International Eventing Forum Part 2

International Eventing Forum 2013

The final speakers for the afternoon were David O’ Connor (DOC) and Mike Etherington-Smith (MES). They were looking at the role of the course designer and of the way that riders and coaches have to respond to the challenges that have been set on the cross country.

The riders were Millie Dumas who has been on the GB Junior team riding an advanced horse, Neil Spratt a 4* rider on a 6yo and Caroline Powell  NZ team stalwart riding a 4* horse.

DOC started with an introduction.

The rider has no idea of the course builder’s questions so in training you must put all the pieces of the puzzle together in order to help answer those questions. Can you handle what is being asked? Have you got?

a)      Communication?

b)      Are you confident?

c)       Able to talk to the horse whatever the situation?

In order to answer the puzzle there are horse responsibilities and rider responsibilities. The horse has to jump and the rider:

a)      Direction – Can you ride down a line? – Bending/straight/fast/slow. Direction is the most important part of the first step. Lots of time a horse may have its quarters in/out and if this issue has not been addressed before you know it you have had a run out at a corner. In the dressage arena you are not going to get this issue of having an issue! The phases all need to go together. Dressage = Sjing and XC. The same brain, same communication even the same aids but the ratio of the aids changes.


b)      Speed – How fast? What is the appropriate speed? You will need 4/5 different gears of canter doing XC. The quality of the canter is very important. Rhythm and balance are very important. Most people are not professional riders – How do you get this across to an amateur rider? In the UK there are lots of associated equestrian sports like Hunting, Team Chasing etc. but in the USA there is a barn culture and often an urban background. How can you teach skills? Lots of people do not have the opportunity to gallop across fields.


c)       Sense of Timing – Recognise a distance so the horse can do its job. XC is an instinctual game. You drive a car not thinking about it, yet you are constantly adjusting. But the first time you step behind the steering wheel you have no idea what to look at. There is simply too much information to process. As a coach you need to set up a process to get the skills and instinct ingrained into the brain of the rider. IF YOU HAVE TO THINK IT’S TOO LATE.

Next DOC looked at the positions of the rider.

There are three positions – galloping, preparation, and jumping position.

Everything should be done in order to jump the fence 5/6 strides away. The horse is then reacting to the fence and you are supporting that. If you are messing around with the horse within this 5/6 strides box of the jump then you are taking the horses focus off the fence and it is not paying attention.

The more a fence is sloped the less change in speed that is required but what is behind it? What is the width? These factors will affect the speed.

As a rider you should make parameters which are simple and achievable. How do you judge if something was successful? It’s not just about jumping between the flags. A bad jump or experience will impact on the horse.

Training issues will emerge if you step away from the three steps mentioned above.

As a rider

a)      Did you notice?

b)      Did you do something about it?

c)       Did you get an answer? If you are not getting an answer then this is a training issue.

If a rider is answering no to part a then you do it again. So many coaches teach b & c without ever knowing if the rider understands a.

DOC learns from lots of other sports about how to teach as they often have much more developed programmes in place about how to teach the sports. Horse sports are not as serious about a step by step progression as they rely on instinct. DOC believes a step by step process if VERY IMPORTANT for XC.

Mike Etherington- Smith (MES)

XC has changed. Designers have changed their way of thinking. The endurance factor has been changed. Top riders are now so skilled that the old courses even with maximum height and dimensions would not be enough.

Course designers are there to help produce horses and helping them to learn and grow. In order to produce horses, riders and the skills they have to understand what they are capable of and without catching them out.

Horses make snap decisions. They have not walked the course. The questions because of this have to be fair.

Take all the science out and KEEP IT SIMPLE, STUPID

Riders should take the time to watch what the horse is seeing and learn how they travel across the terrain. What are the head and neck doing?

Young horses rarely jump a ditch straight so this adds an extra dimension and course designers will test the horse by adding an extra element.

MES likes riders to think there way round a course. Every rider has to have a reason. When you evaluate a course it’s vital to understand the mental stress a course puts on a horse. Every time you go up a level it’s effectively another Badminton for a horse as a new pressure for the horse in competition.

Course builders should be examining the rider’s ability to ride the horse without punishing the horse. Good courses should educate as well as test.

DOC discussed his rules of schooling.

Never jump a fence which is less that 10ft wide without flags on it.

As a rule if you are going to jump a combination fence for the first time he would always ask riders to jump the last part of the combination first before putting it all together. The horses then learn to look for it and are drawn to it.

Give horses confidence.

When the riders were warming up he had them circling in galloping position and then moving into the preparation position. With the preparation position they should not be sitting in the saddle but drawing the shoulders back. Horses learn very quickly the difference with practice between the two body positions and this reduces the amount you need to use the hand.

DOC wants riders and horses to land in a certain spot after the fence and where you land depends on the speed.

DOC looks at rider’s eyes as he wants to know what they are noticing. If they are not noticing things then they might pay for it in a few fences time.

MES said the fences in the arena today were not set up on huge distances but they had been set up to accommodate a quicker speed and a flatter jump.

The coffin was set up on a longish 2 strides to the offset houses. In his opinion the worst thing was asking a horse to go forwards but the rider strangling it.

Millie Dumas horse backed off over an oxer with a water tray. DOC said he would have reacted quicker on landing by sending it forwards. That instinct as the horse backs off means you have to send it forwards. The rider needs to get the horse back to the speed it had been before it backed off.

DOC introduces ditches by walking past. You never point at the ditch without asking for the horse to jump. Walking past allows them to look but not be under any pressure and asked the question.

An expression that DOC uses a lot is ‘next’ by using this phrase he is asking if riders are looking at the next question. Are they thinking about this next thing that is coming up? It’s all about getting the rider to think about things sooner.

If you look at a rider’s eyes, they need to be thinking about things sooner. They should not be thinking about what they have just done.

Getting ditches wrong can end a horse’s career. It needs to be step by step. By doing it step by step you are setting up for success.

At a coffin which has 3 parts – the worst thing to see is a horse taking off too far away. Riders should be looking at a specific marker/spot on the rail of the coffin and aiming there. The horse should have the energy of a coiled spring. A course designer can control the shape a horse makes over the fence by the design of the fence that precedes it.

One year at Badminton, Wolfgang Feld was technical delegate and watched riders galloping at the coffin and was in despair. The year after a set up fence was put closer to the coffin and it changed the way the fence was ridden.

MES said course designers have a policy now of adding more verticals, open corners and open oxers. Riders tend to respect them more and make better decisions. MES said he would rather have a post and rails going into a coffin than a log because it educates the riders better.

MES said some riders do a great job, some do a good job and some do a terrible job.

The riders were being put through their paces at this point over some fences and DOC said as a coach he was looking at the rider’s eyes and the horse’s eyes to try and understand what they were thinking.

MES said he designed a fence at Rolex one year and DOC told him he thought it was a mean fence as it was a downhill brush fence to a ditch. At the lower levels MES would insist the horse could see the ditch so they would not drop their legs in surprise but he said at Rolex the fence worked because the horse could see the ditch 3 strides away as it went downhill.

An oxer to corner was created and the riders were not allowed to bisect the angle. They had to jump the corner straight first time.

As a course designer you can interfere with the lines by putting stuff in the way but it has to be done carefully. A horse has to be able to read the question from a distance. At the lower levels it’s all about asking the question in a fair way. The key is not to have anything too big. MES said at the Beijing Olympics in 2008 he placed rocks to change the line of a fence but they were asked to be moved by Princess Haya even though he felt they were fair as they were low and not scary to the horse.

The margin for error becomes less at bigger fences. At 4* you know the horse will try and jump rather than run out or refuse.

MES hates surprising horses. Materials made out of a blocking material are fine as long as they are below the horse’s eyelevel. Anything with materials over eyelevel and is not ok and would not ride as well as it surprises the horse.

DOC said it’s important to ride off both reins and the hind legs should stay on a line as that is what defines straightness.

There is lots you can do to improve technique so it becomes instinct in the arena.

Questions were asked.

DOC was asked what he thought of the Micklem – William Micklem the designer was sat in the audience! DOC suggested the questioner should ask him! DOC said he liked the freedom it offered the jaw and he was pleased it was allowed by the FEI. DOC said he is much more interested in the way a horse was ridden.

A question was asked about skinny fences – DOC said they are all the same idea and that is straightness.

DOC said that riders should watch bits with shanks or leverage because the horse has to be allowed to see the fence by an allowing hand.

DOC also highlighted that it is better to come to the last part of a combination keeping the horse together than pushing to it especially if it is a skinny.

DOC talked about horses eye position and said that horses do not have much depth perception. A horse could not see a round fence very well. Mushrooms not presented properly had caused problems.

MES said you had to be careful with curved fronts. Horses also see in black and white so you would not have a light colour under a dark rail.

One of DOC favourite exercises is to put down markers that riders have to set up by. This gets the riders better at setting up.

Asked why they had the pole over the ditch in the arena – MES said it creates a better shape over the fence.

MES was asked about the lack of alternatives on XC over the years. MES said he thinks we see too many and so you can avoid qualifying at a level. He also believes riders should be capable of the standards being set. He is happy for options which riders have to think about like choosing right or left at a corner.

There was a question about fences in and out of water. MES said he is moving away from steps as thinks there is an element of luck. A fence in water or out of water he always slopes the landing so the horse is being helped to jump the fence and it softens the blow. MES said it is harder to jump a single fence into water hence he has moved away from bounces. MES said if you get the first part of the bounce right then you will be fine and it’s just a test of athleticism. MES said there should be 4 strides minimum from jumping into water and the next question.

The shape a horse jumps into water is controlled by the fence that they are jumping in over and what comes before.

Jeanette Brakewell asked about stirrup length. DOC said it depended on rider body shape. Someone not so long in the thigh might ride longer. The angle between the calf and the thigh should be 90 degrees. He wants the rider to be out of the saddle when galloping. He said he thought Neil Spratt looked too long in the stirrup.


The videos

The first video is of upright to ditch to upright. This is quite a late on video after the riders had warmed up and jumped a few fences. They then walked alongside the ditch before popping it. DOC followed his principles mentioned earlier and had the riders pop the ditch then the final bit of the combination before stringing it all together.

Moving on from the uprights the aim was to jump the skinny house. This was done with the houses being jumped separately. The poles were placed on the second house because it was narrower and demonstrated the way to teach horses to jump skinny fences properly.

From this the riders moved on to jumping the coffin with one house. Again demonstrating the principle of jumping the last part of the combination before stringing it all together.

Finally all 3 parts were put together.

The next exercise was doing corners. The corners were jumped first before adding the parallel.

The next exercise was corner to corner

All the time during jumping the corners the exercise was altered slightly with the lines being moved through the placement of the trees. Unfortunately this is not very clear in the video due to the angle.

Finally one of the last exercises was that of jumping the coffin to corner. The riders had to choose which side of the corner they went and normally chose the strongest side for their horse. The riders were then asked to jump the opposite side.

About the author


An amateur rider who produces all her own horses. I have competed at novice level and sadly never got further due to bad luck with horses but I am still ambitious to achieve a lot more. I have a riding qualification in UKCC2 and a diploma in NLP. Sports science and particularly the mental game fascinates me. For a day job I work for a large multinational brand.