Your main objective when riding a cross-country course is to be in balance with your horse, keep a good rhythm and jump at a pace that’s appropriate for him. Of course, if he is fit, the footing is good and you mean to be competitive, you’ll also want to complete your ride in the time allowed for your level and avoid penalties for going too fast or too slow. Here are four steps to help you develop a pace plan:
1. Measure the course. A course designer uses a meter wheel or GPS to measure the distance of the course track, and that number is used to set the optimum time. At Novice and Training level, most CDs measure for the average horse and rider, following a generous track that passes through the center of each fence. But every CD measures slightly differently. For the most accurate measurement of the course length as you’ll ride it, measure it yourself.
2. Figure your pace. Divide the distance by the optimum time to find the average speed you need. Here’s where your measurement is important. If the official length of a Training-level course is 2,250 meters and the optimum time is 5 minutes, the average speed should be 450 meters per minute. But if the track you are planning to ride is closer to 2,350 meters, you’ll need a speed of about 470 mpm.
3. Plan your ride. Now you need to figure out how you’ll make that average speed. As you walk the course, try to get a sense of how it will ride. Where will you have to slow? Where can you make up time? Terrain, footing and the type and location of each jump will tell you. Many horses slow coming into a closed-in area, such as a stand of trees, and often one who is less experienced will slow at a simple step-off to lower his head to see where he is going. Pay attention to places that will slow your pace for an extended time, such as twisty trails through woods or a jump down into woods followed by two more jumps. You may have to drop back to 380 mpm and make up time elsewhere. Look for places with good footing and no jumps for 30 seconds or so, where you can comfortably increase your pace to 475 or 500 mpm. Most courses include a stretch that’s open or has one simple fence two-thirds or three-quarters of the way through.
4. Map it out. Now walk the course again, this time picking out markers to help you judge your pace when you ride. If the optimum time is 5 minutes, find the spots where you want to be at each minute of the ride. Identify markers—such as a big tree on the left between jumps 9 and 10—and mark them on the course map. Review them as you walk the course for a third time. On your ride, check your pace at the markers and adjust accordingly. Good luck!
John Williams of Mendon, New York, is an eventer and FEI-recognized three- and four-star cross-country course designer. A U.S. Equestrian Federation “R” licensed course designer and “r” technical delegate, he has designed courses throughout the United States, including the CCI** and CCI*** courses at Jersey Fresh. He also designed the 2011 Pan American Games cross-country course. As a rider, he was on the bronze-medal team at the 2004 Athens Olympics and the gold-medal team at the 2002 World Equestrian Games.
This article originally appeared in the May 2014 issue of Practical Horseman.