The Downs and Ups of Sunken Roads

Olympic eventer Boyd Martin helps you prepare your horse for this demanding cross-country question.

A sunken road may include as many as four jumping components at the upper level. For instance, it could be a vertical, then a stride to a considerable drop into a pit, a one-stride distance to a bank going out of the pit, and beyond the bank, another vertical or even a bounce. But a sunken road is more than just a combination of cross-country elements. It tests your horse’s power, balance and agility to jump down, then rock back and rebalance within a short distance to jump up again.

Course designers introduce the sunken road concept at Novice or Training level, with a question as simple as a log with a little drop two strides beyond. This gives your horse time to figure out that after the log, he needs to balance himself for the drop. It doesn’t punish him if he hesitates or shuffles in an extra stride before the drop. As you move up the levels, there will be a corresponding jump up and out of the sunken road and another element beyond the “up.” And all parts of the question will get bigger and the distances will become more challenging. Ultimately you’ll see sunken roads like the one at the Kentucky Three-Day Event—as hard as it gets: a bounce to a big drop into a sunken road, one stride, then bounce out over a vertical.

Before you attempt to school over a sunken road at a cross-country facility, you and your horse need to develop the following three prerequisites at home:

• Establish a balanced, collected but active canter in which your horse’s frame is a little “uphill.” This controlled canter will give him time to “read” the multiple questions in the sunken road. You definitely don’t want him strung out and on his forehand.

• Strengthen your own position so that your seat, leg and rein aids are independent and you can change your position moment by moment to adapt to what your horse is doing underneath you. This will also help you avoid flopping on his neck upon landing in the sunken road or getting left behind and hitting him in the mouth as he jumps out.

• Accustom your horse to jumping calmly through a series of fences. The visual aspect of the sunken road can be daunting for a horse if he is already looking beyond the first element at what comes next. Set up a series of show jumps a stride or two apart and practice jumping these from a collected canter to help your horse learn not to be distracted by what’s ahead.


The sunken road’s change of terrain, on the other hand, can’t be approximated in a ring with stadium jumps. To school it effectively, you need to find a facility where you can practice drops and banks at various levels of difficulty, as I’m -doing in this article with Ginetta Manricko (Ricko), a 7-year-old Irish Sporthorse/Selle Français gelding.

The work begins with asking your horse to walk or trot off the drop—kind of dribble down it. Cantering down it at first can cause a green horse to leap off the drop and land on all four feet, unprepared to take the nice energetic stride he needs to go on. Once he’s totally bored with dribbling, you can ride the little drop at a slow, balanced canter, and you can add a jump a few strides before the drop. That way he gets used to quietly popping over a fence with a drop beyond it as I’m doing in the photos above and below. As he gains confidence, you can move the fence closer to the drop. The reason for such careful, systematic work is that relying on adrenalin and momentum to get through a sunken road will eventually get you in trouble. With the basics in place, you’ll be on your way to jumping a more upper-level sunken road, such as the one I’m navigating below.


About Boyd Martin

Boyd Martin recalls that as a teenager he finished his first horse trial in Australia on a score of 386. “I fell off three times, and I had something like 150 time penalties because I’d had to jog back to the horse trailer where my horse had run back,” he says with typical good cheer.

“Eventing is much more of a ‘blokey’ or guy sport in Australia than in the U.S.,” he explains. “When I was in high school, all the guys mucked around with horses.
If you had a horse trailer, you would just go. It was wild and unsafe, but by riding your horse around those horse trials, you developed great balance and a great feel for your horse.”

By the end of high school, Boyd knew eventing was what he wanted to do. He says his parents, both Olympic athletes themselves, weren’t as dismayed by this career choice as a more conventional family might have been: His father represented Australia in cross-country skiing and his American mother was a speed skater. They met at the 1976 Grenoble Winter Olympics.

Boyd trained with internationally renowned Heath Ryan at the New South Wales Equestrian Center. After riding his first four-star at age 19 in 1999, he won the Adelaide CCI**** on True Blue Toozac four years later. In the interim he met his future wife Silva, an accomplished dressage rider who had trained with German greats Hubertus Schmidt and Rudolf Zeilinger and was visiting Australia. He credits her with putting the classical polish on his dressage. In 2006 he decided to ship his horse Ying Yang Yo to the United States for a try at the Rolex Kentucky CCI****. He trained before- hand with Australian native Phillip Dutton (now a U.S. citizen), and they hit it off so well that Boyd returned to work as Phil- lip’s assistant trainer.

The rest, as Boyd says, is history. He has consistently been in the top 10 world rankings since leaving Australia and has been on every U.S. Championship team since changing his citizenship from Aus- tralian to American in 2010. He has represented the U.S. at two Olympic Games, three World Equestrian Games and two Pan American Games, including the 2019 Pan Ams, where he won double-gold with Tsetserleg. The pair placed second at the 2019 Kentucky Three-Day Event. Today, Boyd and Silva own and operate their farm, Windurra, USA, in Cochranville, Pennsylvania. For the latest on Boyd, visit

This article originally appeared in the February 2009 issue of Practical Horseman.

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