Horsemanship - Cross Country
( Originally Published 1962 )
It may well be said that the objective of the modern horseman's education is cross-country riding. This is the ultimate test of his trained balance and suppleness, his skill in the use of his aids, his feel and judgment.
It is not necessary to belong to the ancient and honorable fraternity of fox hunters in order to enjoy cross-country riding. Good sport can be enjoyed without foxes, hounds, and red coats. The main objectives are the swift gallop across the open field, the joy of speed and crisp air, the exhilaration of sailing across ditches, fences, logs, and brush, the intoxicating sense of complete cooperation with a powerful and spirited horse and the profound feeling of accomplishment and satisfaction when it is all over.
Whether it is a good old-fashioned ride to the hounds, a stag hunt, a paper chase, drag hunt, pig sticking, steeple-chase, or a point-to-point makes little difference. They all have one thing in common—royal sport. But without sound horsemanship any form of riding is at best somewhat like playing golf with a few empty tin cans and a baseball bat. One can get away with many queer things on the bridle path with a livery horse, but he must know his horsemanship when tackling a cross-country gallop. Things happen fast on this kind of ride. There is no time for hesitation. It is not enough to know what to do in a general sort of way. It is necessary to act immediately and instinctively, to apply the proper aids in the proper way without trying to recall what teacher said or attempting a guess.
The most important thing is the accurate feel and regulation of speed, both for the sake of the rider's safety and for the conservation of the horse's strength. How fast should I ride up that hill, down this one, across this hard road, toward this ditch, or that high fence? How much can I let my horse out across this level pasture without taking too much out of him and without letting him get out of hand? Where should I give my horse a little breathing spell and still keep up with the field?
To save his mount's strength and avoid abusing his legs, mouth, and back are the horseman's principal considerations. In point-to-point races the condition of the horse at the finish counts 50 per cent and the performance of horse and rider the remaining 5o per cent. As a rule no credit is allowed for using less time than the stipulated maximum.
It is not enough, however, to regulate the speed intelligently in order to conserve the strength of one's horse. It is just as important to know how to make the weight he carries as light as possible. Whether a rider weighs fifty pounds more or less than another does not make as much difference as one would suspect. It is his ability to balance himself, to make of himself a live, supple weight, that counts. One of the world's most famous steeplechase riders weighed 220 pounds.
The next requirement is the rider's ability to balance his horse in such a way that he is able to use his own strength with economy. A horse can jump a ditch with his head up and his back slack at the expense of a tremendous effort of his hind legs. He can take the same jump with his neck stretched, back and croup muscles active, in an easy effortless dive. He can be galloped across a hard surface in such a way as to strain the tendons of his front legs. He can be taken over the same stretch, with his own and the rider's weight well over his hind legs, without danger. An ignorant rider can make the climb of a steep hill twice as difficult as necessary by sitting heavily back in the saddle and pulling on the rein. The skilled horseman will throw his own weight well forward over the horse's shoulders and remove his weight from the saddle. He will also allow his horse to take advantage of his own momentum and let his rush carry him as far up the incline as possible with a completely free rein. But he knows better than to urge his horse into a gait faster than a walk after his momentum has been spent. The self-educated horseman will incline backward, with his legs sticking out in front, when he negotiates a slide, firmly convinced that he is balancing his horse. The expert will take a forward seat, use his boots actively well back, support his horse with a firm rein, and take his time. A stumble will catch the inexperienced rider unprepared and result in a violent jerk on the reins that will complete the disaster. The experienced rider will always be prepared, always active to prevent a stumble, and if it does happen he is ready to help his mount regain his balance without applying a belated jerk.
In addition to all this and more, the rider is supposed not to finish his ride at the half-way mark standing on his head in a ditch, sitting on a fence, or clutching a gatepost. As long as the horse stands up the rider must stay with him, and it is largely up to the rider whether the horse does stand up. Even in cross-country riding the ability merely to hang on is not a proof of horsemanship.
Cross-country riding requires a number of qualities. Some riders are born with some of them, but others have to be acquired through patient application in the school and training ring, one detail at a time, until sound technique develops into feel and correct motions into instinctive re-actions.
Although very few horses or riders can hope to approach the requirements for the cross-country test of the Olympic Games, it may be of interest to have an idea of what these are, for the sake of comparison.
This test comes on the second day of the three-day event, in which the same horse is used all the way through. On the first day there is a training or dressage test to demonstrate the obedience and suppleness of the horse in all gaits. On the third day there is a jumping test to prove whether the horse is still in good condition after the gruelling cross-country ride of the previous day.
The endurance or cross-country test takes place on the second day. This event is too difficult for even the best horse unless he is trained to perfection and unless his rider knows his mount intimately, has the ability to judge pace under all circumstances, and has him under perfect control in fast and difficult going.
The extremely varied course covers about 22% miles and the total time allowed is 2 hours, 5 minutes, and 6 seconds. The course is divided into three main parts. The first is over roads and paths for 431 miles, with a time allowance of 29 minutes and 10 seconds. No credit is given for using less time.
The second main part is the steeplechase, 231 miles long. The time allowed is 6 minutes and 40 seconds. Credit is given in this phase for undertime.
The third main part, immediately following the steeple-chase, is the actual cross country. This part is again divided into three phases, the first being 9 1/2 miles over roads and paths in 1 hour and 23 minutes. No credit is allowed for using less time. The second phase follows at once—5 miles cross country, over 30 to 40 severe natural obstacles. This is the hardest part of the test, and few survive it without heavy penalties. To make things worse, this phase has a bonus for undertime. The time allowed is 17 minutes and 46 seconds.
After these 5 miles the rider must gallop 1 1/4 miles to the finish in 6 minutes and 5 seconds. There is no bonus for undertime, but trotting disqualifies.
During the entire course refusals and falls are penalized heavily, in addition to the loss of time they cause.
Two problems of outstanding importance present themselves to those who desire to indulge in more advanced riding as a sport--selection of the correct type of horse and knowledge of how to handle him.
The cross-country type of horse, the hunter, is the most highly developed and best all-around horse for practical purposes in modern equitation. Volumes could be written about him, but we shall limit ourselves to a discussion of his main characteristics.
Originating in England and Ireland, the hunter is today recognized as the king of the tribe all over the world. Both physically and mentally the good hunter is superior to most other breeds. Some hunters are thoroughbreds, while to the uninitiated others look like plow horses in their honest ruggedness. But all possess a combination of excellent qualities. They have strength, endurance, speed, and unlimited courage. The hunter's wind must be able to withstand mile after mile of high speed, uphill and down, over difficult ground and all kinds of obstacles. He must be sure on his feet, an excellent jumper, and never become so excited that he is difficult to handle, forgets to watch his step, or wastes his energy in useless efforts. He must be able to clear a high gate in his stride or, just as willingly, consent to stop, allow his rider to dismount, open the gate, and mount again.
The value of the hunter depends on three factors—his conformation, his temperament, and his training. All three may be said to be equally important. If he does not meet all the requirements he is still a good horse—but not a hunter.
To the horseman the hunter is always more pleasing to the eye than any other horse. Those who judge a horse by his color or the abundance of mane or tail and those who believe that his tail must be twisted artificially and painfully into absurd designs will probably disagree, and continue to judge horses from a picture-postcard point of view. The hunter may not have a chance in competitions conducted along the lines of a bathing-beauty contest, in spite of the fact that his lines express the perfect symmetry of balanced power. But those who look for them will find honesty and efficiency rather than gloss and false strutting.
The hunter stands over plenty of ground, but if you look closely you will be impressed by his short back. The croup is of the same length as the back. It may slope a trifle too much for beauty, but it is well-rounded, wide, and splendidly muscled. The sharply sloping shoulder makes the distance between the front end of the shoulder blade and the beginning of the withers equal in length to back and croup.
The shortness of the back means carrying power. The well-developed croup, in connection with the big-boned, muscular hind legs and strong, well-bent hocks, spell driving ability. The long shoulder and the deep chest provide room for a big heart and big lungs, which mean endurance. The clean limbs, free tendons, and short, solid lower arms are further indications of speed and efficiency.
The hunter is usually a big horse, but he quite often looks smaller than he really is, because of his well-knit conformation. He should have a long reach of rein in order to be perfectly balanced. Add to all this a head, ears, and eyes that speak of intelligence, alertness, friendliness, and courage, and you have a picture of the ideal cross-country horse.
The training of the hunter is a highly specialized job that requires a thorough knowledge of technique, as well as intelligent understanding. Properly handled, the hunter will enjoy the swift gallop and the flying jumps as much as the rider. The first consideration is to preserve this spirit unbroken—his courage, his joie de vivre, his conviction that man is his best friend and a playmate. In the hands of an ignorant, stupid, or brutal trainer or rider, he may be turned into an abject slave—"safe" for the Sunday-morning rider but no longer a hunter. He may still be willing to jump when asked to, because loyalty is in his blood, but his heart is no longer in it. He will still run, but he is no longer reliable, because he is not out romping with an understanding friend but merely laboring for a tyrant. He can no longer kick up his heels from sheer joy of living, because he has found out that exuberance and playfulness will be punished. He may still do what he is asked to do, but only because he is afraid.
Fortunately he is usually too proud and too courageous to submit to the wrong kind of handling. He will fight back, become dangerous or balky, and so take the blame for the misdeeds of trainer or rider.
The demands on a hunter are far greater than on any other kind of horse. The demands on his rider should be proportionate.