Cross country lessons have changed a lot now travelling is more accessible and there are now many more venues with well designed courses for all abilities. Around us we’re lucky to have half a dozen cross country courses near us (that many I can think of early on a Sunday morning anyway) ranging from teeny tiny courses for novices and kids, right up to the advanced jumps that the Olympians train over. Many coaches offer cross country clinics, and amateur riders get to practice over competition standard fences.
I was reminiscing about our cross country days whilst hacking last week. We had a cross country field. It was fairly flat in the middle, with a gentle incline into the top left corner. A stream ran on two sides of the field, and there was a bit of field on the other side of the stream.
At the beginning of the lesson we’d all walk off the yard, open the cross country field gate, cross the stream and up the hill. We warmed up around a large tree, then moved onto the jumps.
These were the days before health and safety and frangible pins, so our jumps consisted of stick piles, which were frequently added to, logs (I remember one log started off huge but due to going rotten it got smaller and smaller each year), tyres, barrels (often had to be rebuilt as horses rolled them around), pallets, water trough (this was tricky as it was next to the fence, near a tree and bordered by nettles) and anything else we could get our hands on. There were a few fixed, proper jumps like the tiger trap, or “the big one” which was three stout rails on an ascending spread, up the hill. Every spring we would go to the cross country field, retrieve barrels that had rolled into the stream, rebuilt jumps and try to make some new ones.
Our courses involved mixing up the jumps, and following the rabbit paths to cross the stream in a couple of places. This was a good test of balance because the ground was quite undulating. I used to struggle with this part of the lessons because I couldn’t see the path I should take – there were loads of little, twisty tracks – and I think because I wasn’t convinced which route we should go, my pony declined to cross. I was a child who had to have things spelt out for me.
The cross country field was also one of our grazing fields, so we often had our lessons while the horses were grazing. We would sometimes have to avoid a grazing horse on the approach to a fence – they usually moved after the first person had cantered past them. Sometimes we had a horse join us; I remember Otis coming over to the warm up when I was riding Matt once. He trotted around a bit, and then stood with us all as we took it in turns to jump.
Sometimes the jumps needed rearranging, in which case one of us would gallop over; dismount and push the barrels or tyres back into place, remount and gallop back.
We did have a ditch, well more of a gulley that we would pop that, and we also had a jump just behind it to make a more interesting fence one year. I think the wooden pole was so precariously balanced on the beer barrels that we were forever having to rebuild the jump.
When I was ten or eleven I got to ride in top group with my friend; we weren’t really ready for top group, but we were given different courses to the big girls. I was on my 11.2hh spindly legged loan pony, called Filly – such a rubbish name! Her show name was Glebedale Sapphire but if I’m honest, she wasn’t pretty enough for that name. She was known as “the filly in the back stable” when she arrived, and Filly stuck. I digress.
We were given a course of fences, and I was told not to jump the tyres. Fair enough, it was pretty big. What my instructor didn’t clarify though, was that I shouldn’t jump the pallet fence, which was actually bigger. I told you earlier, I was a child who needed things spelt out. So off I cantered. We avoided the tyre jump, but I kicked for the 3′ pallet fence. We jumped it. We just parted company on landing. It took a while to live that down!
We loved our cross country lessons, but when I think back about them I feel old – times have changed so much!