I took three horses on a cross-country schooling expedition last week, and I have some observations about training horses for this phase of eventing. I’d like to share with you some of my philosophy on cross-country schooling for horses and for riders.
I took the horses to a farm called Jack Rabbit Flats (www.jackrabbitflats.net), southeast of Sacramento, Calif., about two hours away from us. We decided to try it as a slightly closer and considerably less expensive alternative to cross-country schooling at the Horse Park of Woodside, and after I’d ridden my three horses, I had a chat with the owner, Marshall
, a conversation that caused me to ponder a great deal about the exercise.
Marshall observed that he’d never seen anyone use the 30-plus jumps like I did. He and his wife, Khris, placed the jumps (at pre-beginner novice, beginner novice, novice and training heights) in segments or small courses, and Marshall said he’d long been dismayed to see individual riders or groups of riders with a trainer school one jump numerous times and then move on, en masse, to another jump, to school that one repeatedly too. He said he’d never seen anyone gallop their horse from jump to jump like I did, putting together four, five, six or more fences, and he was pleased to see me doing it.
Marshall’s observation coincided with my observations over the past few years, from often seeing people school cross-country fences in what I consider an ineffective way. I’ve mostly seen it since we moved to California six years ago, but it’s not exclusive to this state or region.
I was taught—especially by international riders Denny Emerson, Sharon White and Torrance Watkins—that riding successful cross-country rounds results from two basic elements: First, to be able to gallop to the jumps in a rhythm, with a forward flow, and, second, for the horse to understand that the exercise is a series of jumps and to be looking for the next jump each time he lands.
Consequently, my plan whenever I school a horse at a cross-country course is to put the jumps together, to flow from jump to jump to jump, encouraging the horse to gallop on and to look ahead. I want to take the flatwork and jumping techniques we’ve worked on the ring to another level, to gallop to the jumps and clear them out of stride, to learn to attack them and to jump boldly.
Two of the horses I took to Jack Rabbit Flats were 4-year-olds I’d also taken to school at Woodside four weeks earlier. One is a stallion named Boogie (Bravo’s First Class), and he’s done one beginner novice horse trial, one combined test and one Young Event Horse class this year. The other is Ianto (Phoenix Torchwood), and he’s done two combined tests and two beginner novice horse trials this year. My plan at Woodside was to gallop them both through the entire course—Boogie at beginner novice and Ianto at novice—the levels each will be doing at the Woodside Horse Trials in August.
Why did I want to do that? Because what they each need to do most is to learn to go from jump to jump, to look ahead to the next one and go to it. Boogie, being a young stallion, is easily distracted from any task, and I’m trying to engender in him a feeling that jumping, especially cross-country, is more fun than anything else. (Fortunately, he does love to jump.) And Ianto likes to throw himself a congratulatory party every time he jumps (I can feel him thinking, “Ianto jump that great!”), so I’m trying to teach him that there’s more to do.
The strategy worked nearly perfectly at Woodside, and I did much the same thing with them at Jack Rabbit Flats, putting together exercises that included galloping fences, the bank, the ditches and the water. The jumps at Jack Rabbit Flats cover an area about a quarter the size of Woodside, so the exercise this time wasn’t as complete, but I could easily put together six or eight jumps.
The third horse I took to Jack Rabbit Flats was Amani (Phoenix Amani), my 5-year-old mare who’s completed her three training level events with fault-free cross-country rounds. But her Achilles heel has been jumping banks into water—she hasn’t refused, but we’ve had some awkward leaps. It’s felt as if she wasn’t figuring out what to do with her feet when hopping off a bank into water. Hard to figure, since she’s always jumped banks perfectly—but that’s horses. So, since I saw that Jack Rabbit Flats had a bank at its water and I had a third spot on the trailer, I brought Amani along too.
The other reason I thought this could be a worthwhile experience for Amani is that Marshall has put four steeplechase fences along a galloping track, covering 600 or 700 meters. Since I’m aiming Amani for the training level three-day event at Galway Downs in November, I thought that would be educational too.
The steeplechase fences turned out to be really useful, as Amani reminded me of a particular challenge to taking horses off a trailer and sending them over cross-country fences: They’re anxious and distracted, and, unless they’re very experienced, they don’t immediately recognize the obstacles as cross-country “jumps.” Amani spooked at every jump as I trotted and galloped her around to warm up, clearly seeing them only as frightening objects littering the mowed paths. She didn’t stop at any of the first few jumps I sent her to, but she was unusually cautious.
So I took her to the start of the steeplechase series and galloped her over them. And that got her attacking the jumps. It felt like she thought to herself, “Oh, now I see. These are cross-country jumps! I know how to do this.” And then I schooled her back and forth over the ditches and into the water, pleased that she seemed to figure out how to jump off the bank into the water.
Marshall asked me if I’d like to see more combinations, because that was a suggestion some others had made. I said no, not really, because I believe that with young horses like these it’s all about teaching them to gallop and flow around the course. To me, you teach a horse (and riders) to jump combinations by building gymnastic exercises in the ring. That’s where you learn to compress or extend the stride and about footwork.
Amani also reminded me of why I (and most other trainers) do not usually like to school cross-country fences above training level, and only occasionally at preliminary level. It’s because to jump the big, mentally demanding fences, you have to have the adrenalin pumping, in both you and your horse. You can’t do them “in cold blood.” Amani reminded me of how important it is for horses (and riders) to learn to calmly attack cross-country fences.