Safety, Safety, Safety

High on the agenda at the moment is the subject of safety, training and the potential hazards of Cross-Country. Mark Phillips, one of few “old school” who truly demands respect seems to have hit the nail of the head with his comments on recent events. – and it’s not often I find myself agreeing with him.

Having recently found a great, new cross country schooling ground, and a very popular one at that, I have had my long held suspicions confirmed – Too many riders competing at the Intro, PN & Novice levels don’t understand the principles of Cross Country Schooling or how to execute a good run. Watching some riders at Intermediate & Advanced can be just as concerning!

I’m no expert and can only comment from my own experience and from watching others. Rhythm is incredibly important out on the course. A horse in a comfortable, even rhythm will “jump out of his stride” easily , whilst a horse that is rushed in and out of fences will constantly adjust stride and look for ways out.

Whilst rhythm needs to be even, this doesn’t mean pace needs to be constant, you can maintain rhythm and ride away from your fences. Good, even rhythm will put less strain on both you and your horse, both physically and mentally, thus conserving valuable energy.

It can be all too easy to go cross country schooling and concentrate on fixing problems. The first thing to remember here is the horse is a) a flight animal that has a brain and b) therefore suffers just as much, if not more, emotional stress than you or I. Getting your horse into a positive frame of mind is of paramount importance before you tackle anything more complex or “scary” than a straightforward log.

A good warm up is as much about warming up the horse’s mind as it is it’s muscles. A good piece of exercise will release endorphins that relax the horse’s mind. Wherever possible I also recommend showjumping for 5-10 minutes after a good warm up and before tackling a solid fence. This gives the horse some confidence and acts as a warm up for the physicals strains of actually jumping – again it’s as much about his mind.

Before tackling any known problem, like water, ditches or drops spend a good 15 minutes working through some more straightforward jumping efforts, looking to achieve balance, rhythm, control and willingness.

You mustn’t forget you also need to be in a positive frame of mind, don’t rest for too long before heading onto the more challenging tasks, both you and horse need to be running on endorphins! (not Adrenaline!)

Speed will never help you over a fence, ditch or drop. Impulsion is key, and impulsion will only be there if you have the endorphins flowing. Try walking straight off the lorry and into the water fence (if your horse has a problem with water), and you’ll see what I mean.

If you do have, say, a problem with ditches then set up a routine where you can mix a ditch in amongst a few other fences and perhaps canter past the ditch a few times before attempting it (without presenting the horse to the ditch of course).

Now this is where it can be very easy to have your concentration broken by what you have to do, instead of what you are currently doing. Pace, Rhythm & Willingness to move forward must all be in place. If it’s not go back and correct these first.

So how do you judge pace & speed if you’re not allowed a stop watch? Not that easy, but at Pre-Novice you are looking at running a course at about the four and a half minute mark that’s 270 seconds, so with 21 fences that’s an average of 13 seconds between fences. You’ll only need to jump a few fences counting to 10 in your head to judge whether your pace needs to quicken or slowed down in order to get near to the optimum time.

If you are chasing a horse into a cross country fence, your horse and/or you aren’t emotionally ready for an event, so time to take a look back at some other elements (flatwork, show jumping)

With flat work it’s all about acceptance and response to rider aids. You should be able to shorten and lengthen stride at will without impulsion dying or fear of lengthening becoming flat. Almost any stride regardless of length should have “bounce” and power.

Show jumping helps bridge a gap between flatwork and the schooling field. You need to be able to jump fences at a much slower pace to ensure success when going faster on cross country. Taking the impulsion and control of pace you’ve generated through your flatwork and adding commitment to jump obstacles is how to succeed cross country. What obstacles you jump is merely a matter of familiarity for any horse willing to leave the ground. Grid work and basic circuits are a good starting point. Remember you don’t need to be jumping huge fences, just large enough to make the horse jump fences rather than step over them. Commitment and control is the objective.

A common mistake is often thinking your problems on a cross country course are just that, often they’re more fundamental than that, i.e. don’t ignore flatwork and jumping in the arena.

Will all this in place you can then start to fine tune technique and strategy out on the schooling field.

All this being said you should wherever possible enlist the help of a professional trainer/rider. Another great training aid is the video camera and the numerous DVDs available of horse trials, training video etc. Get someone to video as much of your riding and schooling as possible, study in detail the differences in your riding to that of professionals and you’ll start to make progress.

As can possibly be detected from my earlier post on the new classes being introduced, I don’t believe this will “help bridge the gaps”, but probably cloak to problems with education and training. One of the problems I see with the current system is you can move up a class without producing consistent results. I would never recommend attempting the next level up until you had consistently finished on your dressage score (or perhaps with the odd rail) in the current level. Until you can produce a consistent result you can’t produce a better one (as any upgrade in class requires). Get it right before you move on and you’ll enjoy it more. Also bear in mind horses are emotionally very fragile creatures and need confidence to perform.

As cliched as it is “Success is 90% Planning & Preparation”. By the time you get back to the lorry after walking the course, you should have decided all the routes you are going to take, all the ground you’re going to use between fences and all your alternatives. Mistakes are almost entirely due to pressure from running into a problem and not having a plan to tackle it. Thus planning and preparation is everything!

Amateur event rider, aspiring photographer. Technologist by day.

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