Friday, May. 24, 2024

What Makes A Good Course Design?

In the first of a two-part series, our columnist explores the importance of proper course design and how it relates to educating riders and horses.

If you asked me what my job is, I would say it comes down to two principals: I’m a trainer of horses, and I’m a trainer of riders.



In the first of a two-part series, our columnist explores the importance of proper course design and how it relates to educating riders and horses.

If you asked me what my job is, I would say it comes down to two principals: I’m a trainer of horses, and I’m a trainer of riders.

My time spent trying to perfect my job has led me to focus on our sport from many angles, trying to find an edge for our horses, for my wife Beezie and for the other professionals, juniors and amateurs I’ve assisted over the years. Learning the ins and outs of the world of course design has helped me understand the best ways to prepare horses and riders.

Good course design is essential to our sport. In every class, a good course designer must put the horse first. He or she must always be thinking about the safety of the horse while creating a well-rounded course.

It’s never the job of the course designer to try to become the star of the show. This situation leads to gimmicks and the focus being removed from the true stars, the competitors.

Good course designs are safe for the competitors, while remaining fresh and interesting for all involved. A good course should be like music, with a beginning, middle and end, including repetition and dynamic changes. A course in the end must also be beautiful and yield beautiful performances.

It’s my belief that a good course designer must be a diplomat; he must treat each competitor the same. It’s vitally important that he be well versed in the rules and adhere to them. A good course designer doesn’t stretch the rules or vary from the class specifications. Along the same lines, a course designer must take into account his field of competitors and prize money offered.

In our current times, there are new hurdles for the course designer to negotiate too. The course designer also finds himself with the task of understanding how media has a role in our sport. The needs of the photographers and videographers must be addressed in a way that’s respectful, as it must be remembered that the TV and print coverage our sport receives is good for us all. Of course, on the other hand, the course designer must not compromise the needs of the competitor for the sake of a particular TV shot.

Additionally, a course designer in today’s economy often finds himself with the task of supplying our sport’s valued sponsors with exposure. He must find a way to integrate marketing into his courses in a way that’s respectful to the company and to the sport. This is the fine line they walk in these times, respecting the tradition of the sport, while finding innovative ways to keep it fresh and relevant.


The course designer must also deal with the accepted norm at today’s horse shows—crammed schedules. They’re often limited by having too many horses competing in a day, making long hours, tight course changes and wear and tear on footing. They are also sometimes limited by the materials provided, as it’s certainly hard to create an innovative course out of a bunch of striped and plain poles.

The crew is also important in the equation. When given a strong jump crew, dynamic changes between courses can be made, but when dealing with a limited crew the course designer is often held back.

The Toolbox

When I examine a course, there are many aspects I consider. It’s not all about the height of the fences, although it’s easier to jump a low and narrow course of obstacles when compared to a course of high and wide obstacles.

The designer has so many tools at his disposal for creating courses, and a good designer never forgets to implement all of them. If you think of a mechanic without a set of wrenches or knowledge to work on a car, rebuilding an engine is going to be a difficult task for him, especially when compared to a mechanic who has all of the tools he needs, the space to work and the knowledge and skills necessary for completing the task. Designing and understanding a course is the same way.

As a competitor striving to do your best, it’s imperative that you understand all of the tools in the course designer’s toolbox.

Obstacle dimensions are the first obvious factor, as height is, in some ways, the name of the game. For the average spectator, there’s nothing more fascinating than seeing the height go up and watching the competitors jump higher. This is really a small part of a design, however.

When examining or designing a course, the height of obstacles must surely be noted, but also the construction of the obstacles. The cups that are used, the rails that are used, their weight and paint jobs, the design of the fence and the variety must be considered.

The next most obvious factor is the distance between fences. A rider learns early on how to count strides and how to walk the distances between obstacles.


We generally focus less on the track, terrain, footing and surroundings. But surroundings play a big role, with anything from where the audience is located, which obstacles are jumped toward or away from “home,” to how the ring is bordered being important factors to note.

You should closely examine the footing, especially in courses where the footing may change as the class goes on, such as competitions on grass. Options, such as inside turns, in the track should always be noted and decisions made in regards to options should relate to the time allowed and class conditions.

The time allowed plays a role too, setting the pace and modifying the decisions a rider makes, especially in regards to track. Lighting, whether indoors or outside, must also be considered.

A designer’s last major tool is the weather, a tool that cannot be relied upon, but one that’s always a factor when competing outdoors. Weather conditions can change so frequently that a smart rider or designer is always paying attention and adjusting their plans based upon these factors.

For example, a smart rider notes when the footing is affected by weather conditions and adjusts her track for the safety of the horse. A smart designer also builds those options into the course design for the sake of the horse, if footing changes are a possibility.

Nothing beats time in the saddle for preparing a competitor for a good round, but it’s my belief that creating a smart competitor is imperative in creating a winner.

Understanding the course designer’s job and the tools of the trade is a necessity for a well-rounded rider or trainer. In the end, it all returns to the underlying most important principle of course design, which is building a course that can be negotiated safely by competitors. It’s then the responsibility of the riders to find ways to negotiate the course in a manner that suits their particular horse and is safe for them.

The course design shouldn’t decide the blue ribbon, but the class winner nearly always makes that winning ride with a comprehensive understanding of the course design. 

John Madden

John Madden, Cazenovia, N.Y., is married to international grand prix rider Beezie Madden. Together, they operate John Madden Sales Inc., where they train horses and riders. The horse business has encompassed John’s entire life, and in addition to his business he’s the Organizing Committee Chairman for the Syracuse Sporthorse Tournament (N.Y.) and on the USEF High Performance Show Jumping Computer List Task Force. He began contributing to Between Rounds in 2008.




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