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April 22, 2010

Is Cross-Country Schooling A Lost Art?

Photo by StockImageServices.com.

Our columnist sees too many eventers honing their focus on dressage and show jumping and allowing their cross-country skills to suffer.

As I sit here at my computer, reflecting after The Fork CIC*** (N.C.), it’s hard to keep from wondering, “Are my horses as ready as they can be for their fast-approaching three-days? Is the dressage where it needs to be, or can I eke out a few more points? Can I leave the colored poles up on Sunday?”

When you’re a professional event rider, these pesky little questions never really go away. There’s always a next dressage test to focus on, and there’s always another show jump in your path. But, honestly, what I’m most concerned about is what will happen on Saturdays.

“Is ‘Ty’ [Titanium] fit enough for his first CCI**** at Rolex Kentucky? Is ‘Libby’ [Absolute Liberty] comfortable with all of the questions that will be asked in Ocala, Fla., over the weekend at her first two-star?”

Cross-country is the bread and butter of our sport, so I keep wondering why, these days, it seems like it’s an afterthought.

As one of the perks of being on the U.S. Equestrian Federation’s High Performance Training Lists, many of us riders went to Wellington, Fla., to practice dressage and show jumping over the winter with experts in those respective disciplines, and many of us made major gains with our horses. Those, we hope, will be evident in the first and third phases of our upcoming CCIs.

But what have we been doing to improve our cross-country performances? Did anyone go to Ireland to foxhunt or gallop race horses over the winter? I, for one, did not.

I used to ride in steeplechases, I worked in Ireland, and I hunted three days a week. Having grown up hunting across the open land in Chester County, Pa., the cross-country phase is more natural for me than the two other phases. That’s why, up until now, I’ve generally worked harder on dressage and show jumping than I did on the middle phase.

But today the cross-country courses are so different from what they used to be that I think it’s time we put more stress on the importance of practicing more than just lead changes in the dressage arena and gymnastics in the jumping. The level of cross-country riding in our country has declined in the past 10 years. Many of our horses just aren’t ready for the levels in which they’re competing, nor are our riders.

Back To School

This morning I was cross-country schooling a few of the horses I’m scheduled to ride in the Florida CCI** this coming weekend. As I was doing my final touch-ups at beautiful Longwood Farm in Ocala, I ran into Leslie Law and Karen O’Connor. Meanwhile, Betsy Watkins, the owner of Longwood, was out on her tractor moving jumps around for the three of us so we’ll be ready for Ocala and Kentucky.

Eventually, we all started talking about how people don’t take the time to practice cross-country anymore. To me, the cross-country seems to be getting so hard and technical that horses need to practice it more than ever before, and they need to be ready to expect the unexpected. This only comes from repetition and practice.

Most of today’s riders grew up in a ring; therefore, riding across the country just isn’t natural. For myself, and I now know that for Leslie as well, riding in a ring wasn’t natural. He grew up, much like I did, going out over the countryside, jumping over anything in the way, up and down hills, over ditches, across banks, through water. We spent no time in a ring.

This is where nervousness began when I started competing. I used to get nervous for the dressage and show jumping, but the cross-country was always fun. That meant I had to put a lot more time and effort into schooling in the ring, until I eventually built on my successes and felt competent and confident in dressage and show jumping. Now my horses score well and jump clean because I can give them a better ride.

Eventually, you realize that knowledge is power, and power is confidence. I think this is where we’ve all gone wrong in the phase we least expected to go wrong in—the cross-country. That’s why I’ve changed my build-up to each event in recent years.

I make sure all of the horses that are going to the show have schooled cross-country recently. That preparation gives me confidence, which in turn allows me to think more clearly and quickly when I head out of the start box on Saturday. The best riders are the ones who figure problems out in a split-second when things aren’t perfect.

In this country, we seem to practice too many perfect five-stride lines. Does anyone ever practice a 31⁄2-stride line over rails that fall down? Probably not! It doesn’t look as nice, riders have to think for themselves, and that’s probably not what most instructors think they get paid for.

But I disagree. We need to help our riders have enough knowledge to think for themselves when it really matters. I’ve made more mistakes than most, and as they say, “You gain the experience you need just after you needed it.”

If we work harder at home, the cross-country can be what it used to be: fun. Fun to ride and fun to watch. Good cross-country is what the public wants to see.

And as Leslie said during our conversation, “If I lose 5 points in the dressage and go clear Saturday, then the schooling and moving of all these jumps today was worth it.”

Fitness First

I hope everyone in our eventing community has done their homework over the past several months so these approaching spring CCIs can be safe and enjoyable to watch. If you’re hoping to get lucky, stay home and come out when you’re truly ready, not just qualified. As you do your cross-country schools, you’ll start to realize where you and your horses are, fitness-wise.

Fitness in horse and rider is so important, because, after all, it’s a sport. And in sport you have to have the mental and physical capacity to immediately react to whatever is going on at the time. A plan is good, but your mind and your horse’s mind have to be clear to make the “right” call when things don’t go according to plan. And if you and your horse don’t have the physical strength to react to those split-second changes in plans, you’re simply not ready.

I’m not going to give you a fitness schedule for you and your horse because each horse and rider are different, and therefore we all need different training programs. But this is where your relationship with your trainer is so important.

Golf legend Phil Mickelson, who just won the Masters Golf Tournament on April 11, doesn’t train the same way as his rival Tiger Woods; they’re very different, but they both know how to play to their strengths. In the same way, I don’t train My Boy Bobby like I train Ty. With different horses of different breeding it’s a different program.

“Bob” is a big, slow Irish horse with lots of power, while Ty is a thin, quick Thoroughbred that lacks a little bit of strength in some areas. They both did the cross-country at The Fork CIC*** with the same exact time, but they took two different roads to get there.

At home, Bobby does lots of long trots and swims but doesn’t do as much dressage or jumping. But Ty has a base of fitness from his racing days, and his jumping needs the most work, so he jumps all of the time and does dressage often. If I’m away, they both just trot.

Getting a horse fit takes a long time, about 22 weeks for a four-star, and the base is a long and tedious process that involves countless hours of trotting around fields, on the roads, up hills. It’s mind-numbingly boring, but it’s so important.

There’s just too much dressage, jumping and galloping in people’s schedules. If you really put in the time, you’ll be more successful and, by the way, your vet bills will go way down.

As important as the fitness is, it’s equally important to know when your horse needs a break. Sometimes the best thing to do is just go out for a hack or give him the day off. But you only know this when you’ve been the one looking after him. You can feel it in his body and see it in his eyes.

As for the horses in my barn, Bobby and “Reggie” [Ballynoe Castle RM] will be getting well-deserved breaks from a spring four-star, as I feel a break now will make them stronger to help potentially win a medal in September at the Alltech FEI World Equestrian Games.

But Ty and I will be heading to Rolex Kentucky, so I hope he can step up and show everyone he’s a four-star horse. You never know whether you’ve got one until you try.

What I do know is that he’s fit, and we’ve done our homework to the best of my ability. So after one last cross-country school, we’ll be off to Lexington.

Keep on practicing and enjoy the ride.

Buck Davidson is an event rider based in Riegelsville, Pa., and Ocala, Fla. The son of eventing legend Bruce Davidson Sr., Buck has carried on the family name with major achievements beginning during his young rider career. More recently, he was the alternate for the 2008 Olympic Games in Hong Kong, was ranked No. 2 in the 2009 U.S. Eventing Association national standings and named the Chronicle’s 2009 Event Rider of the Year. He began contributing to Between Rounds in 2010.

If you enjoyed this article and would like to read more like it, consider subscribing. "Is Cross-Country Schooling A Lost Art?" ran in the April 23 issue. Check out the table of contents to see what great stories are in the magazine this week.

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