Cross Country With Jim Wofford
Jim explains the influence of terrain in cross-country riding, including how it affects your horse and how to use it to your advantage.
Last month I wrote about preparing for competition—specifically about schooling cross-country obstacles. I was discussing the “art and science” of cross-country riding with the “science” part first. It sounds pretty scientific if I say, “Put the obstacle exactly 18 feet from the base of the bank,” and so on. But there is also an art to riding cross country, and that’s my topic for this column.
According to some observers, cross country has become show jumping at speed. Although I think there is some truth to this, it will never be entirely true. Despite all the changes to the sport of eventing, we still go across the country.
The Influence of Terrain
Modern show-jumping courses are increasingly complex with related distances, curved lines, fragile construction and visual distractions like liverpools. My point here is that terrain is the unique aspect of cross-country riding. Cross-country horses and riders have to solve all those problems—at speed, on changeable footing, with terrain that is different every step and occasionally when the horses are starting to get tired. Horses react to terrain, but their reactions differ according to their age, experience, state of training and general attitude toward life. This is where the art of cross-country riding comes into play.
For example, an obstacle at the end of a long downhill run is just another day at the office for experienced horses, but it’s an invitation to bad jumping for the lower levels. Lower-level course designers avoid obstacles on downhill approaches for this reason. They will usually place the obstacle a few strides beyond the transition to flat ground in order to give the less-experienced horse time to regain his balance. To me, one of the many interesting effects of terrain is that horses learn to deal with terrain as they gain experience.
The natural tendency of horses is to extend their stride when going downhill and to shorten their stride going uphill. However, with experience and training, they will learn to compensate. A young horse will certainly lose his balance going downhill, but several years later he will easily deal with the same sort of problem. In fact, upper-level horses will have problems with downhill combinations not because their stride gets too long but because they shorten their stride too much. This is another time when the science of cross-country riding becomes art. I often tell my students that it is much harder to learn to ride forward in balance downhill than uphill. Cross-country gymnastics such as I suggested in my column last month will teach horses to keep their balance when going up- or downhill.
Strategies on Slopes
Another subtle aspect of terrain is the effect on your horse when galloping across a slope: The force of gravity will pull him slightly down the slope with each stride. Visualize yourself galloping across a gentle slope with an obstacle in your path. The obstacle is aligned directly up- and downhill, so the white flag is uphill on your left and the red flag is downhill on your right. (Downhill snow skiers talk about the “fall line,” meaning a line pointing straight downhill. I avoid using this term for obvious reasons, but I need for you to see the situation clearly in your mind.)
If you approach the fence slightly from your left to right, i.e., slightly downhill, your horse will be off balance and may even twist over his downhill shoulder in the air over the jump and land awkwardly. In that situation, the sensation when your horse leaves the ground will be the same as if you had stepped down one more step in the dark than you had expected. On the other hand, if you adjust the line of your approach so that you are coming slightly uphill at the obstacle, chances are you will have a good experience.
Another subtlety I want you to be aware of is the effect on your horse’s landing when jumping across a slope. Each time you jump across a slope, your horse will deviate from his line of approach and land a foot or so farther downhill than where he took off. This happens because he pushes slightly more with his uphill hind leg than his downhill leg, which will cause him to drift downhill a bit. The steeper the slope, the more exaggerated the effect. This is mildly interesting for lower-level riders, and it is usually enough for you to feel your horse’s reaction to terrain. Later on, this effect is used by cross-country course designers to create combinations of extreme difficulty.
When you jump uphill, the effect on your horse is as if he were jumping off a trampoline, while jumping downhill, especially on a less-experienced horse, will feel to you as if your horse’s feet are nailed to the ground at the point of takeoff. That’s
why, in general, uphill fences ride better than downhill fences. Going uphill brings your horse’s weight and balance back into his hocks, where his jumping power lives. Jumping downhill loads his shoulders and makes it more difficult for him to push off the ground.
I don’t want you to be afraid of jumping uphill or downhill. Just be aware of the difficulties involved with each and know that your horse needs physical fitness, education and experience. Eventually, he will handle uphill and downhill terrain easily.
Use the Opportunities
Whenever possible, you should use the terrain to balance your horse. This will make your half-halts more meaningful, will enable you to adjust your speed in less time and will produce a happier horse in general. The next time you are cantering up and down slopes, be aware that every time your horse goes over a “transition” of the terrain, either up or down, he will pause just a bit before committing his body to the new terrain. Especially when you’re going downhill, and most especially on inexperienced but brave horses, that pause at the transition of terrain is your opportunity to get an effective half-halt.
If you miss that opportunity when riding the young and brave horse I mentioned, within a couple of strides downhill you will be merely riding shotgun down the avalanche. The transition effect while going cross country is very subtle but very real. You need to learn to anticipate your horse’s reactions and take advantage of them.
Help, Don’t Hinder, Your Horse
In the meantime, you must be aware not just of the effect of terrain on your horse, but also the adjustments you need to make in your jumping position to help your horse when jumping either up or down. When jumping uphill, be patient in the approach. Don’t let “your eye get longer than your stride.” Your horse’s stride naturally shortens when you are going uphill; the steeper the terrain, the shorter his stride becomes. There is a tendency to try to “stand off” from uphill banks, but this is wrong—and can be harmful to your horse.
During your first lessons jumping up and down, I will have you use a neck strap or grab the mane when you first jump up a bank. Inexperienced riders are surprised at the powerful backward pull of gravity
and are often badly left behind unless they have an artificial aid helping them keep their balance. When your horse’s front feet touch the ground on the top of the bank, I want you to land in a two-point. Stay in your two-point. In the next split second your horse will bring his hindquarters up. This will give you the feeling that he has brought his back up to you, rather than you collapsing backward as he is jumping up. I am sure you have been taught in your show-jumping lessons that if you sit down in the air over an oxer your horse will drop his hind legs and have a knockdown. The same mechanism operates when jumping up over cross-country obstacles, but the penalty your horse will pay for your mistake is far greater because he is jumping obstacles that are fixed. When he hits a show-jumping rail, he receives a bump on his hind legs. When he hits a solid bank on the way up, there is a serious risk of injury. If in doubt when jumping up a bank or steep slope, take the mane, push your heels down and slightly back and leave the saddle a split second early in order to stay with your horse’s motion.
However, you need an entirely different position when jumping down. If we are having a cross-country lesson, I will not tell you to “lean back” or to “keep your head back.” Emphasizing these motions will cause you to lift your hands too high, thus interfering with the natural motion of your horse’s head and neck. Instead, I want you to bring the points of your hips forward and land with your lower leg in front of the vertical. You should “slip” your reins to encourage your horse to take advantage of his “fifth leg.” I hesitate to mention slipping your reins because regaining the reins seems to be a lost art. This explains why supposedly expert upper-level riders come through their drop combinations with their reins too long and their arms flapping like a screen door in a hurricane. Go to www.PracticalHorsemanMag.com to read a previous column where I explain how to shorten yours quickly and efficiently.
Consider What’s Underfoot
We have already talked about jumping and galloping up, down and across a hill. Another element we need to examine is the nature of the footing. Is it very hard, very soft, slippery or anything else that will affect the way your horse gallops while on course? You will probably ride on various types of footing during the season and you should make note of your horse’s reaction to each. I have ridden some horses that absolutely loved hard ground and others that weren’t worth a nickel except on soft footing. It isn’t terribly important at the lower levels, but you should still know what to expect.
Riders will beat themselves up after a cross-country round that wasn’t up to their usual standard. Certainly we have to be self-critical in order to improve, but we need to be aware of all the factors that affect your cross-country riding. You shouldn’t expect a big-footed Irish Sport Horse to go well on hard ground. Alternatively, a lightweight, small-footed racetrack reject will probably not think much of playing in the mud. None of these details are determinative, but if you know them, you can compensate accordingly.
There is one more cross-country feature we need to discuss—water. The problems that most water jumps cause are more visual than mechanical. By that I mean horses have a natural reluctance to jump into water of an unknown depth and footing. Careful practice is needed to produce a
confident water jumper.
I mentioned last month the efficacy of using cross-country gymnastics, and this is another area where they will be very useful. I try to teach riders when they are show jumping or going cross country to control their horses’ balance with their heels and their hands, not with their upper-body position. However, when going through water, especially deeper water, I want you to sit a little more erect than usual. This will help your horse counteract the dragging effect of water on his lower legs. This applies when jumping from water to water or water to dry land. You may have arrived at a water obstacle in balance and at a normal takeoff stride, but you must be very slow bending forward at the jump, as the dragging effect of water will be influential at the moment of takeoff. Your horse needs you to ride behind the motion slightly in this instance.
Still Crazy After All These Years
While the effects of cross-country terrain are limitless, I hope this will serve as a useful guide.
I’m lucky that I was an active competitor in an era when the Classic scoring system was heavily weighted toward cross country. The scoring ratio for the three disciplines—dressage, cross country, show jumping—was 3:12:2 rather than the roughly 1:1:1 ratio we see now. My skill set fell in line with the Classic ratio, with the cross country being most important, and the technical parts far behind. I have a notion that every rider has a particular position on their horse that feels right to them. This would explain why certain riders choose certain disciplines and ignore others. My favorite position is the galloping two-point. When I can bend over and let the speed of the horse carry me out of the saddle and into the natural world, I feel most in tune with the natural world. I’m much happier outside than indoors and much happier in the country than in the city. You see more miracles in the country than the city. I guess you would just call me “cross-country crazy.”
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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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