Course Walk Etiquette: Unspoken Rules of the Galloping Lane

Holly Covey has volunteered for many than a decade as a cross country course decorator at Fair Hill International Horse Trials. As we gear up for the fall season, Holly shares some course walk etiquette tips for competitors and spectators alike. Many thanks to Holly and all of the volunteers who dedicate their time to decorating the jumps so beautifully at Fair Hill and beyond.

Beautifully decorated jumps need to stay that way for a whole week! Photo by Holly Covey. Beautifully decorated jumps need to stay that way for a whole week! Photo by Holly Covey.

The rain begins a steady, soaking rhythm on your back as you are bent, placing flowers at the base of the huge wooden table on the cross county course. You’ve been working all day: shoveling mulch; fixing decorations; loading and unloading flowers, pots of mulch, greenery and brush. Your feet are tired, your hands are sore and you are almost soaked through. But the course is done, and all agree, it’s beautiful. Now the worry begins. It has to stay that way for a whole week!

Here come the riders to examine every detail as they get ready to compete on the weekend. And with them … the trainers, the coaches, the owners, the sponsors, the kids, the dogs, the friends — you hope that they respect the work that the volunteers have done in creating beautiful fences for them to jump. You hope.

There is an etiquette to walking a cross country course. The rules state that the jumps, once approved by the Ground Jury, must not be altered. This is for a good reason — so that the fences appear the same to the riders as they gallop up as they did when they walked the course. It is very difficult to have everything perfect on the Monday before the competition and have it stay that way for cross country day on Saturday, but that is what is required.

We hope the flowers stay bright and select budding bushes just for that reason. We keep them watered or cover them up and protect them from animals, insects, wind and rain. The decor is fixed with sturdy fasteners that will withstand weather; designs are made to last in wind or hot sun or heavy rain. Mulch and brush are placed so that they stay put, often with a lot of shoveling and raking to make them stay. Things that might fly away, roll or move in a breeze are all tied down in a safe way that keeps them straight yet doesn’t interfere with the horse’s jump.

Most cross country courses are out in the fields and subject to wildlife; in the case of some events, even deer and foxes often try to vandalize the tasty looking goodies on or around the jumps. (One year at Fair Hill, foxes played all night with realistic-looking feathered chickens, strewing them all over the field after volunteers had spent most of a day placing them carefully on jumps.)

We can’t do much about the wildlife but cross our fingers and hope the activity in the field keeps them away for a few days. But to be honest, the other worry for many of us who decorate is something that everyone can do something about: dogs.

Yes, domestic — leashed and unleashed — dogs. Many of the plants and decorations for cross country are placed at the base or bottom of jumps, and these areas are quite vulnerable to dogs who are towed along on cross country walks. When dogs urinate on decorations or plants, they can kill the flowers, many of which have to be returned, in good shape, to local businesses who have loaned them to the event.

Someone will have to pick up that flower pot, or decoration or straw bale, and heft it onto their truck bed, or stack it to be stored until next year in a shed or barn, or wrap it up in plastic for storage. That process is made all the more difficult and unpleasant when dogs have done their business on the decorations.

The proper way to walk a course is with respect and attention to the obstacles and the layout, looking at the jumps and not touching and not letting others touch, not climbing on obstacles, not sitting on them for photos prior to competition day, not trodding on decor or flowers, or letting your dog relieve himself on them. Volunteers have to pick up that decor, touch it and remove it, so please don’t take your dog on your course walk unless you can monitor where he is going and where he is lifting his leg.

Please also remember to respect galloping lanes. Stringing out galloping lanes takes hours and hours of walking and hard work by volunteers. It’s not easy, and it’s not cheap to put up hundreds of feet of string to protect precious footing that has been groomed for an entire year. Unfortunately, many people do not see galloping lane string as any sort of barrier to access; they stretch it up and duck under and wander out on the course to take photographs or take a short cut. Please don’t.

Galloping lanes are restricted for a reason, especially if the weather makes lanes slick or slippery, or dry and hard. Continual pressure on the ground from errant wanderers makes it worse, and there is often no way to fix the footing prior to the competition day once its been trodden into mush by hundreds of feet feet. Please preserve the course for the sake of the horses and riders.

Great courses come from great efforts by good people who care. People who don’t respect the courses can hurt that effort. As we go into our fall three-day event season, please respect these cross country courses by remembering a few courtesies: Consider leaving the dog at the barn, or let someone else who is not riding control it on the walk to keep it away from the jumps. And you’re not riding, please stay out of the galloping lanes.