Aug 08, 2019

Improving Your Cross-Country Riding with Bruce Davidson

USEA Archives Photo.

The United States Eventing Association turns 60 this year! In honor of the occasion, we'll be throwing it back with articles from previous USTCA News and Eventing USA magazines to celebrate 60 years of eventing in the United States.

This article originally appeared in Volume 20, Issue 6 (December 1991) of USCTA News magazine.

Americans need to improve their cross-country riding skills to compete more successfully in combined training, says Bruce Davidson, nine-time U.S. Combined Training Association Rider of the Year. ''American riders are good on the flat, but as a rule they are weaker in cross-country riding," he says. He attributes this weakness to failures in training. "You can't teach someone to ride cross-country in one field, or even with constant instruction. It has to become a natural thing, and the only way to achieve that is to get out and do it."

The eventing champion is a big believer in foxhunting his event horses. "I love to hunt. I hunt all my horses. But you have to live in the right country to do this." A member of Mr. Stewart's Cheshire Fox­hounds, he hunts frequently and has competed on Hunt Night at the Washington International Horse Show, garnering ribbons in the gentleman's hack and hunt team (with his wife and son) classes.

"Most Americans don't know how to gallop a horse," he contends. "You don't mess with their mouths. You can't override them or flex them at the poll at the gallop. You have to learn to sit there and do almost nothing."

Bruce himself loves to steeplechase. "I like racing better than anything," he says, his eyes gleaming. He will campaign five horses in sanctioned meets this spring and hopes to ride in the rigorous Maryland Hunt Cup.

USEA Archives Photo.

Eventing has changed over the more than 20 years that Davidson has been competing. "The sport has become more technical. It requires more speed, there are more big fences on cross-country."

He is concerned about the tendency to build very challenging courses for the less than full-fledged Three-Day competitions, the horse trials which come earlier in the season. "If it is a Three-Day sport, then let the Three-Day Event be the real test," he declares. "If the horse is severely tested at every Horse Trial, then many won't make it to the Three-Day."

With this in mind, Bruce advised on the redesign of the cross­-country course at the Morven Park Equestrian Institute, near Leesburg, Virginia. "What we are trying to achieve is to bring some Open Intermediate and Advanced eventing back to Area II where it used to be and it belongs." (The course already had Training and Preliminary level jumps.)

"This is horse country," he points out. "It is silly that people from Area II have to drive 14 to 18 hours to do a Horse Trial."

The result, he feels, is a "fair Open Intermediate course for the beginning of the season. It will give a horse a good outing, but not try to break anyone down. It should get everyone going into the season enthusiastic and encouraged." The Loudoun Hunt Pony Club sponsors the Horse Trials at Morven Park Equestrian Institute each year at the end of March.


Riders should walk the cross-country course three times before riding it, Bruce believes. The first time yields a quick, overall impression. The second time, which will take the longest, should be a detailed one in which all the alternatives are explored, decisions are made as to where the rider will jump each jump, and he or she learns where the rocks, stumps, and trees are. He recommends walking with one other person, preferably one more experienced than the rider, to discuss all the alternatives.

The third walk should give the rider a view of the course as though he or she were looking at a film, Bruce says. The rider should go right over the course the way he or she will ride it, going around every tree and landmark the way they will be taken on the ride.


USEA Archives Photo.

When a rider leaves the starting box, he or she should have a plan for every single fence on the course, Bruce emphasizes. He dismisses the idea that a rider can reserve to the last minute which option he or she will take on certain fences, depending upon how previous jumps have gone.

However, Bruce advises the rider to look at all the options as he walks the course, so that on competition day, if other riders are having trouble with a certain fence or the word goes out that a certain fence is posing difficulty, the rider can decide then to attack it in a different way. Once decided, however, the rider should go to the fence letting the horse know that "this is how we are going to jump this fence, this is the only way, and we will jump it right here."


Any ditch that comes on the landing side of a vertical fence is difficult, Bruce says. The reverse is easier. For the fence/ditch combination, the horse must be well in front of the rider's leg, the rider should have his hands low and in contact. He or she must not come to the fence on a long rein or with the horse going too fast, but the rider still must have the "rpms" or impulsion. The rider sits well in the saddle, focuses on the top rail, then places the horse as close to the fence as possible. Then he picks a straight line with his eye going to the last element in the combination. This straight line through, Bruce stresses, produces engagement and allows for adjustment of the stride if necessary. If the horse is not straight, he cannot adjust his stride.


The thicker and denser the brush in a bullfinch fence is, the more the question for the horse. Bruce advises the rider to ride the obstacle with an increasing pace, without letting go of the contact. This gives the horse the chance to jump the whole bullfinch if that is what he wants to do. If the horse is older and more experienced, he may brush through it. But the only option for the horse should be whether to jump the whole thing or brush through; he should have no option to duck out to the left or right, Bruce stresses.


Vertical fences are show jump questions, Bruce declares, even when they are on the cross-country course. The rider must be a little more in control than if he is jumping an oxer, he says, and the horse should be encouraged to jump round.


The smallest fence on the course is often the one that gives the most trouble, Bruce says. Both horse and rider may be unimpressed by the jump, to their peril. He cautions riders never to let down.


In training, horses are ridden faster uphill for conditioning, and slower down the hill. During competition, however, Bruce stresses that it is vitally important to go slower up the hill to save the horse's energy, then make up time on the downhill. He also recommends slowing at the brow of the hill to let the horse get its breath and get organized before galloping down to the next fence.

USEA Archives Photo.


Davidson points out that stops on the course usually are caused by something that happened one or two fences before, not on the fence itself. If a horse has had a bad fence, he often will remember it and lose confidence, resulting in a stop later.

If the horse looks or hesitates before an obstacle, the rider should immediately use his stick, behind the saddle or leg, at that very second if possible. If the horse sucks back just before jumping the fence, the rider should "chase him away from the fence when he lands," he says.

If the rider knows that an upcoming fence is likely to pose a big question for the horse, he or she should start preparing the horse with the legs, or a stick well in advance, even before the horse sees the fence. The horse should already be sensitive to the fact that the rider plans to go the first time, and he should know what the rider's reaction will be if he doesn't.


For all jumps, the rider should be in total control, Bruce stresses. The rider should adjust the pace and pick the takeoff spots. "I don't believe in leaving it to the horse and kicking him on. By the time he has learned how to jump cross-country fences by trial and error he will have lost some of his heart and gotten banged up in the process," he says. As the rider approaches each obstacle, he or she should pick a focal point and never let his or her eyes come off it, Bruce emphasizes. That will bring the horse in balance to the fence.


A good first fence for a cross-country course is one that leans away. Bruce call this a "gift" fence. As with a chase fence, the horse should be ridden progressively more strongly toward it. The rider's eyes should be fixed on the lowest front rail, encouraging the horse to get as close to the base of the fence as possible. Then he can just step over it in an effort. This, he says, will build his confidence and "put him on his legs." On the other hand, if the horse is allowed to stand away from such an obstacle, it will loom big and difficult, and discourage the horse.


When riding an upright fence, especially one over a ditch, Bruce recommends jumping over a post in the fence, as long as it does not extend higher than the fence. This will help set the horse up and balance him he says. The rider should always focus on the top rail of the fence, and not the ditch, or the horse will hit the fence with his knees. He should progressively increase his pace, go with plenty of impulsion, have his hands low to encourage the horse's nose to be up and get him to jump out in front of the jump. The rider should be tight in the saddle with the horse in front of his leg.

USEA Archives Photo.


A horse should be trained to go off knolls and jump drop fences. If the obstacle simply involves a drop down without a fence with height to jump in front of it, the horse should be slowed so that it can see the difference in terrain. The rider should be completely in the saddle and riding the horse forward, but not fast, since the horse can step off at any speed. However, the horse should not be allowed to stop or be given time to step back, since this will result in a penalty.

If there is a fence in front of the drop, the question becomes much bigger. If the fence is solid, such as one made of telephone poles, the rider can be quite positive and aggressive. If it is airy, the horse will have less respect for it, and the rider must be very careful. The horse should be encouraged to stay round when he jumps. Bruce cautions the rider not to look down at any drop fence, but to look out in front of it.


Bank jumps, whether they be steps up, a bounce and a jump down, or other configurations, always jump the same way, Bruce says. When jumping up a bank, the rider keeps his hands low, keeps contact, gets closer and closer to the saddle, and perhaps a little behind the motion. The only mistake the horse may make is to leave the ground too far away from the jump and drop a foot behind. A horse that has done this will never do it again, he predicts. The best possible situation, Bruce says, is to have the horse going forward aggressively enough so that the rider is trying to take him back one last time before the fence. The horse should be taking the rider to the fence, not the rider taking him.

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