Introducing a horse to the cross country phase of eventing should be a process that is unrushed and kept fun in order to create a solid foundation of trust between the horse and rider. It is often in the very first few outings to a cross country venue with a young or inexperienced horse that they learn the best and worst habits, so you need to start the process with a plan!
Take it slowly
My philosophy with a young or inexperienced event horse is to take things slowly. Most riders can get a horse up the grades quickly, but not everyone can produce a horse who is able to maintain his form, consistency and confidence through the grades. We see it time and time again, with eventing in particular, that horses race up the grades, getting the minimum requirements for the next grade up, but seem to struggle in the more difficult levels where their experience is tested. So it is important to be in tune with your horse’s mental and physical capacity at the time of training and be realistic with your goals.
Before progressing to cross country fences, your horse should be fit enough, confident and under control in a jumping arena. When first heading out into the country, I will always ride along with someone on an experienced horse who is confident over cross country fences.
The first jump is usually the smallest log I can find, which I will get a lead over and jump a couple of times until the horse feels confident jumping on his own. Once my horse is confident over single fences, I will string together a couple of fences that we have already jumped as a course.
Top tip 1
Keep it easy. We tend to get carried away when our horses find it all a little easy. Call it a day before you have that feeling that maybe you should do one more jump.
The cross country phase includes several typical obstacles which require a specific approach. You can generally expect to face the following types of fences:
- A water complex
- Step-up and/or step-down
- Skinnies and/or corners
The varying difficulty of these fences will depend on the level of competition, which highlights the importance of doing preparation in this phase before entering a competition.
Introducing a horse to water is often one of the more difficult parts of training an event horse. You are guaranteed to get a water complex in a cross country track, so it is vital that your horse is confident and has a good experience with water jumps from the start.
When starting with the water complex, always take a lead. Even if your horse seems to feel fine, give him every opportunity to go through without scaring himself (or you!). Try to find a water complex that is open and not too busy with other jumps, preferably with easy access in and out. If your horse is a little apprehensive about going in the water, never turn his head away from where you want to go. In other words, don’t circle away from the water ahead of you.
If he really doesn’t want to go in and you have someone who can physically lead him in, by all means do this, but make sure that you have a long lead rope and the person is not standing too close to you in case your horse launches in! Once in, make a huge fuss. Positive affirmation goes a long way in building confidence. Repeat going in and out of the water a couple of times at the walk until he feels confident enough to start trotting or cantering through.
In a typical cross country course at entry level (60-70cm), you could expect to simply go through water without any fences going into the water. However, the water will be flagged as a fence, so if your horse is hesitant about going into the water during your round, you will get penalties. There could be a step-up coming out of the water, which will be very small. A rider may feel prepared for a 60-70cm event with a horse who is very confident with trotting or cantering through water.
As you progress through the grades, jumping into water, having a jump in the water as well as jumping out of water can all be expected. (This will be discussed in part two of this article, to be published in the February issue.)
Top tip 2
Water jumps are fun! If there are ever puddles around on the road or in the arena when you’re riding, encourage your horse to go through them and reward him when he does. If it has rained and there is a bit of water in the arena, build a small jump and play over it with your horse (keep it small though!).
Ditches are by far the biggest ‘rider frighteners’, but are often one of the fences that our horses understand the best. In essence, the obstacle is made up of two poles with a ditch between them, which most horses don’t see.
When introducing a horse to a ditch, start with one that is very shallow and small enough to trot over. We don’t want the horse to learn that he can step into the ditch, so make sure that you have enough impulsion for him to make a small effort over it. Once again, start with a lead – first impressions of ditches for horses are long-lasting! Once the horse is confident over the small ditch and feels as if he’s taking you to the fence, progress to a slightly deeper and wider ditch. I don’t like to train over very deep ditches, but rather leave that for competition when my horse’s blood is up a little more. When riding a ditch, it is often only the rider who realises the ditch is there – your horse will only see it at the last second, so it’s important to ride him positively and to try not to think too much about the size of the ditch.
At entry level, you can expect to have a ditch on a cross country course that is small enough to trot over. You could also expect a very small trakehner (a log over a ditch). There could even be a jump after the ditch, a couple of strides out, which essentially is testing control.
As you progress through the grades, you could be expected to jump over obstacles such as a palisade (a ditch in front of the fence), or a coffin (jump, ditch, jump) which could extend to a skinny, to a ditch, to a skinny. (This will be discussed in part two in the February issue.)
Top tip 3
Ditches are ‘rider frighteners’ and nine times out of 10 a horse doesn’t even see them! You can practise a ‘ditch’ at home in your own arena: set up two poles on the ground with a dark plastic sheet between them, simulating a ditch. Put this in front of a showjump, like a ground line that has been pulled out, and practise a fence that simulates a palisade fence in the country. Also practise not looking down into the ‘ditch’, but only looking at the fence to get your distance.
I like to teach a horse from the start to simply step down a bank and not launch off it. In the same breath, it is very important that a horse doesn’t scramble down a bank. In other words, when a horse takes off from the bank, he should land confidently and not put his hooves down the side of the bank.
The way you teach your horse to jump down a drop confidently is by having a slow approach but keeping your leg firmly on. Allow your reins to slip a little longer – the longer the better – and allow his neck to drop down and simply support him with your leg off the bank. Your body position in the dynamic of jumping a drop fence is crucial. Sitting in the right position going down a drop fence will keep your horse confident and stop him from over-jumping down it. A horse who launches off a bank usually shows that the rider has not let the horse’s neck go, in other words the rider has not slipped the reins and allowed the horse to drop his neck.
The ideal body position when jumping down a bank: your body must be right back (behind the vertical), reins slipped to the point where you can just feel your horse’s mouth, with your legs firmly on but forward. If you feel like your legs are too far forward, they probably aren’t! If you can feel your horse’s shoulder with your toes, then your legs are in the right place! Another important part of a drop fence is that you keep your eyes up – this is a good habit to learn because when you progress through the grades, there is often a skinny fence at the bottom of a drop which will require you to be balanced when landing and have quick reactions.
Top tip 4
You can practise the feeling of staying ‘behind’ your horse over a fence in the arena. When your horse comes to land from a fence, slip your reins, keep your shoulders back, push your legs forward and land in balance (not flat on your horse’s back though!). Practise having to gather your reins quickly and jump a fence after this change in body position.
Skinnies and corners
Skinnies (a fence with a narrow face) and corners are essentially a test of accuracy. Once a horse understands that going through the flags is the only option when it comes to skinnies, it is a fence that a horse only grows more and more confident with.
When training the inexperienced horse to jump a skinny, I will always, always have flagpoles. I will never jump a skinny without flagpoles, even on my advanced horses, as I am essentially always training them to look for the flags and jump through them, so that if a skinny is off a curve or difficult to line up to, they still look for flags to jump through.
When starting the process of teaching a horse about skinnies, I will have a very small skinny set up in the arena (60-70cm). It will have flags, a ground line and wings (poles on either side of the fence to guide the horse). I will walk my horse right up to the skinny, let him sniff it and acknowledge it. Then I will rein back until we are about 15m away from the skinny. It is important to keep the horse facing the skinny here. From that point, I will go into a trot and jump over the skinny. I will keep jumping the skinny as it is until I feel my horse start locking onto the fence (prick his ears and look at the fence). Only once I am sure that he understands the fence will I take the wings down, and put them on the floor on either side of the fence. I’ll jump it a couple of times again, then eventually take them away altogether.
At entry level, a rider can expect a small skinny on the course that is usually not very narrow and will normally be a single fence so that the rider has a lot of time to prepare coming into it. (Tips for training the more advanced horse with skinnies will be included in part two in the February issue.)
Top tip 5
Always use flags! If you don’t have any portable skinnies, put a set of flags on a normal jump at home and practise jumping through a smaller gap over a normal jump. Make sure the gap is big enough for you and your horse to jump through comfortably as you want him to be confident!
There are various types of resistance that you may encounter during training. A common problem with young horses is that they may feel insecure leaving the group to go and jump cross country fences on their own. I try to overcome this by hacking out on my own once I know my horse is well behaved going on outrides.
In training, practise leaving the group of horses and jumping a few easy fences and then return to the group. Many young horses in the UK go hunting, which teaches them to go forward, and they seem to grow braver as they only learn one way and that is that jumping is the only option.
When it comes to riding a young horse around a cross country track, I try not to worry too much about striding and too many technical aspects of the round, but rather about riding positively right from the warm-up arena and always using positive reinforcement. Getting ‘results’ from a young or inexperienced horse should be the last thing on a rider’s mind. Getting around the course is the most important factor and giving a horse a positive educational experience is imperative.
Fitness is the core element of a great event horse. A winning event horse, however, will always have a rider who is at their peak fitness too, because the rider must be able to make quick decisions right through until the finish flags.
Fitness is a very specialised subject when it comes to eventing. There are several different ways to get horses fit, but all it essentially comes down to is the horse’s needs. For instance, a Thoroughbred will have a natural fitness that he can maintain for months, whereas the Warmblood types often have to be taught to gallop and need more time in building a base fitness.
A very basic outline of a fitness programme for a young event horse could include trotting up hills with a steep incline once a week for about three to five minutes initially, working up to six or seven minutes eventually. I would include a slow canter session up a couple of hills for three to five minutes (no longer with a young horse) in place of the trotting sessions if the rider feels the horse would benefit more from cantering and if the going is good enough. (A more advanced fitness programme will be discussed in part two in the February issue.)
When a horse becomes fitter, often the dressage phase may become a little more challenging with the highly-strung types. Be aware of this and give yourself enough time to warm up and settle your horse or maybe look into tweaking your warm-up to suit your horse, for example by getting on and off a couple of times before your test to help him relax.
As event riders, we have to be effective in all three disciplines. We are essentially riding in a triathlon. Treat each phase with equal focus and attention. If one phase doesn’t go according to plan, there are still two others that you can redeem yourself in. Always try to focus on the task at hand and live in the moment, but most of all enjoy the freedom that the cross country has to offer and the bond that you develop with your horse!
Please note, images depict advanced event horses in competition – young horses may progress to this level with a sensible training programme and attention to health, fitness and soundness (these are addressed in the February issue).
Text: Hayley Parker. Photography: Courtesy of Hayley Parker
The full story appeared in the January 2015 issue of HQ Magazine. For great subscription offers visit Coolmags.