Monday, Mar. 4, 2024

Changing How We Think About Cross-Country Riding

Recent rider fatalities have focused the spotlight on safety in eventing like never before. Though there was a time when a rider fatality was almost an accepted part of the sport, that time is past. In the coming months and years it is a given that additional rules will be enacted in an effort to make eventing safer.

Many of those rules will be objectively aimed at increasing the number of qualifying results riders need before moving up a level; others will be aimed at raising the age limits on each level of competition.
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Recent rider fatalities have focused the spotlight on safety in eventing like never before. Though there was a time when a rider fatality was almost an accepted part of the sport, that time is past. In the coming months and years it is a given that additional rules will be enacted in an effort to make eventing safer.

Many of those rules will be objectively aimed at increasing the number of qualifying results riders need before moving up a level; others will be aimed at raising the age limits on each level of competition.

Pressure for a subjective component is gaining as well, be it rider licensing or evaluations. In one form or another, all of these things are coming.

But rule changes alone are not enough. It is a given that if we pass rules to make eventing idiot proof, someone will make a better idiot. Over the long haul it is my belief that we have to make amateur-level eventing as safe as little league baseball or church league volleyball. To do this we need more than tighter qualifications, more than rider licensing. We need a cultural sea change in how we think about our sport.

This change in thinking has already taken place among the majority of active upper-level professionals. No longer is “brave” the first criterion for a good upper-level event horse; “careful” has taken its place at the top of the list. No longer is “aggressive” an important attribute in a good rider; seeing a distance is.

But this recognition hasn’t trickled down beyond the professional ranks yet. It needs to in three specific, overlapping ways, each regarding how we think about the most dangerous part of our sport, cross-country riding.

Control And Accuracy

Cross-country riding, done well, is about control and accuracy. It is not “run, attack, kill.” Watching riders who embody the “run, attack, kill” mentality might be exciting, but it is not watching good riding. Good riding, like good anything, makes a task that is very difficult look very easy, fluid and simple.

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One of the biggest differences between the novice level and the advanced level isn’t the height of the jumps; it’s how the jumps are related to each other. Jumping down a huge bank and turning to two corners at the advanced level is hard. But doing it successfully doesn’t require running, attacking or killing.

Negotiating the hardest exercises at any height requires control and accuracy, which begins in the practice arena at home. The need for increased control and increased accuracy is the biggest difference between the jumps at each level, not the height of the jumps.

See A Distance

Nothing makes horses and riders safer or more confident than consistently seeing a distance to a fence. Until a rider can consistently see a distance at the novice height and the novice speed, it’s hard to argue that they are ready to move up to the training level. Until they can consistently see a distance at the training level height and training level speed, it’s hard to imagine that they are ready to move up to the preliminary level.

Though it might come easier for some riders, seeing a distance is a skill that anyone can learn. It’s not all that hard; it takes lots of practice and repetition. It can be somewhat boring. It starts with keeping a line and keeping a rhythm without jumps. Then it progresses to keeping a line and rhythm with small jumps. Then it turns into keeping a line and rhythm over small courses.

Over time it develops into not just keeping a line and a rhythm, but also being able to change that line and rhythm. And as that happens, we learn to see not just one distance but many, not just at slow speeds but high speeds, not just on flat ground but over varied terrain.

Somehow seeing a distance to the jumps is a tool that most amateur event riders, and still in this day and age some professionals, don’t have in their tool kit. But it’s a skill that every successful upper-level rider hones constantly. If a consistent ability to see a distance is not in your tool kit, go get it.

Use The Cross-Country Courses

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We’re all familiar with the levels of eventing. At the novice level the maximum height of the jumps is 2’11”. On cross-country at the advanced level it’s 3’11”. But within each level there is a huge range of difficulty and variation from one event to the next.

In eventing we have yet to figure out an acceptable way to quantify these variations. For a number of reasons we don’t rate individual cross-country courses as “easy”  or “hard.” So the onus is on professionals to tell their students which events to enter. And conversely, the burden is on amateurs to seek the input of good professionals in forming a competition schedule. Before a rider can move up from one level to the next, he or she needs to move up successfully within the level.

Within the Professional Horseman’s Council we have discussed producing a set of guidelines detailing events that could successfully lead from easy preliminary horse trials to the CCI* level. These guidelines currently exist only at the conversational level.

From my own perspective, for my students wishing to do the Virginia CCI* this spring, I hope they will be able to compete in the preliminaries at Red Hills (Fla.) and The Fork (N.C.). These two events mirror the demands of the CCI* level and are appropriate not just as stepping stones to the CCI* but also as gauges of an individual rider’s preparation.

Eventing done well is eventing done safely. Riding cross-country safely means developing the accuracy and control to negotiate not just single jumps but related jumps, not just flat terrain but varied terrain. Seeing a distance needs to be a practiced skill, not a random occurrence.

Knowing which events are right for individual riders is essential to consistent, steady progress. There will always be exceptions to these ideas, but in general they are near universal truths. These are the elements that make a professional’s ride look easy; they are the same elements that can make an amateur’s ride safe. And none requires a rule change.

Craig Thompson



Craig Thompson is a professional event rider and trainer based in Aiken, S.C. He coaches and competes at every level of eventing. In 2004 he started the Surefire Horse Trials (Va.), in 2006 the Maryland Horse Trials and is currently organizing the 2008 Aiken Event Horse Sale.

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