Cross Coun­try With Jim Wof­ford

Jim gives a re­fresher course in train­ing and school­ing cross coun­try.

Practical Horseman - - Special Eventing Issue -

Event­ing is a strange busi­ness. We do it for one sim­ple rea­son—cross coun­try. Yet in or­der to en­joy those won­der­ful com­pe­ti­tion mo­ments at the gal­lop, we spend end­less hours trot­ting in a cir­cle in search of the elu­sive 10 on a dres­sage move­ment or vainly look­ing for per­fect strides in an im­per­fect show-jump­ing world.

Most even­ters gladly pay this price to fi­nally go cross coun­try. The ir­re­sistible thrill of gal­lop­ing across open fields and over jumps on a horse who loves the sen­sa­tion as much you do makes any price seem small. But here’s why I say event­ing is a strange busi­ness: Cross coun­try is the most fun of the three phases, the hard­est to learn and en­tails the most risk, yet we prac­tice it the least.

In ad­di­tion, many riders de­cided that the change from the Clas­sic to the short for­mat em­pha­sized dres­sage and show jump­ing at the ex­pense of cross coun­try. This was a dan­ger­ously wrong con­clu­sion and many paid a lethal price. I have re­cently seen state­ments by se­nior in­ter­na­tional riders lament­ing the loss of the Clas­sic for­mat. Their grow­ing re­al­iza­tion is that the loss of the Clas­sic has led to a com­men­su­rate loss of horse­man­ship skills. With that in mind, I want to give you a re­fresher in train­ing and rid­ing cross coun­try.

Con­di­tion­ing Be­fore All Else

First, cross coun­try is the most stren­u­ous of event­ing’s three phases and re­quires long-term plan­ning and con­di­tion­ing. I have re­cently no­ticed that more and more riders have trou­ble keep­ing their horses con­sis­tently sound. I think this is due partly to the year-round na­ture of event­ing on both coasts and partly to the ten­dency of riders to “run them fit.” Although I am crit­i­cal of to­day’s riders, one trait I am sure they pos­sess is an in­cred­i­ble work ethic. How­ever, their re­sults would be bet­ter if they were to work smart as well as hard. Horses do not self-mon­i­tor as hu­man ath­letes do and, thus, are more sus­cep­ti­ble to in­jury. Un­for­tu­nately, the more tal­ented and ea­ger a horse, the less likely he is to tell the rider he needs a break. Be­cause of this, I am al­ways metic­u­lous when con­di­tion­ing horses in my care. Be­fore they school cross coun­try, they will have done four to six weeks of slow con­di­tion­ing work and have built up their work­load un­til they can slow can­ter twice the dis­tance of the av­er­age cross-coun­try course at their level.

Next, Jump Fence By Fence

I plan my first cross-coun­try school two to four weeks be­fore my horse’s first com­pe­ti­tion. (This school will sub­sti­tute as a con­di­tion­ing day in his train­ing sched­ule.) There are three types of cross­coun­try school­ing: fence by fence, gym­nas­tic cross coun­try and short cour­ses. Each has a def­i­nite ef­fect on your horse, and we will dis­cuss each one.

Fence by fence is the eas­i­est on your horse’s physique and for that rea­son is the type of school I use af­ter a long time without any cross-coun­try school­ing days or com­pe­ti­tions. The fence-by-fence pat­tern is ex­actly what it sounds like—walk be­tween ob­sta­cles, pick up a bal­anced can­ter, jump a sin­gle ob­sta­cle and tran­si­tion back to the walk. Start your can­ter far enough away from the ob­sta­cle that you have time to es­tab­lish your rhythm. Af­ter the ob­sta­cle, make sure your horse can-

ters away from it at the same speed with which you ap­proached. No­tice that I said “can­ter,” not “gal­lop.” School­ing at the gal­lop will come later in the pro­gres­sion.

Be­fore the sea­son starts I in­vari­ably school at least one level below a horse’s com­pet­i­tive level dur­ing his first ex­po­sure to cross-coun­try work. I want both of you to de­velop con­fi­dence, deepen your un­der­stand­ing of cross-coun­try tech­nique, in­crease your fit­ness and en­joy your­selves. I have worked un­der coaches who made their horses and riders school big fences in cold blood. These ses­sions were in­vari­ably de­mor­al­iz­ing for horse and rider, and I avoid that sit­u­a­tion. I also avoid telling my riders to “get close” to or “stand off” from an ob­sta­cle. These terms re­fer to vari­a­tions from the the­o­ret­i­cally cor­rect dis­tance, which is usu­ally de­ter­mined by jump­ing from a dis­tance in front of the ob­sta­cle that is the height of the ob­sta­cle (and half the spread if the ob­sta­cle has width as well as height) and land­ing the same dis­tance be­hind it. Keep in mind that this is not what hap­pens in re­al­ity.

It takes a great deal of ex­pe­ri­ence to be able to con­sis­tently pre­dict the take­off spot sev­eral strides away from the ob­sta­cle. IF you be­lieve you will fail WHEN you do not pre­dict the cor­rect dis­tance, then you are right—you will fail. That is why, in­stead of in­sist­ing on ac­cu­racy, I in­sist on rhythm. When you feel the rhythm, you feel the bal­ance, and when your horse is bal­anced, he jumps to the best of his abil­ity. It is as sim­ple as that. The art of tim­ing your stride (the abil­ity to pre­dict and in­flu­ence the re­main­ing num­ber of strides be­fore an ob­sta­cle) takes a long time to learn. In the mean­time, we need a sys­tem of rid­ing and train­ing that works for less-ex­pe­ri­enced horses and riders. While we are talk­ing about pre­dict­ing your stride, let’s talk about your eyes. If you don’t see the jump, you won’t see your stride ac­cu­rately. In or­der to mea­sure dis­tance, you must have a fixed point of ref­er­ence. Look at the same place on the ob­sta­cle as your horse looks, which is the top of the ob­sta­cle. Look on top of a ver­ti­cal, the front rail of a par­al­lel, the back rail of a triple bar and the top rail of a hogs­back. Look at that place on the ob­sta­cle un­til it goes out of sight be­tween your horse’s ears, then look ahead. If you look at the ob­sta­cle and keep your rhythm, chances are you will have a good cross-coun­try school.

When you plan which cross-coun­try ob­sta­cles to jump, be sure to in­clude a bank, a ditch and wa­ter. (Ap­proach­ing an up bank, you look at the top of the bank as if it were a ver­ti­cal. When jump­ing a ditch, treat it as a triple bar and look at the back of the ditch.) Your first few ob­sta­cles should be sim­ple logs on level ground, then you can move to ob­sta­cles that are slightly ei­ther up- or down­hill. Dur­ing my first school of the sea­son, I don’t school too many com­bi­na­tions. That will hap­pen dur­ing our next cross-coun­try ses­sion.

Then Cross-Coun­try Gym­nas­tics

About a week or 10 days af­ter my fenceby-fence school, my next cross-coun­try school will be what I call “cross-coun­try gym­nas­tics.” (My show-jump­ing train­ing will con­tinue ac­cord­ing to my over­all train­ing sched­ule.) Be­cause you are go­ing to build the gym­nas­tics one el­e­ment at a time, you will need a jump crew for this type of ex­er­cise. Get a sta­ble pal to trade du­ties with you. Some­times you learn more from the ground than in the sad­dle, so it will be fun for you in ei­ther role.

Depend­ing on the fa­cil­ity where you are school­ing, take a pair of stan­dards and sev­eral rails to a small bank, a sim­i­lar num­ber of stan­dards and rails to a plain ditch (no logs or rails be­fore or af­ter) and again the same at a wa­ter jump with no logs or rails block­ing the en­trance or exit. Warm up over sim­ple logs, roll-tops and ox­ers with the same at­ti­tude as your first cross-coun­try school. You can see where I am go­ing with this type of school. I will put the stan­dards with one rail on the ground, below the bank and 18 feet from the lip of the bank. If I have enough rails, I will put a plac­ing rail on the ground 9 feet out­side the rail that is be­tween the stan­dards.

Un­less you have a pony or a horse with a very short stride, plan to ap­proach all of these gym­nas­tics at the trot. I want your horse to learn to jump with tech­nique and strength rather than with mo­men­tum. With the rails on the ground, trot up and down the bank on as loose a rein as pos­si­ble. I want your horse to think for him­self, and at the same time, jump­ing up and down a bank is a very good ex­er­cise to help de­velop your in­de­pen­dent jump­ing po­si­tion. (Hint: Grab mane the first cou­ple of times you jump up. It is harder than it looks and I don’t want you to get left be­hind.) Once your horse is set­tled and re­laxed, have your jump crew raise the rail be­tween the

stan­dards while you work back and forth. Leave the sec­ond rail on the ground. It will be a plac­ing rail on the way up and will help keep your horse bal­anced on the way back down.

The dis­tance be­tween the rail and the bank is de­signed for an ap­proach at the trot in both di­rec­tions. Oc­ca­sion­ally, horses will jump down and land so far out from the bank that they bounce out over the rail rather than take a stride. Have your jump crew put a third rail on the ground half­way be­tween the bank and the ob­sta­cle. Don’t try to solve this prob­lem by in­creas­ing your con­tact with the reins. The more you pull on the way down, the more he will in­vert and the far­ther out into the dis­tance he will jump. Once your horse has set­tled and is jump­ing back and forth qui­etly, grad­u­ally raise the rail un­til it is the height of your com­pet­i­tive level, e.g. 3-foot-3 inches for Train­ing level, and so on. Banks suit­able for school­ing are usu­ally 2 to 3 feet in height. They are ex­cel­lent ex­er­cises for your horse and for you as well. Keep the soft­est rein pos­si­ble and make sure you go with the mo­tion jump­ing up, and let your horse jump out from un­derneath you on the way down.

For va­ri­ety af­ter your work at the bank gym­nas­tic, you can gal­lop over a few sim­ple logs and roll-tops to re-es­tab­lish your horse’s im­pul­sion. Then walk to the ditch where you will use the same train­ing pat­tern and the same num­ber of rails, and then later, af­ter a cou­ple of fun, gal­lop­ing fences, re­peat the pat­tern at the wa­ter jump. At the wa­ter jump, for very green horses, I will put the rail 18 feet from the edge of the wa­ter so that they take off and land on dry ground be­fore en­ter­ing or leav­ing the wa­ter. For more ex­pe­ri­enced horses, I will put the rail over the edge of the wa­ter.

Once you be­come com­fort­able us­ing cross-coun­try gym­nas­tics, they are lim­ited only by your cre­ativ­ity and the state of train­ing of your horse. You can du­pli­cate any cross-coun­try ques­tion you have seen at a com­pe­ti­tion, just be care­ful to in­tro­duce it step by step, not all at once.

Now, Short Cour­ses

Af­ter an­other week or so of quiet work, which will in­clude dres­sage and showjump­ing train­ing plus con­di­tion­ing, I will school a third time, this time us­ing a short course ap­proach. Plan two to three short cour­ses, each of about two min­utes du­ra­tion, at ap­prox­i­mately 350-400 me­ters per minute. Each course should in­clude an easy jump to start, a mild turn­ing ques­tion and one of the three fea­tures you used for gym­nas­tics. For ex­am­ple, in­clude a big­ger bank with a log on top or a sim­ple bank com­bi­na­tion. This should be fol­lowed by one or two more fly fences and then walk for a few min­utes. When your horse’s res­pi­ra­tion has al­most re­cov­ered, start the sec­ond of your short cour­ses, this time in­clud­ing a ditch ques­tion fol­lowed again by a pe­riod of rest. Your third short course should in­clude the wa­ter com­plex as well as easy, con­fi­dence-build­ing ob­sta­cles be­fore and af­ter the wa­ter.

Each of these three types of school­ing tech­niques has both good points and draw­backs. Fence by fence is the eas­i­est on your horse’s physique, but it is dif­fi­cult to main­tain a rhythm due to its stop-andgo na­ture. Cross-coun­try gym­nas­tics are in­valu­able to teach your horse to deal with more com­pli­cated com­bi­na­tions, but they put a lot of em­pha­sis on col­lected can­ter and can make your horse a lit­tle rein-bound. Short cour­ses are ex­cel­lent for im­prov­ing phys­i­cal fit­ness and du­pli­cat­ing com­pet­i­tive cir­cum­stances. How­ever, if your horse is at all ag­gres­sive, this type of school­ing pat­tern can make him too for­ward. Each of these pat­terns can be used to com­ple­ment your horse’s tem­per­a­ment. For ex­am­ple, OTTBs should do more fence-by-fence and gym­nas­tic school­ing be­cause short cour­ses are cat­nip for Thor­ough­breds. On the other hand, phleg­matic horses will pros­per by do­ing short cour­ses, which will in­crease their fit­ness and awaken their at­ti­tude.

If dres­sage and show-jump­ing prac­tice are the way you pay your dues, care­ful con­di­tion­ing and school­ing will make the re­wards even bet­ter when you can— fi­nally—go cross coun­try.

Once your horse un­der­stands the ba­sic ques­tion of cross-coun­try gym­nas­tics, you can build quite com­plex ones us­ing por­ta­ble stan­dards and rails. Sharon White and Don Sh­effield, “Shu,” have learned how to can­ter up­hill and down­hill in bal­ance, and I...

Based at Fox Covert Farm, in Up­perville, Vir­ginia, Jim Wof­ford com­peted in three Olympics and two World Cham­pi­onships and won the U.S. Na­tional Cham­pi­onship five times. He is also a highly re­spected coach. For more on Jim, go to www. jim­wof­ford....

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