Course Riding Tips From a Professional Course Designer

Thinking like a course designer can help to detect the most challenging parts of a course – that’s why we’ve put together this article full of course riding tips.

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Many equestrians are unaware of the questions course designers pose during a course. One of the reasons for this is that most riders and instructors don’t have any course design knowledge. Thinking like a course designer can help to detect the most challenging parts of a course – that’s why we’ve put together this article full of course riding tips.

A course designer’s job

Course designers have to plan a fair course for both riders and horses. They must adjust the difficulty according to the class and height of the round. The result is a test to measure the riders’ skills and the horses’ quality and training level.

It sounds simple, but it’s not quite that easy. Let’s look at the two groups of showing classes:

Courses for lower levels (educational courses)

Courses up to 1.30m should be educational for riders and horses. As height increases, the technical questions increase. Yet, the distance, material, and time allowed shouldn’t be very demanding.

Courses for higher levels

Testing courses (from 1.40m) can be more difficult and technical. They can also have more distance questions, tight turns, harder obstacles, and tighter time allowed.

When designing a course for educational classes, the most important challenges are:

  • Building a smooth line where contestants can keep a rhythmic canter.
  • As difficulty increases, the course has to offer riders a chance to take shorter ways to save time.
  • Obstacles must be easy to approach, and the turns must be well-balanced. 
  • There should be an even distribution between the left and right rein. 
  • Obstacles must have a logical connection.

Designing testing courses for higher levels is harder but gives designers more freedom. Advanced riders don’t need as much anticipation to approach obstacles. Besides, they can shorten and lengthen the strides without losing thrust. This allows designers to build more demanding and interesting courses.

A good course designer must use a variety of distances, questions, and exercises. Symmetry is another must to make courses more even for all riders and horses.

Besides, the first two fences should be inviting to jump. This allows riders and horses to have a good start and gain confidence to complete the rest of the course. Then things become harder depending on the height and class.

A good course should also have breaks after a demanding combination or a hard question.

The course designer must know the show program and the level of the horses and riders participating in each round.

Other course riding tips to keep in mind:

  • Soil quality and type. For example, horses are faster on the grass. Wet sand or semi-synthetic arenas demand more effort for horses.
  • Obstacle distribution and characteristics (colors, construction, etc.).
  • Obstacle dimensions and related distances (short, long distances).
  • The location of an obstacle in the course. Hard efforts are always easier to jump at the beginning of the course. During the last part of the course, exhaustion adds an extra degree of difficulty.
  • Time allowed is a difficulty many riders underestimate.
  • Adverse weather conditions, spooky banners, reflexes over liverpools or water jumps, etc.
  • The location of the in-gate and the stables.
  • Slopes and any irregularities on the ground affect the length of related distances.

Walking the course

Course designers have days and sometimes weeks to prepare a course and to keep all these things in mind. Riders only have 15-30 minutes to walk the course and contemplate all these. They also have to identify the difficulties depending on their horses. Having an insight into course design is very helpful to better understand where the technical questions are, how it’s best to approach a particular line, and how that line relates to the next obstacle. Remember, in a well-designed course, obstacles have a logical connection. Even very long distances have a purpose. They can be set as a break or as a psychological (patience) question. Imagine a delicate vertical 40 or 50 meters away from an oxer. You will have to approach that vertical without rushing. Imagine if that vertical is the last obstacle in the course.

For educational classes, the course designer will use distances for average horses. You have to know your horse to be able to tell how many strides it will take to cover distances. You will also have to know when to push or wait to cover a distance. But even when the course designer uses average distances, they are set with a purpose, and it’s up to you to know, apart from your horse’s abilities, how to solve that problem.

Training at home

Having some course design knowledge will help you to build updated test courses for when you practice and school your horse at home. In this ever-evolving sport, it’s always good to know what distances you should expect to find in a show.

Besides distances, it’s good to be updated about the last course design trends. If you show a lot, and if you like to watch top-level classes, you will notice that modern courses don’t have as many rein changes as they used to. Still, the number of jumps to the left and right is balanced. Under certain circumstances, it’s harder for horses to fall and suddenly turn in the same direction, which can be exercised at home.

Show jumping is constantly evolving

Ten or fifty years ago, distances were shorter, and poles were harder to knock. Besides, as breeding evolves, horses are getting stronger and faster every day. That’s why course design, including fence construction, has to evolve at the same rate to keep the sport as challenging and entertaining as always. Show jumping is a sport where you never stop learning, and that’s one of the things that makes it so great! 

We hope these course riding tips were useful to you. For more articles covering equestrian sports, check out our blog.