If I can offer three pieces of advice, they would be: slow down (while you’re honing your technique); look up, and maintain straightness!
Being holes in the ground, a cross-country ditch asks very different questions to any other type of jump. Inevitably, your horse has to look down at it to understand the problem and may cat leap or over-jump at first. Avoid looking into the ditch yourself, though, as it causes your head and shoulders to drop down, unbalancing you and your horse, and putting you in a vulnerable position should your horse stop. Train yourself to look just the other side of the ditch where you want to land, which will encourage your horse to get to that point and make it much easier to keep your head and shoulders in the right position.
Preparation is key
Practice will help boost your confidence where ditches are concerned. You can do this at home by using this exercise…
- Place two poles side by side, just touching, and asking your horse to just pop over them. Start in trot, as it gives you both more time to assess the situation, then only move on to canter when all is going well.
- Once your horse is jumping the poles confidently, you can start to move them apart – not using them as trotting poles, but encouraging him to jump them. If he’s too laid back and not really jumping across them, lay a third pole across them on a diagonal to give a little height and ensure that he does actually jump. It’s better to use rustic poles, if possible, not brightly coloured showjump poles.
- Move on to putting something resembling a water tray between the poles – a piece of tarpaulin is ideal, but even a dark, folded rug will do. This will build up his confidence before meeting a real ditch.
Putting it in place
The next stage is to hire a cross-country venue with ditches. The first time you go, take your training equipment with you. Start your session with the exercise you’ve been practising at home to build confidence, then seamlessly move on to a small ditch when your horse is ready. Start your ditch jumping slowly so you can assess your horse’s reaction, but once you have practised sufficiently, you can develop a more forward-going pace, making sure it’s bouncy and contained, rather than long and flat.
A friend riding an older, more experienced ditch jumper who can give your horse a lead is the ideal aid to a novice horse. Be prepared to go to several different venues, in the company of a second horse and then on your own, to build up confidence. If you have a particular competition in mind, ask if you’re able to hire the venue beforehand.
At a competition
When it comes to entering a competition, you need to be able to channel your energy into all the positive training experiences you have had, rather than getting distracted by nerves. Focusing on the positives will make it much easier for your mind to project a successful experience where ditches are concerned. You must be able to treat riding them as a normal part of your cross-country course, rather than as a tricky or a bogey fence. Don’t forget, this is the time to enjoy yourself and reap the benefits of your hard work.
Jenny Richardson is Equestrian Centre Business Manager at Ireland’s Castle Leslie Estate, a venue that offers cross-country training breaks in the heart of Ireland. Visit castleleslie.com