Gaining your cross country edge
Horse and rider fitness are essential ingredients for a cross country phase so are you ready to nail that perfect, penalty-free round?
WORDS: ELLIE HUGHES
For any successful cross country round, the ability to think and react quickly while riding fluently fence to fence, taking the most economical lines possible, is of utmost importance. At all levels, competitions are often won or lost by a few seconds here or there.
But how do you know if your horse is physically and mentally ready for the job? And what should we be practising at home to consistently deliver winning performances?
When it comes to physical fitness there is no such thing as a one-regime-fits-all, according to the experts. Just as people require specific exercise plans that take into account their current fitness, lifestyle, bad habits and long-term aims, so too do horses. How much work your horse will need to perform at his best and minimise the risk of injury will depend on factors such as breed, temperament, age, soundness history, your facilities and his baseline fitness.
“Most horses that are in regular work and ridden five or six days a week will only need their exercise regime tweaked slightly before they tackle a BE80, BE90 or BE100,” says international rider and coach Emily Baldwin.
“So long as they have plenty of variation in their work, for example, hacking two or three times a week, and a flat and a jump session, horses competing at the lower levels don’t need to gallop.
“They should, however, do at least one day a week of faster work to get their heart rate up.
I call it a ‘huff and puff’ day. It might consist of longer or faster spells of canter work incorporated into a hack, it could be slower work on hills or it could even be cantering around an arena for three or four minutes at a time. The important thing is that the horse blows and uses his lungs.”
The number of huff and puff days needed will depend on the individual horse. “Horses with plenty of thoroughbred in them will likely only need one huff and puff day, whereas cobs, warmbloods and natives might need two,” adds Emily.
And while you focus on your horse’s fitness, don’t forget your own: “When you do canter work at home, shorten your stirrups, get up out of the saddle and practise your cross country seat so you are developing the strength and balance to help your horse,” advises Emily.
Physical fitness is only part of the cross country equation. Developing a feel for pace is an important skill that also needs to be honed. The rule book says you should ride at 475mpm at BE100 and 450mpm at BE90 – but what does that actually mean and how do you know what that speed should feel like?
Emily advises measuring a set distance and using a stopwatch to get a feel for the right pace.
“You can do this by marking out 475 metres in the field and timing yourself [although you also need to factor in the effect of the terrain],” she says. “Some gallops have distances marked out, which can be really handy to help you get a feel for your speed.”
At the competition, there are plenty of preparations you can do to make sure you don’t waste valuable seconds, starting with careful course-walking.
“Always look to see if there is an inside line you can ride,” advises Emily. “And when you’re walking from fence to fence, look behind you to make sure you have walked the most economical route.”
Identifying places in advance where you can make up time is an important way to shave off seconds. “This should never be in front of a fence, though,” warns Emily. “Kick away from a jump on landing and note where you have long galloping stretches with straightforward fences and you can let the horse jump out of his stride without interrupting the rhythm.”
Once out on the course there is far more to riding a quick time than speed.
“To conserve energy and make the time, you have to be able to ride the most economic lines in a smooth and balanced fashion,” says former Olympian and eventing coach Eric Smiley. “It all starts with training on the flat. You can’t take tighter lines unless you can ride smaller shapes.”
So what should you be practising at home? “If you’re going to ride tighter lines, you need to remove some of the interruptions to the approach,” says Eric.
“Every time you make a deliberate turn and set-up, not only are you losing valuable seconds but you’re interrupting the flow. Try taking out the turn and replace it with a curve. This allows you
to keep the approach smooth and makes it far easier to leave the responsibility of jumping to the horse.
“Don’t look for a stride; instead focus on riding at the appropriate pace in the right balance on a curve. Nine times out of 10 you will end up in a good spot to take off.”
Eric advocates studying the top riders, who make achieving the optimum time look effortless.
“Watch Tim Price ride a cross country,” he says. “He never looks like he’s going fast, but there are never any interruptions to his rhythm. He doesn’t push or pull, his horses are so balanced and he trains them to be quick-thinking so he can afford to turn in tighter.”
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PRACTISE GEAR CHANGES
The ability to be able to ride smooth gear changes is one of the key ingredients for a quick, seamless round.
“You need to practise going from 450mpm [cruising speed at BE100] to 250mpm [for
a technical fence] and vice versa,” says Eric Smiley. “This type of training is best done in an open space with a few fences dotted around, but you can also do it in an arena. The horse needs time to become accustomed to being in a balance, between the aids and attentive to them. This way he will conserve energy.”
PREPARE FOR THE UNEXPECTED
To ride more quickly and take tighter lines, the horse has to be used to reacting quickly to whatever he finds in front of him. Keep fences small to start with and practise turning into them more tightly, using half-circle approaches, and jumping at angles.
“Don’t try and look for the perfect stride,” says Eric. “Keep turns smooth, ride the balance and let the fences come to you.”