One of my favorite local XC schooling places has a special note on their website... Note: the refrigerator wedged in a tree fork is NOT a jump. Katchi is glad they clarified that. I'm scared that they needed to. How many people do you think have actually jumped the fridge in a tree - or tried to?!
I admit, I have a sickness. I see potential cross country jumps everywhere. I'm currently eyeing a big tree that was just cut down in a subdivision not far from Katchi's barn. I'm not above knocking on doors, chasing down trucks, or shamelessly flirting and giggling - all for the sake of free or discounted soon-to-be cross country jumps. I see them everywhere - landscaping retaining walls make me sick... what idiot would build such a perfect bank complex at the wrong distance?! And wine barrels, oh don't get me started on wine barrels. Don't invite me wine tasting unless you want your day to end with me (drunkenly) trying to convince the vineyard owner to give me a few old barrels (and then they ask why - oh, yea, that gets fun!)!!! Telephone poles, railroad ties, firewood, bushes... oh, if only they could see what I see!
But, just because you put it in a field... does not make it a cross country jump.
I was "lucky" to grow up in the era before Americans became obsessed with lawsuits. We never signed releases and we could ride anywhere we wanted - jumping over anything in our way! My poor horses must have done the Catholic 'sign of the cross' with their hoof every time they saw me coming! But, to Katchi's great relief, I'm a bit smarter now.
When I took the USEA's Course Design training last May with Tremaine Cooper, we discussed that at lower level recognized events, courses and jumps are generally well thought-through and with multiple officials and rider representatives weighing in - riders should feel confident of the safety and appropriateness of the fences they will face on course. (I have no comment on the raging debates over upper level courses and a horse's ability to see/understand questions - far more qualified people are working like mad to resolve those issues and I leave it to their expertise.) I'm talking about BN/N and below courses. But, here's where the problem really comes in - the "and below courses" part. These levels run at unrecognized events and are the heart of so many XC schooling facilities across our country. Yet, many receive little if any "professional" guidance or input on their design. Despite that, they are where many horses and riders get their start in eventing - and they bear a great responsibility to instill the love and thrill of cross country in horse and rider alike - while keeping both safe and confident. Tough mission.
Unless I am very familiar with the property, I generally encourage students to attend unrecognized events at facilities that also host recognized events. My reasoning is that these locations tend to run their unrecognized events closer to a recognized event standard - including the quality of jump construction, course design, footing, and etc. However, my assumption isn't without flaw - for example, a perfectly acceptable Novice ditch at fence 13 (as seen at the recognized event) is not the same question at all when it appears as fence 2 (at the unrecognized event). Ugh.
Back to the USEA's Course Design training - key point: the shape of the fence and the terrain really matters. A perfectly safe fence, put on different terrain, can become dangerous as heck. Portables can't just be dropped wherever the tractor runs out of gas! Things that can be jumped in a ring out of a collected canter, may not be safe when galloping at speed (including up/down hills!). For example, Mike Etherington-Smith writes (Cross-Country Course Design and Construction), "It is generally accepted that true verticals are exceptional or a thing of the past... As always there are exceptions to the rule one of them being a wall, but the key point with upright fences is that the profile is soft to help the horses not get too deep to the fence. If in doubt put a groundline in. This will help the horses, particularly the less experienced ones, jump the fence better. Clearly an upright fence must not be sited where competitors may be travelling at speed." Ever wonder why events stack all those straw bales in front of those dreadful white gates? Yet, we jump straight up verticals over and over again in the ring - no problem. Speed and terrain change the question.
If you think about a horse's movement and shape while jumping - you can answer a lot of questions about what shape of jumps will work best. Why do we all love to jump roll-tops or anything really round? Because they mimic the horse's bascule shape - they encourage him to round over the top. Why do we love when our horse steps right to the base of a triple-bar or ramp? Because this placement puts the top of his jumping arc right at the highest/back point of the jump. Why wouldn't you jump down a bank and have a bounce to an upright? Think through the horse's movement - ouch! Why does the same rule not apply for an up bank to an upright? Again, think about the horse's movement and jumping arc.
Hugh Morshead's book (Design and Build a Cross Country Course) explains, "Horses have to be able to make the distinction between the 4 inch diameter rails used in show jumping that will knock down and the solid, fixed fences on the cross country course. This is achieved by using timber that is at least 8 inches in diameter. Airy 2" x 6" construction, as once seen in picnic table and hay rack fences, with their sharp edges and false ground-lines, combine all the worst characteristics of a fence." And materials must be able to survive impact so that a horse cannot break through and become stuck in a broken board. Furthermore, Mike E-S says to "reduce the risk of a horse getting a leg caught between rails it is important that any gap between two rails should be less than 3 inches or greater than 8 inches." And, I would add, do not make anything into a jump than could come apart to tangle-up your horse's legs (for example, tires are a wonderful and soft shape - one of my very favorite free jumps - but they must must must be solidly secured. Imagine your horse trying to 1) do an Army tire obstacle training course! or 2) turning 4 of the tires into hula-hoops - one for each leg!).
Obviously, there is much more to say about designing and building good cross country jumps - some of the best have written entire books on the matter. I've just shared a few of my favorite disasters that I see all too often. So, put your new knowledge to the test... is this a cross country jump?? It's in a field...
(Yes, this photo was posted to adverstise a new cross country course. Sorry, I won't share the source!)
P.S. - thanks to my dad for spending countless hours helping me turn my visions for "stuff" into awesome jumps!