My friend moaned….she was hurting from head to toe….from a fall off her green horse the previous day. She was cross-country schooling at a newly opened facility nearby. She’d never been there before, and it was a new course. She was trying to familiarize her greenie with water; things went wrong, and she fell off. Now she had to manage her barn the rest of the week with aches and pains, and her horse was left with no confidence and a training problem that is going to take time and skill to fix. What happened? Where did she go wrong?

What happened was something that is all too common in equestrian sports today. Someone who has jumped a few logs in the woods, or evented a few times and thought it was a fun thing, decided to set up a cross-country course in their backyard and invite people to come and ride.

But the problem with this is they didn’t know what they didn’t know, and the course’s questions were way over the heads of the horses and riders attempting them. And the problem only gets worse when places like this continue to grow in number and popularity; as people continue to fall off, ruin good young horses, and never figure out the real reason for their disasters – bad course design.

Just making a jump small in height does not make it easy. The great USET coach Jack Le Goff once said he could build a 2’6″ course that an advanced horse couldn’t jump. Creating questions for a jumping horse means a designer must take into account more than just the jump, but where it is sited, the approach, what the horse will see, and feel, and the landing side – among many other factors.

When you attend a course designers’ seminar, such as the ones organized by the USEA on a regular basis all over the United States, you will learn about that subject and many more. Proper course design, especially at the lower levels, is very important and should be carefully considered. It is not enough to have a log and a field; you need to know where to put it and why it needs to be there.

My friend was attempting a low-height log coming out of a water crossing, but the problem was the question was a Training level question but at beginner novice height. It was too much for a green horse at one of his first cross-country outings. It was awkward for a better trained horse. The problem was the log was situated at the edge of the water, forcing a horse to jump from the water to a muddied landing and then dry ground. There was an open expanse of water to the right, and a curving log to the left at a higher height. Neither log was small enough to allow the horse to see the landing until they were in the air; the smaller log had no “out” for the horse who was unsure; the set up was far above the skill set of most green, pre-Beginner Novice horses (the guidelines don’t allow water to water jumping til Training level.) As a result, horses jumped big or landed skeptically, which unseated their low level riders unused to feeling a big jump. While creating a problem the jump set up a difficult question despite the low height of the log. It could all have been easily remedied by setting the log up on the bank just a stride further; that way the horse would have clearly seen dry ground in front of the log and placed on the upslope, would be encouraged to jump roundly to clear it. Just moving the obstacle 9 or 10 feet would have made a world of difference. And that’s what you learn in a course design seminar.

On social media I see a constant stream of poorly designed and set cross-country course questions – riders are proud of their horses jumping so well or obediently, but I cringe at the lack of ground line, the un-staked portable, the false ground line, the tick-tack leftover pallet stack and jumps built with holes just the size to allow a hoof or leg to slide through and get broken!

Yikes! These courses break rules because the designers don’t know any better. They aren’t aware that what they have done doesn’t have a track record of producing a good cross-country horse and rider. While an honest horse and tough rider might negotiate it successfully, the fact that they did doesn’t make the fence or obstacle a good one. If they attended a course building seminar, they might learn that a false ground line forces a horse to be unsure about take-off and scares them into leaving before they are ready – making a bad jump….among other problems!

The best course designers are not about making horses do bad jumping. The best look to make horses jump well. They set obstacles logically with an eye toward the guidelines for the level and within the height and difficulty recommendations. Even recognized designers make mistakes, but they strive not to make ones that can be easily rectified or that have been proven to be poor ideas. They study how horses negotiate what they have set. They note that size, color, time of day, shadow, footing and many other natural factors can influence how a horse jumps. They are constantly looking for ways to make jumps and obstacles fair yet stay true to the test, and keep competition up to the standard for the level. Hours and years of thought and study go into even the most simple novice horse trial course.

This is not to say that some people aren’t really, really good at setting courses without such training and education – there certainly are great horsemen out there who can and do set nice courses. It usually takes some time and experience in the sport to do that – many, many years of riding jumping horses, training, teaching and observing. They are the exception; and even with certification and training, recognized course designers are a bit rare and hard to find, but most areas of the US have them.

If you don’t know what I am talking about you probably haven’t taken a look at the USEA’s Cross Country Course Design Guidelines, which is annual published and updated at available as a PDF download at the website. (Find it here.) Every competitor and anyone who wants to put a log in their yard ought to print it out and read it thoroughly. It is a treasure trove of information about the recognized levels of eventing, and can easily be extrapolated for levels below Beginner Novice.