Leah Lang-Gluscic is a CCI**** three day eventing rider and trainer based in Ocala, FL, and Freeport, IL. Leah is well known for her horsemanship and love of off-the-track thoroughbreds. You can learn more about her by visiting her website, here. Leah touched base with us to explain the basics of the cross country portion of eventing and how riders can expect to ride certain fences they might encounter while on course or cross country schooling.
Cross country riding, in theory is very simple. You have three positions, your two point for galloping, your three point for straightforward fences that are on even ground or up a hill, and your fully seated position where your body is perpendicular to the ground for downhill fences and accuracy questions. Then, again in theory, the rider is simply responsible for the line, pace, impulsion, and balance of the horse coming to each jump and question. If you can throw in seeing a distance or two, Rolex, here you come!
So sounds pretty easy, right? Where this sport becomes infinitely more interesting is with all the unknowns. You come out of the startbox and for some reason your horse doesn’t like the look of that mulch covered ramp. While you planned to leave the startbox with plenty of impulsion on a perfectly straight line, now you are cantering sideways away from the horse that is galloping through the finish flags. These happy little unknowns are what I try to prepare my students for on course walks!
It has been said that you can tell how someone’s entire course will go by how the ride to the first fence goes. This first fence, at Exmoor’s inaugural horse trials, was particularly inviting, great line, nice rampy front, and I instructed my students to just focus on their canter rhythm and start counting up from one when they thought they were approximately eight strides out. While there were no real red flags at this fence, I always instruct my students to never take the first one for granted. Sit up, be deliberate with your canter, and communicate to your horse how you intend to ride the rest of the course.
On this particular course, fences 2 and 3 were quite inviting, followed by this great down bank bending line to a coup. The plan A for my students was to create a nice, round show jumping canter well before turning to the down bank. Approach with several straight strides so your horse has time to process and evaluate the question with your body very upright, seat in the saddle, and leg supporting impulsion on a shorter stride. As your horse drops down the bank, allow your hips to follow that downward motion and your shoulders to drop back. Your shoulders, hips, and heels remain stacked so that if you imagine your horse disappearing out from under you at any moment, you would land on your feet. As your horses front legs drop down the bank, you then already have your eye up on the coup, maintaining your canter and your line with your leg to the base of the jump.
At every fence, we always talk about alternative plans. For this one in particular, the designer is giving you the option to jump these unrelated. I instructed my students with greener horses to remember that they could land straight, do a rollback turn to the right, and approach the coup separately.
The next real question on the course was an excellent introduction to the “into space” jump that you will see throughout the levels. I have a side view pictured here. With any downhill jump, you want to approach in a very tall, upright body position. For this particular jump, I want the horses to get comfortable coming forward to the base, so the plan was to create energy with a half halt 7-10 strides out, then move up to the base on what would end up being a bold show jumping type canter. Again, planning for all scenarios, we talked about what to do at this level and up if your horse were to get into a funny distance and have an awkward jump. For this type of disappearing landing, I stressed the importance of remaining tall and strong in your core, but being allowing with your hands and even prepared to slip the reins in order to let the horse properly use its head and neck for balance.
The last tough question on this Novice course was the water, which was two tables on either side of a very busy water complex. To me, both jumps are very inviting and could be jumped from a variety of different canters. I found the most important part of answering this question to be keeping your horse’s focus and giving the horse plenty of opportunity to understand the question being asked. To do this, my students were instructed to take a generous approach and come at a steady enough pace that their horses did not feel rushed or anxious. They key here is to then have enough impulsion, that in front of the leg feeling, that you can respond if you feel your horse back off and become tentative. Again, the course designer generously numbered these separately, really allowing you to focus on the quality of each individual jump and not have to worry about putting them together yet.
While I could talk about the specific techniques for each fence literally for hours, the most important part of cross country riding is good fundamentals. Practice your position at home diligently, have a strong handle on the basics in dressage, be confident in a good quality canter with a few gears, and prepare with someone knowledgeable before the big event!