Galloping around a cross-country course is one of the most fun things you can do on horseback, and there are courses for every level of rider or horse. If you and your horse are jumping two feet at home, there may be an unaffiliated event nearby that offers a fun, “starter” division. If you jump bigger fences with your favorite horse, a United States Eventing Association affiliated event may be in your future.
And if you don’t really want to compete or there aren’t any events in your area, you can still have a good time leaping over some logs with your horse at a local cross-country park or at a farm that has built some safe cross-country obstacles for people to jump.
But before you try cross-country jumping, both you and your horse must have the correct protective gear to help keep you safe when you jump outside the arena. Cross-country fences are solid—they don’t knock down like poles do if your horse hits them. If you’re like most people, you’ll probably hit the ground a few times when you’re learning how to jump cross- country fences, so it’s important that you wear the correct equipment.
Start out with your every day riding wear: breeches, half chaps or tall boots, paddock boots, gloves and, of course, a helmet! Invest in a body protector if you think you might keep on jumping outside the arena. A body protector is a padded vest that helps protect your upper body if you fall off your horse. Most vests zip up the front and have Velcro-fastenings so you can adjust them to fit snugly. Even if you don’t normally carry a crop, most cross-country riders carry one in case their horses need a little encouragement to go faster or jump a slightly-spooky fence.
Your horse can wear his regular saddle, girth and saddle pad when jumping cross-county, but you might want to rethink his bit situation before you leave the security of the arena. Some horses become wilder and stronger when they’re jumping in a field, and you may need more control when cantering or galloping toward a fence. If your horse usually wears a snaffle, see how he goes in it when you ride outside the arena. If he goes fine and you can slow him down and stop him, great. If he pulls your arms out, swap your snaffle for a slightly stronger bit, such as a slow-twist snaffle or a kimberwicke. Your horse should also wear protective boots on all four legs. You can buy a fairly inexpensive set of padded splint (brushing) boots that use Velcro fastenings to keep them in place. For even more protection, put a pair of bell boots on his front legs to cover his pastern area and heels.
Out of the Arena
It’s important to warm up properly before you head toward the first cross-country fence. Walk, trot and canter your horse in both directions and do lots of circles and transitions. Make sure you’re in control. For safety reasons, your horse must slow down and stop when you ask him. If your horse is excited because he’s outside the arena, get rid of extra energy by doing some long trots or canters to tire him out a bit. If your horse behaves, get up in jumping position, push down your heels, and place your hands on his neck and ask him to go a little faster into a hand gallop. If your horse doesn’t bolt or buck, you’re ready to try a fence or two!
Your first fence should be inviting and small, for example a log on the ground. Ask a friend riding an experienced horse to trot the fence first, and let your horse follow his friend up and over the obstacle. The next time, try trotting the fence without a lead. Grab some mane so you’re ready in case your horse jumps big. Some horses over-jump fences when they’re new to jumping outside the arena. Even if your horse jumps awkwardly, sit back down in the saddle after the fence and trot around again. Trot the fence until your horse jumps it nicely, and then try it at the canter.
Most horses speed up outside the arena, but if your horse is being a slow-poke, give him a tap of the whip behind your leg a stride or two in front of the jump. If he’s slopping along at a turtle’s pace, he could get caught on the fence and hurt himself.
Once you’ve mastered one fence at the trot and canter, try a few more. If your horse is being good, jump three or four fences in a row. Start by jumping at the trot, but if your horse canters after he lands, let him canter the other fences. As you and your horse become more confident, you’ll be able to canter (or gallop) all the way around a course.
Here are some fences you’ll spot on a cross-country course:
Logs: You’ll see lots of log jumps at events—some big and small.
Straw bales: There are always a couple of fences that incorporate straw bales in them at the lower levels of eventing. Train for these fences by popping over straw bales at home.
Water crossings or jumps: at the lower levels you only have to trot or canter through water. Sometimes the water crossings are natural, for instance a creek, but other times they are man-made obstacles with water pumped in. As you move up the levels you may have to jump a fence into water or jump a bank out of water. Practice riding your horse into water before you sign up for your first event!
Wooden fences: The majority of cross-country fences are made out of wood. Be prepared to jump wooden coops or boxes.
Banks: Banks are raised jumps made out of wood and dirt. Depending on how a bank is designed you can jump up and or down it. There are sometimes tiny banks on starter courses.
Become an Official Eventer!
If you get hooked on cross-country jumping, think about trying the sport of eventing. Visit the United States Eventing Association’s website at www.useventing.com. You might decide to become a member so you can compete at affiliated events. Even if you’re not a member, you can still enter USEA-recognized events, but only at the lower levels—and you have to pay an extra fee.