How often do you hear riders while looking at fences while walking cross-country say “What was the course designer thinking?” Not often enough.
The job of course designers is to design questions that riders of that level are able to answer. They are not evil human beings who thrive off of setting up fences that are nearly impossible to jump just to trick out innocent riders. Course designers really want their courses to ride safely, give both horses and riders confidence and promote excellent riding.
A few weeks ago, I attended the two-day Equine Canada 2015 Senior Course Design Forum with Mike Etherington-Smith and Jay Hambly. Mike is one of the most legendary course designers on the planet, with a resume including the 2010 World Equestrian Games, 2008 Beijing Olympics, 2000 Sydney Olympic Games, and 18 years at the Rolex CCI4*.
Jay is both a course designer and builder; his design work includes the Ocala CCI2*, Will O’Wind CIC2*, and the 2013 Central American Games.
I went to this forum because I felt strongly that it would be a huge learning opportunity and I think it is wise to consider all careers in the Eventing world. For me, this forum was one of the most educational two days I have ever experienced.
The forum touched on nearly every topic imaginable from distances, suitability of questions at different levels, jump safety mechanisms, dangerous riding, controlling speed, etc.
It was a real wakeup call for me on what a massive responsibility course designers take on and how much effort they put into designing courses to help riders and not actually tricking them into having a stop or cost them time penalties.
It was funny as a rider to hear Mike and Jay talking about “riders” using generalizations kind of like the way riders talk about “horses”. Riders must be controlled as best as possible but you have to accept you will always have a stray rider that manages to do something you never thought of.
From a rider’s perspective here are the most valuable pieces of knowledge I took away from this forum:
1) Smaller fences are not easier – Mike placed emphasis on the fact that smaller fences are not easier and all galloping tables especially at the end of the course should be built to maximum dimensions. The reason for this is because both riders and horses pay more respect to larger fences and as a result jump them better. Next time you see a massive table nearing the end of the course, do not stress.
2) Fences are being built with more upright profiles for a reason – Upright fences are less forgiving and riders know this, so they spend more time setting up their horses to ensure a clean jump. Mike says that course designers are utilizing fences with upright shapes to encourage riders to slow down so their horses can jump in a round shape. Riders tend to jump ascending fences at greater speeds, which can be dangerous because horses start jumping flatter increasing their risks of hanging a leg and falling.
3) Open oxers and open corners are becoming more popular – Fence safety mechanisms such as frangible pins and MIM clips, help prevent falls at fences with hanging logs or rails. But there is a limited amount of safety mechanisms available for solid tables and corners. Therefore, we are seeing more course designers including open oxers and corners because they are safer than they were in the past. Additionally, riders still pay plenty of respect to these types of fences because activating a safety device results in an automatic 11 penalty points and horses are unable to bank across open fences.
4) Footing should be consistent – Horses run best on consistent footing. Footing changes cause horses to lose confidence and become unsure. It is a course designer’s duty to create a course where the footing is as consistent as possible, whether it be deep footing or hard footing. If you notice footing changes when walking your course keep in mind that you may need a little more leg to back up your horse’s confidence.
5) Half rounds on top of banks help horses – Horses read and jump banks both up and down better when there is a half round on the edge of the bank. Next time you see a bank without a half round, be mindful because your horse may not jump it very nicely.
6) Course designers manage your speed – The next time you are in a pout because you feel that time will be tough to make at an event because there are turns, combinations and upright fences to control your speed – keep in mind that the course designer did this for your safety! Mike explains that it is the course designer’s duty to slow riders down on course so they jump from a safe speed. There are several ways of doing this but they never want to just let riders run straight to a fence that appears inviting. Keep in mind, course designers are not slowing you down to penalize you, they are doing it to keep you off the ground.
What cross-country tracks do you find most challenging this year? Do you choose your events based on who the course designers are? Do you have a favourite course designer? Do you have questions that you would like answered by course designers?
Please email me with your comments and questions so I can continue to provide helpful information to you about course design.