Sunday, May 23, 2010

Art, Science or Hallucinogenic Drugs??

Have you ever walked a XC course and thought "what the $%*!@ was the course designer thinking?!" Have you ever heard the name of a jump and thought "Where the $%*!@ did they come up with that?!" Is course design an art, a science, or the result of a trip on hallucinogenic drugs?? This weekend, I had a glimpse into the world of XC course design as a participant in the USEA's 'r' course design training program, held at the Virginia Horse Center.

Negotiating with the rain gods for a few more minutes of dry time on the course.

If only we could all be so lucky as to have such beautiful land to decorate with XC jumps!

The USEA put together an outstanding 3 day training program for 21 of us budding-course designers. Some of us were more wannabe's than others (I definitely fell in the wannabe category) - and we came from far and wide... My 3 hour drive was easy compared to those who came from Ontario, Michigan, Oregon, Minnesota... It was comforting to learn that all over the US (and Canada!) there are others who suffer from the same affliction I do - constant obsessive sighting of perfect materials for XC fences!

On Friday night, we started the training weekend with a "classroom lecture" from the weekend's master course designer... Tremaine Cooper. While sipping our adult beverages at the local Southern Virginia Ruby Tuesday (wow. Apparently I've lost my ability to understand the southern accent, because I couldn't understand a damn thing those waitresses were saying, y'all.) - we enjoyed general discussions about the fat stack of rules, guidelines, and drawings we received as well as a few curious stories about course design to "inspire" us for the challenges that lay ahead - like a crow that ate a hole in a poly log! (these are the new Styrofoam-like breakable logs which cost about $500).

On Saturday morning - we hit the courses at the Virginia Horse Center! We spent about 2 1/2 hours walking the Prelim XC course - talking through each jump, line placement (compared to the lines for T, N, and BN which shared much of the same general track), combinations, course flow, jump shape and construction, distances, sizes, preparing horses/riders for Intermediate... For me, it was exceptionally educational! For one, it's been a long time since I've had the opportunity to walk a lower level course with someone as experienced and articulate as Tremaine. I also have not walked a full Prelim course in years (recently, I've started taking a peak at them with an eye for planning homework for Katchi, but that's quite different to really walking a course to asses how the entire thing should be ridden and will ride). After going through the Prelim course under the careful tutelage of Tremaine, he split us into groups of 3 to tackle the Training course on our own. In between rain showers, we tried to take notes on all the issues Tremaine brought to our attention during the Prelim walk. Over lunch and during a downpour of rain, we sought refuge in a pavilion and talked through our impressions of the Training level course. Many of us had issues with different things, and it was a fantastic opportunity to hash out those issues - in theory! And then we watched it ride. Huh! Some things rode better than they should have on paper. And some things rode worse than they should have on paper. And the magic question - WHY? Now we were really getting someplace in our training process! The debates carried on into dinner, drinks, and more drinks. The answer to the question "where the $#*!@ did the course designer come up with that?" started to become clear - it's in the tequila.
A curious earth mound jump on the Prelim course.

Note quite a PhD dissertation defense, but close! Finding just the right flow to a course may be more art than science - but, then again... maybe it's all in the physics!

On Sunday morning, we headed across the road to the XC fields that had been used on Saturday for the FEI courses. Tremaine divvied up the land so that groups of 4 each took a grid square to "build" something on (with orange flags, graph paper, and an unlimited imaginary budget!). After just over an hour of planning, we had to present (defend) our plans to the rest of the group (and Tremaine, of course!). Luckily, we all took to heart Tremaine's advice on the first day - don't try to be too clever! And, very interestingly, each group came up with a different question - we had (imaginary) complexes with a corner, coffin, banks, steps, and jumping into space. We talked through our vision, considering things like material available, the effort required to move earth, setting jumps with the flow of the terrain... It was a fantastic exercise that forced us to get creative and make decisions - which can be quite a bit harder than simply critiquing the existing work of someone else.

Just before yet another downpour, we managed to squeeze in some time flying a couple of trucks around the FEI courses to take a closer look at the coffin, bank, and water complexes. Wow! I'm pretty sure my one-star, way back when, was just as hard, but my eye sure has a long ways to go before those jumps look doable again! We ended the day watching the BN horses tackle their course - actually, those guys may have gotten into the tequila too, because straight lines were not so much out there! Wobble this way, wobble that way... It really made you appreciate the importance of considering the lack of steering in a BN horse when you design a course for them - if you think they can steer around anything - they can't! :)

Our fearless teacher, Tremaine Cooper.

Thank you to the USEA (especially Nancy Knight and Tremaine Cooper) for putting together such a great weekend!

So, after soaking up all the course design knowledge I could, now it's back to reality. Meanwhile, back at the ranch... I found Katchi on Thursday morning with a fat leg. I iced it heavily Thursday morning and evening, and Friday morning too. Then my wonderful new friend Kerry took over with Katchi's physical therapy for the weekend! Last report is that the leg looks almost normal, which, no doubt, is the direct result of Kerry sacrificing her weekend to repeated Katchi icings while I was off playing with orange flags and tequila! I definitely got the better end of that deal! When I let Katchi go in the field on Wednesday morning, he bucked and racehorse galloped across the entire field (he had been in for 2 days on account of storms), so I pretty much know the idiot did it to himself in the field. I really had the feeling it was nothing major, just a little sprain, but I will reassess where we stand tomorrow morning. It's such a terrible feeling to discover the dreaded "fat leg" right when you're getting started with all your plans for the year. But, hopefully with 4 days off, Katchi can go back to light work tomorrow - still 2 weeks until Rubicon, so we're not out of the game yet...

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