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Start Box Strategies

5Q9A0791When you’re on your horse, ready to go XC, and you hear “Number __, 30 seconds”… what exactly do YOU do you do next?

Personally, I like to try to keep my horses calm at the start, so I usually just keep walking around, or perhaps trot or canter a circle, then back to walk, wait until  the Starter says “3… 2”, walk in through the back of the start box, pop up to canter and straight out of the front on “Go”.

I watched quite a few horses start at 4*s last year, and it was interesting that most riders that I saw chose to walk into the front of the box and turn 180 degrees, then jump up to canter.
Horses get used to doing this at the bottom of gallops, and in my experience get very keen on it, anticipating the swing round and jumping off enthusiastically. I wonder if it gives them an instant adrenalin surge, and that’s why some Pros do it, saving vital seconds at the start, having the horse instantly on the ball.

I’ve been eventing long enough to remember when there wasn’t a gap in the side of the Start Box, it had three closed sides so you had no option but to walk in the front and turn 180 degrees, even if it didn’t suit your horse.
This was very exciting for a lot of horses and  led to some memorable moments.  A friend’s hysterically hyped-up mare, having already done the Roads and Tracks and Steeplechase at a big 3* event, bounced in through the front of the start box… and launched straight out the back over the white rail into the car park, narrowly avoiding cars and losing precious seconds, as they had to wend their way through the string to get back to the start, having already been counted down and out!

5Q9A0778I’ve witnessed horses rearing (and in one case, going over backwards, mercifully beside the rider) and riders falling off due to startbox dramas. Some top horses have always been led in by a groom, sometimes on a rope (usually unclipped, just threaded through the bit rings so it can be pulled away at the last second).
Of course we’ve even seen them refusing to start, for instance Sharon Hunt’s brilliant but quirky Tankers Town at Badminton in 2009, when the attempts by the ground crew to force him to move just seemed to make things worse and worse until he totally downed tools. She ironed out the problems and won Luhmühlen 4* the year after, proving that however bad things might get, there is usually a solution!

Depending on your horse’s temperament (and how happy it is to leave its friends in the warm-up area and concentrate on the job immediately!) it’s always worth planning your start box strategy, and perhaps watching top riders to see what they do.

All photos by Katie Mortimore.

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  • Interesting article … if I can, I walk circles through the start box and round. It usually takes 15 seconds for each circuit so I know when they say 30 seconds I can have two more circles. I like to be in the box at 5 seconds, my horses know the countdown numbers from 5 and I can feel the adrenalin in them before we launch out. Love that feeling 🙂

  • Interesting to see what others do. I personally just sit there and have a look around. Also have a starting box at home which I wander through at a walk. I like to stay relaxed but alert because I know that if I ask my horses to go they will instantly because they know what’s going on, but if they tense up I’ll take them to other cross country courses and just wander into the box and start my own mini course at a walk as I hate stress at the start. they can have adrenaline (as I do as well) but any misbehaviour is unacceptable as with anything else. That’s just how I do it anyway 🙂

  • I have two completely different horses… One is content to walk around, in and out of the start box. With 5 seconds to go, I move him towards the front and at go I kick him into a nice calm dressage type canter before letting the throttle out and getting up to speed.
    My other one is off the track and still green. He tends to think that XC warm up is like the mounting yard and he can’t cope with it. At the moment I deal with it by having a groom walk us around before walking us in and out of the start box and letting go as the starter says go. I then trot him out of the start box for a few strides before letting him go. Obviously that isn’t ideal but I have a few other options that I will be exploring with him to see what works best for him.
    I like horses to be keen and eager in the start box but I don’t like them to be so fired up that they are jumpin out of their skin all over the place.