a cross country fence with your horse, you want to feel like you are sitting on the heavy end of a teeter totter; in other words, your horse’s hindquarters are lowered and engaged and their shoulders are up. Lucinda says that you want to imagine that 75% of your horse is up in front of you as you approach a fence.
Clearly you cannot travel around an entire cross country course in this balance; it would be exhausting for your horse and an inefficient way to travel. Instead, the cross country rider must learn to master controlling their horse’s balance and speed throughout the course: while travelling between fences in the galloping seat, well off their horse’s back and with a following arm, and then to transition to a more organized and collected canter from which their horse can actually jump a fence.
Just as in arena jumping, the rider has three driving aids when approaching a cross country fence: the leg, the stick and the voice. The rider’s lower leg MUST be kept on during the approach in order to keep the hindquarters engaged. Denny says that because most riders instinctively pinch with their knees, their lower leg swings back and is ineffective as a driving aid. He says it can help to imagine that your knees and toes are pointing slightly “east and west” as you approach the fence, which is achieved by rotating the leg from the rider’s hip. In addition, keeping your chin up, particularly while coming over a drop or downhill fence, will help the rider to stay centered and balanced with the upper body. And again, just as in arena jumping, the rider should SIT during the last several strides of the approach to help the horse come to the correct take off point. Denny often coaches riders to even feel like they are staying a little too far back on the approach, with their feet just a little forward, as it is safer to be a little left behind than to be ahead of the motion.
There are so many occasions when riding cross country that a rider may slip or even let go of a rein entirely, or simply lose their balance or tension on the rein. When this happens, it is easy to also lose your bat, which means that you have eliminated one of your three driving aids. Before coming to Tamarack, I had noticed riders who had elastic bands on the ends of their jumping bats, the heavy duty kind that you would need to restrain a thick a pony tail. I am embarrassed to admit that I never knew that the reason for the band is to give you extra security in terms of hanging onto your whip while jumping cross country. You simply wrap the band around your bat two or three times, then unloop one loop and twist it around your middle finger. Voila! You and your bat are now more securely connected. I now want to do this with all of my whips, especially while hacking out.
The Glamour Fences: Drops, Banks, Ditches and Water
If you walk enough cross country courses, you will eventually notice that most of the fences fall into three categories: those which are solid fences designed like an oxer , combining height and width and often with an ascending shape(coops, roll tops, ramps, ascending rails, cordwood, etc); those which are solid fences designed like a vertical (suspended logs, regular logs, etc, overall a less common style on modern courses) and those which represent one of the varieties of what I call the “glamour jumps” of cross country—drops, banks, ditches and water.
The glamour jumps are introduced in a quite basic form at the lower levels and are embellished as horses and riders become more skilled. For example, at beginner novice, a water question is almost always just a simple “splash through”, while a novice horse may be asked to jump out of water, jump a simple fence which is set close to the water, or even to drop into the water, which is essentially combining two glamour jumps into one. Ditches start out as simple, unrevetted affairs and build into ditch/walls, trakheners and elephant traps. And so on. So if you have a horse that you are hoping is going to grow up to be an event horse, it is super important that they are calmly, systematically and clearly taught what they are to do at these types of fences. Denny says that if in spite of this training approach a horse does not want to jump these glamour fences, they are simply not going to make it as an event horse.
During one school, I had the opportunity to watch Denny work with a green OTTB who is still learning about jumping ditches. Even though she has jumped them successfully in the past, the mare was quite uncertain about going over the ditch located next to Tamarack’s main jumping arena. We first tried using a lead horse, meaning that the green mare was to closely follow a more experienced and confident horse up to and over the ditch. When this proved to be ineffective, and the rider was becoming a bit nervous, Denny switched to a different technique. He had the rider dismount and attached a longe line to the horse. Two rails were placed on standards and laid along the sides of the ditch to sort of give it a chute like effect, and two handlers with longe whips flanked each side of the ditch. Denny had the rider begin to lead the horse over the ditch, while the handlers very gently encouraged the horse with the longe whips ONLY if she began to back up and drift towards them. While the mare was still uncertain, this approach gave her time to really consider the question, it gave her a leader to follow in the human handler, and when she chose to jump (a process that took less time than to set up all of the equipment) she was absolutely in no danger of being hit in the mouth, hit in the back or losing her rider. Once across, they reversed the placement of all involved and jumped it the other way. Back and forth they went, the horse unmounted, until it was truly not a big deal at all. The horse became visibly relaxed and much more confident.
The rider remounted, the ground handlers stayed in position, and the horse was asked to quietly jump the ditch again, but now with the rider on board. The handlers had to do nothing at all, as the horse had clearly figured out the answer to the question and calmly jumped the ditch.
I really want to emphasize here that the entire process took not more than ten minutes. This was not a case of a horse being forced to jump over and over or being chased over the fence. It was more a matter of presenting the question in such a way that the horse could figure out the answer on her own. And when she did, it was No Big Deal. This is an example of one of those “bazillion successes” which one needs to create a bold, confident horse.
Denny relayed a story of another mare, one who is now successfully competing at Training level, who also was quite unsure of ditches as a youngster. I understand that her reaction to the question was quite negative and much more dramatic than that of the mare I watched them work with, but with the same calm persistence, they were able to encourage her to figure out the correct answer. Denny said that this was a pivotal turning point in that young horse’s training; he feels that if she had been made to jump the ditch through force, or if they had given up before the mare was successful, that the reluctance to jump ditches would have become a permanent and engrained habit.
Denny says that the introduction of glamour jumps like small banks, drops, water and ditches can begin with a halter and longe line for horses three or four years old. He says that introducing these questions without a rider, and in a manner in which the horse is certain to find the correct answer, is an excellent way of helping them to learn what is expected of them.
One last note about schooling “glamour jumps”—Denny says that during a cross country school, he always tries to visit the water complex last, as this is where horses seem to be most likely to pull a shoe. That way, you will have had the opportunity to complete the rest of your school, and even if the horse does lose a shoe, you likely still will have already done most of what you needed to do that day.
The Huntington Schooling Horse Trials
On July 23, Huntington Farm in South Strafford, VT, held a schooling horse trials, utilizing several of the cross country courses from their recent USEA event. As the farm is about five minutes from Tamarack, this represented the perfect opportunity for Anna and I to try to put all of our recently re-polished skills to the test.
I entered beginner novice, and my goal for the day was to give Anna a calm, positive ride throughout all three phases, without letting my intensity and anxiety take over. I must say that on the cross country course that day, Anna felt the most positive and relaxed that I think she has EVER felt. I was able to work on managing her balance and impulsion; I focused on my three stride eye and keeping soft, following arms with short reins. We were able to find a steady balance and rhythm by fence three, and from there, I almost felt like I was riding a working hunter. She remained confident and positive and willing. One of the most effective techniques that I applied to that course was focusing on keeping my chin up, especially on fences with downhill landings. Keeping my chin up helped to keep my own balance centered, and it also made it easy to pick a sight line with my eye that kept me thinking forward.
Anna finished in third place, on her dressage score of 29.0. But even without a pretty yellow ribbon, the day was a huge victory as the day overall put “another quarter in the Coke machine” of positive experiences for my horse.
Blogger’s Note: Denny told us a story of a clinic he taught at many moons ago on the West Coast. The audience was mostly children, and he had been giving them a lecture on the topic of horse training, and the importance of being consistent and working hard. He recollects that he wasn’t sure how much the children were really understanding, when one young man said to him, “I get it, Mr. Emerson, horses are like a Coke machine.” Denny admits that he didn’t see the connection at first, but the young man went on to explain that if you want to get something out of your horse, you have to put the effort in first. So training your horse is like putting the quarters into the machine when what you want at the end of it all is a refreshing drink. Never underestimate the wisdom of youth!
Additional Blogger’s Note: The cover photo here is courtesy of Joan Davis/FlatlandsFoto and was taken at the 2013 Groton House Horse Trials. Just want to make sure that this excellent photographer receives her due!