This weekend I spent a very enjoyable few hours spectating at a large horse trials event near my home. The cross country course was challenging and technical and many of the fences were sited on undulating ground with long, downhill galloping stretches in between. This tricky terrain caught out lots of riders and there were tumbles and run-outs aplenty. The world's top riders establish a good rhythm and allow their horses to get on with the job with minimal interference.
Effective cross country training teaches a horse to look after himself and to extricate himself and his rider from tricky situations. He must use his brain and his body to find that all important "fifth leg".
This is not only a useful skill to have across country but comes in handy during every day hacking out, trail riding and even schooling at home. Cantering uphill helps to build strength and fitness whilst avoiding excess concussion and impact on the horse's forelegs. Don't be tempted to go too fast uphill though in competition as it is tiring and you need to leave plenty of "petrol in the tank" for the rest of the course. When cantering downhill, try to keep the weight back onto the horse's quarters whilst keeping yourself in good balance. Keep your weight in your heels and use your core strength to balance; don't be tempted to have a breather by leaning on your horse's withers as this will put him onto his forehand.
Encourage your horse to work in self-carriage, take his weight back onto his hocks and be lighter in his forehand. Don't try to support him by using your reins as this will just encourage him to lean on you and restricts his use of his head and neck. It's useful if you can turn your horse out on undulating terrain. He can then become accustomed to negotiating this sort of ground without having to worry about balancing the weight of a rider. When out hacking, make use of any uneven, sloping or hilly ground and practice riding up and down it. It's a good idea to have your horse well protected with knee, overreach and brushing boots while his "fifth leg" is still in training!
Loose schooling over fences is a brilliant way of teaching a horse to think for himself. Start with poles on the ground and simple, single fences. As he becomes more confident and agile you can build more complicated grids for him to tackle. He will make mistakes at first but will soon learn how to correct himself and in doing so will grow in confidence. Ultimately, this will be invaluable when you're competing.
When you're schooling over fences, sit still and interfere as little as possible with your horse. Keep yourself in balance with your lower leg secure and still, present him straight at the fences and let him get on with it without disrupting his rhythm and balance. Experiment with shortening and lengthening distances between fences. Cross country fence related distances are influenced by the type of terrain on which they are sited and if your horse can learn to lengthen and shorten his stride automatically when he needs to this will make life much easier.
Another useful exercise is to place poles or logs in field and arena gateways. This will help the horse to get used to picking his feet up and looking where he's putting them. Introducing small, solidly constructed obstacles to your jumping schooling sessions is also a very good idea. Your horse will learn to treat his fences with respect which in turn makes riding across country that much safer.
Negotiating downhill fences safely is all about balance; both yours and your horse's. When a horse gallops downhill he naturally lengthens his stride and accelerates. You will need to slow him down slightly to make sure he keeps his balance. Keep your upper body back and your heel in line with your shoulder. As the horse jumps down over the drop fence, open your fingers and allow the reins to slip through so that the horse can stretch his neck without pulling you forward over his shoulder. Don't let the reins go altogether though and be ready to sit up and gather up the knitting when you've landed safely. Push down into your heel. Don't pivot on your knees or you will lose your balance.
Jumping uphill is generally easier than jumping downhill because the horse finds it easier to keep his balance. Do remember to keep your leg on and generate plenty of energy and speed but don't sit on the back of the saddle; keep your seat light, forward and over your horse's centre of gravity.
A good tip is to ride slightly shorter than you would for show jumping. This helps to keep your lower leg more stable and thus you will find it easier to keep your balance especially over drop fences.