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.

Practical Horseman - - Contents -

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.”

While a pic­ture is worth a thou­sand words, you have to look at thou­sands of pic­tures to find the right one. When I find one I like, I tend to use it again. Erin Sylvester and No Bound­aries,“Bucky,” jump­ing up the in­fa­mous Nor­mandy Bank at the 2012...

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....

Cross-coun­try rid­ers don’t just ride up and down the ter­rain—they also jump across the ter­rain. Cana­dian Olympic vet­eran Jes­sica Fer­gu­son and Bogue Sound show you what hap­pens when you jump across as well as up and down. Her horse’s left knee tells the...

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