12 golden rules for cross-country

Leading event riders Emily Cammick and Annabel Wigley share their secrets for cross-country success from schooling through to competition day

You don't have to beat the clock every single run (Image: Annie Studholme)
You don’t have to beat the clock every single run (Image: Annie Studholme)

1. Preparation is everything

“I don’t train at events; I train at home. It’s better to invest your time, money and energy into getting the basics right at home rather than in entry fees and shows,” says Emily.

“Your horse should know how to jump before you tackle a cross-country. And you don’t need to gallop around course after course to practise. I do most of my cross-country schooling on my arena at home, using show jumps with skinnies, corners, and related lines, and I have a water race around the road where I teach my horses about water.

Preparation is key; Emily does most of her xc schooling over show jumps (image: Annie Studholme)
Preparation is key; Emily does most of her xc schooling over show jumps (image: Annie Studholme)

“I like my horses to go out and jump the cross-country like a show hunter competition. I want them to keep that style over every fence, I am not interested in them feeling their way round. At home, you can use poles, grids and gymnastic exercises to make sure you have an adjustable canter and establish the correct technique,” she says.

Annabel adds: “It’s about teaching your horse how to look after himself.”

2. Fitness first

“Make sure your horse is fit enough for the level you are competing at. Set your goals for the season ahead, establishing which events you want to target, and work backwards to form a fitness plan that will have your horse in peak condition,” says Annabel.

3. Trust is a two-way street

“No surprises. It’s all about trust and building the relationship between horse and rider,” says Emily. “You want it so that when you ask your horse to do something, he trusts you enough to say ‘okay’. You have to make them feel secure and comfortable while at the same time presenting them with enough of a challenge, but without unnecessarily pushing them out of their comfort zone.

“We expect our horses to trust us, but we must remember to trust them as well. If you think they are going to do something, then they are far more likely to do it. Whether you actually trust your horse or not, you at least need to make them feel like you do!”

Stopping doesn't even occur to Emily's horse Lewis! (image: Annie Studholme)
Stopping doesn’t even occur to Emily’s horse Lewis! (image: Annie Studholme)

4. Stopping is not an option

“When it comes to competition, stopping is not an option,” says Emily. “I don’t take horses out at competitions to stop. While winning is not important, we have so few events in the South Island that getting a qualifying score is, so you have to make each event count. If you have done the preparation, they should know what’s expected of them when you compete.”

5. Think ahead

“Only you have walked the course, your horse hasn’t, so it’s important to remember you have to prepare him for what’s coming, whether it’s uneven footing, a big drop on landing or a fence on top of a rise. Think ahead, and be committed,” says Emily.

Walk the lines carefully, remembering your horse will be seeing this for the first time as he jumps it (image: Sally Wigley)
Walk the lines carefully, remembering your horse will be seeing this for the first time as he jumps it (image: Sally Wigley)

6. Work that warm-up

“Have a plan for your warm-up. It’s an opportunity to get your horse listening between your legs and your seat. You should have several canters available and your horse should be obedient to lengthen and shorten his stride on cue. Also, make sure you check your brakes. There is no point heading out on the cross-country if you can’t stop. It’s also a good chance to practise your angles over the practice fence,” says Annabel.

To get them really listening to your leg, Emily says try adding leg-yielding and bending to your warm-up plan. By the time you’re called to the start, the horse should be in a good rhythm and ready to go. You want to be able to set out at the pace you aim to finish at.

Always be prepared when things don't go according to plan (Image: Annie Studholme)
Always be prepared when things don’t go according to plan (Image: Annie Studholme)

7. Be flexible

“Cross-country never goes exactly to plan. Even if you intend to take all the straight routes, always walk the options just in case. You never know what’s going to happen, and you need to know every option you have available. In some cases you may need a plan B and plan C,” says Annabel.

8. Traction tricks

“Don’t be afraid to use studs, even on young horses,” says Annabel. “I use them in all ground conditions. When it’s boggy or if it’s slippery on top, they help prevent slipping, and if it’s hard I use pointy studs because it can still be slippery on top. If a horse is slipping he can lose his confidence, and with young horses especially, I like them to have as much confidence as possible. It is a horrible feeling for the horse and rider if you’re slipping into the jump. I also use them in the dressage, as it gives them grip on the corners – meaning you’re more likely to do a nice balanced corner.”

9. Balancing acts

“For me, balance is probably the most important thing on the cross-country. Keep your body up and your centre of balance back, so you’re ready for anything. Horses use their head and neck for balance. If your balance is back, you’ll give your horse every chance to get his knees up and safely over the fence, and you’ll have less chance of being tipped out of the saddle if something does go amiss,” says Annabel.

Good balance, both for you and your horse, is the key to a successful round (Image: Annie Studholme)
Good balance, both for you and your horse, is the key to a successful round (Image: Annie Studholme)

10. Don’t race the clock at every run

“I never push my young horses to make the time, and I only wear a watch for important competitions, like FEI or championships (where the prizemoney is worth winning!). I think it’s more important to teach a horse to jump out of a rhythm from a speed that they feel confident at. As they become more experienced you can press them to make the time. If you start pushing them out of their comfort zone, their technique suffers and they can start making mistakes which can unduly affect their confidence. You want to give them an enjoyable experience,” says Emily.

“Take care at the first couple of fences to give your horse confidence for the rest of the course, and be careful not to start out too fast, as you want to save your horse’s energy for the end of the course,” adds Annabel. “If you push too early, you’ll have nothing left when you need it.”

11. Listen to your horse

“Ride the horse, not the course,” says Annabel. “It’s important to get that rhythm established, and listen to how your horse is feeling. If he is backing off the fences, you may have to do things differently. Be prepared to take an option if it’s not going so well, or slow down instead of trying to make the time if the horse is struggling.”

12. Remember, we do this for fun!

 “At the end of the day, you can analyse it and be as critical as you like, but above all cross-country is supposed to be fun, so enjoy it!” says Emily.

  • This article first appeared in the September 2012 issue of NZ Horse & Pony magazine