Morgan Rowsell: Build Simple Cross-Country Fences for Eventing

Eventing course builder and fence designer Morgan Rowsell offers tips and ideas for creating cross-country obstacles outside the ring.

There are plenty of jumps in your ring, but you’ve just started eventing so you’d like to practice on some cross-country obstacles at home. Moving a bunch of rails onto the field doesn’t cut it, plus the brush pile you’ve been using has gotten tired and your horse isn’t paying attention to it anymore.

Happily, there are options for schooling cross country at home. You don’t have to build Burghley in your backyard. Course builder and designer Morgan Rowsell of Long Valley, New Jersey, has tips and ideas for putting together simple cross-country fences of your own without great skill in carpentry or spending a lot.

The best fences to start with are portable and can include coops (shaped like an inverted V) and ramps (a flat ascending surface angled away from the horse and rider). Logs also offer lots of possibilities because you can switch them around to change the challenge.

“The more portable, the better,” Morgan says, estimating that over the last 15 years, 60 to 75 percent of the fences on most cross-country courses are portable. Being able to move jumps allows you to get the lay of the land as you practice over them and adjust them if there is a problem. It ensures they are always on good ground and means you or the property owner can aerate, fertilize and mow the course. Portables can be stored during winter or any time they won’t be used for an extended period. 

This coop shows a 6×6 base that has been beveled, 4×6 horizontal bracing, 4×6 vertical bracing, a full-length 4×6 placed horizontally on the tops of the vertical braces and 2×8 vertical facing. | © Morgan Rowsell

As you plan your fences, remember that you should mimic the arc a horse makes as he jumps. When constructing a jump, consider what’s good for the horse, not what’s good for the builder. Think safety and jumpability.

To build a Beginner Novice/Novice portable, which costs $200–$300 in materials, you’ll need these tools:

• a bow saw and a chainsaw to cut the wood. If you’re uncomfortable with a chainsaw, get someone who has some carpentry skills to help you

Be careful to make sure there are no rough edges on any fence you make. | © Nancy Jaffer

• a circular saw for cutting the dimension lumber to different angles 

• a drill to screw pieces of wood together

• a hammer

• a grinder with a sanding wheel, or even a hoof rasp, to smooth top edges of jumps

Construct a Coop
One of the easiest jumps to make is a coop. “No bizarre angles. It’s just an equilateral triangle,” Morgan says.

Don’t worry too much about making the fence look perfect. A horse doesn’t care what it looks like as long as it’s jumpable, says Morgan, noting with a grin that “It’s not a cabinet or a Stradivarius.”

To secure a jump to the ground, pound a stake like this into the ground next to the jump and then put screws through the holes and drill them into the side of the jump. | © Nancy Jaffer

Start with a sketch on graph paper to work out the dimensions, angles and general look. You also can make a materials list based on your dimensions. 

Materials for a basic coop:

• 6×6 wood for base (be sure to use pressure-treated wood to reduce the amount of rot from being on the ground and out in the elements)

• 4×6 wood for interior framing, such as the horizontal and vertical bracing

• 2×8 wood for the face

• 6- and 8-inch TimberLOKs® (heavy-duty wood screws available at home-improvement stores)

• 3-inch screws 

• wood preservative

For a Beginner Novice-level coop, plan to make it 2-feet, 6-inches high and the base 3 feet wide and at least 12 feet long, preferably 16 feet. Most portables Morgan builds start with a base of two pieces of 6×6 pressure-treated lumber, beveled or sloped at the ends so you can drag them like a sled (see photo page 54). Place the two 6×6 beams 3 feet apart, parallel and square.

Next, make the horizontal braces that will be set on top of and perpendicular to the two 6×6 base beams. For good strength, Morgan constructs a minimum of four braces for a 12-foot-long jump and five braces for a 16-foot-long jump. Cut the 4×6 lumber to 3 feet, making sure the cuts are square. Place one horizontal brace 6 inches from the end of the 6×6 base, then space the remaining braces equally along the base beams. 

To attach the 4×6 horizontal braces to the base, use 6-inch TimberLOKs. Place them 4 inches from the end of the 4x6s. Once the 4×6 boards are screwed in place, use the circular saw to cut each end at a 60-degree angle, being sure not to run the saw into the TimberLOKs.

Then make the vertical braces that will be on the top of each horizontal brace and centered between its two ends. Cut 4×6 lumber to about 15 inches high, making sure each brace is square so it will sit perpendicular to the horizontal brace. Attach each brace by drilling a 6-inch TimberLOK at a 45-degree angle. Next, take a full-length 4×6 and place it horizontally on the tops of the vertical braces. Use 8-inch TimberLOKs to attach it to the braces. The picture of the coop (page 54) shows a half-round cap that is optional and slightly changes the dimensions, but the jump should be no higher than 2-feet, 6-inches.

A view of a wooden stake holding a pole in place on the edge of a ditch | © Nancy Jaffer

You now are ready to prepare the facing of 2×8 lumber. Morgan likes to use vertical facing because it gives the illusion that the jump is bigger and it will make a stronger fence. Use the circular saw to cut the boards to 32 inches long. You want each board to be 3 inches longer than the edge of the 6×6 base so it will cover half of it. The bottom of the 2×8 needs to be cut square and the top needs to be cut at an angle to meet the horizontal 4×6. Affix the bottom of the facing to the edge of the 6×6 and the top of the facing to the 4×6 horizontal brace. Use a minimum of four 3-inch screws for each board. 

Finish by taking a rasp or angle grinder to the top of the horizontal 4×6, making it as round as possible so it won’t hurt a horse who may drag a leg. No jump should have any hard angles.

Secure It to the Ground
Although many training facilities don’t anchor their portables because they move them so much, it’s better to have a strong anchor, if possible, Morgan says. For competitions, every jump gets secured to the ground with specially made spikes.

You can make wooden stakes yourself with 2×4 lumber. Cut it to 18 inches long and create a point on one of the ends. Pound it into the ground next to the jump and screw the 2×4 to the jump. You also can buy concrete or form stakes from a home-improvement store. They are 2-foot rods with many holes in them (see photo page 54). Hammer so the top of the rod is at the top of the 6×6 base and use a 3-inch screw through the hole at the top of the rod to affix it to the jump.

Create a Log Jump
Roll-tops can be challenging to construct for those just getting into making jumps because of the arc, so you’re better off buying one, Morgan advises. One way around having to make such a purchase is to get a big log. Mills often will give away logs from residential sites because they may have metal in them from old signs and they don’t want to risk damaging their expensive saws if those materials have been grown over and hidden.

Credit: © Nancy Jaffer To start creating a water jump, find a low-lying area or have someone excavate a bowl-like depression on your property. | © Nancy Jaffer

Another source can be tree companies. Let them know over the course of a year that you want a log, and if they have one on their truck when they come through your area, they may drop it off for free or a small fee because they don’t want to deal with logs.

When deciding where to place the log, think about your climate. If you live in a humid area, you need to get the log out of the sun and under some trees, and paint it once or twice a year with preservative. In more arid regions, you don’t have to do that because logs tend to last a little longer in dry weather. Locust tree logs are ideal because they tend to be rot-resistant.

Once you decide where to put the log, take off the bark to create a smooth surface so if a horse scrapes the log while jumping it, he doesn’t injure himself. Sanding also can help; be sure to smooth down any knots where the branches were taken off. Extend the log’s life by using timber oil or deck preservative. Don’t use latex paint on your jumps because if the wood can’t breathe, moisture becomes trapped, which can hasten rot. Also, don’t just plop it on the ground where it can rot, Morgan says. Put it on two pressure-treated 6×6 pieces of wood placed perpendicularly under the ends of the log to get a bit of height. 

Permanent Jumps
After you are more familiar with what it’s like to gallop over your piece of ground, you can think about permanent features, such as ditches or water obstacles. Since you can’t move them, you want to make sure they are in the right spot.

A ditch doesn’t have to be deep or elaborate. This ditch is closed because it has takeoff poles on both sides. You can start by making an open-faced ditch that has a pole on just one side. | © Nancy Jaffer


To build a ditch, look for natural dips on your property where you can situate one. It needs to be at least 12 feet wide and 1½ feet deep. If it isn’t, enlist the help of a few people with shovels or use a tractor with a backhoe to do your digging.

For a takeoff rail, set a telephone pole securely by pounding in short posts on the lip of the ditch (see photo page 56). This is called an open ditch, and it’s good for horses starting their careers because they can’t get hung up on the other side. 

Telephone poles, which are better than logs because they don’t rot, often are available because they are being replaced with environmentally safer equipment. Call a local utility or phone company to see if it has any to give away or sell for a nominal fee. It might be possible to find one at a recycling depot as well. You can pick them up in your horse trailer. Be sure to examine an old pole thoroughly because it may have copper staples or nails in it that you will have to remove.

To make a two-sided ditch permanent, it needs to be properly anchored so the walls don’t cave in, and backfilled with stone dust. At this point, it would be helpful to have professional input or help from someone with experience building jumps. 

Water Jump

For a water jump, find a low-lying area or have someone excavate a bowl-like depression on your property. A three-stride water jump is 45 feet by 45 feet, which is all you should need at the lower levels.

Lay a sheet of heavy plastic, used for building ponds and available at home-improvement stores, in the bowl. Put 6 inches of stone dust on top of it. You probably will need about $2,000 worth of stone dust for what Morgan calls a walk through water. Fill it with 6 inches of water.

With a few portables, a ditch and a small water obstacle, you can prepare at home for a Beginner Novice event.

Morgan Rowsell
Growing up in Hamilton, Massachusetts, where the Groton House event was held (and the U.S Equestrian Team had its eventing outpost), Morgan Rowsell felt the influence of the horse world early. His father, a commercial artist, participated in low-level steeplechasing while living in his native Great Britain. Morgan began riding at the age of 12. After attending Western New England College, he got involved with hunting, polo and racing.

An arborist by trade, Morgan would “work the trees during the day” and rehab racehorses in the evenings. He hunted them with Myopia Hunt and trail- rode them to develop strength before they went back to the track.

After he blew out his knee working in trees and was grounded in the winter of 1997, he offered to deliver a truck to the Rocking Horse event in Florida, where he met Olympic eventer and course designer John Williams.

He started eventing, which is how he met his wife, eventer Virginia Jenkins. He also began working on courses as a builder and designer, apprenticing with international eventing stars-turned-designers such as Mark Phillips and Derek di Grazia. He holds a Senior Course Designer’s license from the U.S. Equestrian Federation and a one- and two-star license from the FEI (International Equestrian Federation). His Rowsell Equestrian Design is involved with such events as Rocking Horse in Altoona, Florida; Seneca Valley in Poolesville, Maryland, and the Horse Park of New Jersey’s Horse Trials in Allentown. 

Most of the time Morgan designs the courses and builds the jumps. An exception is Jersey Fresh, in Allentown, New Jersey, where John Williams lays out both the two- and three-star and Morgan does the construction. “John has been very generous with his time with me. He’s someone I respect a lot,” says Morgan, who also appreciates input from Olympian Buck Davidson.

Morgan also works on private construction, including rings. He lives in Long Valley, New Jersey, with his wife and two children.

This article originally appeared in the May 2015 issue of Practical Horseman. 

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