There’s a fundamental difference between cross-country and its sister disciplines, dressage and showjumping. It’s important to understand this before you set out on the cross-country course. We spend our lives going around in ever-decreasing circles for dressage and showjumping, whereas across country it’s important that your horse draws in the direction you’re travelling.
This means that you have to get him travelling forward from A to B. That begins as you warm up, before you even jump a fence. It’s important to establish a positive trot, then pick up canter and ride around the outside of the area you’re schooling in. Don’t ride circles, just keep him moving forward.
The importance of thinking forward
It’s not enough for you to know that it’s necessary for your horse to be more forward across country, your horse must have the desire to go forward, too. The way you ride has a big effect on this. Even when you’re ready to begin jumping, don’t revert back to riding circles.
You don’t need a long run-up to the fence – so long as it’s more than 20 metres away, it’s fine to go from walk to canter and approach immediately.
If you start pulling your horse off his line – for example, to turn a circle if he hesitates at a step or over a ditch where he could perfectly well jump it from a standstill – he will lose that focus on the fence. Very quickly that loss of focus turns into a belief that it’s acceptable for him not to jump something unless the stride is perfect, because he thinks he can be turned away and re-presented.
The key to good cross-country riding is understanding what is really effective, and that pushing with your seat, shoulders and hands has no effect and is disruptive to your horse.
Many riders fall into the trap of holding on tight to their horse’s mouth and being in front of the movement. This isn’t the best way to ride. Imagine being slightly behind the movement with reins longer than you might think. When your reins are longer and you’re behind the movement, it’s much harder for your horse to run out.
To see Harry’s simple exercises to improve your cross-country round, get your copy of September Horse&Rider, on sale 28 July.