Written by: Kelly McCarthy-Maine
Rebecca Howard shares some tried-and-true strategies that will help you ride safely and effectively cross-country.
Cross-country riding is a game of reactions. Your priorities are to ride your line, judge your speed, and maintain rhythm and balance across undulating terrain over fixed, solid obstacles.
By the time you head out on course, you will have spent countless hours developing tools within your horse’s training and walked your course carefully, but it is your ability to react and respond to what is happening underneath you that makes for safe, confidence-boosting cross-country rounds.
UK-based Canadian event rider Rebecca Howard’s top-ten finish at the 2016 Olympics in Rio made her the top female eventing athlete at the Games. Rebecca has ridden for Canada at Olympic, Pan American and World Equestrian Games level, as well as earned top-12 results at Badminton, Burghley, Kentucky, and Luhmühlen. She has been based in Wiltshire, England, since 2012.
Here are some of Rebecca’s tried-and-true strategies that will help you ride safely and effectively cross-country.
1. Run your course walk
I prefer to run my course walk. Running the course helps me understand elements that may come up quickly and gives good feeling about how the course flows. Putting yourself under pressure to run the course also makes you acutely aware of the terrain, footing, and hills and any sections where your horse might need to take a breath.
2. Choose your gear wisely
With galloping and jumping efforts, sand, water, dirt and sweat, cross-country conditions will test your equipment to the limit. It’s critical that everything you and your horse are wearing fits well, is clean and in good condition. Don’t be afraid to ask other riders what they use and why.
3. Warm up confidently
An important part of your cross-country warm-up will be cultivating your horse’s confidence, ensuring he is moving out in front of your leg and feeling positive leaving the ground over solid fences. You want to plan a progressive warm-up, building your horse’s confidence with each fence until you head to the start box. With most horses, I prefer to get into a bit of a flow in the warm-up, which helps to settle a nervy horse (or rider) and back off a bolder type.
There is usually an obvious first fence in the warm-up area, normally a log or straightforward fence. Approach this jump on a big circle a few times, changing rein on landing until your horse is producing the same jump each time. Have a feel of the various fences available and once the horse is jumping smoothly and confidently, you can test the technicality by angling the fences or coming off a shorter approach.
In a one-day event the horses will have already done a show jumping round, so they tend to get the idea of jumping for the cross-country relatively quickly. You may need to wait a bit for your start time, but once you have done your main warm-up you should be able to pop over a fence or two and head to the start box.
A good cross-country warm-up helps your horse feel brave and bold – so you can both head to the start feeling prepared to face the challenges ahead.
4. Carry a stick
Whether you tap the horse behind your leg or on the shoulder, the stick is there to reinforce your aids.
5. Ride your line
Every time you ride your horse you can practice ‘riding your line’ – sticking to the route you want the horse to travel from one fence to the other. As you progress through the levels in eventing, this line becomes incredibly fine-tuned and ‘blade of grass’ specific, so you can answer technical questions and be time-efficient.
Every time I ride, I am working on moving and shaping the horse’s body around my leg – regardless of whether I’m hacking, schooling, or jumping. Your training at home develops the skills and tools that allow you to manoeuvre the horse’s body on an agreed-upon track, whether that is the center line in the dressage test or downhill to a skinny on the cross-country course.
6. Make smooth adjustments
Any adjusting to the gallop or balance should be completed five strides away from the jump. Horses adjust the shape of their jump to match the demands of the obstacle in front of them; riders need to present them in the balance that allows them to do this safely and comfortably.
How long you need to adjust your horse may depend on his level of training, rideability, and the degree of change you need. The most efficient cross-country horses maintain good balance and their speed is easily adjusted: strong horses can get out of balance as they pull, while young or inexperienced horses might pull one minute and back off the next.
7. Use your position to communicate changes of balance and speed
There are three main positions you need for clear and effective cross-country riding: cruising position, balancing position, and ‘away’ position.
Cruising position is used between the fences and allows the horse to gallop underneath you. To get into cruising position, riders stand up and balance on their feet with their hips over the front of the saddle. Reins are bridged, hands are low and arms are long.
Balancing position is used on the approach to the fence, allowing the rider to transition to the appropriate balance and speed for the upcoming jump. Riders lower their seat towards the saddle, restoring the bounce and movement in their knee, hip, and elbow joints. Correct speed and balance must be established at least five strides away from the jump.
The away position is used to increase speed, most often on the landing side after a jump. Riders bend at the waist, bringing their chest close to the horse’s neck. Hands can come forward for the acceleration phase and once at desired speed, riders can come back to cruise position.
8. Ride forward into water
When riding towards water, take a notch off the speed on the approach so you can ride positively once you are in your ‘five-stride zone.’
The effort of travelling through water will slow your horse; you will need to ride more actively in water than on land to generate the same amount of energy.
9. Use your watch
I start my watch as the starter counting me down in the start box reaches five seconds. Then I know my watch is five seconds ahead and I can head into the final countdown with both hands on the reins.
At one-day events, I will look at my watch two or three times near the final third to see where I am against the optimum and how hard I have to work to complete the course on time. At three-day events, I’ll have identified my minute markers and will be listening to the ‘beeps’ from my watch to let me know how I’m doing against my plan.
Producing an event horse is a long process and you should understand that planning your season with a peak performance at a championship or targeted event means that you may not be riding every cross-country round to catch the time.
10. Enjoy the ride
There are days where you will have to work for every inch of the cross-country course – and then there are days when it feels like all your training just clicks into place. It’s important to recognise when you are having a good cross-country round and allow your horse to feel great and enjoy himself. Stay focused on what you are feeling and resist the temptation to over-ride or correct problems you don’t have.
To make sure her horses have the best chance of coming through an event fit and ready to fight again, Rebecca follows this post-event regimen:
- Once back at the stables or truck, the studs are taken out of the shoes and the horse is washed off, cooled down, and checked over carefully. We offer water at regular intervals through the day and again through the cooling down process. They then stand in ice boots grazing or eating a haynet.
- The legs are sprayed with a witch hazel/alcohol blend and the horses travel home wearing standing bandages on their front legs. We check them again when we get home and often turn them out overnight.
- We check the horses again the morning after an event, feeling their legs for signs of heat or swelling. The horses will be trotted up in hand on a hard level surface and we’ll watch carefully for signs of unsoundness or soreness.
- The one-day event horses will have the day off to rest and recover, followed by a day of hacking before a day of schooling to start preparing for the next event or training goal.
It’s important to recognise when you are having a good cross-country round and allow your horse to feel great and enjoy himself.