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James Sommerville’s Top Tips For Cross-Country

A lot of riders can find cross-country a little daunting, especially with some of those big solid fences, but this phase is a great opportunity to enjoy the challenges and have fun.

To make cross-country riding safer and more enjoyable, your horse must be able to react and think quickly, to not only look after themselves, but also look after their rider.

It isn’t all down to the horse, though - there are a few things a rider can do to help give their horse confidence and help make the cross-country experience enjoyable for them.

Warming Up
This is extremely valuable time where you can work on getting your horse switched on and listening to your aids. Working on their rhythm, balance and straightness are all important elements for a clear cross-country round.

Your horse’s fitness is crucial to get round some courses and ensuring there is enough ‘petrol in the tank’ near the end is key, not only to go clear, but for both of you to get back safely.
Make sure your horse is also supple and flexible as with the range of banks, ditches and water combinations to tackle, it will be easier for them to take them on.

Being Straight
Approaching a fence straight is so important, especially with the skinny fences out on the course and training your horse from the beginning to be straight to any fence will definitely help.

To try and avoid a run out, keep your horse between your hand and leg which will give them the confidence to drive forward where you want them to.

Be Confident
If you ride confidently, your horse will be more confident and it will encourage them to be brave. Gaining your horse’s trust will also help build the horse’s confidence.

When training your horse for cross-country, you need to be very aware how easy it is for your horse to lose confidence just by a bad landing or a hairy moment. If this happens, be patient and take the time to re-build that trust and re-visit that training process.

A good tip that most riders will always give is to always finish any training session on a good note, even if you haven’t achieved what you set out to do as this will help build your horse’s confidence.  

The Word ‘STOP’ Is Not In Our Vocabulary
One of the most common falls in cross-country is horses stopping or refusing at a fence, and can be quite dangerous, but this again can be because the horse lost confidence and had a last-minute doubt.

For training or when you are out competing, positive riding accompanied with a strong leg will help your horse to be bold and brave.

Rhythm Not Speed
When you are jumping the bigger fences, going at them at speed is just dangerous. As a rider you should have a forward, positive approach and finding a nice rhythm and balance will help prepare you jump clearly.

Remember Your Position
To help the horse, a rider must be balanced and have a secure lower leg and a relaxed upper body on approach. This puts the rider in a good and safe position as well as helping to keep the horse balanced, and with constant contact, it gives them confidence to go forward.

The rider’s upper body should still be central but forward when the horse is going over the fence, allowing the horse the freedom to use its body to jump the fence.

The Tricky Fences
Which ones? There are so many jumps classed as tricky…

Skinnies – Be accurate with your riding by keeping straight and balanced with the horse between your hand and leg, and look ahead.

Ditches – The best approach is to ride these as if you were jumping a fence and imagine the ditch isn’t there. Again, keep your legs securely on the horse’s sides and keep a good contact.

Into Space – It can be scary if you and your horse can’t see the landing, and can catch some people out, but this type of fence must be ridden with total commitment with a good active approach from the rider for encouragement. Sit upright to anticipate that your horse may hesitate, but with a secure lower leg, your balance will help you over.

Drops – Ride these with impulsion and commitment, and allow your reins to slip a little, but still maintain contact, so your horse can stretch down. Most riders tend to lean too far back. The best and safest position to be is central.

Banks or Steps – Timing with these is crucial. Allow your horse some rein again to stretch but keep the contact and don’t drop it before the obstacle because this allows the horse time to think and perhaps hesitate.

Water - Everyone’s favourite - Most spectators love to watch the water jumps as some riders unfortunately get a bath when these fences go wrong. Try to avoid a crowd-pleasing moment by approaching the water with a strong and bouncy canter and once in the water keep the energy. If you are jumping into or out of water, keep a balanced and straight approach, allowing your horse plenty of time to judge the jump.

So, when it comes to the cross-country, it is all about safe and sensible riding, thinking about the approach, your position and keeping a balanced rhythm. These are all factors to help you get a clear round and don’t forget to enjoy this exhilarating phase.