Every winter the five-star (previously four-star) cross-country course-designers meet to review the past year’s tracks and discuss the future direction of course-design. For the past few years, I’ve been invited to give a riders’ perspective.
Course-design faces several major challenges right now.
The first is how to keep testing horses and riders. Course-design has evolved from big, attacking fences in the 1970s and 80s, to corners in the 90s and skinnies in the current century. More extreme angles have emerged over the past few seasons, including corners where you are forced almost to approach along the face of the fence. In each case, after a few seasons riders and horses have learnt to answer the questions.
The current quandary is designers are running out of ideas to test the best. At last season’s World Equestrian Games, we had the fountains and waterfalls, but their unnatural feel is at odds with the principle that horses should be able to clearly “read” fences. But what other ideas are there?
Another challenge is how to penalise missed flags, currently punished with 15 penalties. The flag rule is tedious for riders and judges, but angles force riders to jump beside the flags.
A third challenge is to create flowing courses without too many horses inside the time. Since the removal of the roads and tracks and steeplechase, cross-country is less of an endurance test. Top horses travel at 570mpm comfortably.
The use of “roundabouts”, where competitors turn back on themselves slows riders and keeps the time relevant but demoralises horses. But without them, combinations would be averaging close to 600mpm.
We are also seeing fewer interesting fences for the public and the media — iconic cross-country questions — such as staircases and sunken roads. The Strzegom European Championship track in 2017 was clever, but spectators couldn’t appreciate the angles so it was a bit dull.
The issue is that three steps with a fence top and bottom uses up five jumping efforts or a sunken road with an obstacle either side uses four. Designers can only use 45 jumping efforts at five-star and if 10% of them go in a single complex, they have to sacrifice elements elsewhere. This makes it hard to slow riders so too many get the time.
The final challenge is to design questions that encourage the right type of riding in order to up-skill both horses and riders, which is crucial to safety.
Perhaps it would be an idea not to count steps up and down and plain ditches in the 45 jumping effort tally, while still penalising faults at them. This one rule tweak would help solve all the challenges at once.
Steps, sunken roads and ditches look exciting and don’t put pressure on the flag rule. They require riders to be educated the right way — demanding attacking precision, not the backwards riding that many current tests encourage — and they rarely cause bad falls.
Riders have to steady for these fences, which will bring down the average speed on course, but enable more flowing tracks with fewer roundabouts.
Taking steps and ditches out of the jumping efforts would free up designers to include these fences. Their inclusion could be a game-changer in so many different ways. Most of all, we would see courses that embrace the spirit of true cross-country riding.
Ref: Horse & Hound; 14 March 2019