Dec 08, 2023

‘Test the Best Without Hurting the Rest:’ Barnard and Donovan Lead Show Jumping Seminar at USEA Annual Meeting & Convention

By Lindsay Berreth - USEA Staff
Marc Donovan (left) and Chris Barnard (right). USEA/Lindsay Berreth photos

St. Louis, Mo.—Dec. 8—“Test the best without hurting the rest,” said show jumping course designer Chris Barnard as he and fellow designer Marc Donovan led a lively discussion for nearly 50 participants at the Show Jumping Seminar on the first day of the USEA Annual Meeting & Convention.

The format for the seminar this year was an all-day classroom discussion at the Marriott St. Louis Grand hotel.

The goal was to educate current and potential course designers on everything from rules to specs and to allow participants to share and discuss their “homework assignments,” in which they designed a course and presented it to the group.

Barnard and Donovan started the discussion by giving their basic principles of course design. Compared to pure show jumping, where the designer is trying to get a result, Barnard, an FEI level 2 and USEF ‘R’ jumper course designer, said an eventing course designer’s job is to set a fair test for the level.

“It’s not our job to get a winner, it’s our job to set a test. Whether it’s Beginner Novice or Advanced, it should include the specs and be within the specifications of the rules we’ve been given, but also be appropriate for the level,” he explained. “Then, if it’s appropriate for the level, if you ride well and the horses jump well and they jump clear, great. If they have a little problem, hopefully the question is appropriate, and they can go home and fix it. Our role as a course designer is as an educator so that if you’re at the level and you ride the course well, the rider and trainer then know that the horse is educated at that level.”

Donovan, also an FEI level 2 and USEF ‘R’ jumper designer agreed, adding, “I think if you are set out to trip them up and find faults, you are on the wrong path to designing courses. The faults present themselves.”

When focusing on designer an eventing show jumping course, Barnard and Donovan said there are four key things to consider: Lines (distances and number of strides appropriate for the level), turns (degrees, distance from the arena edge, placement in the arena), material (levels of difficulty), and purpose of the course (jumping vs. eventing, jump-off, etc.).

Other considerations included safety equipment (in good repair, safety cups), sport (does the course encourage/enhance sportsmanship?), training (does the course enable good training?), suitability (is the course suitable for the level and the competition?), and day light (is there enough day light hours to run all the horses without rushing? How is the course affected by the weather and the light?).

The pair then talked about the body mechanics of the jumping horse. While a 12’ stride is average, Donovan noted he’s seen a trend in making distances, especially in combinations, a bit longer.

“I certainly have, in the last few years, run into making distances longer than 12’ strides because the quality of the horse has changed so much.”

Barnard agreed. “I think 24’ was normal whereas now 25’ is normal,” he said. “You’re generally building a little longer, but I think part of the skills of a course designer is knowing what skills to ask and when to ask. For us with eventing, you’ve got show jumping as the first jumping phase or the last jumping phase, and that changes our mindset a bit on how we’re going to build and how a course is going to go. Those technicalities in the course will reflect what I want to ask because the length of stride is different. For an every day nice, mid-level course, you’re definitely nowadays building a bit longer—a foot or two feet.”

While a modern event horse’s stride might be slightly longer, the mechanics are still the same though, said Donovan.

“The momentum sends them over the fence into a pile, and they reach for the first stride [on landing,]” he said. “The last stride before takeoff they have to collect and shorten, so it’s a shorter stride.”

The length of the horse’s stride is influenced by the type of fence—an oxer, vertical, or triple bar; the direction—toward or away from the in-gate, what comes before or after; the footing—grass, sand, hard, slippery, or deep; and other obstacles such as islands, other jumps in the ring, sponsor vehicles, etc.

Barnard and Donovan then moved the discussion to ground lines and builds of fences. Barnard said though he’s not a fan of brush or flower boxes for his courses, they can be inviting at the lower levels as the first fence and added that poles-only fences are generally very jumpable fences. He tends to steer clear of generous ground lines.

Donovan showed several PowerPoint slides with examples of fences horses have trouble reading and that course designers should be on the lookout for. Solid poles indoors can sometimes lose contrast against the background, solid white poles near white arena fencing can blend in, as can green poles on grass or beige poles on sandy footing.

Barnard likes to use what he calls “mafia” poles—horizontal pinstripes—at the upper levels. He said he tends to see those types of poles, as well as walls, in Europe more often. “We should offer pinstripes and walls every now and then at the four-star and national level to prepare the horses for international competition,” he said.

He noted that the spacing of materials can also be a factor that can challenge horses, such as a plank lower to the ground or different widths of open space between poles on a vertical fence.

Donovan added that he likes to use planks with logos on them rather than solid colors to help the horses read them better.

Overall, both designers said it’s important to use a variety of materials, colors, and patterns and to keep in mind how the horse might perceive them.

“The questions should be fair. We as course designers are not trying to trick anyone. We are trying to be fair and ask the questions,” said Barnard.

He brought up an app that cross-country course designers use that shows them how horses perceive color, though he doesn’t use it for his designs. Cross-country course designer and trainer Cathy Wieschhoff chimed in from the audience to say that she had experience with it and thought it was useful.

Colors like red and green are harder for horses to see and can look gold to them. Solid poles are more challenging because there’s no depth for the horses to see. Donovan said he’s had the worst luck with solid red planks but has not had an issue with yellow, contrary to the popular belief that it’s harder for horses to see.

Both designers don’t like using three-stride lines because they find them harder to get back into should a horse refuse, and they never use open waters in eventing—“these horses are trained to put their feet in the water, not jump 6’-8’ of open water,” said Barnard.

Barnard and Donovan then showed an example of their course design build sheet and explained what was on it. They work to scale and can always tweak something if needed. Barnard said it’s better to work on the idea that an arena might be smaller than expected just in case a designer gets to an event site and has been given incorrect arena dimensions.

They went on to discuss several examples of well-designed, thoughtful show jumping courses in recent years, including going through the 2021 Tokyo Olympic Games’ course fence-by-fence.

Good courses should be forward and flowing and have a good balance of oxers and verticals. There should be a good proportion of left to right turns, a variation in types of combinations, and noticeable differences in fence construction.

The session finished with a discussion of courses which several participants completed beforehand.

Barnard concluded that a good course designer must always consider safety first and foremost, try to produce a fair test, promote horsemanship by always rewarding good training and riding, and to present the sport in a beautiful and natural way to be able to direct the future of the sport.

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About the USEA Annual Meeting & Convention

The USEA Annual Meeting & Convention takes place each December and brings together a large group of dedicated USEA members and supporters to discuss, learn, and enjoy being surrounded by other eventing enthusiasts. The USEA organizes multiple seminars in addition to committee meetings, open forums, and tons of fun! The 2023 USEA Annual Meeting & Convention will take place in St. Louis, Missouri, on Dec. 7-10, 2023. Click here to learn more about the USEA Annual Meeting & Convention.

The USEA would like to thank the USEA Annual Meeting & Convention Sponsors: Adequan, Bates Saddles, Capital Square, D.G. Stackhouse & Ellis, Kerrits, Horse & Country, Nunn Finer, Nutrena, Parker Equine Insurance, Rebecca Farm, RevitaVet, SmartPak, Standlee, and World Equestrian Brands.

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