Not all that many years ago when you went eventing you had no idea what to expect of the XC course until you arrived at the event and walked it. Occasionally you might ring up a friend and say ‘have you done the novice at Such-and-such event? How was it?’, or you might have seen the course the previous year (and in the pre-portable days things didn’t tend to change hugely from year to year). The BE schedule descriptions of ‘bold and galloping’ or ‘suitable for all but first-timers’ were agonised over to try to read between the lines. Now you can find many course photo resourses on the internet which show every jump on a range of XC courses from BE80T to 4*. A lot of people find this wealth of information vital when planning runs and deciding when to move up, but is it always as helpful as it might be?
I’m as guilty as the next person of mentally riding round XC tracks via the course photos before I enter a particular event, but I do have my reservations about their usefulness and am begining to get slightly concerned about how much people seem to have come to rely on them.
My main areas for concern are these:
1) Fences look smaller in photos. Fact. I’ve even looked at photos of advanced fences and thought they looked reasonable, whereas when I’m coursewalking and see them in the flesh they scare the bejaysus out of me. I once (many years ago) entered Chatsworth as a first novice for a horse on the basis that the fences looked pretty small in the pictures. Luckily my work schedule got altered and I had to withdraw as when I finally did ride round Chatsworth (on a slightly more talented horse than the original candidate, thank god) I realised that it was blooming huge and definitely not designed with first-timers in mind.
2) Angles/distances/lines of approach. Somehow photos never seem to convey these, however carefully you try to take them. A quick look at photos of some combinations that I’ve jumped eg. a hedge to a corner might give you an idea that accuracy is required but no clue that it is built on a very committed 4 strides and is in fact a much more technical question than it appears. All too easy to say ‘Hedge? fine. Corner? fine’ and miss the subtleties of the question the course builder is asking. A combination like that built (to identical dimensions) might be a Novice question on a conservative four strides but a 1* question requiring true commitment when built a couple of yards longer.
Angles never look as acute in pictures either. Some angled doubles I’ve jumped have required an extremely acute line through them yet the photo suggests only a little deviation from the straight line approach. And many course pictures fail to show the tree/floral display/handbrake turn required on approach that turns a simple fence into a serious question.
The other things that don’t photograph well are gradients, both up and down. A BE90 hanging log on the flat should be bread and butter – put the same fence on top of a mound and it requires a totally different manner of approach and command of the ‘gears’. Inevitably the photograph never quite shows the steepness of the slope.
3) Changes. Sometimes courses stay much the same from year to year, other times they get an almost complete rebuild. So the person that pinned their hopes on a certain course because they saw it had no trakehner or water jump has the carpet pulled out from under their feet when the course-builder adds a meaty trakehner and digs a large water feature between fixtures.
4) Portables – a lot of events vary hugely now because they have a bank of portables to pick and choose from and this can change the XC from entry-level to big and technical from fixture to fixture. Aston-le-Walls often does this and the events run by BEDE also have a stock of fences to choose from. Sets of course photos from these courses might give you an idea of the lay of the land but shouldn’t be relied on.
Now obviously people walk courses before they ride them and will take these facts into consideration before they leave the start box. I’m not for a second suggesting that anyone is riding XC purely from the photos of last year’s event but I think people do look at photos at the entering stage and it’s easy for things to look smaller and simpler than they actually appear in real life.
Personally I’m in favour of the boom in course photos, especially the well taken ones which go some way to depicting gradients, spreads and angles. Forewarned is forearmed and all that, and it might even give you a chance to mock-up a similar question in the arena, or out XC schooling, in preparation. I do worry though that some people rely too much on them and can be egged-on into entering events that are bigger or more technical that they appear. I think it is wise to remember the points above, get out and about and walk courses before you move up a level and also talk to people about how the course actually RIDES. And always bear in mind that the course photos can only ever be a representation of the LAST fixture run at an event, not the one you’ve just entered!
Course photos: www.shoestringeventing.co.uk