“The start box can be a place where the horse, especially after some experience with the fun of cross-country, starts to anticipate what is coming up,” writes Olympic eventer Phillip Dutton in his book Modern Eventing with Phillip Dutton. “Just being around or standing in the start box can get the horse excited, so especially at the lower levels, teach him to stay calm and not race out of the start box. He needs to understand that the box is an okay place to be, and he does not need to run away from it.”
Horse trainer Vanessa Bee says that a lot of riders neglect teaching the horse to wait patiently in the start box on a cross-country course—but to still be ready to go when asked. This excerpt from her book Over, Under, Through: Obstacle Training for Horses breaks the process down into very simple steps.
To keep a horse calm and focused before a competition takes a lot of discipline and practice by the rider so that her nerves do not affect the horse. It’s always a shame when a horse runs out of energy halfway round a course because he’s lost so much energy just waiting his turn at the gate.
A surefire way to bring your anxiety down (and therefore your horse’s too) is practice. Many cross-country courses are available for private hire and if you can just go and play around the obstacles with no pressure, you and your horse will become familiar with them and have few surprises on competition day.
The first obstacle is the Start Box, so often neglected as a place to train yourself and your horse to be disciplined and quiet, but well worth doing because you don’t want to run out of steam before the end. The horse needs to wait quietly and not burn up valuable energy waiting to go.
Start with a pole “box,” and ensure the horse is comfortable both with standing still and moving through it before you go on.
Remove the front of the pole box and walk, then trot the horse out.
Lift the “box” until the horse is comfortable standing in it.
Walk out of the box and build up to trotting out of it.
Move the horse around the box, stopping, starting, and turning so the horse gets used to staying in the box without always rushing out.
The horse should wait quietly before being asked to leave at whatever pace you want.
This excerpt from Over, Under, Through: Obstacle Training for Horses by Vanessa Bee is reprinted with permission from Trafalgar Square Books (www.horseandriderbooks.com).