Oct 25, 2023

A Good Quality Canter is the Essence of Cross-Country Riding

By Phyllis Dawson - ECP Faculty Member
USEA/Lindsay Berreth photo

Cross-country is the heart and soul of eventing; it's what separates us from the other disciplines. Our sport is unique in that we do three very different phases, and though we ride at different speeds and in different positions, it's important that we are consistent in the way we communicate with our horses. The basics of flatwork must carry over to the jumping phases.

The essence of riding cross-country is for the rider to be able to create a good quality canter (or gallop) appropriate for each fence. It is the horse’s job to jump the fence, but it is the rider’s job to present the horse to the jump in the correct canter, to make the horse’s job easier. The rider needs to be able to let the horse gallop on between fences, and then bring him back into the appropriate stride length, balance, rhythm, straightness, and attitude for each obstacle. Making that transition efficiently and seamlessly is the key to good XC riding.

It is the coach’s job to teach the rider how to identify and create that canter, and just what is needed for each type of fence and each individual horse. When schooling your students cross-country, detailed instruction should be given about the canter, the line, the balance, and the rider position needed for each obstacle. The ability to make the transition from the open gallop back to the jumping canter is hugely important to successful cross-country riding; it is imperative for the instructor or coach to teach and emphasize these skills.

An important aspect of cross-country schooling is teaching your student over a safe and appropriate progression of fences. Start with smaller and easier fences to warm up and assess the horse and rider’s performance on the day. Then gradually add in more challenging obstacles as appropriate. We want to build confidence, not test it; be careful to never over-face your student or their horse. Show them what they CAN do, not what they can’t. Of course, you need to also be mindful of factors such as recent performance, the horse’s (and rider’s) fitness level, as well as the weather and footing.

With the technicality of today’s courses, especially at the higher levels, we need to school the horses over accuracy questions often. However, you do not have to have the fences maximum height to school these questions. We need to practice over the narrow fences, corners, and angles often so that the horse understands them. This can be done with smaller fences, or show jump standards and poles, to create the accuracy questions the horse needs to understand, but with fences that will be forgiving if you don’t get it just right the first time. Start small and simple, and gradually increase the difficulty of the obstacles only when the horse and rider are really ready so that you never overface either one.

At the upper levels, the difficulty of the accuracy questions with wide corners, oblique angles, and ridiculously narrow skinnies is pretty amazing. In the past we used to talk about making a corridor between our hands and legs, and holding the horse straight so they had no option but to jump the fence. While we still ride the horses with that "corridor" to train them, with today’s modern obstacles we must go a step further; we have to teach the horse to "seek the flags."

Through schooling, the horse has to learn to look for the flags to jump the skinny or oblique corner. The questions and lines are too difficult to make the horse jump them; he has to understand the game and want to jump them and look for the flags with that intent.

Teaching these concepts to both horse and rider takes time; to get to the upper levels, plan on years of schooling, starting with simple accuracy exercises, and gradually increasing the level of difficulty as the horse and rider progress, but only when they completely understand the questions. Always set them up for success: use guiding rails or wings on narrows and corners, jump the last element of a combination by itself first before putting the whole thing together, and have a gradual and safe progression of difficulty. The goal for effective cross-country schooling would be to never have the horses learn that stopping or running out is an option because you never put them in a situation where that happens.

But what if you do encounter a problem when schooling? Of course, this can happen now and then. If a horse loses confidence or stops at a fence, you need to find a way to restore confidence, rather than apply negative reinforcement. If the horse runs out on an accuracy question, for instance, reprimand will only give him a negative association with the fence. Instead, maybe you go to a smaller fence of the same type or break the exercise up into simpler questions. We want to have a quiet systematic approach to regaining the horse’s confidence and compliance to the aids.

Our horses are our partners, and this is never more important than when on the cross-country course. Ninety-five percent of training horses is to get them to understand what it is you want them to do. This comes from taking one’s time, giving the horse (and rider) a good education on the flat, and then relating that flatwork to the other phases. That way, when the cross-country questions become complex, the horse and rider should have the necessary skills to answer them. And that is what our excellent sport is all about.

About the USEA Eventing Coaches Program

Instructors are essential to the training of riders and horses for safe and educated participation in the sport of eventing. The USEA Eventing Coaches Program (ECP) was initiated in 2002 to educate all levels of eventing instructors with essential training principles upon which those instructors can continue to build throughout their teaching careers. ECP offers educational workshops and assessments by which both regular instructors, Level I through Level IV, Young Event Horse (YEH) instructors, and Young Event Horse professional horse trainers can become ECP certified. Additional information about ECP’s goals, benefits, workshops, and assessments as well as names and contact information for current ECP-certified instructors, YEH instructors, and YEH professional horse trainers are available is available on the USEA website. Click here to learn more about the Eventing Coaches Program.

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Weekend Quick Links: July 13-14

Are you following along with the action from home this weekend? Or maybe you're competing at an event and need information fast. Either way, we’ve got you covered!

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