The cross-country phase is why we do this sport. Here’s how to make the most of it.

© Stacey Nedrow-Wigmore

Eventing is a strange business. We do it for one simple reason—cross country. Yet in order to enjoy those wonderful competition moments at the gallop, we spend endless hours trotting in a circle in search of the elusive 10 on a dressage movement or vainly looking for perfect strides in an imperfect show-jumping world.

Most eventers gladly pay this price to finally go cross country. The irresistible thrill of galloping across open fields and over jumps on a horse who loves the sensation as much you do makes any price seem small. But here’s why I say eventing is a strange business: Cross country is the most fun of the three phases, the hardest to learn and entails the most risk, yet we practice it the least.

In addition, many riders decided that the change from the Classic to the short format emphasized dressage and show jumping at the expense of cross country. This was a dangerously wrong conclusion and many paid a lethal price. I have recently seen statements by senior international riders lamenting the loss of the Classic format. Their growing realization is that the loss of the Classic has led to a commensurate loss of horsemanship skills. With that in mind, I want to give you a refresher in training and riding cross country.

Conditioning Before All Else

First, cross country is the most strenuous of eventing’s three phases and requires long-term planning and conditioning. I have recently noticed that more and more riders have trouble keeping their horses consistently sound. I think this is due partly to the year-round nature of eventing on both coasts and partly to the tendency of riders to “run them fit.” Although I am critical of today’s riders, one trait I am sure they possess is an incredible work ethic. However, their results would be better if they were to work smart as well as hard. Horses do not self-monitor as human athletes do and, thus, are more susceptible to injury. Unfortunately, the more talented and eager a horse, the less likely he is to tell the rider he needs a break. Because of this, I am always meticulous when conditioning horses in my care. Before they school cross country, they will have done four to six weeks of slow conditioning work and have built up their workload until they can slow canter twice the distance of the average cross-country course at their level.

Next, Jump Fence By Fence

I plan my first cross-country school two to four weeks before my horse’s first competition. (This school will substitute as a conditioning day in his training schedule.) There are three types of cross-country schooling: fence by fence, gymnastic cross country and short courses. Each has a definite effect on your horse, and we will discuss each one.

Fence by fence is the easiest on your horse’s physique and for that reason is the type of school I use after a long time without any cross-country schooling days or competitions. The fence-by-fence pattern is exactly what it sounds like—walk between obstacles, pick up a balanced canter, jump a single obstacle and transition back to the walk. Start your canter far enough away from the obstacle that you have time to establish your rhythm. After the obstacle, make sure your horse canters away from it at the same speed with which you approached. Notice that I said “canter,” not “gallop.” Schooling at the gallop will come later in the progression.

Before the season starts I invariably school at least one level below a horse’s competitive level during his first exposure to cross-country work. I want both of you to develop confidence, deepen your understanding of cross-country technique, increase your fitness and enjoy yourselves. I have worked under coaches who made their horses and riders school big fences in cold blood. These sessions were invariably demoralizing for horse and rider, and I avoid that situation. I also avoid telling my riders to “get close” to or “stand off” from an obstacle. These terms refer to variations from the theoretically correct distance, which is usually determined by jumping from a distance in front of the obstacle that is the height of the obstacle (and half the spread if the obstacle has width as well as height) and landing the same distance behind it. Keep in mind that this is not what happens in reality.

It takes a great deal of experience to be able to consistently predict the takeoff spot several strides away from the obstacle. IF you believe you will fail WHEN you do not predict the correct distance, then you are right—you will fail. That is why, instead of insisting on accuracy, I insist on rhythm. When you feel the rhythm, you feel the balance, and when your horse is balanced, he jumps to the best of his ability. It is as simple as that. The art of timing your stride (the ability to predict and influence the remaining number of strides before an obstacle) takes a long time to learn. In the meantime, we need a system of riding and training that works for less-experienced horses and riders. While we are talking about predicting your stride, let’s talk about your eyes. If you don’t see the jump, you won’t see your stride accurately. In order to measure distance, you must have a fixed point of reference. Look at the same place on the obstacle as your horse looks, which is the top of the obstacle. Look on top of a vertical, the front rail of a parallel, the back rail of a triple bar and the top rail of a hogsback. Look at that place on the obstacle until it goes out of sight between your horse’s ears, then look ahead. If you look at the obstacle and keep your rhythm, chances are you will have a good cross-country school.

When you plan which cross-country obstacles to jump, be sure to include a bank, a ditch and water. (Approaching an up bank, you look at the top of the bank as if it were a vertical. When jumping a ditch, treat it as a triple bar and look at the back of the ditch.) Your first few obstacles should be simple logs on level ground, then you can move to obstacles that are slightly either up- or downhill. During my first school of the season, I don’t school too many combinations. That will happen during our next cross-country session.

© Stacey Nedrow-Wigmore

Then Cross-Country Gymnastics

About a week or 10 days after my fence-by-fence school, my next cross-country school will be what I call “cross-country gymnastics.” (My show-jumping training will continue according to my overall training schedule.) Because you are going to build the gymnastics one element at a time, you will need a jump crew for this type of exercise. Get a stable pal to trade duties with you. Sometimes you learn more from the ground than in the saddle, so it will be fun for you in either role.

Depending on the facility where you are schooling, take a pair of standards and several rails to a small bank, a similar number of standards and rails to a plain ditch (no logs or rails before or after) and again the same at a water jump with no logs or rails blocking the entrance or exit. Warm up over simple logs, roll-tops and oxers with the same attitude as your first cross-country school. You can see where I am going with this type of school. I will put the standards with one rail on the ground, below the bank and 18 feet from the lip of the bank. If I have enough rails, I will put a placing rail on the ground 9 feet outside the rail that is between the standards.

Unless you have a pony or a horse with a very short stride, plan to approach all of these gymnastics at the trot. I want your horse to learn to jump with technique and strength rather than with momentum. With the rails on the ground, trot up and down the bank on as loose a rein as possible. I want your horse to think for himself, and at the same time, jumping up and down a bank is a very good exercise to help develop your independent jumping position. (Hint: Grab mane the first couple of times you jump up. It is harder than it looks and I don’t want you to get left behind.) Once your horse is settled and relaxed, have your jump crew raise the rail between the standards while you work back and forth. Leave the second rail on the ground. It will be a placing rail on the way up and will help keep your horse balanced on the way back down.

The distance between the rail and the bank is designed for an approach at the trot in both directions. Occasionally, horses will jump down and land so far out from the bank that they bounce out over the rail rather than take a stride. Have your jump crew put a third rail on the ground halfway between the bank and the obstacle. Don’t try to solve this problem by increasing your contact with the reins. The more you pull on the way down, the more he will invert and the farther out into the distance he will jump. Once your horse has settled and is jumping back and forth quietly, gradually raise the rail until it is the height of your competitive level, e.g. 3-foot-3 inches for Training level, and so on. Banks suitable for schooling are usually 2 to 3 feet in height. They are excellent exercises for your horse and for you as well. Keep the softest rein possible and make sure you go with the motion jumping up, and let your horse jump out from underneath you on the way down.

For variety after your work at the bank gymnastic, you can gallop over a few simple logs and roll-tops to re-establish your horse’s impulsion. Then walk to the ditch where you will use the same training pattern and the same number of rails, and then later, after a couple of fun, galloping fences, repeat the pattern at the water jump. At the water jump, for very green horses, I will put the rail 18 feet from the edge of the water so that they take off and land on dry ground before entering or leaving the water. For more experienced horses, I will put the rail over the edge of the water.

Once you become comfortable using cross-country gymnastics, they are limited only by your creativity and the state of training of your horse. You can duplicate any cross-country question you have seen at a competition, just be careful to introduce it step by step, not all at once.

Now, Short Courses

After another week or so of quiet work, which will include dressage and show-jumping training plus conditioning, I will school a third time, this time using a short course approach. Plan two to three short courses, each of about two minutes duration, at approximately 350-400 meters per minute. Each course should include an easy jump to start, a mild turning question and one of the three features you used for gymnastics. For example, include a bigger bank with a log on top or a simple bank combination. This should be followed by one or two more fly fences and then walk for a few minutes. When your horse’s respiration has almost recovered, start the second of your short courses, this time including a ditch question followed again by a period of rest. Your third short course should include the water complex as well as easy, confidence-building obstacles before and after the water.

Each of these three types of schooling techniques has both good points and drawbacks. Fence by fence is the easiest on your horse’s physique, but it is difficult to maintain a rhythm due to its stop-and-go nature. Cross-country gymnastics are invaluable to teach your horse to deal with more complicated combinations, but they put a lot of emphasis on collected canter and can make your horse a little rein-bound. Short courses are excellent for improving physical fitness and duplicating competitive circumstances. However, if your horse is at all aggressive, this type of schooling pattern can make him too forward. Each of these patterns can be used to complement your horse’s temperament. For example, OTTBs should do more fence-by-fence and gymnastic schooling because short courses are catnip for Thoroughbreds. On the other hand, phlegmatic horses will prosper by doing short courses, which will increase their fitness and awaken their attitude.

If dressage and show-jumping practice are the way you pay your dues, careful conditioning and schooling will make the rewards even better when you can—finally—go cross country. 

This article was originally published in the May 2018 issue of Practical Horseman. 

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