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Is there a downside to using portables?

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  • Is there a downside to using portables?

    After an interesting phone conversation this morning with a fellow COTHer, I want to bring up something that I haven't seen discussed here before:

    Is part of the problem the changeable/portable nature of courses today? It used to be that x-c jumps were mainly permanent structures. There was very little change from event to event held at the same facility from year to year. There might be a new question, an upgrade to a couple fences, but by and large the course you jumped two years ago was still there when you pulled into the venue for their latest event.

    You knew that old Oak Knoll Hilltop Acres was a good move up course every year, that it wasn't maxed out, that the trakehner looked a bit wonky because of the shape of the log but it always rode smoothly if you rode forward.

    You also knew that Pine Needle Gulch was a challenging course, maxed out, that horses gave a jarring jump off the bank no matter what the ride, and that the snake fence jumped best from the second panel and that you had to be dead-accurate in your line through the hollow or your horse would spook and run-out right because he didn't get a good enough look at the third element in the funky lighting.

    If you had schooled the course two months ago, or last year, chances were pretty darn good that you knew almost exactly what the course was going to ask. There might be a surprise or two, but not too many. And if you didn't school the course, you or your trainer knew from word-of-mouth what to expect.

    The course, the flow, the questions and how horses and riders answered them were tested over time and things that didn't work well one year were addressed with some tweaking. So even if you hadn't competed over or schooled the course before, someone had.

    This has changed.

    Now, with portables, we have the cornucopia of a relatively new course at every event. The individual jumps themselves may not change that much (heck, you can see completely identical jumps, on skids, created from the same design drawing, at locations all over the country these days), but the placement location, the combination, the flow, the terrain, the lighting, those change every single time a portable is relocated.

    If you are the first one out of the start box at your level, chances are that you are the guinea pig, riding this latest course design for the very first time.

    You can show up for an event that has traditionally been a "move up" and find it's suddenly quite stiff. Or what looks like a fairly soft course when walked can ride much tougher than anyone (including the CD or TD) thought it would.

    You can be the first person ever to jump the captain's table in a new place in the morning light, and be unlucky enough to demonstrate that the shadows created a false groundline.

    If the course is moved, set, and opened for inspection at 3:00 on Friday, and you have a 10 am Sat x-c ride time, neither you nor any of the riders in your division will get to see this newly created course in the lighting conditions you will be riding it over.

    Don't get me wrong, I love the variety that portables has brought to the course. I love going to KHP and knowing that, even though I've jumped around prelim there before, I am going to get something fresh and new and more interesting than the same-old-same old.

    But this variety does lose some of the predictability, some of the "test of time" quality that we used to have. When I first moved up to prelim, my coach and I picked a venue that historically had been a suitable choice, and before closing date we drove out and walked the course together and talked through all the questions there before I made the final decision and mailed my entry. The course walk had highlighted one question that we felt I needed a bit more practice on (it was an upbank with an 8' bounce to a ramp) and discussed how I could recreate that exercise in the arena, which is exactly what we did. I mailed my entry to my first prelim with a very good idea of what I was going to see a few weeks later at the competition and it helped me feel that much more prepared and confident. In this day and age, though, I would not be able to recreate that move-up experience. The courses change, the questions move, new ones are created to give up variety, and we have also lost a bit of the predictability that comes from permanence.

    Something is amiss in eventing, and I don't think the evolution of portable courses is the whole picture, not by a long shot, but I do question if it is one of the contributing factors in what is going wrong.
    Hindsight bad, foresight good.