Friday, Dec. 1, 2023

Course Design Comes Of Age

People from around the world (like me) have made a profession out of course designing for years, but, unlike other professions, there has never been a school that taught the skills involved. This situation is changing, though, with the formation of the new Aachen School of Course Design in Germany.


People from around the world (like me) have made a profession out of course designing for years, but, unlike other professions, there has never been a school that taught the skills involved. This situation is changing, though, with the formation of the new Aachen School of Course Design in Germany.

The creators of this new concept are three of the world’s best-known course designers. Prof. Arno Gego resides in Aachen and was the resident course designer at this city’s most famous of all jumping venues for many years. Leopoldo Palacios, from Venezuela, was the course designer for the 2000 Sydney Olympics and travels year-round throughout the world designing courses. Olaf Petersen’s credentials are unrivaled, having the distinction of being the only individual ever to have designed two Olympic Games (Seoul in 1988 and Athens in 2004), and he’s also chaired the FEI’s Technical Committee for Jumping through two full quadrennia.

To kick off the new ASCD, the founders held a symposium on Dec. 8-11 that drew 60 course designers, judges, organizers and riders from 25 nations. Some 17 experts gave presentations on a wide array of topics. The 14 attendees from the Americas included pre-
senters Steve Stephens and Pilar Cepeda (of Mexico), as well as designers Anthony D’Ambrosio and Guilherme Jorge (of Brazil), who’ll be designing the FEI World Cup Final in Las Vegas this April.

The 45-minute presentations in-cluded a fascinating pictorial review of 100 years of the history and development of the sport compiled by Swiss O-rated designer Paul Weier. Dr. Hanfried Haring (secretary-general of the Ger-man federation) and Sven Holmberg (vice chairman of the FEI Technical Committee for Jumping) explained the successful breeding and development programs for show jumping horses in Germany and Sweden.

The organizers even had experts delve into the rather esoteric realm of the impact of science and of music on the sport. And attendees were offered help with their free-hand drawing from a professional art and graphics professor.

With such breadth of material, it wasn’t surprising that the four days were fully packed. Some attendees remarked that they wished they could have had more time to discuss the issues of greatest import to designers around the world.

Footing–And More

Footing is most certainly one of those issues. While designers seldom have direct input into the installation or maintenance of an arena’s footing, they most always find themselves on the “front lines” whenever there is a problem. Given the unprecedented number of serious injuries to horses at last summer’s Olympic Games, it isn’t surprising that this was an issue of great interest to all.

In his remarks, Leopoldo, the technical delegate in Athens, said that he believed that the conditions for the equestrian events were perhaps the best ever provided at an Olympic Games. The construction of separate competition venues for jumping and for dressage permitted installation of footing specific to each discipline.

While Leopoldo agreed that the timing of the installation and the pre-event maintenance of the grass footing could have been better, he commented that it might be useful to look also to the type of horse being bred for the sport. He said we should consider more than just the ground or the degree of diffi-culty of today’s competition while searching for answers to the number of injuries.


He contends that too many horses competing today have large body mass supported by “dainty” legs. And he hoped that breeders will take this into account, given the amount of jumping demanded of our horses since there are no limits on how often a horse can compete in a season.

Olaf agreed that the jumping has become very difficult at championship events like Athens, but he commented that he didn’t think the Athens courses were unrealistically difficult, as evidenced by the number of competitors from outside of Europe who reached the individual final round. In that round Petersen presented courses of the utmost difficulty–especially in the form of an extremely technical distance to the triple combination.

Olaf also used his presentation time to explain the changes to the scheduling that will be implemented for future Olympic Games. The exhaustingly long (for both horses and spectators) Nations Cup to determine the team medals will be divided into two separate days of jumping, along with slightly different scoring for the team result and qualification for the individual event.

The Track’s Influence

Course designers normally hear riders’ comments only during the most stressful times at a competition. But this symposium provided a valuable opportunity to hear some insightful remarks from one of the world’s top riders.

Albert Voorn, the Dutchman who won the Olympic individual silver in 2000, focused on how important well-conceived courses are to competitors. He believes that the difficulty of a course comes less from the heights and spreads used but more from the nature of the track; so his point was that only overwell-designed courses do riders ride their best.

Albert prefers courses in which horses can gallop more freely between the jumps, rather than being checked back constantly. He also believes that horses need maturity and a lot of experience over more moderate courses before being put to the ultimate tests asked at major championships, and
he would even propose a rule be considered prohibiting horses under age 10 from competing in senior championships. At the same time Albert urged all riders to become better students of horses’ jumping mechanics and of more classical training techniques in order to lengthen their horses’ careers at the top level.

In addition to Albert’s suggestion that only fully mature horses be permitted to start in major championships, other presenters had suggestions for reducing the physical stresses on the horses. Dr. Gego agreed with Leopoldo Palacios that it might be advisable to limit the number of starts that a horse is permitted to make in a year. This is an area guaranteed to provoke heated discussion should such a rule change actually be proposed!

Continuing on the topic of footing, John Weier, the Luxembourg landscape architect and provider of Lava-sand footing (who’s no relation to Paul Weier), used his presentation time to explain the details of this highly successful technology. Lava-sand utilizes natural volcanic material to produce an arena surface with exceptional drainage capabilities and has been utilized at many venues worldwide, including La Silla in Monterrey, Mexico.

Other topics of great interest to the designers were covered in Olaf’s discussion of obstacle color and the utilization of sponsor materials to create a pleasing and effective image for major tournaments. And Steve Stephens showed an extensive set of slides depicting the unique jumps he’s designed and constructed for major shows in this country.


The final area of concern to course designers for major events is effectively conveying the sport on television. Sabine Hartelt, from the West German Broadcasting in Cologne, went into some detail in what tele-vision in general, and German television in particular, expects from top international jumping. She emphasized the role that the designer plays in assuring a good result for TV producers and viewers.

Shop Talk

A symposium like this one not only provides an opportunity to hear the prepared remarks of experts in a wide variety of specialties, but it also brings together a broad group of working professionals. Being in the same place for a few days, without the pressures of a competition, allows considerable time for “shop talk.” This informal conversation between colleagues often offers value on a par with the planned program itself.

The similarities–and the differences–in the sport according to geography become clear when attendees compare notes from virtually every corner of the world. And one cultural difference between Europe and the rest of the world in particular continues to pop up.

Europe has such density of the sport, together with a large number of active national federations in a relatively small geographic area, unlike any other continent. Conse-quently, there are considerable differences in how the sport is organized and how officials are educated and achieve various levels of licensing between Europe and other areas of the world.

For example, for years it’s been the norm in Europe–and even somewhat of a badge of honor–for officials (judges, stewards and course designers) to officiate on a part-time, and mostly volunteer, basis. With shorter travel distances and so many competitions lasting only three or four days in Europe, it’s possible to combine officiating with another career.

But in North America this is rarely the case. Few other professions permit sufficient time off for a show jumping official to officiate frequently enough to become–or remain–proficient, not when most competitions require a full week of your time, when you add the travel days.

Such a variety of roads we travel, in pursuit of the same goals!

Meeting our colleagues and hearing of their own experiences is most certainly a valuable way to achieve a new and fresh perspective.

Because of the enthusiastic response from the worldwide community of officials, ASCD leaders are planning a second symposium for 2006. In the meantime the school will offer intensive courses for young and national course designers in 2005.

Further information on the Aachen School of Course Design is available at




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