Coping with the terrain, water and ditches....
Your stomach is churning away.. you're excited, anxious, keen to get on with it...when you're about to go cross country jumping all kinds of emotions and feelings can hit you. So how can you keep everything under control, stay safe and yet still enjoy yourself? We've got some tips for first-timers out on the cross country course - and if you're more experienced but still a little worried, you'll probably find going back to basics will help you too!
There's no doubt that riding and jumping across country gives you a real buzz - and you can guarantee that when you reach the end of the course you'll be desperate to go and do it all again! But if you're new to this sport or relatively inexperienced, it can all be a bit overwhelming. So here are some things to think about and practise before you even go to your first cross country course.
You need to be comfortable riding your horse in large open spaces - and to feel comfy you need to know you can control your horse at all paces! Hopefully you will have hacked out a lot, ridden out in groups, perhaps been on sponsored rides...you need to know how your horse behaves if there are several horses around, cantering and jumping etc. It may be of course that your first cross country experience will be a fairly quiet one but the chances are that your chosen course is being used by several other riders, with other instructors, all out to get the most out of their day.
Coping with the terrain
It's a feature of cross country riding that you have to ride up and down hill, jump streams, ditches, banks and so on. The more your horse has seen in his general hacking the better prepared he will be for your cross country sessions. You and your horse need to be used to riding up and down hills - start off in walk at first and get your confidence before moving on to trot and then canter. Don't expect everything to just come naturally! Horses need to be balanced to cope with going up and down slopes - so do make sure you do your flatwork schooling. It really does have a purpose!
It's important to remember that you also need to be able to stay in balance as your horse negotiates slopes, steps and so on. It's a sensible precaution to fit a neckstrap that you can use - this will save you jerking your horse in the mouth and it will help you develop your balance. There are lots of positives about using such neckstraps - and really, there are no negatives.
You need to think about staying in a light, balanced seat and it's vital to work on your lower leg position as the stability of this will keep you secure. If your instructor is always commenting that your lower leg is too far back when riding or jumping you really need to improve this situation before going cross country.
One thing you will need to become aware of is the going - if the ground is a little slippery then you need to ensure you take care when turning and pulling up as a sharp turn or hauling on the reins to slow down can result in a horse losing his footing and possibly damaging his confidence. Wet, deep going can also cause problems as the horse may stumble - this can also happen over rutted ground. One of the best ways of getting horse and rider used to different ground conditions is going hunting or draghunting but if you do not do this, ensure you are always aware of the going and considerate of your horse.
Try to get your horse used to walking in and out of water when asked - on hacks for instance, take advantage of puddles, and get your horse used to the idea of getting his feet wet. If you are lucky enough to have streams or fords nearby then include them in your hacks regularly so it is not unusual for your horse to walk into and through water. This certainly makes life easier when it comes to introducing water jumps.
It's important that you are always mindful of your horse's confidence - so his first cross country jump involving water may just mean that he has to walk around in the water. As his confidence grows you can start to ask him to trot and canter through, then to jump a small fence before the water, then into the water and so on.
It is vital that your horse's first experience of a ditch is just a small obstacle - if you overface him you will create more problems. Again, you can do some preparatory work out on hacks, popping over small dips in the ground. It's great to have a confident ditch jumper who can give your horse a lead.
Your first cross country lesson
Stack the odds in your favour by:
* Going with a friend who has an experienced cross country horse as they can provide a lead if need be.
* You should also go with an instructor you trust and who knows you and your horse relatively well.
* Don't be over ambitious - you don't need to jump big fences. Your first few sessions should be all about building your and your horse's confidence, exposing your horse to different types of fences and getting him happy with them.
* If all is going well, don't be tempted to over-stretch yourself or your horse. There is always another day!
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