I`ve done a few cross country lessons over the Easter holidays and it`s tied in quite nicely with one of my revision topics for tonight … so I thought I`d kill two birds with one stone. Not that my aim is very good, so I`d probably miss both birds.
When you learn to jump there are a few golden rules you go by. Approach perpendicular to the jump, aim for the centre, have a rhythmical approach and getaway.
But then the jumps start to change, so you need to adapt your rules to best tackle the fences successfully. Shall we look at the different types of jump you will encounter around a showjumping and cross country course, and how best to tackle them?
Starting in the ring, the majority of the course will be uprights or oxers. Upright jumps require a steeper bascule, so the ascent and descent is steeper and the take off point slightly closer to the jump. In order to have the hindquarters underneath, hocks engaged and ready to push the horse up and over the jump, the canter wants to be fairly collected; energetic and bouncy. An oxer is a wider fence, so requires a take off point that is further away from the jump and a shallower ascent and descent with a wider bascule. Therefore, the canter needs to have a bigger stride, whilst still maintaining the impulsion.
A triple bar is an extreme oxer, so the canter needs to be even more longer striding and powerful in order for the horse to make the distance.
A Liverpool, or water jump, can be tricky for horses because they don`t see the water until quite late, and reflections or ripples can cause all sorts of problems. To give yourselves the best chance of jumping, approach in a collected canter, maintaining impulsion. This gives your horse plenty of time to see and assess the fence, so as long as you are riding quietly and positively, they will jump it.
Style-type fences are narrower than usual fences so test the rider`s accuracy. Again, collecting the trot, sitting up tall, and creating a tunnel for the horse with your hands towards the centre of the style before using the leg to drive them down the tunnel should ensure you jump it successfully. Because run-outs are common on narrower jumps it`s important that the rider rides to the very last stride, and doesn`t assume that because they are three metres away from the jump that the horse is fully committed.
Some jumps around the showjumping course are more “spooky” than others, so I would always advise steadying the canter to increase rider control, and creating the tunnel with the rider sat back and tall, with plenty of positive leg and seat aids so that the horse has no escape route other than clearing the fence.
Let`s move onto the cross country course. Many fences here are the equivalent to the oxers in the showjumping in that there is width to the obstacle – tyres, barrels, logs, rolltops that sort of thing. These simple, often island jumps, are invited and should be jumped from an open canter or gallop.
The same technique applies for skinny fences on the cross country course as in the arena; steading the pace to increase rider`s control and to focus the horse on the question ahead.
Ditches can cause problems for novices because the horse won`t spot it until the last moment, or the rider focuses down into the ditch which causes the horse to also look down. Shorten the canter, sit up and look up and beyond the ditch. Ride quietly and positively with the leg so the horse doesn’t have the opportunity to back off the fence. I always tell my riders to be prepared for a big jump and to hold on tight! We then repeat the ditch, incorporating it into little courses until the horse is confident, and then we introduce the coffin complex – or jump, ditch, jump as it`s now described as. Then other fences such as Trakheners and ditch palisades can be introduced. Again, when ditches are involved in fences you want to make sure the horse isn’t approaching too fast that they get surprised by the ditch – and don`t look down into it!
Offset doubles and angled fences aren`t jumped from straight on, which can make it difficult for the horse to assess the fence, and also can encourage them to run out, following the angle of the fence. I like to make sure my whip is in the hand that they are most likely to drift towards, so I can use it gently on the shoulder to back up that leg if necessary. Again, the canter needs to be balanced, but doesn’t need to be particularly collected unless the horse is prone to running out, and the rider needs to tunnel the horse along their line with the rein and leg aids. It`s important that the rider can see their line over the jump or combination to help focus the horse.
Another challenge often seen cross country are steps, either up or down, and sunken roads. Going up steps requires a lot of power from the horse. On the approach the canter needs to be collect so that the hindquarters are engaged and there is plenty of impulsion in order to get up the steps. The rider wants to be off the horse`s back up the step, but not resting on the neck or inhibiting the shoulders. When going down steps, the rider wants to lean back down the steps, with the weight into the heels and the hands letting the reins slip as necessary so the horse isn’t impeded. Again, horses need to have time to assess the question, so don`t rush towards the steps. Have a balanced canter and as always, positive aids. A sunken road is a step down before a step up. I think it`s a big test of rider balance as much as anything, but the horse has to recreate the impulsion to jump up out of the sunken road very quickly, so needs to be strong and confident.
For some, corners can be the trickiest part of the course. It can trick you into taking the wrong line and jumping it at an angle, which encourages a run out. When walking the course you should bisect the corner, and focus on riding to that line. The whip should be in the hand nearest the corner, as that is the side horses are more likely to run out, and it can back up that leg by being tapped on the shoulder. The canter wants to be controlled to reduce the likelihood of a run out.
Finally, on a cross country course you also encounter hills. When jumping uphill the horse needs more power because of the greater effort of jumping up an incline, and the rider needs to be off their back for as long as possible to help the horse canter economically. When jumping downhill you need a smaller canter to stop the horse getting onto the forehand, which could cause them to peck on landing or to falter over the jump. The rider should have their weight back on the approach and fold minimally over the fence, making sure they sit up quickly afterwards to help the horse rebalance.
I`m sure there are some types of fences that I have missed, but this post has taken me long enough to write (between various distractions of dinner, drink, cats and TV). If in any doubt about a jump or combination, I always think it`s better to go a bit steadier, with impulsion, and positively ride to the fence. Then the horse has a little longer to process what is being asked of them, but you are also more effectively closing any escape routes with the leg and hand so they are more likely to jump the obstacle.