Fences with roofs have been in the spotlight after some high profile falls and I was reminded of this when I took several horses cross-country schooling recently. The last fence had a square frame over it and most of the horses jumped it badly.

It’s the rider’s responsibility to present a horse at a fence in the best possible way — on the right line, at the right pace (the appropriate speed, power and balance for that fence) and then not to interfere, which includes the rider being in the correct position. However, from the moment after take-off things are out of the rider’s control.

More than at any other type of obstacle, a horse can be presented perfectly to a fence with a solid roof and there is a reasonable chance he may still make a mistake; it’s often the most careful, clean jumping horses that are most likely to duck and hit the solid part of the fence without warning.

In six seasons from 2010 to 2015 I only had two falls. Both were on good horses, neither had ever had a cross-country jumping fault with me before or after, and both were at roofed fences. One of them accounted for my shattered elbows.

I am all for horses and riders being challenged, but it is important that the questions we ask are fair to horses. Cross-country training is about utilising a horse’s natural instinct, and unlike other types of fences — such as ditches, banks and water, even of the most difficult variety — it is relatively unnatural for horses to jump beneath solid roofs.

The traditional owl hole through a brush screen is more palatable to horses, particularly when placed in a tree-line — it is a more natural question than a roofed fence standing out in the open. Hopefully course-designers are increasingly mindful of how horses react to these fences as the effect is more than just aesthetic.

In a similar vein, last week at Aston-le-Walls there was a table fence with fountains coming out the top of it.

Fountains can be used successfully to break the surface of dark water under trees, so it is visibly clear to an approaching horse that they are jumping into water rather than onto the solid surface of a sunken road.

We should test the limits of cross-country skill with regard to size and technicality, but I think fountains for the sake of decoration are gimmicky and have no place in our sport. It is often said that the best fences frighten the riders but not the horses, but roofs and fountains sometimes work the other way, inappropriately catching out good horses — they don’t test true bravery or skillful riding.

Cross-country should be exciting and accessible for spectators, but the questions can be tough enough without confusing the horses.

One small step

The New Zealand federation recently hailed their decision to ban top hats as “a major step forward for safety of riders”.

There isn’t statistical evidence that serious accidents occur in the dressage phase or warm-up, and we can already choose to wear crash hats.

Something like the development of the frangible pin is a major step forward for safety — it significantly reduces rotational falls, which we know cause the most serious injuries.

Riders should be able to make their own decision about top hats based on their horse, their competence and their own preferences. To make a blanket rule for which there is no need and call it “a major step forward” seems a little self-congratulatory!

Ref: Horse & Hound; 28 July 2016