Everything Else International Event Forum

International Eventing Forum 2017 XC Session: Eric Winter and Chris Burton.

This session featured Eric Winter (the new Badminton Course Designer) and Chris Burton (aka the Fastest XC Rider in the World).

Horses ridden by Chris:
1. Stallion –  Caliber Royale, sire half TB Cayado. The stallion’s grandmother was full sister to Cavalier Royale.
2. Mare –  Bahira M by Cassaro.

Eric Smiley’s introduction to this session:

“We’ve talked quite a bit about the Olympics and highlighted bits and pieces from last year’s Rio Olympic Games. Every 4 year cycle produces new challenges and riders and course designers very often work on 4 year cycles from one Olympics to the next. We’re lucky this afternoon to have 2 people who are involved in the sport at the very highest level. One who has just been appointed the new course designer for Badminton, and, as such that responsibility puts quite a bit of focus on him, because people look at what Badminton does and look at a new 4* course designer and look at what thoughts they are bringing to the sport, that are going to lead the sport over the next 4 year cycle.
We also have a rider, we have already spoken about him, Christopher Burton. as part of his thought process from 1 Olympics to another. He is thinking about his next Olympic horse. So, the thought process of “Next Generation” is important in 2 roles. The horse and the rider, and also the courses that they are going to be challenged over.”

Eric Winter:
“At the very start of this, Eric came and asked me to talk about modern course trends, and where we thought course design was going over the next 4-5 years, the next Olympic cycle. My answer to that was, I think that actually modern course trends when I have seen them come through have been the most detrimental things, to riding, and cross country skills, that I have seen. So we’ve had trends where we’ve said that we need bigger ground lines on everything, that always leads to the loss of skill. And I think now we have a trend that I think is quite healthy, that actually we’re going to more open fences, and we’re going back to some old fashioned values. I think that cross country riding is about riding cross country, it’s about handling terrain, it’s about handling different ground conditions, it’s about answering different questions, a variety of different questions.
Through the years I have come up from designing Pre-Novice courses and gone through a training scheme at British Eventing that has very much started from the base level of designing. I started with Mike E-S and he taught me the principles of course designing, and that’s easy, that end bit, because at that end of it you start off educating the horses to go higher. I think there’s a real close link between course design and training, and so you really look at those course design questions that you ask as training questions. So when I design a 2* course I look at it to train horses to jump 3* courses. It’s important that as a course designer I walk a lot of 3* courses so that I know what to deliver to my 2* courses, the type of questions they’re asking. It’s slightly harder at the 4* level because you are at the pinnacle, and that’s much more deciding what is and isn’t a fair question. What your horses can do, what they can’t, and to show your horses off and your sport off in a good light. We’re very lucky today to have Chris, and we’re just going to work together and play with a few little things, Chris is going to talk about his principles, how he becomes ‘the fastest rider around the world‘ in cross country, and I’m just going to chip in a few little bits on the training side, if it’s relevant to the course design and the sort of questions we’re asking.

Chris Burton:
Well, I’ve thought a lot about what I was going to say here today, and I thought I should just turn up and deliver another boring very politically correct speech that everyone likes to hear, that society likes to hear, and then I thought ‘Actually, it’s an overly politically correct PC society that ended in the Trump election, so to hell with it, I’m just going to come out with it!’. So I’m just going to talk about a few fundamentals as I warm up my nice horse. I’ve got a fairly new ride in my stable, a 7 year old, a horse that we’re very excited about, and he’s very special as you can see, he’s a stallion.
The first thing I’m doing as I trot around, and this is something I am very passionate about, I am not kicking him, I am sitting still with my legs. If I ride along nagging at my horse all the time, and I’ve seen it at top level, the horse is going to stop listening to me after a while. It’s the same theory with husbands! [laughter’
But I see it so often and I think ‘why aren’t people, why aren’t stewards, why aren’t we cracking down on that?‘ It’s something I am very passionate about.
And it’s the same with the bridle. As I trot along, I‘m quite happy to ride my horses, and I ride my horses in the test, on a very very soft hand. It’s something I’m very passionate about, I want them to carry their head, and I’ll carry my hands. I don’t see any harm in riding a horse around like this [totally baggy/loose reins].
Whereas I see dressage people attempting to ride dressage all the time, and they’re holding onto their mouths so hard, they are causing cuts in their mouths, the sides of the mouth are going blue, no blood supply, and they get cracks in their mouth. I don’t have that on my horses. But, here comes the non-PC part. I use the reins. Whoa. Of course I use the reins. [He pulls the horse up with a quick decisive aid.] Reins are for stopping. Legs are for going. In the end I want my horses to respond off a light aid. And I will tie all this together, it eventually makes sense, as to how I add it to cross country. Whoa, Good. [He pulls up again, hardly needing to use the reins at all this time.] A soft aid, I hardly touched him. And the horse stops. This is the basic principle of how I train my horses. I want them to be happy. I believe in harmony, and sustainability. That they can do their job, and we can ride along, and they don’t even know that I’m here. The same when we’re jumping.

I am constantly asked by young riders and by people how is it that I am such a fast cross country rider, and I never know what to say. I don’t have a good answer for you, I certainly don’t think you should go out there and try to go flat out around cross country, it’s not a sensible thing at all, I think I’m just a competitive-natured person.
But I simulate our sport a lot to Formula One, and in Formula One you need to make good lines, you need to be brave, and you need to brake late. So actually I want my horses to have really high performance brakes, which is the halt that I showed you here before. So that I can gallop up to this oxer for example at full gallop, and slow the horse just before, and turn the horse just inside the trees, and this is how I think I can be quicker.
The other very obvious one which I am about to do over the poles is seeing a distance. And I would think that if AP McCoy was an event rider he’d be one of the fastest, he’d be a lot faster than I would be, because he can see a distance a lot better than anyone, out of the gallop to pick a fence off. I think that if he was a showjump rider (which it looks like he might be doing) he’d also be one of the fastest in the jump off. I believe it’s the same skill. If Scott Brash was an eventing rider, he’d be a faster cross country rider than I would be, let me tell you.

But for people that want to try to practice that theory at home, two poles is my favourite exercise for practising a distance.
[He has two poles laid out a random distance apart. The first time through he gets 6 strides in.] Good, six strides. You are trying to put each pole in the middle of the canter stride. Something that I’m obsessed about, something that I am always working on. Seeing a distance. And the next part to this (hope it’s not boring for you) is adjustability, so can I put more strides in, and can I estimate what canter stride I need, so if I was to make 9 strides, I would estimate the canter… [he does 9, could have got 10 in!] Okay, I got lucky. That would have been embarrassing. Equally (and I hope I don’t get bucked off here) if I wanted to make 4 strides… [he opens the canter right up down the long side, comes again, does it on 4]. Whoa. Good.
And again, I want ABS braking on my horses, I want sensitive braking. So yes, I do use the reins. Yeah, you’ll catch me using the reins. But the end result is the horse is listening to a soft aid, and this I think is how you can keep them happy, have a happy understanding, have less resistance on cross country, and ride better.
So, as you go more forward, it gets more difficult. Do you think I can do 3? He made 4 pretty easily. [He opens him up more, the stallion has to reach to do it on 3]. I’ll have another go, I wasn’t very proud of that. [He does it again, better.] And then we find a steady 3.
To be honest I think that’s one of the most useful tools I can give you, if you say ‘I want to become a fast cross country rider’. Two poles. If you practice over the poles… I can make it a dressage lesson, I can talk all day about two poles. If it goes wrong over a pole, you miss, it doesn’t matter. If you’re missing at to this corner here, things are going to happen, it’s going to jump badly, it’s going to run out.
Another good exercise I’m about to do, I’ve made a cross rail here, it’s regulation 4 strides, I’m going to come in trot and do it in 5, this is because my eye’s not so good, I can get to the same takeoff spot to this oxer, and the course designer here is going to change the fence. I’m going to attempt to get always to the same distance, and then we can adjust the fence. [Starts with a small oxer of about 90cm]
And so that was a good example. He didn’t quite listen to my soft aid to stop there [after completing the exercise] so I applied a strong aid, I don’t want to use a strong aid all the time, I want to use only a soft aid, but if he doesn’t listen, then I will be strict. 
The teacher I loved most in school was really strict, he was really tough, but it was interesting, he had our respect, and had us listening to him. 
Okay, let’s put it up. [Eric raises the oxer 5-6 holes]

Eric to Chris: So when you’re adjusting that distance between those two poles, where do you start to think about that? Where do you adjust that? When you go down there on the 10, or you go down on the 3, where does that happen, mentally where does the preparation for that happen?

Chris: Back here. [He indicates to a spot far before the first pole, back before the corner to the approach to the pole]

Eric: Exactly, yes. It’s one of the things I see more than anything else when I’m watching cross country. Part of the course designer role, is that you watch a lot of cross country.
People make late decisions. You’re talking about late braking but that’s slightly different, when you come with a plan to brake late, than actually when you come with no plan, and you brake late.

Chris: Yes, we talk about that, and I think what we see a lot is perhaps people not confident about their eye to see a distance, and so they change their mind, they don’t trust themselves, whereas you see a good rider will have made their decision back there and then they try to stay in rhythm.

Eric: That was the noticeable thing to me, you were on the pattern by the time you went past the Andrews Bowen sign (banner on the wall) to get to where you wanted to at the speed you wanted to.

Chris: Yes, absolutely.
[He goes through the exercise again, the stallion jumping beautifully from a perfect rhythm and spot.] Super. Up another 3, and wider.

So, he’s done one Pre-Novice this guy, and before I take them cross country schooling, all my young horses, I try to make sure as much as I can that they have a good understanding of jumping, and that I do in my arena in training, simple exercises like this. So that they have a good understanding of how to jump, before I go cross country with them, because then when we have corners and arrowheads and angles it gets a lot more technical.

[He comes through again, the stallion really pinging.]

Good, all the time working on that transition back, so that he thinks ‘land and listen’ to me, ‘which way dad, which way are we going next?’

This is what I’m after when I train.
The other thing you’ll see me doing, and those of you that have seen me ride before, I purposely ride with a soft hand on takeoff, over the fence and on landing. 
They call it ‘helping them off the floor’ [using a stronger hand on takeoff] and it’s something that I very much disagree with. The only way to help them off the floor is to quickly jump off, get underneath them, push them up, and then get back on and jump over the fence. That’s the only way.
Now, okay, those of you who saw me have all those rails down at Burghley may have been saying I should have been helping him off the floor a little bit more, but I am a man of my principles and fundamentally I think that the horses need to do the jumping, we need to get them there at the right spot in the right balance.

[He comes through the exercise again, the stallion jumping better and better as the jump gets bigger, and giving little squeaks of joy] Good, he’s an exciting horse this one, he loves his jumping. Do you want to put the water tray under it or something different? Put it in the oxer and see what he does. 
Or we could put two rails, or we could put something in there, a filler… something new so that the horse reacts.

The interesting thing about this exercise is that I am able to land and if it all feels the same and I keep rhythm, by the time I get here I think, well, I should be able to see the same distance, and that becomes a really useful thing to give him and myself confidence. Which we need.

And then if the water tray comes things might change, this is the interesting thing I want to be able to talk about with Eric about course designing, that if you make a simple distance and difficult fences, things will change, people will get it wrong at the first one, so much can go wrong, it’s not as simple as it looks if you make an easy distance.

Eric: I thought Burghley was very interesting at the Discovery Valley, when those 3 fences with the relationship between the 3 but not necessarily on a specific distance, but it was really about the balance you jumped the middle of those fences that made the difference, and so many jumped the first with the thought process that they needed to get to the second, they jumped the second so big that they never had a hope of getting to the third one. Actually it was about the rhythm and the balance that they created through the 3 fences, and again going back to your principle of control through that, in fact if you had control and demonstrated a bit of control between 1 and 2, then 3 was simple.
Chris: He got it right, that fence.

Eric: Yeah, fantastic.

Chris: I thought it was a great fence. I bet we see it again next year.

[He does the exercise with the big blue water tray under the oxer. The stallion really pings it]

Good, very happy with that reaction. We’ll go up a couple all round.

And the other thing I believe in when I train my horses, all the time I’m trying not to make a mistake. It’s so easy for a mistake to happen, I’m all the time trying to get it right, trying to put the fence in the middle of their canter stride. 
If I’m lucky enough in training that I canter down there exactly where I am happy with and the horse reaches its front leg out and makes a mistake at the front rail, perfect, this is how they’ll learn. That’s the best thing you can have happen. If the rider had come on purpose and pushed through the front rail, it might work with some horses, usually it will upset them, it will offend them. It won’t have the desired result. Sometimes unfortunately we have to have training in the ring, but hopefully you’ve done that by the time you get to the top level.

[He jumps through again, foot perfect]

Good, good. So. He has seen a few cross country fences before, but this is a great opportunity for us to show him a few arrowheads and corners and things that he can expect to see if he progresses in his career. 
We’ll start with the wider arrowhead again. And you’ve all heard this lecture before, this demonstration before, so we’ll skip through it fairly quickly. Training an arrowhead. You all know how to do it, you all have a good idea, but I think my fundamental is very basic, very simple. I am not interested in ever letting them learn to run out, I want them to, each time, jump between the flags. I like flags for training.
And the other thing I will ask Eric to do, please, is to put poles up [as wings] so that if he for some reason spooks or drifts he’s at least jumped a pole, or ideally he just relaxes and jumps through the middle. I never want to trap him, I never want to have it go wrong, that he learns that that might be an option.

Eric: I think one of the best sayings when you course design is that you should aim to show what a horse can do rather than what a horse can’t do.
I guess it’s the same thing really. You are trying to train the horses to be better horses, especially at the lower levels. But often if I have a triple brush, I’ll put 2 trees on the outside of it, and you’ll sometimes get a steward that will want a slow alternative… and I’d rather put 4 trees on the outside of it and funnel them to it, so you train them and they learn to be better horses, than avoid the question.

Chris: Yes, absolutely.

[He comes to the arrowhead, the horse backs off a bit but goes clear] Whoo, might be too careful for an event horse, this one.

Good. Luckily I had a good canter behind him. Also, he respects my leg, I don’t know if you saw there, he took a little look, he came off my distance a little bit, and I just went a little bit like this [shows using his legs] and he went ‘Oh, that means go, I’m more scared of dad’s legs than I am of that arrowhead right now.’ And again, it’s a non-PC lecture, so at some stage… (mock-apologetic tone) I’ve kicked him, guys.

Good, I’ll jump it once again to try and settle him.

[He comes again, jumps it from a perfect rhythm this time. Then asks for the poles to be taken away, and does it again.]

And I do try to train [at] my arrowheads nice and forward, nice and free, not supporting them too much.

Eric: Do you always jump with flags on your fences?

Chris: If I can. D’you know, when I used to go cross-country schooling in Australia we would hire a cross-country at a competition venue and of course all the flags would be taken down, and you’d jump a corner and they’d run out, and you were in all sorts of trouble and would have to go hunting for a stick or a pole or something in the bushes. And when I moved to the U.K. I found all these amazing training facilities and they had flags on, and I started thinking (although I did have flags on my training jumps at home in Australia) that that’s a really important thing that they learn to look for these flags. And the other thing I would teach them (and I’ll do it more with the next one) is that I teach them to jump right by the flag, so that they learn where the flag is and where my leg is, because as the corners are getting bigger and bigger, they need to know these sorts of things.

[He jumps the arrowhead again, perfect approach and jump.]

Chris: Good, good. That was the easiest ride I had to it. He knew exactly where I wanted him to go, he had his ears on it the whole time, I would have had a hard time getting him off it. And then I think that that’s quite fun, that’s nice, when you can get to that stage in the feeling.

Will we… try the angled rails [Two plain pole uprights with 2 strides between them, on a fairly tight angle]

This is one that I do a lot at home, and as they get better at it, I will increase the intensity by keeping the centre of the fence the same and twisting the vertical a little bit more so that it become a bit steeper. Good thing for them to learn.

Just going back a little but, but in that halt that I made, he got a bit stuck in the bridle, crossing his jaw, and I had to have a little conversation with him about staying soft, because he’s a stallion, but the other thing is if you notice, I give very quickly. My horses don’t jack up, they don’t rear up on me and go over, I promise this is a rider error, when you see this. It’s 100% rider error, if you are quick enough to give away the hand, they won’t go over on you.

[He goes through the angled question again, well]

We make it a bit steeper? Try to keep the centre where it is but make it a little bit steeper. He’s a little bit drifting through there but as he learns he will learn that he can jump the fence.

[He does it again, very easily]

Super. So, a nice little training exercise. And what started where he was jumping a little bit then falling left and wondering where he was going, I ended up feeling like he was on a very straight line looking for the fence, and that’s really the feeling that we are after as we are trying to train and ride cross country.
So, we’ve spoken about going fast cross country, spoken about picking fences off at a gallop, and having the horses listening to you so that they can come back quickly and easily to you without resistance, putting brakes on the horse.

This one is an interesting one. Sometimes, you hear people saying “you looked like you were going so slow and you were really fast.”
Sometimes slower is faster.

[The exercise is a right turn back to a rustic oxer, with a couple of ornamental trees on the landing side a couple of (horse) strides away, to turn tightly inside and away to the left]

The quicker you can turn away from that fence, the better you’ll be. So I’m just going to jump it once and then I’m going to attempt to turn inside the trees. When I was on foot before it didn’t look so bad, now it looks horrendous!
I might just pop the fence once because he’s jumping this quite carefully.
Okay, this’ll be interesting. So, a little bit quiet [on approach]…

[they manage it but the horse argues the turn and nearly hits the ornamental trees]

Good. So, resistance in the bridle. I pulled on the left rein and I said “we’re going this way, mate”, we ran smack bang into a tree, and I said “Well, I was pulling on the rein, in my defence I was telling you”, and this is the nice thing about education, isn’t it. Let’s see if he learns. [They come again, the stallion just taps the back bar of the oxer but is more obedient about the turn]

Huh, four faults. That time he was following me very nicely, listening to the rider, but made a green mistake on the fence. That’ll come into the training when I’m showjumping him at the end of his career.

So, my point is, if you came screaming to this fence you’re not going to be faster by galloping over that fence [because you will overshoot the possibly tight turn by so much]. So often I see riders doing this and I see their footprints out to here, and I think “your next fence is there, where are you going?”

So every place you can try to cut a corner, cut some line, it’s better. Any opportunity I can slow down and take a tighter line, it is faster and less taxing on the horse.

[They do it again, very easily and smoothly]

And then I can get away and already look for the next fence. So, a wonderful demonstration. [He pats his horse] Thank you Stuey. [The stallion’s name] Good.

[Chris swaps horses to a grey mare.]

Eric: It’s interesting, as a designer, with those two offset fences, as you went up through the levels I would move that distance out, because at the lower levels I like them to be able to jump in and be short to the second one, but at the higher levels I like them to be much softer, the riders have to be softer and come in a bit of a rhythm to catch the line, and the horse has to stay on the line.
But you started off at the very start with really soft contact in the middle, so you taught it at the very foundation level (which he is) to stay on that line himself, there wasn’t any grabbing or pulling, you wanted him to take responsibility for that.

Chris: Yes. Absolutely. But you’re right. If I got to his first competition in PN or Novice and there was a double of angles I would rather it was a bit more for schooling, I would rather it was a bit shorter for him to learn.

Eric: Because when the distance is shorter you can hold to the second fence, when it’s a yard longer then you have to naturally allow the horse travel to it and get there, and things happen a little bit quicker.
There is only 10cm difference between 1* and 4*, so for sure the difference in the levels is not anything to do with the height. It’s to do with those technical things, the ability, the way that you as a rider have control, and demonstrate control and demonstrate a relationship between you and the horse, which you start to build very quickly even with a young horse like him. That little turn back question there, it’s really about that relationship, isn’t it?

Chris: Absolutely. I am not interested in battling along on young horses that are going to take forever. I see this a lot when I teach. And they say, “Oh, it’s not ready to jump big yet” and I go “Oh, okay, how old is it?” and they say “Seven” and I think “Well, that’s actually nonsense. It’s just a crap jumper.” People wait and they wait and they wait, and I think well, actually, there’s no harm… I could pop him over the top of the wings if you want to see how high he can jump, I believe he could do it, and I don’t think that’s doing him any harm. What I do disagree with on young horses is doing so much that they’re ready for a show and they’ve done so many circles, and that’s a separate thing. I don’t ride and train my young horses any differently to how I would prepare the horses getting ready for 4*. They’re all the same fundamentals.

Eric: It’s that foundation level. And it’s the foundation that you build everything else up from. You know, 4* is up here and is the chimney pot of the house, but it’s the foundation that’s important, it’s that relationship you have with them when they start.

Chris: Yes, absolutely. So, a more experienced horse. This one is a very beautiful eight year old mare. She’s my new girlfriend. But my wife knew what she was getting into when she married me. Umm, she’s been with a young rider before she came to me, she’s very good jumping, and hopefully we can make some good demonstrations with her.

[They are setting up a ‘coffin fence’ of an upright to an artificial ‘ditch’]

Good, so I’ll make an example of how I train them to my leg. By the way, leg is this [pushes inwards with calves], that’s a spur [twists lower leg and uses spur]. They’re two very separate things. The spur is a training aid. That is how I ask my horses to go forward. Actually there’s another component to add to that, there’s your seat. I train, I ride a lot off my seat. In the ring I want to make the halt to A, in the 3 star test, they trot off because I lighten my seat, they just go, I don’t have to kick them, so I want them sort of thinking forward and pricking their ears, coming down the long side with a smile on their face going forward happily.
And the same when I come back from extended canter going down the long side, I tighten my core, put my seat around them, and bring the horses back. Now I see this so often, and people get confused by this, you can’t train the seat unless you train the hand and the leg. Otherwise you are wasting your time. The horse has to know at the end of the long side that you want him to slow down. And the thing we ask them to slow down – is by pulling on the reins, if they don’t slow down, pull harder, it’s pretty simple stuff, horseriding, guys. 
But the end result is, for a 10, if you want to keep the judges happy, that you go forward, you don’t kick, you just lighten your seat, they go forward, they prick their ears, come uphill, and at the end I sit up, tighten my seat, just brace my body a bit, and they collect, and everyone goes “Aaah wow, isn’t that amazing”. At some stage I’ve had to pull him up and say, ‘Hey, what’s going here’but then I’m adding my seat to that until they listen to the softest of aids which is my seat.

So, this one’s got a lovely trot, but when she came to me she didn’t have a medium trot, she didn’t respond, and I thought ‘that’s strange, she looks like she should have a medium trot, doesn’t she?’ Very sensitive mare, fun to train, she listens to the rider. Good. 
[He continues schooling the mare, showing us how she responds] 
And so what I did I made a light aid. And I use it in the ring, for all those judges that are watching.
How come I have to give all my trade secrets away, Eric? You’re going to have to tell us what you’ve got at Badminton now.
I use a light aid, even in the ring, it might just be a little cluck or a free-up with my seat to go medium trot. [He tries it] There you go, go forward. Okay, not much happened there to be honest. So, I’ll do a schooling one. I don’t care if you don’t like it [to audience], it’s a non-PC environment.
Good. A warning, light aid, and leg. [he clicks to her.] That’s the reaction I want from the leg. So, let’s see what happens when I come just with a light aid, the one I’ll show the judges. 
Ah. So, she can trot, huh? Good.
And my training doesn’t change if I’m in the show jumping arena, if I’m in the dressage school, or if I’m going cross country at Rosamund Green at Shepton Mallet. I train them the same. We halt, we say go, they listen to me everywhere I go. Often I’ll cross country school my horses the day before a competition, and I’ll get just as good a feeling if not better on the flat, because it’s all the same stuff.

It’s actually probably a good time to talk about some of the things I’ll do in warm up to prepare for an Advanced course, more of the same, I’d do the same when I’m schooling. and talk about jumping beside the flags, so a simple vertical like this with two flags on it, in schooling if that’s all you’ve got, can become actually quite difficult, there’s a lot more to it, there’s as much to it as you want to make it, so in order to train (for) a corner, I would jump right here on the end, with the toe of my boot right on the red flag, and train them to jump that.
A simple fence can suddenly become a lot tougher. And I’m very fussy, I’m very strict about where I’m going to jump it, I say ‘Right, I’m going to jump it right on the right hand side’.

But then I can make it even tougher by coming outside, and jumping on an angle, and jumping on the right hand side of the flag. And always trying to push my hands forward, push their heads forward, and say, ‘I want you to stay on this line, we’re going there all the way’.

And I think that that’s where the modern sport should go. I have had quite a lot of dealings with show-jumpers in my past, and I loathe the fact that because they have a lot of prize money in their sport, and it’s more telegenic, that they somehow think that they’re the best horse people in the world. I love it when I can take them to a course and I can say ‘Look at that’, and there’s a line of corners or a line of verticals that looks like there’s this much room for a horse and rider to jump through. [Extreme accuracy test]. I think that’s where the sport needs to go.
I think Pierre Michelet’s fence 6 or whatever it was at Rio was a hell of a fence, and a testament to modern course designing, I thought it was terrific. What do you think?
Eric: I think they’re getting skinnier and skinnier. I think it’s like show-jumping, the quality of horses and the quality of riders has changed so much, and that ability to train horses.
I remember we have a triple brush at Blenheim that’s 80cm wide at the front and 1.80 wide at the back, and 1.80 base spread, and that was 3* top end when it first was brought in, and now that would be an acceptable 2* fence.
That shift, of every time you (the Course Designer) come up with a new question, it’s your job (the Rider) to find an answer to it. 
And I think more and more probably we’re going to look at a package rather than that one specific fence that’s difficult. It’s the balance of whether you can turn left, whether you can turn right, whether you can open horses, whether after you have opened your horses whether you can shorten your horses.

[They’ve prepared a new exercise, a bending line of two oxers, with a hazard between them.]

Chris: How many strides is it?
Eric: You tell me.

[Chris jumps the mare through the bending line question.] Chris: Good. It’s 6 strides.
Eric: Is it? Is it 5 strides?
Chris: It’s 5 strides.
Eric: Is it 5 strides?
Chris: There’s 5 there.
Eric: Can you get there in 5? Easily.

This is just an extension of the exercise you did on the ground, isn’t it?

[Chris goes through on 5]

Eric: See, 5 was easy. And to me 5 is 3, 4 seconds faster.

Chris: Yes, 100%. Faster there (the approach), faster through it, faster away.

Eric: Yeah, exactly, because you didn’t have to spend so much time setting up, so you had balance, came into the fence much more level, the whole thing was better.

Chris: Can we expect to see two oxers at Badminton?

Eric: Huh? I think you have to be, at that 4* level, anyway, you have to be able to shorten and lengthen. I think one thing we have gone to is that… we’ve got a fair bit of deformable stuff on it (the Badminton course) that actually you have to clear, that it makes you actually think about the way that you ride to those fences, that’s a kick on from just having those fences in their purest safety reason, that they break if you hit them and you miss to them completely, but also that hopefully it will make riders take more responsibility for jumping them, and that for sure is not going to be a bad thing.

Chris: Absolutely.

Eric: I’ll take this out of the way, because I hate it when you jump that fence and face this fence, and then pull off it.

[Chris jumps the arrowhead]

That is my pet hate, when I’m trotting, even on the school, and they spot a fence and I have to pull them off it, I loathe that, I’d almost rather jump over it in my dressage saddle, so they’ve done the right thing.

Eric: But as much as that’s important in training, in course designing, you talked earlier about horses picking up flags, it’s unfair for them to pick up a set of flags and then you drag them away from them, whether that’s in training or not, you want your horses to pick up those flags, to look for the fence that they’re going to jump.

Chris: That must be a challenge at your 1 Day Events, when you have 90, 100, 1*, yeah?

Eric: Yes.

[The exercise is the two oxers , jumpable from both directions, down the far side of the school on 5 or 6 strides with a trees hazard almost in the middle of the distance, to be passed on 1 side or the other]

Chris: Okay, you’re imagining that’s your wall of trees through there.

Eric: Which is the easiest way, do you think?

Chris: Because the trees are closer to this oxer? I want to start that way, because then I’ve got more time to let her spot the oxer and go on an angle.

Eric: If I was building this at home, I think the people sat behind it, at the edge of the school has an effect on the range of the jump that you have.

Chris: So I should start by going… outside?

Eric: It’s up to you, you’re the expert.

Chris: Closer to the wall, for sure. All the crowd in here, at Burghley or Badminton, no different.

Uh oh, almost made a horlicks of it. A surprisingly simple line ended up quite tough. Okay, I’ll try the outside, I’ll try the other way.

Eric: Which did you think was easier?

Chris: I found the other way easier. Isn’t she a good jumper… If I’m seeing a bad distance, I am warning her a little bit, I’m saying ‘Hey, look out, you’re going to hit the front rail’, she says ‘No I’m not’.

Eric: I thought for one when you came from the top of the school back down that the trees were closer to the second one was easier because the trees acted like a forming point for you to make your corner round.

Chris: And the first time I jumped this way she was distracted, looking left and right.

Eric: By the people and also it kicks them out all the time so you’ve got to find the line a little bit. And that’s the type of thing we’re moving towards I think, we’ve always been there really, it’s just about control of balance and the organisation between those two fences.

Chris: Do you think it’s possible to do that line in 5?

Eric: *thinks* Yeah. Go for it.
[They do it very nicely on 5] You see I think if you were in a competition you’d get there on 4. And that’s where you gain all the time. That’s where your reputation of ‘fastest cross-country rider’ comes from, cos you land and travel and you don’t spend too much time (?fiddling… inaudible) and Michael’s the same, isn’t he.

Chris: But I’d showed her the line so it was easy for me to show off a little bit. I could trust her to jump it.

Eric: So, let’s do the vertical to the water tray.

Chris: This is a good exercise. Eric and I spoke about educating them to jump, and I touched on it a little bit already with the oxer, educating them to jump the first rail of the coffin, as they would a showjump.

[The mare spooks a little at the water tray and throws a big basculing jump over it]

Chris: (Softly and slightly nervously in midair!) Whoo…hoo…hoo.

Eric: That to me was absolutely what you wanted, yes? When it landed it went through its back and it just softened, and then it can throw the shape in the centre, and you didn’t interfere too much with it, and it curled over the front rail.

Chris: Yeah. It was interesting, when I came in I thought ‘Eric would tell me not to ride it so free’, but it worked out beautiful, didn’t it? She looked, she backed off, which is exactly the result we want, but I was still close enough to it that she could get over it. Albeit she threw her front legs.

Eric: This is one of those old skills that we talk about, that ability to ride to those little vertical fences with something behind it, and the horse actually to take responsibility for the front rail of the fence. You cannot drag them off it or pull them back, actually you have to sit still in the appropriate place and let the horse take responsibility for the jump.

[They put it up, Chris and the mare go again, she throws a more normal jump over the water tray this time. They add an oxer after the water tray]

Chris: Good. Because we haven’t quite got the drop that we’ve got into The Hollow here, it’s a little bit flatter.

[He jumps through it again, foot perfect]

Eric: So let’s jump down through that line, turn through this line on the 5, and come round the corner and just pop over this and I’ll put it up a bit.

[“This” is a single pole upright, no ground line, no dropper. He puts it up to about 1.20]

Chris: Now I’m scared.

[He does the exercise, very neatly, just bowling down to the gappy upright, which the mare jumps perfectly]

Eric: Did you all see how well that jumped that? Cos I think they jump some of these fences with less filling underneath better than they do when you fill it. You put a single plank in the middle of the schooling area, I quite often do this when we’re just playing at home with horses, you can jump 3 or 4 fences and you come back to the single plank, no ground line, just to teach your horses to back up, and they will always read it, if you’re not too interfering, and it teaches you to sit still. I mean, you [to Chris], you do it every day.
And you see the balance and canter round the corner and allow your horse to come up and jump it. But you read that, fantastic.

Chris: It wasn’t fun to ride to, I can tell you. But it works. And you see the same when you put two rails as an oxer with just one little spindly single stick underneath, it works. We ride it better than ever.

Eric: I think that’s a fundamental skill, on that foundation level of skills we were talking about, to actually train your horses to really start to read those questions and take responsibility for the fence.

Chris: Yeah. In training at home I wouldn’t do this. Always I’d have a ground line. So if I get it wrong, if I chip in, they won’t jump a bad fence, and they won’t jump over their shoulder. I always try to encourage good jumping. But it’s interesting… I was surprised how well she jumped it. And I was surprised how nervous I was coming round the corner, thinking ‘one thing I’ve got to do is give this a good ride to it’.

Eric: Yes. We do the corner?

[The mare throws a great shape over the fence]

Chris (laughing): She is a careful one. Surprisingly good cross-country ride, I rode her in the 1* at South of England and I was fascinated, when she was so careful in the show-jumping I thought ‘this’ll be interesting’, she was a darling on cross-country, she goes around on a loose rein.
That was something we spoke about too. I think the future of the sport relies on better jump riding and better jumping horses.

Eric: Yes. I think all the jumping comes very much off of: so the diagonal to the rail there, which we did at the very start, [accuracy question] and I think that’s the direction we’re going in more and more, that those angles are getting more acute, because as we talked about earlier – we can’t build those fences that trip horses any more, so if you always give them a little outlet if they get it wrong, hopefully they can run off the edge, then you get those 20s, Pierre does that all the time.

So just come around the corner, come inside the tree [hazard]. So we just build, instead of building on the width of the corner, or the size of the corner, we just build it on the horse’s acceptance to stay straight down the rein.

[Chris and the mare negotiate it very easily]

Chris: We can make that tougher. Let’s make it bigger and wider and move the tree more. It’s good training. Can you pull the brush out a little bit. Yeah, that’s it, super. Ooh, now it is tougher. You get what you ask for in this game! Good, thank you.

Eric: Okay?

Chris: No, that’s fine, that’s fine. Come and stand over here. Actually stand on the other side.

Eric: You do like a challenge.

Chris: No, it’s okay, I’m kidding. It’s okay. Right, I’ve got to take this seriously.

[It’s a more difficult question now; they jump it very well]

Chris: Good girl. She’s a good one.

Eric: Yeah, nice. Lovely. She just never wanders off that (line), does she?

Chris: But we’d shown her where the way through it was.

Eric: Exactly. You’d done this a few times.

Chris: Maybe straight up to that on a Novice would have been interesting.

Eric: And that goes back a bit to what we were talking about earlier, with the construction, of not showing your horses the way to run out and then expecting them to jump fences. You start with her jumping with the tree on the outside (the easier way) so she got a proper education.
And that’s a course designer’s responsibility, a little bit I think. That we educate a horse to jump, and to deliver to questions, and then always the argument is, where you start to turn that from an education into a question, and I think that depends a little bit on the compound factors, what’s the ground like, etc.

[They make a course, incorporating all the questions, to finish]

Eric: So all the time with this it’s about the lengthening and the shortening, that concertina effect with the horses, that you want it to move up, come back, move up.

[Chris and the mare jump the entire course immaculately, just tapping the final rail down]

Eric: Okay. How was that?

Chris: Good, very happy with that. We’re ready for Badminton.

Eric laughs.

Chris: Do you want to start taking questions from the audience? I think she’s done enough. (Patting her). Thank you.

Eric Smiley: Thank you. Folks, I think you’ve seen two very talented guys playing games. Talented games, interesting games, games that when they do it well, they make it look easy. 

Questions from the Audience:

Q: I just wondered if you were happy to leave it having just touched a pole?

Chris: Ah yes, I mean, this is a cross country jumping demonstration today, so she knocked the last fence down, I don’t really care. I rode it very forward and very long purposely, and we’d jumped that fence 7 or 8 times, so I’m not surprised that she knocked it down at all. And this happens to us on cross country, you know, they hit the fences, at speed, with fatigue. I am not in the slightest bit worried, she brought her front end up and I’m still alive, so that’s good. (laughter)

Comment from the audience (I am 99% sure it was from Jennie Loriston Clarke): Well done both of you. I think that was one of the best exhibitions of how to train a horse to be obedient, to go forward and back, with a very clear explanation of his body language on the horse, so many people talk a load of… fluff… it was so refreshing to see the horses responding beautifully to the aids, which were clear and confident, and then you had such a lovely harmonious performance, thank you very much.

Q: What breed of horse do you prefer to compete on, Chris?

Chris: Winning ones. (laughter). I like a lot of blood. I’ve only got one TB left… that’s not true, I have two, I have a young TB, but I’m not sure how strong he’s going to be. An old horse I have who’s 18, he’s going to be entered for Badminton this year, we’re not sure if he’s going to get there or not. I love my TBs but sadly I love the ones that chuck their legs too, so I am going more and more for them. But if we can get that and blood… I mean, my horse from Rio, in the calculator says 29-30% TB blood, and I think he’d be faster than any of them.

Q: I have two questions if that’s okay. I’m a show-jumper gone eventing, and doing all of this sort of thing seems quite logical to me, so how do you train at home for massive big open solid fences? Especially when they have massive ground lines out in front of them.

Chris: Yep, It’s a good question to raise I guess. The answer is… I don’t. I… like the arrowhead, you know, I want wings, I want it soft, and then when they’re faced with… I mean, we’ve seen 4* arrowheads and they’re huge, I have no idea how they measure them in height… they’re this wide and they seem to be 5 foot on landing. So the answer is, we don’t train that. We just get there, the horses trust us and we say go. 
I don’t know, I would think your Grand Prix horse, a 1.60 horse, wouldn’t jump a metre 60 in training either. Unless it needs it. I don’t know, but it’s a little bit the same concept. It’s a very good point. I never try to trap them, I never try to catch them out, I try to keep them happy, and thinking it’s easy, and then when we get to Burghley, luckily they are still thinking it’s easy even though it’s not.

Q: My second question is more for Eric. If we do go down the route of trying to stop people who have stops or run outs, 20 penalties on the xc, how is that going to affect your course building, because if you make more fences easier to glance off all the time, people are going to start collecting 20 penalties.

Eric: I think it’s a balance… but I think we’re still looking for the run out at the higher level. It’s more the fact that, what I hoped to show today was really the progression between the levels, that actually you train your horses to do things.
I think that it’s one of the worst situations this, because you’re training xc, which is effectively a terrain sport, but you’re doing it on a flat sand surface, and it’s one of my hated things. That actually I think nowadays we do almost too much of this, we never go and canter around a piece of ground that’s got little lumps and bumps in it, and teach horses how to handle terrain. And always you look at a xc course, from a designer’s perspective of the faults that are accumulated on a xc course, quite often if you go to a flatter site where they have a big table to corner, or big corner to skinny triple brush or something, the horses will cope with it really well, because they are taught to do that. What they’re not taught to do now is just go down a slope, over a river and up a little slope, pop along. And that’s the thing I would go back to a little bit more in training, rather than you were talking about with Chris with the bigger fences, I think that’s the thing that comes from faith. That does come from what Chris has done today, in that what Chris instills in his horses is a true belief that he’s always on it, and he wants them to jump it. You never see Chris go into a fence saying “no, don’t jump it”, taking a pull, and the number of times I see
people come to a fence and they take a pull, and they wonder why the horse stops when they get there. But intrinsically they’re doing what the first thing that that horse ever learnt, was when you pull on the reins it pulls up. 
So I thought he had a very clear communication package, in the way that he rode and the way that he asked the horse to go forward.

Eric: I don’t think xc courses are going to get easier, they’ve notoriously always got more difficult, you go to the guys that rode round Badminton and in the 70s and the 80s and you ask them whether courses are easier, some of the fences were probably bigger and more impressive, but actually the package that’s put together, mentally for the way the horses get tired and the physical exertion it puts on the horses, is much greater now than it was then. 
So, I don’t think they’re going to get easier. I would like to see that we kept that level of terrain in xc training and in the cross country courses we have at those foundation levels, so that we keep that at the higher levels as well. I don’t want to see it become an arena competition.

Q: (to Eric) You said earlier that there was a trend for open fences with old fashioned values, is this something you are going to be building in to Badminton this year?

Chris: This is what we’re all asking. Tell us the Badminton course. This is what I’m here for.

Eric: It’s simple. There are about 45 bits of wood running outside of several fields in Gloucestershire. [laughter]
I hope that it goes back to a few more upright post and rail type fences. There’s slightly more space between the fences, but I think they need to be on the ball and as always when I try and design courses, I try and design them so that they turn left, turn right, slow down, speed up, and it’s the variety of that. If the course that we just did there (in the arena with Chris) were a training process in the end, that was the fundamental basis of what I do when I’m course designing.
I open them up at the start, I close them down to jump a vertical, I open them up again to the triple bar, I close them up to jump through the 3 fences here. To me it always comes back to control and ability to ride horses, and they’re on fingertip control, that’s what I look for, that the horses are responsive, and the riders stay in balance and can ride.

Q: Where do you see the use of 4* competition now when the FEI have decided that all our Championships are going to be at 3*?

Eric: Can I stick my fingers in my ears and pretend I didn’t hear that?
Great question. I’m not sure. I think, I hope that the Badmintons and Burghleys will stay where they are, that they’ll still be aspirational for people to come and ride, and I think they will be. But the general 4* thing, I think we’ll have to see. I’m not sure that it makes the sport better, what they’ve actually done is shortened the distances but they’ve increased the number of jumping efforts per metre, so you’ll finish up with more CIC type statistics. It’s much easier to get the time at a CIC than it is at a CCI. When you’ve got 40 – 45 jumping efforts, over those 8 minutes or so, you will really be flying. It will definitely favour riders of the likes of Chris. But what it does to the top end of the sport, I would not like to hazard a guess really. 
Q: Is that not a bit of a calamity waiting to happen, when the level of faults are going to be taken away possibly with frangible pins as well, and the increase of speed?

Eric: Undoubtedly. It may goes slightly against what we are trying to achieve. In that we’re making the sport faster. And actually I quite like that sort of 570mpm that we run at at 4* level, so I’m not sure quite where they’ll finish up, whether that package will be the ultimate package. But I am not in that high level that makes those sort of decisions, so I’m really hazarding a guess here as much as you would be.

Q: Thinking about what you said Eric about training in a sand school, on a flat surface for xc, what role do you think that hunting plays in training an event horse. Chris, what role do you think it plays in training an event horse?

Eric: As I said earlier, I don’t like modern trends in course design, because I think they are always at the price of an old traditional skill, one of those hunting skills, but I don’t think hunting is… you know, financially it’s quite a difficult thing, you’ve got £300k-£400k of Advanced horse, are you going to take it hunting? I know people do, but… Do you hunt your horses, Chris?

Chris: Sorry? I checked out, mate.

Eric: But I think within that, doesn’t mean to say that you need to go hunting on them to gain those bits of experience. I see, at the lower levels, at Pre Novice competitions, it starts to rain, and 40% of the people pat their horse on the neck, stick it back in the lorry and go home. Now that’s fab, except… if you want to do it for fun, if you don’t like riding in the rain, I can understand that. But actually if you want to educate your horses, the day that you want that 2* qualifier and it’s pouring down with rain, it wants to have something to go back to that references how it jumped on that wet piece of ground. There’s a really interesting fact from last year’s Burghley I think it was, and I am probably going to misquote this, and people are going to correct me all the time, but something like 8 out of the first 10 horses had been produced by the person who rode it at Burghley. To me I think that, in Eventing more than anything else, it’s a relationship between horse and rider, so that you have two brains working together, and hopefully when they work together in cohesion it creates a superbrain. You have two people, a horse and a rider, that think as one. I think Chris is a great example of that, he produces that out of his horses. I think that superbrain is what we ought to look for, and that’s the same thing with terrain, and it’s the same thing with conditions, when the conditions are slippery and it’s a little bit wet, that actually to an extent and maybe not as we go for our first time Pre Novice or our first time Novice, that we step up in the wet conditions, that actually we should be less scared of running them in those conditions and gaining that experience.

Eric Smiley brought things to a close by thanking them both “two good minds sorting some of our problems out”.

Please put next year’s IEF date in your diary, the 5th of February 2018.


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