Going Cross-Country?

Whether for schooling or shows, a cross-country course can be a welcome addition to many farms. Here's how to build and maintain one.

Would your farm benefit from building a cross-country course?

Three-day eventing is one of the fastest-growing factions of equestrian sport these days. The United States Combined Training Association has reported a 30.7 percent increase in members over the past 10 years and similar growth has been reported in Canada. What’s the appeal? Perhaps it’s the fact that (at the lower levels, at least) almost any sort of horse, from Welsh pony to Clydesdale, can participate. Maybe it’s the objective quality of the judging; in eventing, handsome is as handsome does, and you needn’t have a big-ticket horse or a big-name coach to compete successfully. Or it could be the spirit of camaraderie that eventing enjoys.

But the most likely reason is that eventing provides a challenge few other sports can give. Galloping and jumping solid cross-country obstacles appeals to the thrill-seeker in each of us. Though the vast majority of riders who call themselves eventers may never venture past the Training level (where the fences max out at 3’3″), the excitement, even at that level, will keep people coming back.

Such a course could be maintained just for schooling, or, if you’re feeling ambitious, it might be intended for hosting a USCTA-sanctioned horse trials or even a three-day event. Either way, a cross-country course can be a valuable addition to your property and it needn’t prevent you from using the land involved for other purposes, such as growing hay. But since cross-country obstacles are generally permanent installations, they do represent a fair bit of work to construct—and a considerable investment as well. Would building a course be worth it for you?

Sue Laverty is a full-time police officer who also owns and operates Lane’s End Farm in Bobcaygeon, Ontario, a boarding and training facility on 100 acres she thought would make a challenging course. Laverty estimates that she has spent in excess of $30,000 CDN ($20,000 US) over the past five years to establish a complete set of three courses at the Pre-Training (equivalent to U.S. Novice), Training and Preliminary levels. “There were two years’ worth of preparation before the course was really rideable,” she remembers.

Though Laverty’s primary objective was to have fences for schooling, she also planned to host competitions from the start. To that end, she decided to do it right the first time and hired a professional course builder to assess her property, make recommendations for the best use of the land and build the fences safely to conform with the rules and regulations of the sport’s governing bodies. “We walked the land together and discussed what could be built, and where,” says Laverty. I definitely recommend working with a professional; course-building and design is an art, not just an exercise in construction. The placement of the jump is as important as what the element is. A professional will build you a safe and rideable course.”

The horse trials competition itself, she notes, is not a money-maker for the farm. “At best, it’s a break-even proposition.” But Laverty feels the rewards have been tangible, She does caution, however, “Go in with your eyes open if you want to run a competition. It’s a hell of a lot of work!”

Because a successful event runs largely on volunteer help, she limits her competition to a single day in August and takes a maximum of 125 entries; “I don’t want to burn out my volunteers,” she says. But she finds that the course gets plenty of use through the rest of the season. “Last year, we had the local hunt club use it for a hunter pace and a mock hunt, and we also hosted the Pony Club C and D rallies for the region as we have for the past three years. And of course we school on the course regularly ourselves and make it available to non-boarders for a $25 one-day schooling fee.” All of these uses help justify the cost of building and maintaining her course.

International course designer and builder Hugh Morshead, who constructed the Lane’s End course, concurs with Laverty’s assessment: “Shows won’t make money for you.” The news isn’t all bad, though. “You can prepare yourself and your students for competition without having to leave home,” Morshead says. “If you’re selling horses, it’s a tremendous advantage to have them used to some cross-country fences. And you can make the course available for outside riders and for clinics.”

“A small schooling course can be done on 10 acres,” Morshead continues, “maybe even less. Twenty acres is very comfortable—you can fit an awful lot if you have that much land to work with. On the other hand, if I’m building a competition site, I probably need 50 acres, minimum.”

On farms where coaching and training are the main activities, Morshead often constructs a series of seven or eight related fences in a looping or circular track. Students may not get in as much galloping practice, but there’ll be plenty of opportunity to hone balanced turns and quick reactions, both important skills for cross-country riding.

If your space or your budget is limited, you may want to build just a few key cross-country fences—the ones that usually cause the most trouble in competition for an inexperienced horse. “You really only need three or four fences to start off,” Morshead says. Then you can just add more fences like a Lego set.”

You’ll get the most mileage out of your course, Morshead says, by keeping the obstacles small and making them jumpable from both directions wherever possible. Constructing some small basic fences needn’t be a huge expense, either.

Water jumps, not surprisingly, represent the largest single investment in cross-country course construction. Considerable effort needs to be expended to ensure the footing in a water hazard is safe and that the water level is maintained at a regulation 18 inches deep or less. “If there’s no natural water on the property,” Morshead says, “it will be more expensive, but there are ways to do it. A water jump doesn’t have to be filled with water all season.”

If your budget is limited, you may wish to add new fences gradually, year by year, but one area where you shouldn’t cut corners, Morshead says, is on quality materials. “Inappropriate timber, such as pine or poplar, will rot within three years and rails that are too flimsy will break the first time a horse hits them. The materials need to be big and solid. Telephone poles are great, cedar lasts well, too.” Well-built, well-maintained courses can last 20 years or more.

To find a qualified course designer and/or builder, get a referral from competition organizers in your area, or contact the United States Combined Training Association (703) 779-0440; Website or Horse Trials Canada, or call current president Kellie Towers at (905) 878-4044 for a recommendation.






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