Cross-country accuracy

In a training Masterclass, Advanced eventer Chloe Phillips-Harris helps a young rider and her Arab-Welsh gelding with their cross-country accuracy and sharpness. Images by Libby Law

Our Masterclass features event rider and adventurer Chloe Phillips-Harris (right) with 17-year-old student Emma Pinkney, riding Parklands Illusion

1. Sharpen up: warming up for cross-country

As Emma Pinkney and her pony Parklands Illusion (‘Danny’) start their warm-up at the Paihia Pony Club grounds, Chloe wants to check that Danny is looking where his feet are going right from the beginning. She asks Emma to ride some changes of speed in canter. “I want it a bit snappier, so when you put your leg on something dramatic happens, straight away – it shouldn’t take 20m for him to go forward. He needs to go sharply, because that’s how it happens in eventing. We need the horse to react as soon as we say.” 

Warming up is all about testing reactions

It’s the same when Emma sits back to slow down: Danny should respond automatically, as he’ll need to when approaching a drop fence, for example. “If he’s a bit strong, make sure you correct that straight away, because he’s only going to get stronger on a course – don’t be afraid to give a quick half-halt.”

Chloe has known Emma for a while and she says Danny is nicely engaged and that Emma is a beautiful rider, but sometimes she sits a bit ‘pretty’. 

“Emma needs to make sure that she’s the boss and that things are happening. It’s not always about looking perfect,” she explains. “In those first couple of minutes for eventing horses you want them a bit looser and freer and looking where their feet are going, more so than you would for maybe a show jumper or dressage horse.”

As a warm-up exercise, Chloe has set out a few crooked trot poles, in a zig-zag pattern without measuring them out.

Trotting over the crooked poles helps develop footwork

Chloe says although with a younger horse she’d have perfectly spaced-out trotting poles, this is a great exercise for a more established horse like Danny to get him thinking about where his feet are going. “They are just a little bit irregular and the horse has to look where he’s going, without it being horribly awkward.”

Chloe tells Emma to approach the poles in a working trot, thinking about sinking her weight down into her heels and letting Danny stretch his neck and look at the poles.

“You want him to be brave and confident, no matter what’s in front of him,” she says. “I really like his expression: he looks alert. He’s aware that they are a bit different and he’s concentrating on not tripping over them.”

2: Learning to lock on: riding tricky lines

An approach on a curving line between fences helps the horse and rider develop focus

Chloe has developed a few exercises she rides regularly herself, to keep horse and rider really sharp. 

First of all, she gets Emma trotting over a little cross-pole, turning one way on landing and then the other. Even with this simple fence, Emma has to approach off a curving line and in between two other fences so her horse is learning to focus and look for the jump from the start.

Chloe reminds Emma to be still with her hands. “Especially with eventing horses, you want them to focus on their feet, not their face,” she says.

Next, Chloe has Emma trot through a small bounce, which is set at about 3m. Approaching from trot helps keep the horse sharper and thinking on their feet, she feels. “It’s really easy to just canter in lazily and have the horse quite sloppy through a bounce.”

Chloe has also set up a single barrel three strides away from the cross. She tells Emma to canter in over the cross and out over the blue barrel and then back the other way.

Holding a line to the skinny barrel

“Have a line in your head from way back before the first jump and stay on it all the way past the second. Don’t waiver off that line,” she says.
Finally, Chloe gets Emma to do a little angled fence exercise, jumping in over the barrel or cross, then out over one side of the bounce, from both directions. It’s quite a steep angle and requires accurate riding from Emma. At first, Emma and Danny don’t get the exercise quite right and it all looks a bit jerky and short. But soon they are flowing in and out over the angled fences smoothly and Chloe is happy.

“You can do this at all levels – it’s good for the three-star horses and it’s also good for the babies. You always keep it low, so they can do it from trot and if they make a mistake it doesn’t scare them,” she explains. 

“You want to develop that instinct on the horse, to be sharp and focused and looking for the fence. At home it’s easy to get too slow in your training, because you have all the time in the world. These exercises keep you on your game.”

The rider turning their body and looking for the next fence is a massively important aid, says Chloe. “This is how I started with my top horse Cor Jet – he learned from the beginning and now when I turn my body he’s already anticipating the jump must be that way before I’ve even touched the reins. With eventing horses you want them to be free and loose. How can the horse be athletic in their body if you’re relying on your hands and hauling on their mouth?”

A word on skinnies…

“I introduce skinnies really early on in the training, because then the horse learns to look for the jump and lock on. You’re never going to be strong enough to hold a horse on to a skinny, so I think right from the beginning you have to teach them it’s not a big deal to go straight and over a narrow fence. Also, you should always look past the jump. If you’re just sitting there focusing on the skinny fence, your eyes go down, your shoulder goes down and it does not help.”

3. Take your time: jumping staircases

Keeping your head up will keep your body in the correct place jumping down a staircase

Chloe explains that she likes to warm up over a staircase as her first cross-country jump when schooling. The key is not approaching at speed: she walks her horses up and down the banks to begin with, taking it slowly and steadily so they have a chance to look and figure out the question without rushing.

“It’s the same when I’m hacking out. I always get the horses walking over ditches on a long rein and up and down banks, so nothing is a big deal – they learn that whatever you put in front of them, there’s no option but to go over it,” she says.

“It also gets them using their body and thinking. Otherwise it’s too easy to just gallop at fences and then you get the horse pulling you into them from the very beginning.”

Emma walks Danny up and down the bank – as an experienced pony, he knows what he is doing and doesn’t need to walk the bank a million times, but with a green horse you would repeat this until they gain confidence. 

When jumping down the bank, Chloe tells Emma to focus on something in the distance, which helps keep the horse straight and automatically rocks the rider’s body back on landing. “If you look down at the jump, it’s so easy to tip forward. If you’re looking up, you can let the reins slide, then gather them up and keep on going, rather than pitching forward and not knowing where you’re going on landing.”

Coming up the bank, Chloe tells Emma to approach in a nice, bouncy canter, keeping her eyes up. Danny makes it look easy. “He’s beautiful to watch,” says Chloe.

Danny and Emma look great going up the bank

When jumping anything uphill, like this bank, the main thing the rider needs to remember is to get forwards and stay out of the horse’s way, says Chloe. 

Jumping uphill fences

The key to jumping uphill is to attack all the way to the base of the fence

The key when jumping fences at the top of a hill, like this combination, is to keep riding all the way to the base, says Chloe. “For these types of jumps it’s never about checking and making sure you’ve got the perfect stride; you’ve just got to go for it, otherwise the horse will be struggling to get their legs up.”

4. Train for competitions: committing to a line

Emma holds her line beautifully over the tyre fence

This straight-forward tyre fence is a good one for having to pick a line and not let the horse drift, says Chloe. You have to decide whether to jump the V-shaped gap or the top of a tyre, and it’s going to be very obvious if the horse deviates off your line. “You should use your legs to steer the horse and keep them straight, rather than just ripping on their face,” says Chloe.  

If Chloe was riding a young horse, she might be more likely to go for the ‘V’; if she were riding Jet she would make him go for the middle tyre because it’s good skinny jump training, she says. Either way, it has to be habit for the horse to go exactly where you tell them. 

“Commit from way back – he’s got to stay on the line that you want,” Chloe tells Emma. “You can do this in a proper cross-country gallop now.”

Jumping fences at cross-country pace is also an important part of the schooling, explains Chloe. “It’s no good going for your first gallop over jumps at an event. You have to train them at home that it’s no big deal to go for a gallop and then come back to a canter again and jump.”

Emma picks the middle tyre and is bang on, with Danny jumping it perfectly in the middle. Her ability to hold a line is tested again over this corner fence, which Chloe says is particularly ugly (below).

Picture perfect over what Chloe calls an ‘ugly’ corner

She manages it capably – in fact Chloe says she couldn’t make it look any better than this. “This is one of the worst corners you could jump. It’s at a bad angle and it’s not inviting. But if you always train harder than the competition and do it as beautifully as that, you’ll never have a worry.”

5. Keep it fun: training water

Popping into the water over some barrels

Chloe says the key to jumping water is teaching the horse they must always jump in exactly where you ask. “Even on a baby horse, I have a 1m zone and they aren’t allowed to go either side,” she explains. “I train them on every single ride I do; whenever they approach water they have to go directly on that line, whether it’s a puddle or a creek.”

The other important point is that cross-country must be fun, says Chloe. Concentrate on making the horse love what it is doing and never be in a rush.

“Let them step in and step out until they are 100% happy doing that. If you want your horse to be good and keep doing its job, you’ve got to make it a reward to do these things.”

Because Danny is an experienced pony, he doesn’t need to walk in the water, but Chloe does get Emma to canter through the splash first so he can get his feet wet. Then she tells her to approach the bank and jump down, turning left to exit. She doesn’t mind if Emma comes in trot or canter, just so long as it’s not a flat gallop.

“I want you rocking back on landing, with your heels down,” says Chloe. “I find if you keep your eyes up, your lower leg naturally comes forward a little bit.”

Chloe then adds a couple of barrels to the water jump, so Emma can practise jumping in over more of a drop. Again, she needs to keep her eyes up, looking into the distance. “What a good pony!” praises Chloe. “It just looked easy. I think if you were starting to get to bigger fences I’d let the reins slide and sit back a bit more, but for that level that was fantastic.”

The lesson ends with a wee course over a few downhill fences, a ski ramp and an oxer, which Emma jumps from a nice in-hand gallop and Chloe is pleased. “I’m really happy with how Emma is riding. She used to check a little bit too much all the time, but she’s definitely made that step to being a committed, positive rider. I think her and Danny are a really cool combination.”

Training opportunities are everywhere

“Your horse is always learning, so always be teaching it. When I first got Jet, he used to be really afraid of water – he would leap over every single puddle and would not let his feet get wet, ever. I spent all winter making him walk through every puddle we came across; he’d leap back and forth about 10 times before he’d step in. And then we’d go to the next puddle and do it all again. You just have to put the hours in.”

“I think you should do elements of your cross-country training every week. I might not go to a cross-country course every week, but I will trot them through some water at home, or put a show jump on the side of a hill and pop up and down over it. And then I think especially in the off-season you should go and do some cross-country a couple of times in winter. Before the start of the season I’ll take Jet out and pop over some low jumps and into water, just to get him really happy and comfortable.

“I think it’s so important, even for upper-level horses, to make it fun for them. If they’ve just had a massive three-star run, in the two weeks following that I might take them to a course and potter around, go in the water and teach off them, just to let them be there without it being a stressful event. It’s about keeping them mentally happy and confident at their job, as much as it is physically. You want them to love it; it shouldn’t always be a big, scary thing for them.”

  • This article was first published in the May 2018 issue of NZ Horse & Pony. June-July 2019 is out now everywhere great magazines are sold.