So you have arrived at the event, checked and watered your horse, and collected your number. Now to walk the cross country course at breakneck speed! From the May issue of Equine, Caroline Mosley (pictured) shares some practical advice from her regular 'Talking Tactics' column…
Occasionally at an event local to you, the cross country course can be walked the day before competition day, but as with most things, there are advantages and disadvantages to this! The advantages to walking the course at a time of ‘no pressure’ are that you can spend longer reviewing approaches and working out where to save time. The disadvantage is that you spend the night before your competition day fretting over the odd jump or two!
Whatever day I’m walking, whether it is the day before or on the day, I find taking photographs of each fence to be helpful when going back over the course later on. I do use the Cross Country App for walking as it also maps out my minute markers and pictures of the fences are logged so you can see a map with jumps.
At the start of the course walk, check the colour of fences you are jumping, and the number of fences. There are often some ‘black flag’ alternatives, so have a look and check where they may be on the course as it can be easy to miss them.
(Black flagged fences are indicated by a black line on the fence flags, it means there is an easier, alternative fence you can jump, which takes longer in time – check the rule book for further info)
At the start, check the start box, have a look at the optimum time, the number of fences and where the start box is in relation to the warm up. Sometimes it can be miles away and other times you will be galloping past the warm up on your approach to fence 2, which can cause a horse to nap, so its good to know the layout as you can then can make a plan in advance (such as asking someone to help walk the horse over to the start box, or riding a bit wide past the warm up when on the course).
In the start box, have a look ahead at your first fence; is it close to the start or a decent gallop away? Think about how you will start. Galloping through the start box as the starter counts down isn’t really safe, so you should always plan to be setting off at a standing start, or moving at a walk/trot.
Walking up to the first fences, look ahead for the next one, if you can’t see it, look at the rope to see the direction. I have walked a course in beautiful parkland, but it wasn’t roped and finding the next fence was quite difficult! I ended up walking the course twice to make sure I knew which hillock to ride towards and despite doing this, I still got ever so slightly lost heading towards the last few fences, costing me a few time faults!
When I walk between the fences I look behind me at the one I have just jumped; sometime you can see ground undulations you never saw before, and also what line you will be galloping on. Looking ahead at the fence coming up, I assess whichever one I am jumping (is it the middle one in a line of fences for example) to make sure that, in the event a number has come off, I still know which one to jump! Sometimes they look quite similar in size and it can be difficult. Often in this case BE will flag off the fence you should avoid, but occasionally I have come up to a group of fences to find no number on mine (it was a corner and had been knocked off by a previous rider) and the choice of three fairly similar fences to jump! Cue panic, on fast approach!
As you walk the course, have a think about each fence and why it has been positioned where it is. A corner on a curve is asking for rider navigation error so think about keeping control of the shoulder and the curve you plan to ride to give you and the horse the best possible chance to jump the correct side of the flags! A jump going into trees is likely to make a young, inexperienced horse back off and may need to be ridden more strongly on the approach to it.
Walk the course exactly where you will be riding and if you make a mistake walking it then go back and walk the line again, including from the approach of the fence before. Safe riding is important, so walking the cross country and working out where you are going along with what approaches you will use, will improve both your own and your horse’s safety. Stop after walking a few fences and go through the course so far in your memory – I say things to myself such as:
Fence 1 – log, straight onto fence 2 - table, turn left over hill to 3ab, hanging log to skinny etc; close your eyes and imagine the fences so that you memorise them. If there is a particular turn where I may end up the wrong side of the flags, I repeat this several times to myself - ‘fence 7 turn left, fence 7 turn left, fence 7 turn left’ so it becomes a bit of a mantra. Recently at Forgandenny, fence 7abc was a coffin complex with a left turn afterwards. The 90/100 class went to the right of the string and the my Novice class to the left. It was so easy to go the wrong side, so I told myself this mantra for half of my walk on the way to fence 8! I went through the course from fence 1 to fence 7 to remind myself of this, as it could have been an easy time wasting error. I’m pleased to say I went left of the string!!
Striding the distances takes practice, but knowing your stride length can be done simply at home and is useful when walking the cross country course. Does the striding mean you need more of a showjumping canter or does it mean you can push forward? Coming from a showjumping background I find combinations much easier than single fences (oddly), although I tend to ‘show jump’ them to make sure and then have to make up my time afterwards.
When walking the cross country, try not to get distracted. This is easily done and very annoying! Last year at Floors Castle I committed this cardinal sin and got distracted by a lovely dachshund when walking the cross country, only to lose concentration, so I didn’t notice the swerve needed to get to fence 16. Sailed on past it I did - and it cost us a place with a big fat ‘E’ on my horse’s record. Annoying and easily avoided! It’s a mistake I will not be repeating in a hurry! In all my years of eventing it is the first time I have done this and it will hopefully be the last! It was positioned to be a rider error fence and I fell right into it! (not literally!)
When the fences get bigger, I tend to walk the cross country twice. If you feel the course you are walking is ‘ginormous’, it’s often better to do a second walk. The course never looks as bad a second time, as you can assess your lines, the ground and approaches again when you see them on a second turn. Occasionally I have walked 3 and 4 times, but this is usually at a 3 day when we have lots of time to walk the dogs!
Just before I get on to head over to cross country, I have a quiet moment to go through the course. I go through it in my memory then check it against my cross country app and the notes of the minute markers. I have always written the markers on my arm too in case I forget on the course. When going through the course in my memory I add in the minute markers. I often don’t check them at every one, but it’s good to know them so that I can check when it’s convenient. Obviously if your minute is over a fence it would be daft to check it, but you can have a look as you gallop away to see if you are a few seconds up or down. Be sensible with minute markers and ride the horse, not the time.
Lastly, if you are feeling nervous in the warm up, jump the fences that you feel comfortable to jump. Even if it’s just a single log, get the gallop going and jump it on a normal stride, longer stride, shorter stride, at an angle etc. You don’t have to jump every fence in the warm up. If you are jumping at the higher levels its useful to jump a couple of angles or the skinny in the warm up to make sure your communication is working. Pull up, give the horse chance to get his breath back, memorise the course again, take deep breaths and make your way to the start box for an awesome round!
I hope you find this useful, If you are ever at an event and unsure of how to ride something, ask a fellow competitor, I’ve found most eventers are friendly and helpful and will offer their input if you ask for it. I am also happy to help, so if you see me in orange, with my Labrador (aka Chief water-jump-depth-tester) then do ask.