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August 19, 2005

A Shrinking Landscape Makes Learning To Ride Across Country So Much Harder

Whatever yesteryear's eventing stars may have lacked in dressage or show jumping prowess they made up for with an instinctive and innately effective cross-country style.

As British eventer John Marsden said of former World Champion Lucinda Green in Eventing magazine recently, "Her cross-country riding was so natural and not born out of the arduous training and endless lessons that are so fashionable today. Spontaneous and imaginative are two words which sum it up--the very best."

Like Green, many of this country's best eventers spent their childhoods--in the '50s, '60s and '70s--foxhunting, competing in Pony Club rallies, and messing about on horseback across land whose accessibility everyone took for granted.

Fast forward to 2005, where open space for riding has become a luxury, not a certainty, and hacking across the countryside has become a privilege for a select few instead of the norm for anyone who rides. Foxhunting fights for its very existence in some places, as Pony Club eventing rallies dwindle in favor of more manageable dressage- or show jumping-only competitions.

Many aspiring eventers today launch their competitive careers without having had the opportunity to develop even the most basic cross-country seat. They abound in technical skills but lack the stickability gleaned from hanging on as their horses navigated daunting terrain--like leaping across a brook, scrambling up and down a hillside, or just galloping across uneven ground.

How will today's riders--and their horses--gain the cross-country education they'll need to become the next generation of eventing stars? And where will the less determined recreational riders--both adults and juniors--get the mile-age they need to stay on board in unexpected situations?

"Things change, and you have to change with the times," said international event rider Mark Weissbecker from Richmond, Mass., and Southern Pines, N.C. "Event riders have to use horse trials as a logical progression in their education."

Weissbecker, who grew up riding in Pony Club rallies in suburban Boston, maintains that "all is not lost because people aren't foxhunting. We're just going to have to use horse trials to train riders and up-coming horses, instead of regarding [events] as a purely competitive experience."

Although Weissbecker considers himself fortunate to have cross-country schooling jumps at both of his facilities, he relies on a "logical progression of events" to bring along the many young horses he trains.

"Sometimes not being competitive, not making the cross-country time, is the most important thing you can do for a young horse," he explained. "You can't let the idea of a competition take away your good judgment. You have to realize that horse trials are a lot of what schooling is all about."

Cross-Country Practice Is The Key

"When I was a kid growing up in rural Florida, I used to hop on my pony in the morning and get home before dark," remembered Mark Combs, who today trains aspiring eventers with his wife, Mimi, at their High Point Farm in Charlottesville, Va. "Now the fields I rode over are paved with major highways, and there's a McDonald's on every corner."

Today the Combs consider themselves lucky to live in an area where foxhunting still flourishes, hacking opportunities abound, and cross-country schooling is readily available.

"Gracious neighbors allow us to ride everywhere," Mark said. "We have three courses open to us all year, where landowners allow us to pay a fee to train students and horses."

Despite their fortunate surroundings, the Combs recognize the challenges their adult amateur and junior students face. Mark coaches the Area VIII adult eventing program, and they've recently trained three California-raised young riders who have moved to Virginia to attend college.

"All three California-trained kids came to us with excellent jumping technique, but they'd never ridden on anything but flat ground before," Mimi said. "They were definitely out of their comfort zone when they took one look at the terrain around here."

So the Combs simulated cross-country courses by placing show jumps up and down the hillsides of their farm.

"These young riders had to learn how to put their shoulders back and balance going downhill to a fence," Mimi said.

Once they could handle these challenges, the Combs backed up the lessons with cross-country schooling and only then let the three students compete--at a level or two below where they competed in California.

Mark believes that having opportunities to practice riding across country is what matters most in a student's development. It's the loss of events and schooling opportunities that worry them both.

"We use the sport's lower levels to give riders the experience they need to become good, reactive cross-country riders and de-velop a partnership with their horse," Mark explained. "As we're losing land, we're losing that chance to practice."

Mark and Mimi regard schooling events, like those Penny and Brian Ross run at the nearby Virginia Horse Center, as essential to the sport's continued growth. The Rosses run a series of low-key competitions, from hunter pace events to unrecognized horse trials, throughout the year, often attracting 200 to 300 riders per competition.

"We give eventing newcomers the chance to ride over safe, well-designed fences and learn what the sport is all about," said Penny.

"We need more events like Penny's, more clinics and educational opportunities, to train our upcoming event riders," Mimi said.

Learning To Go With The Flow

Like the Combs, trainer Jane Hamlin enjoys plentiful riding land in Norwich, Vt., where she's the resident trainer at Mary and Bob Piro's new facility. But many of Hamlin's students drive there from suburban homes, and they view their lessons as their only opportunity to practice outdoor riding skills.

A self-avowed "position freak," Hamlin makes sure her riders are solid in the tack and firmly in control outside the arena walls before she starts them on cross-country work.

"I want to see a rider canter from point A to point B in an open field before I throw a jump into the mix," she said. "Control is always an issue. I want to see them ride safely off the manicured paths, scramble up and down funny places, and work up and down slopes."
For many of her students with showing backgrounds, a three-foot jump looks fine in the ring but becomes quite daunting when it's a log pile in the middle of a field.

"The hardest thing for so many riders to learn is that cross-country isn't about one perfect position that you can practice end-lessly," she said. "You have to develop the suppleness to allow you to move with your horse, stay out of his way, yet remain in a safe balance."
Hamlin recognizes that her rural Vermont location affords her the kinds of outdoor riding experiences that are lacking in many other parts of the country.

But she believes that eventing allows no substitute for hands-on cross-country and trail riding experience.

"Riders who want to come into our sport, who don't have access to hacking outdoors, have to make the commitment to ship to appropriate schooling opportunities," she said.

Still, she noted, "People seem happy to make this effort, as we're still getting tons of newcomers to eventing."

Hamlin regularly arranges for groups of her students to ship to and school on local courses, which remain available in her area. "I'm so grateful to any course owner who lets us school," she said. "It's so important that all eventers recognize the importance of thanking landowners and remaining courteous about riding across someone's land."

Whenever possible, Hamlin also encourages her students to attend the cross-country clinics Lucinda Green gives semi-annually in the United States.

"Americans are great technicians but we often lack the skill to be rough and ready," said Hamlin. "Lucinda's clinics force us to do this and be safe at the same time."

Green's clinics feature a series of cross-country gymnastics, with the fences set at no particular distance.

"Lucinda creates jumping exercises that take the responsibility off the rider and allow the horse to muddle through on his own," she explained. "One horse may bounce through a combination, while the next one will add strides; a young horse might launch and overjump the first time before he learns to pat the ground. The riders have to rely on instinct, not technique, to get the job done."

So Hamlin incorporates Green's philosophy in her own teaching.

"One of her exercises I use the most--especially in an indoor arena in the middle of winter--is to set up a big oxer and tell riders to gallop down to it without making adjustments and without trying to see a distance," she said. "We Americans always want to micro-manage our horses instead of just letting them do their job."

Realities Of Modern-Day Life

Since she's based in the hunting country of Geneseo, N.Y., Carol Kozlowski runs a busy training business in an area where foxhunting thrives and local Pony Clubs continue to run full-phase eventing rallies.

Still, she often has to teach older students who want to ride in events but have never ridden across country. But Kozlowski believes this anomaly has less to do with land use and more to do with the realities of modern-day life.

"Many of the adults I teach have always wanted to ride but never had the opportunity or money to ride when they were kids," she suggested. "These riders are often hugely successful in their professional lives, and they bring that burden, that expectation of perfectionism, to their riding. They want everything to be 100-percent predictable and controllable, and, as we all know, that's not what cross-country riding is all about.

"Those of us who've been in the sport a long time realize that eventing reflects life," Kozlowski said with a smile. "Most really good event riders know how to quietly slip into plan D when something goes wrong, and no one ever sees them sweat. But these newer adult eventers tend to want to remain in control, and they worry when something out of the ordinary happens and they might have to adapt."

When Kozlowski trains these riders, she emphasizes technical skills first.

"You've got to be as safe and balanced and as strong as possible to ride cross-country well," she said. "Cross-country isn't a beginner's sport. And you've got to be suitably mounted and have realistic expectations about what you're capable of, given your level of training and the time you have available to ride."

Like Hamlin, Kozlowski works her riders on the flat in her two-acre jumping field before she starts them over fences. Then she introduces the basic elements of cross-country--water, banks and ditches--to her green riders and horses through schooling at nearby cross-country courses.

"I teach some riders who trailer four to six hours for a cross-country school," she said. "It's a huge time commitment for someone who doesn't live in hunt country. And our payoff comes in a delayed gratification--it may take years of work before you get that clear round within the time, or actually even earn a ribbon at a horse trial."

Kozlowski thinks that the sport provides enough excitement and thrill to make that effort worthwhile. "Because we have so many levels in eventing now, a rider can compete at a stage just hard enough to test them without frightening them," she said. "The sport demands a multi-faceted knowledge of horsemanship that intrigues people enough to draw them away from the show ring."

Kozlowski sees schooling days sponsored by the U.S. Eventing Association and the newly recognized beginner novice level as key elements in furthering the sport's growth.

"As riders find it more inconvenient to ride outside, they have to work twice as hard to put their horses on a trailer and get the schooling they need," she said. "My job as a coach is to help them keep their competitive expectations in line with realistic training goals."

A New Responsibility

What do all these trainers seem to agree on? The certainty is that, as open land continues to disappear in this country, the eventing stars of the future will have to learn about cross-country through educational venues within the sport.

This means the pressure will be on the leaders of the organizations that run eventing--the U.S. Eventing Association and the U.S. Equestrian Federation--to come up with suitable training venues, from continuing to develop progressive competitive levels to ensuring that schooling opportunities remain available to eventing hopefuls.

And that's why the USEA's leaders have recognized the beginner novice level and are encouraging local organizations and event organizers to offer cross-country schooling days and a range of introductory competitions.
 
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