Exercise for Better Cross-Country Control

Use your eyes to solve tricky steering questions in an arena before heading out on the cross-country course. By Doug Payne with Melissa Roddy Wright for Practical Horseman magazine.

1. I turn to the first fence when I see a straight chute through the center of all three jumps and keep Fernhill Frolic straight and even between my hand and leg aids. | Photos by Amy Katherine Dragoo As event riders move up the levels, the growing size of the fences isn’t the only challenge they face. Increasingly difficult accuracy questions, the basics of which show up on course as early as Training level, often surprise riders new to a level. They discover just how quickly the fences come up and how fast their reactions have to be.

Preparing for angled combinations and turning questions doesn’t require trailering to a cross-country course. In fact, introducing your horse–and yourself–to those tricky questions needs to begin at home, in an arena, where you can adjust fence heights and take hilly terrain and other complicating factors out of the equation.

In the May 2010 Practical Horseman article “4 Exercises to Better X-C Control”, I share four exercises, taken from The Rider’s Eye, an instructional video I produced with my colleague and trainer Jim Wofford. These exercises mimic cross-country questions that appear from Training level all the way up to Advanced. They will test your skills, pinpoint weaknesses and help you develop one key tool that can dramatically improve your ability to handle difficult steering questions: your eyes.

Learning to look where you want to go–and doing it quickly in tricky combinations–will help put your horse on the right track and ensure you have the maximum time to prepare for the next fence. As Jim says in the video, “The eyes of the rider control the path of the horse..If I can get you to look where you are going, I can almost guarantee that your performance over jumps is going to improve.”

3 Fences on an Angle (2 strides)

2. As Fence 1 disappeared between Frolic In this exercise, a variation of the fourth exercise in my magazine article, you’ll ride three fences set at right angles to one another in two direct strides. This mimics questions that typically don’t show up on cross-country until the Intermediate and Advanced levels. It is for experienced horses and riders and shouldn’t be attempted unless you are absolutely confirmed in all the other exercises.

Set the middle fence first, then walk 25 feet from outside of one standard, turn 90 degrees and set the inside standard of the first fence. Finish building that fence perpendicular to the middle fence.

Return to the middle fence. From the outside of the other standard, walk 25 feet, turn 90 degrees and set the inside standard of the third fence. Finish building that fence perpendicular to the middle fence. Keep the fences at least a foot lower than your competition height to begin.

Skills You’ll Practice

  1. Preparing and reacting to fences with much less distance between them
  2. Improving your horse’s rideability.
    3. I jump Fence 2, shifting my focus to the center of Fence 3

How to Do It
This is a test of your horse’s straightness and accuracy. With only two strides between fences and changing angles that invite a run-out to the left between Fences 1 and 2, and to the right between Fences 2 and 3 (or before Fence 1, if you’re not careful), your horse needs to be totally straight and even between your hand and leg.

Any bulging to one side or dropping a shoulder must be corrected within the stride it happens; there isn’t space for big

adjustments here.

As in Exercise 3, don’t turn to the first fence until you see the straight chute through all three. Then be ready for your eye to bounce from center to center to center of each jump.

Eyes: Room for error is gone in this exercise; you can’t be slow with your eyes. If you aren’t looking for your next fence the moment the one you’re jumping disappears between your horse’s ears, you won’t have time to recognize if you are off your line, much less react in time to correct it.

4. Over Fence 3, you can see that Frolic is still perfectly straight and centered. | Photo by Amy Katherine DragooDoug Payne competes at the FEI (International Equestrian Federation) levels in eventing and dressage and teaches, trains and sells horses from his current base at Misty Hollow Farm in Oldwick, N.J. A graduate of the Rochester Institute of Technology with a degree in Mechanical Engineering, he also holds U.S. Equestrian Federation judge and technical delegate licenses for eventing. He recently finished second at the Fair Hill International CCI** riding Patti Springsteen’s Running Order, one of the horses featured in The Rider’s Eye instructional video, his collaborative project with Olympic rider and trainer Jim Wofford. For more information, go to www.dpequestrian.com. To purchase the video, visit www.HorseBooksEtc.com.

To learn more exercises for training your eye and improving your steering, see Doug’s “4 Exercises to Better X-C Control” in the May 2010 issue of Practical Horseman magazine.

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