|Riding Cross Country Can Be Dangerous | Think Safety|
At home, we can get anything up to 80 horses visiting for cross country schooling in a day, and I'm amazed at how unprepared many of them are. I don't mean the kit, as they all have that, I mean the lack of a game plan or qualified assistance to undertake a schooling session that could otherwise result in injury, we have twice in the last few years had the air ambulance arrive and had a few more trundle off to hospital, highlighting the need for safety first, even whilst training. Cross Country schooling is more often than not fun, especially if you're lucky enough to have a willing horse, so doesn't always need to be purely educational. You do always need to have a game plan though, and some assistance on the ground though.
So having just completed a successful schooling session in the last few days, in an attempt to remind myself why this was good, here's my top 5 safety pointers that I always need to remind myself of every time I go cross country before I get caught up in the thrill and excitement of it all.
Always School With Competent Assistance
Firstly, always, always, always start a schooling session with someone on the ground who understands cross country schooling very well who can point out what's good and what not about any obstacle you tackle. It's not always possible to see what's going right and wrong from the saddle, as some habit's die hard, and of course you need someone around for safety's sake.
Have A Game Plan
Always, always, always, go out out there with a game plan, whether that's just to have a little fun, or work on an educating exercise. Warm up, and as you are walking off take a look around and plan your first set and second set of fences (or do this before you mount). Map out lines of fences even if they are 100m apart, don't just jump fences individually, take a breather then think "right let's go over there". You keep the flow of endorphins this way, and maintain any engagement from the horse. Also don't try to tackle your educational exercise or issue straight away, don't think "right let's get in the water or over that trehkaner" the moment you arrive, you need to establish rhythm, and engagement in the horse first.
Establish rhythm before starting your game plan. Rhythm is everything, I estimate a horse uses up to 50% more energy when jumping, if he's not in a rhythm and jumping 'out of his stride'. This is something that's very easy to practice anytime, by cantering along side fences and establishing an even rhythm approaching a fence. Once you can start seeing your stride and take off from 10 strides away and keeping an even rhythm in those last ten strides, your horse will conserve energy and be more relaxed in the task at hand, and thus safer. I practice this more than anything else. You'll also find the most daunting fences becomes easier to ride (take a look at the video below).
If rhythm is everything for the horse, vision is everything for the rider. My worst habit is dropping my vision when it isn't all plain sailing. The moment you drop your vision (looking towards the ground or horse's head or feet), you start to hinder the horse's ability and willingness to move forward, as your entire body weight shifts over the forehand. This is when things can go from bad to worst. You can have the most secure lower leg in the world but if you keep looking down, it's like putting on the hand brake. Keep telling yourself "Look up, look up!"
Know When To Stop.
A tired horse becomes an unwilling and disengaged horse. This is when you can undo any good you've done so far, and more importantly when accidents can happen. Pace yourself inline with both yours and your horse's fitness. Personally I never do more than about 12 minutes of work out in the schooling field in any one session, so I'm never out there for more than 30-35 minutes.
Have Fun & Be Safe!