Cross Country Schooling Safety

As part of safety awareness, I though it an opportune time to share the importance of safety cross country schooling. No, this isn’t just another article about helmet safety and wearing your body protector, or divulging all the recent trends in safety devices and scientific methods of calculating and mitigating risk (although I may touch on that!), but rather some “best practices” that are easy to overlook when we are in a hurry to “do all the things” and let’s face it, we are horse people so we are always in a hurry!

Speaking From Experience

First, a story. Recently, I had the occasion to be cross country schooling a horse that I had been riding for some time, has competed through Intermediate and 3* level, and was preparing to do its first Preliminary after a hiatus from the sport due to an injury. We had competed at several recognized Events already at Training level to get him back up and going, and he and I had schooled multiple times before and were “on the same page” as far as rideability and “seeing” the questions the same way.

My coach, with whom I have ridden with for many years, was putting us through various warmup exercises and the “wheels were on “… everyone was having fun and having a good school. On a downhill approach to a low wide roll top, my sometimes overly keen horse was in beast mode and as I worked to quietly steady him we ended up wrong and had a proper wipe out over the fence. I sat up and saw we were both
okay, albeit dirty, we checked over my horse, and I got back on and finished schooling and went on to successfully compete later that week.

Tack & Apparel Inspection

Back at the barn I inspected everything a bit more closely, as I do on a frequent basis, to ensure that all my equipment is safe and up to task, and found that there was a slight “fold” at the front of the skull of my UVEX Perfexxion helmet. My helmet was covered in dirt and grass was
stuck in it, and while I don’t believe I hit my head, there was a force great enough to crack the front of it. It was barely discernible and you could really only feel it with your finger.

When I removed the inner liner the helmet did not appear damaged anywhere else, but when I put pressure on it, there was a slight give. My helmet was definitely cracked, and it was so miniscule that a person would not even know it was there unless closely inspecting it. I immediately felt a sense of gratefulness that I was wearing a UVEX, because for one, it clearly prevented me from having a head injury, and two, that they have a replacement program for
instances such as this to help riders replace a damaged helmet in the event of a fall.

Rider Safety Practices

Everyone talks about “best practices” and had I not inspected my equipment after, I would have been riding around with a cracked helmet, putting myself at risk without even knowing I was doing so. Checking your equipment on a regular basis is of utmost importance, and I would
venture to guess that most of us don’t take the time to evaluate the wear and tear on all the tack we use on a daily basis.

We have all heard the stories of the rein or billet strap that broke mid ride, and how the rider inevitably made a miraculous escape from doom and kept their horse under control. I mean, all of us adrenaline junkies love a good story of wild chaos and how we thwarted disaster. But, maybe, just maybe we shouldn’t. Maybe we should check our bridles, stirrup straps, billets, helmets, boots (we’ve all had those zippers fail us time and again!), saddles, martingales and breastplates with the same care that we use when we go over our horse with a fine-tooth comb to make sure there is no bump, cut, swelling, or scrape on them.

Furthermore, we need to REPLACE these worn-out items because the cost of the replacement is much less than an injury that could be caused from a failed piece of equipment.

A few other best practices when cross country riding:
  1. Know your venue. Check the place out and look before you leap. Check the take offs and landings at the fences to make sure they are safe and inviting.
  2. Allow your horse time to relax. Event horses live for cross country. They love their jobs and most of them are looking for those goal posts at every fence. Give them time to settle down and get used to the area you are schooling in so that you are accessing their minds, and not using adrenaline to “get around”.
  3. Warm up sufficiently. Get your horse working forward and back, turning and moving off the leg so they are thinking of rideability and really on the aids before jumping your first fence.
  4. Jump smaller fences out of a normal canter and progressively work up to bigger jumps at a faster pace. Cross country jumps don’t need to be jumped at speed, and while we need to practice galloping and jumping, we also need to make sure that we are on the same page with our horse and work out any miscommunications or rideability issues over a smaller more forgiving obstacle at a normal rate of speed.
  5. Don’t be afraid to call it day. None of us are perfect, we all have “off” days, and so do our horses. If you are having “technical difficulties” and not seeing eye to eye with your horse, get a few good jumps and call it a day. Don’t press on and try to do “all the things” just because you are trying to get ready for a competition. Try to work through the issues and then when you have a positive result stop there. Moreover, when schooling we don’t have to jump every jump, question, or combination out there. Pick something you want to work on just like you would when riding in the ring and tackle that item for the day.
Science & Technology For Safety

Thankfully science and technology is doing a lot to increase safety in the sport of eventing with innovations to obstacles, helmet and body protector design, course design, and rules to help keep us all out there competing and having fun. If we also employ a few of the best practices I
have discussed, I believe we can mitigate accidents and become better riders with more well trained, confident horses. Let’s do our part to keep ourselves, our horses and the people around us safe. Check your equipment regularly, and have fun out there schooling in a
responsible and thoughtful manner. Cheers!

Written by Sponsored Rider, Therese