Cross-Coun­try Prin­ci­ples for Safety

This Ger­man Olympic gold medal­ist tells clinic rid­ers to fo­cus on rid­ing for­ward in bal­ance—not on the dis­tance—for a safer jump.

Practical Horseman - - Contents - Story and Pho­tos by Les­lie Threlkeld

Ger­man Olympic gold medal­ist An­dreas Di­bowski stresses the im­por­tance of safe cross-coun­try rid­ing dur­ing a rare visit to the U.S.

An­dreas Di­bowski is a man of few words. He has a good com­mand of the English lan­guage, but he gives sim­ple ad­vice to rid­ers—“for­ward” is his most com­mon in­struc­tion. Through­out ex­er­cises and course prac­tice, he ex­pects stu­dents to ride for­ward and straight. He also wants to see a sup­port­ive con­tact from both the rein and leg and ef­fec­tive use of the up­per body, which helps the con­trol, bal­ance and qual­ity of the jump. One group of 20 event rid­ers got a glimpse of the Ger­man train­ing phi­los­o­phy dur­ing the rare op­por­tu­nity to clinic with the Olympic gold medal­ist. An­dreas re­cently vis­ited the Tryon In­ter­na­tional Equestrian Cen­ter dur­ing the Amer­i­can Trakehner As­so­ci­a­tion Con­ven­tion to teach show-jump­ing and cross-coun­try lessons to horses and rid­ers from Be­gin- ner Novice to the Ad­vanced level.

The lessons in­cluded course­work uti­liz­ing com­bi­na­tions, re­lated dis­tances and turn­ing ex­er­cises. Dur­ing the warm-up he wanted rid­ers to prac­tice tran­si­tions and turns and ad­just the length of step at the can­ter, al­ter­nat­ing be­tween send­ing the horse for­ward and col­lect­ing. This got the horses’ bod­ies work­ing and their minds at­ten­tive.

Re­spon­si­bil­i­ties of Horse and Rider

As An­dreas sees it, both horse and rider share re­spon­si­bil­ity when rid­ing cross coun­try. The rider’s re­spon­si­bil­ity, he says, is to show the horse the right di­rec­tion, give him the cor­rect speed, keep her own bal­ance and know the con­di­tion of the horse and her own fit­ness. The horse’s re­spon­si­bil­ity is to find the mo­ment of take-off.

Find­ing the dis­tance is prac­ti­cally an ob­ses­sion for rid­ers who com­pete in jump­ing dis­ci­plines, but An­dreas in­sists that on cross coun­try it is “ab­so­lutely danger­ous” for the rider to count down strides and tell the horse when to jump. If the rider gets it wrong or the horse is dis­tracted and takes an ex­tra step, they can wind up too close to the fence. Usu­ally this oc­curs when the rider is in front of the mo­tion, lacks con­tact and bal­ance and tries to de­ter­mine the mo­ment of take off for her­self. An­dreas calls this “rid­ing into the hole.”

“The horses should be jump­ing or gal­lop­ing all the time in front of the leg, then it doesn’t mat­ter if you come 1 me­ter closer to the jump or more far away,” An­dreas said. “What I see in this clinic is that a lot of rid­ers try to do ev­ery­thing per­fect, but then they for­get the qual­ity of the can­ter so they are al­ways look­ing to the per­fect dis­tance, ride slower and lose all the power in the horse’s body. It doesn’t mat­ter if we have a ver­ti­cal, oxer or skinny fences—we need the horses in front of our for­ward rid­ing aids all of the time. That is the prin­ci­ple of ev­ery­thing we need to jump safely over ev­ery kind of cross-coun­try fence.”

While the rider should be aware of the dis­tance to the fence, she should fo­cus on cre­at­ing a pow­er­ful can­ter and main­tain­ing it all the way to the base of the jump. If a rider sees the dis­tance is go­ing to be short, don’t throw the reins at the horse and slow down. In­stead, hold the con­tact, close the leg and create more ac­tiv­ity in the can­ter.

“If we have a good speed and good qual­ity of gal­lop then we have to bring up the body, bring the horse to an up­hill po­si­tion and kick them a lit­tle bit at the same time and get more ac­tiv­ity,” An­dreas said. “I think the best dis­tance is al­ways short to the fence. That does not mean we give them rein and let them run un­der the fence, but when we have a short dis­tance

“When we school horses we have to show them what they can do and never what they can­not do,” says An­dreas. Tik May­nard’s Thor­ough­bred Re­mark­able-54 had done one Pre­lim­i­nary event be­fore the clinic. At the Pre­lim­i­nary level nar­row fences like this wedge be­come more com­mon. Us­ing guide rails when school­ing will help show the horse the way and en­cour­age straight­ness in his body.

and can hold and keep the up­hill po­si­tion, that is the best chance to make a pow­er­ful and safe jump.

“Never look for the long dis­tance. It hap­pens some­times when the horse is too mo­ti­vated or the rider is look­ing for the long dis­tance, but that is al­ways the more danger­ous sit­u­a­tion,” An­dreas ad­vised.

If a horse does get the long dis­tance, it is im­por­tant to con­cen­trate on bring­ing him back to­gether and get­ting a bet­ter dis­tance on the next fence. Tak­ing a long one re­peat­edly will cause a horse to lose trust in the rider and be­gin to add strides, An­dreas said.

De­vel­op­ing Trust and Quiet­ness

From the time a young horse is start­ing his school­ing to when a rider begins ask­ing dif­fi­cult ques­tions, trust is crit­i­cal. A horse who trusts will try hard for his rider and both in­di­vid­u­als can fo­cus on their re­spon­si­bil­i­ties.

“All the time, ev­ery day, we build up a big trust and it is very im­por­tant we do not de­stroy it,” An­dreas said. “When we school horses we have to show them what they can do and never what they can­not do.”

For ex­am­ple, when start­ing a horse over an­gled fences, show him with guide rails in­stead of leav­ing it open so he learns he can run out to the side. When teach­ing him to go into wa­ter, take an ex­pe­ri­enced horse to show him. Giv­ing a young or learning horse time to fig­ure out a prob­lem and show­ing him a way helps to de­velop quiet­ness, which is an im­por­tant prin­ci­ple to An­dreas.

“Ev­ery­thing we do with the horses has to come from quiet­ness. Es­pe­cially when we start with young horses, we have to take the time to show the horses what they have to do,” he said.

How­ever, if the horse is phys­i­cally and men­tally pre­pared for a new task and you have shown him the way, you must be de­ter­mined that he will com­plete the task or you risk cre­at­ing a lifelong prob­lem. An­dreas re­ferred to this prin­ci­ple as “con­se­quence and de­ter­mi­na­tion.”

This con­cept came into play dur­ing my own lessons with An­dreas. I rode a pony mare who is a clever, talented jumper, but she can be a lit­tle too smart and is not averse to throw­ing on the brakes in front of a fence. An­dreas told me that I had to have more faith that she can do the job but ride with more de­ter­mi­na­tion and en­cour­age­ment to get a good jump.

Bal­ance and Con­tact

There must be a good bal­ance be­tween horse and rider that can be achieved through an ef­fec­tive po­si­tion and con­tact. Of­ten, the rid­ers would try to help the horse by be­ing too ac­tive with the up­per body: “When you want to ‘help,’ don’t make pres­sure come from body, use the leg.”

How­ever, the up­per body has a pur­pose when it comes to achiev­ing good bal­ance and com­mu­ni­ca­tion with the horse. For

in­stance, lean­ing for­ward with the body says to go for­ward, while bring­ing the body back says to come back onto the hind legs and col­lect. Throw­ing the up­per body for­ward too soon at the take-off for a fence—or jump­ing ahead—can cause you to ride “into the hole.” Be­com­ing pro­fi­cient with your up­per body as an aid will help with con­trol, bal­ance and the qual­ity of jump.

“When we want to bring them back, we have to come back with our up­per body. That is the big­gest mis­take the rid­ers are hav­ing. The prob­lem is when we stay in front with the up­per body, the horse doesn’t lis­ten and then we try to bring them back too much with the rein. This is not nec­es­sary when we can use our body to bring the horses more to the hind leg.”

By pulling the shoul­ders and up­per body back while main­tain­ing con­tact, a rider can half-halt and ap­ply the leg so the horse car­ries him­self bet­ter, thus cre­at­ing the ac­tive and pow­er­ful can­ter we de­sire to jump safely. “They don’t do that when we start to fight with the bit or pull on the rein.”

An­dreas ap­pre­ci­ates a longer rein over a short rein not only be­cause it en­cour­ages a bet­ter po­si­tion for the rider but be­cause it also al­lows the horse to use his neck for bal­ance. “I of­ten tell the rid­ers they have to keep the rein longer and not too short be­cause when they shorten the rein too much they pull their own body too far in front and the horses come too short in the neck. The neck is a very im­por­tant part of the body for the horse to find their own bal­ance,” An­dreas said.

“It is al­ways bet­ter to keep the horse long enough in the neck. Some horses have the prob­lem, es­pe­cially hot horses or when they are too mo­ti­vated, that they are short in the neck. These horses are very dif­fi­cult to keep on a good line on cross coun­try.”

Even with a longer rein, An­dreas wants con­tact on the ap­proach to a jump. This is when the hand, seat and leg work to­gether to bring the horse into an up­hill bal­ance. An­dreas also wants the horse look­ing for the con­tact and not the rider bring­ing the con­tact to him. A longer neck also helps the horse to move straighter in his body mak­ing it eas­ier for the rider to con­trol, cir­cling back to the rider’s re­spon­si­bil­ity of pro­vid­ing di­rec­tion in ad­di­tion to speed.

An­dreas fre­quently re­minded ath­letes to ride straight af­ter a com­bi­na­tion or the fi­nal fence on course. Ad­di­tion­ally, the rid­ers were not al­lowed to make a hasty down tran­si­tion to stop at the end of a round, and in­stead had make good tran­si­tions down and keep the horse work­ing un­til the rider de­cided it was time to stop.

“The mo­ment af­ter the fence is also the mo­ment be­fore the next fence. If you stop your rid­ing and the horse is do­ing what­ever he wants to do in this mo­ment, then it takes the rider a longer time to make the prepa­ra­tion for the next fence,” he said. “We want to ride from point A to point B in one straight line with a jump in be­tween. I try to school the rid­ers and horses from the beginning that the horse has to fol­low the rider, but if the rider is not show­ing the horse the way, why should they have to fol­low him?”

An­dreas con­cluded that in the end, safety is the most im­por­tant thing. Safe rid­ing is pos­si­ble when the horse and rider take re­spon­si­bil­ity, stay in bal­ance to­gether and trust each other.

Cur­rently ranked 13th in the world on the FEI World Event­ing Ath­lete Rank­ings, An­dreas Di­bowski is a stal­wart on the Ger­man Event­ing Team. He has com­peted in three World Equestrian Games and three Olympic Games; he was a mem­ber of the gold-medal-win­ning team at the 2008 Olympics in Hong Kong, rid­ing FRH Butts Leon. In 2016 he won the Luh­mŸhlen CCI**** rid­ing It’s Me XX.


Katie Bryant and Made­line Carl­man’s Hanove­rian mare EM Aquataine pre­pare to hop down a drop bank dur­ing a clinic with Olympic gold medal­ist An­dreas Di­bowski.

ABOVE: Be­fore beginning the cross-coun­try por­tion of the clinic, An­dreas uti­lized gym­nas­tics as part of the warm-up. Here, An­dreas coaches Jeanie Clarke as she guides Head for More LLC’s Olden­burg geld­ing Le Cor­sair through a six-strided grid de­signed...

LEFT: Nancy Kath­eryn Webb and her Trakehner stal­lion Car­di­nali got a close dis­tance to the ta­ble, but be­cause the horse was in front of her leg and she pro­vided a sup­port­ive con­tact, they were able to jump safely. In this sit­u­a­tion, it would have been...

The author and Amy Keller’s pony Wil­low hop up an Ir­ish bank. An­dreas en­cour­aged her to be “more aggressive” with the lit­tle mare, who’s known to be too smart for her own good and has a habit of oc­ca­sion­ally re­fus­ing fences.

Katie begins to set up for the jump while sit­ting deeper in the sad­dle, bring­ing her up­per body back and main­tain­ing con­tact. She half-halts and adds leg so EM Aquataine sits more on his hind end and cre­ates an ac­tive, pow­er­ful can­ter from which to jump.

An­dreas likes to see a horse go cross coun­try with a longer neck for bal­ance and straight­ness. It also helps to keep the rider from get­ting too far ahead of the mo­tion due to a short rein. Wer­ner Geven is rid­ing Christy Ed­wards’ Trakehner mare Reddy or...

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