Cross-country “fly fences” can either be the easiest cross-country jumps or the most dangerous. They are fences that a horse will jump seamlessly from his galloping stride. Fly fences are at all levels of eventing. They are usually set on even terrain—the takeoff and landing are at the same level—but they can also be set on slight uphill or downhill terrain with a clear approach. The types of obstacles considered fly fences usually have these elements in common:
• Good ground line (this could include a rail, flowers, straw, brush or a ditch)
• Ramped or sloping face, not vertical
• Some width from the ground line to back rail
Usually, the first two to three fences on a cross-country course are considered fly fences. At the upper levels, they also will be placed around the course as “let-up” fences—fences that are relatively easy to jump.
The most common mistakes I see lower-level riders make with a fly fence all interrupt the flow to the fence. These include:
• They accelerate on the final approach (five to seven strides away from the fence). This can cause the horse to flatten his stride, which places him on his forehand.
• They overcorrect the balance in the final-approach zone. This takes the horse’s eye off the jump and disrupts the striding, so he adds or skips a stride to save himself.
• They stop riding the rhythm in the final-approach zone. This causes the horse to slow down or shorten his stride, resulting in an added stride.
A good way to avoid these problems—before you ever get to an event—is to
• establish a secure, balanced, still, effective galloping position;
• practice the speed that you are competing by setting a measured gallop track; and
• practice jumping a “fly-fence equivalent” at speed.
I’ll share an exercise over a single oxer to build these skills.
Who Can Do It
All levels of riders can tackle this exercise.
Tips for Success
• In all three disciplines of eventing, the equal balance of weight in both feet is important to the way your horse travels. Always ask yourself, Which foot do I have more weight in? If you are one-sided, you will cause your horse to move away from the heavier foot. This also will show up on your takeoff at a fly fence, causing your horse to drift. Remember, straightness is efficient.
• When riders get tired on cross country, it’s often because they are in a static position instead of breathing and moving with their horse’s gallop. Be sure to breathe while you are galloping between fences.
• Although some coaches tell students to look beyond the jump, I believe that you have to look at the face of the jump. I use the practice of “now” and “next.” Your eyes will move from what is “now” (the jump) to what is “next” (a change in terrain, turn, next jump), which I’ll explain more below.
• Make the most of your landing, or exit, strides. If you had a chip or an added stride, move your horse forward after it. If you are at the upper levels and have trouble making time, those first two to three strides on landing can make up seconds. Land and go, don’t waste time praising or gathering yourself. Get right back into your galloping position and encourage your horse to gallop on.
Set Your Galloping Track
Here’s the equipment that you’ll need:
• A measuring wheel or some type of metric GPS tracker
• Four jump standards with four poles to build an oxer (one pole for the ground line, two in the front and one in the back)
• Flower box or roll-top for jump fill
• Ground paint, cones or flags
• Notes with the appropriate speed and oxer measurements for your level
1. First, find a level area with safe footing (free of holes, rocks, dips and undulating terrain) and begin measuring the track from the start cone with your wheel. Measure the 30-second mark with a paint stripe or cone. So for example, if you are riding Beginner Novice level, measure to 175 meters. See “Speed and Oxer Measurements,” page 83, for heights and widths for your level.
2. Continue walking to the first minute meter marker, and again, paint a stripe or set a cone. Using the Beginner Novice example, you would measure to 350 meters. Then repeat up to 2 minutes in length.
3. During your walk, find a spot to set up your fly fence oxer at the end of your first minute marker. Make sure the fence has a straight approach and exit and that there is enough room to pass the jump while you are practicing your speed and galloping position and ready position rounds (see next section). Build your oxer.
Speed & Oxer Measurements
Regardless of the level, the oxer should always have a good ground line. I like to use a flower box or rolltop, but a ground pole will work, too.
Speed: 300–350 meters per minute
175 meters is where you set your 30-second marker
350 meters is where you set your 1-minute marker
Front rail (FR): 2-foot-5
Back rail (BR): 2-foot-7
Speed: 350–400 mpm
200 meters = 30 seconds
400 meters = 1 minute
Speed: 420–470 mpm
235 meters = 30 seconds
470 meters = 1 minute
Speed: 490 mpm
245 meters = 30 seconds
490 meters = 1 minute
Speed: 520 mpm
260 meters = 30 seconds
520 meters = 1 minute
Feel the Speed and Practice Galloping Positions
First, gallop your track without the jump, practicing these two positions:
1. Forward Galloping Position: Rise in a two-point stance with your seat well out of the saddle and your upper body over your horse’s neck with your hip acting like a hinge. Keep equal weight in both stirrups. The goal is to be able to hold your body up out of the saddle with a good communicative contact with your horse’s mouth. You will use this position between fences up to the approach zone of the fly fence, which is five to seven strides away from the fence.
2. Ready Position: Once in the approach zone, sink lower into the saddle while keeping equal weight in your stirrups with your heels down. Move your upper body away from your horse’s neck. All it takes is opening your hip angle. Your hips may slide slightly back toward the cantle. Your contact with your horse’s mouth stays smooth and steady. At this moment, use your leg to keep your horse straight and steady in his balance. This is a more secure position for those moments when your horse decides to question the jump.
Take the time to feel what your horse does when you change from one position to the other. Keep track of your time on your stopwatch to make sure you are riding at the correct speed. Repeat this until you feel comfortable and in control.
Add the Fly-Fence Equivalent
Once you have practiced galloping at the speed required for your competition level and in your two galloping positions, warm up over the oxer.
1. Approach the oxer at the gallop you have been practicing. Maintain this gallop rhythm to your fence. As you enter the approach zone five to seven strides away, change your position from the forward galloping position to the ready position. Keep the contact with your horse’s mouth consistent and moving forward toward the jump. Your eye needs to be focused on the top center face, or front rail, of the oxer. This is your “now” eye. Once you have lost sight of the face of the fence, your eye will look for what is “next.” Keep equal balance in both stirrups and your hips and upper body square and centered over your horse’s back.
2. As you cover the ground to the takeoff, keep your horse’s stride the same. Hold that ready position. The key is to maintain the same distance between your chest and your horse’s neck. Slightly bend your elbows to follow your horse’s head as it raises while he compresses his body for takeoff. Follow the connection with your horse’s mouth in the air—there’s no need to have a big release. Keep your leg against his sides with firm pressure, heels down and with a solid feel in your stirrup.
3. Land from the fence firmly in your stirrups, catching your balance through your whole leg. Quickly return to your gallop to maintain your average speed. A common mistake a rider will make is to collapse her position on the landing, which will cause the horse to slow down. It is so important to practice this landing balance to efficiently get back into your forward galloping position. Your rein contact should still be consistent to allow you to take your horse to what is next on the course.
4. Once you jump the oxer, take the time to rest, re-evaluate how the fence rode, make adjustments in your mind and then repeat the exercise. Once you understand how your horse is going to jump the oxer at the galloping pace and feel comfortable with the exercise, try this approach with a cross-country fence. If you have access to a cross-country fence, you can replace the oxer in your galloping track. If you don’t have access to a cross-country jump, try the exercise the next time you go cross-country schooling.
ABOUT BONNIE MOSSER
Bonnie Mosser represented the United States as the alternate rider for the 2006 World Equestrian Games, the 2007 Pan American Games and the 2008 Olympics. She won the Foxhall National Advanced Championship CCI*** in 2002 and the Jersey Fresh CCI*** in 2007 and was the highest-placed U.S. rider at the Burghley Horse Trials in 2006, where she finished 11th. She is based in Davidson, North Carolina, where she is currently competing for clients and has several horses in training. She can also be found teaching and coaching at clinics and events across the United States.