How to Walk a Cross Country Course
By Lesley Stevenson
One of my favorite parts of an eventing competition is that first course walk. I can't wait to see what the course designer has in store for us competitors! But walking the course is serious business - your course walking skills can mean the difference between success and failure out there on the course.
I always recommend that riders walk their course three times. The first walk is your chance to learn your way around and get familiar with the jumps and all of your options. Your second walk is where all decisions should be made, and I highly recommend that you be in the company of your trainer. If your trainer is not available, then try to find a very experienced friend to take this second walk with. Even if you are an experienced competitor yourself it can be of great help to have another perspective. Another set of experienced eyes to discuss the "questions" that each fence is asking can open your eyes to things you hadn't considered. Someone who knows your horse well will be of the most help to you as they will be able to help you evaluate how your horse needs to be ridden at any particular jump.
Plan your lines and evaluate the striding between any related jumps. When you have a line challenge like a corner, skinny jump, or angled combination, walk your line from well back several times to train your eye to line it up perfectly from a distance. Make sure you know the speed and balance required for every jump or combination and plan exactly where you will be adjusting your speed or balance if necessary. Some horses come back quite quickly and some need a lot more room. Always think about the specifics of your horse when planning your approaches. Does he tend to drift to the right? That may change your plan on how to approach the corner jump or turning combination, for example. Is he leery of ditches? Your approach to the coffin jump may need to be a bit different than what your friend has planned for her very bold horse.
If there are jumps on course with options, make sure to know every option available and walk all options. Even if you know for sure you are going to do plan A, be absolutely sure that you know plan B. You never know what will happen out there! For example, you wouldn't want to hear right before your run that the footing in front of the option you have planned on fence #12 is getting really bad, without knowing what your plan B could be.
Your third walk should be by yourself - with no distractions. Imagine that you are riding the course while you are walking. Walk the exact path you will ride, paying attention to footing and terrain. In your mind, gallop along where you plan to gallop along, steady or rebalance wherever you plan to do so on the approach to every fence, and mentally ride each fence as you walk up to it. Make sure this mental rehearsal has you jumping each jump well, following the directions of your coach! And even rehearse rewarding your horse on landing. This mental run will put your good performance into your subconscious, and if you repeat it in your head a few more times before you actually compete, you will be solidifying a confident, successful performance in your subconscious – which really works to help you have an actual confident, successful performance!
If possible, one of your course walks should be at the time of day that you will be riding the course. This is important to show you the lighting situations that you will be contending while riding the course. You will be able to see which jumps you will be jumping directly into the sun, making eying the fence more challenging for both horse and rider, and also which jumps are in dark shadows, making them spooky and harder to focus on. Jumps with difficult lighting situations, such as the classic "light into dark" scenario - where you are in bright sunlight and have to jump into dark woods - require the rider to give the horse more time to assess the situation. This might involve coming in slower, or making a wider, more organized turn on the approach. The rider must also plan to ride the fence a little more positively than they would need to if the fence were not in a challenging lighting situation. Of course, if it's cloudy then lighting is not so much of an issue.
Remember to be flexible with your plan on course. If you have a few awkward jumps before a big question with an option, and you can feel your horse isn’t as confident as usual, change your plan and take the longer, slower route. If you decide to take a long route, take your time while doing so. I sometimes see riders rushing through long routes, not giving their horse a good ride, because they are lamenting the time faults they may be accruing. Being safe and finishing with a confident horse should always be top priorities.
Good, thorough preparation and a positive attitude will ensure that you will be able to perform to the very best of your ability!
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Lesley Stevenson is an Advanced 3 star three-day event rider/trainer/coach. She is a graduate of Jimmy Wofford's training program. She also has an upper level dressage background with Spanish Riding School theories. Lesley was USET long listed in the years 2002-2004, during which she completed the Radnor** and the Fair Hill International***. She has also competed successfully through Fourth Level Dressage, with scores to 75%. Lesley is available for lessons and clinics, and is also available for online coaching at www.MyVirtualEventingCoach.com.
Main Article Photo: Robin Duncan Photography