You want to event, but there’s a problem: there’s no cross-country course close enough for you to school your horse at on a regular basis. That doesn’t mean the problem of gaining experience jumping cross-country obstacles is insurmountable, according to 2007 Pan Am team medallist and five-time Royal Agricultural Winter Fair indoor eventing champion Waylon Roberts. Here are some of Waylon’s suggestions.

“First and foremost is safety. You want to set up obstacles that are safe – that your horse won’t put a foot through, for example. I often see where people have propped up wooden palettes to use as part of a jump. That’s dangerous, as a horse can get his foot stuck in the palette and could injure himself, not to mention lose his confidence. If you are using a tarp, make sure it is securely held down by poles. Use what you have, but it’s important to use safe things.

A sample course

To illustrate, I’ve set up a course of jumps that are similar to what you and your horse will have to deal with during the cross-country phase, using many of the things you may already have at your home barn. Some of the objects you’ll need to build a course like the one I’m using to demonstrate here include hay bales, plastic barrels, a tarp and cavalettis, plus regular jump standards and poles. I’ve also cut a piece of timber, or you can use a small log, which is larger in diameter than a typical jump pole and is one of the common elements you’ll see on a cross-country course. I’ve made sure nothing that the horse could injure himself on, like a spike from a broken-off branch, is sticking up from the timber.

What you likely won’t be able to create at home is a water complex or a bank/drop jump. You can get your horse used to water by going through any large puddles you might find after a rainstorm, or you can practice by having him go through a creek, stream, or pond if you have access to one. A bank/drop jump is something that needs to be safely constructed and this is likely not feasible to do at home, so you’ll have to arrange to school jumping a bank at a proper cross-country facility.

You should also practice riding on changes of footing – sand, dirt, grass. Remember that sand will ride differently than grass. If you are riding on grass, make sure you have your horse properly balanced going around corners to avoid him slipping.

First lessons

I recommend putting a neck strap on your horse to practice these simulated cross-country jumps. (A stirrup leather will do just fine.) You can hang on to it to keep yourself in the saddle and ensure you don’t hit your horse in the mouth going over the jumps. Some horses may react by overjumping some of these obstacles if they’ve never dealt with them before.

Start by jumping your horse over a small crossrail. Make it into a small vertical and if he’s jumping confidently, add fill under the jump such as little walls, gates, flower boxes. Make sure the horse is moving off your leg and carry a crop. If he’s not moving forward, tap him with the crop behind your leg. Your goal is to have him taking you confidently to the jump, riding away and staying in front of your leg.

The timber jump with the hay bales shouldn’t be too intimidating, especially if you practice with bales as fill under a regular jump first. Logs and timbers are used to build many, many cross-country obstacles. I’ve used my timber to build a skinny and you might want to do the same, but don’t make it too narrow.

Keep the jumps low to begin with. The horse’s eyes will be drawn to the groundline first and you don’t want him to knock his knees on the rails. Introduce the jumps one at a time.

When you are approaching the jumps, sit deep, keep your heels down, shoulders back and be slightly behind the motion, staying behind the withers so you aren’t going to go over the handlebars if he stops suddenly. If he’s moving from side to side coming into the jump, think of your hands and legs as railway tracks – keep him between the rails, even if he’s bouncing off them.

If you are riding a young horse and he is backed off the jumps at first, that’s fine. As he gains confidence, he’ll be more forward to them. Don’t let him run out; I’d rather have him stop in front of a jump than run out. You can tap behind your leg with the crop as a reminder or reprimand, but don’t hit the horse repeatedly or use it as punishment.

If he is repeatedly slamming on the brakes, consider whether the question you are asking is a reasonable one. Have you introduced new elements in a gradual way? Try simplifying things and make sure that the jumps aren’t too high or too narrow.

Consider whether you are riding with confidence to the fences. If you are nervous about jumping some of these jumps, those nerves will affect your horse’s confidence. Schooling like this at a home could determine whether you and your horse are ready for eventing. Not every discipline suits every horse or every rider.

Once your horse is jumping all of the ‘use what you have’ obstacles well, you can put them together in a course. If you and your horse are dealing with them in a confident manner and you’ve had an opportunity to school a time or two at a facility with a water complex and bank/drop, you’re well prepared for the challenges you’ll find on a real cross-country course.”