Ian Stark has a reputation for designing big and bold riding cross country courses, and the brand new course here at Carolina International certainly lives up to that ideal. It was my first time walking one of his courses, and I was highly intrigued as to what I would find.
Let’s just say that if you have a horse that isn’t fond of ditches, or tends to jump huge and run off after big drops, you should probably just stay in the Sagmae Competitor’s Lounge and pour yourself a few beers. However, bold and accurate rides reminiscent of the old days will be richly rewarded, and horses that complete this course will be well prepared for bigger tests to come.
The course starts off immediately, about six strides from the start box. When Ian wants you to attack the course, he means instantly, and the idea of coming out of the box with an avidly ambitious horse is precisely what you have to do from the first second. While the first fence is not enormous, it’s certainly nothing to sneeze at, and I imagine that a few horses might be surprised to find it right under their noses so quickly.
The riders get a good gallop going over the next three fences, taking the route around the gallop track until they encounter the first real question at 5ab. This newly created hollow combination features a deceivingly small A element with an airy face, landing on a rollercoaster drop bending line to quite a decent brush chevron on a forward stride at the crest of the hill.
It might seem straightforward, but I can see a few pairs who aren’t aggressive enough early on having an issue here. There is a black flag roll top to the left for the B element, which shows that Ian shares my vision of trouble at this combination, but is dedicated to providing a safe alternative to completion.
The first water combination is the classic Carolina International combination, and it comes pretty early on at fence 7abc. Coming off a fairly square right turn, the A element is an airy log with some interesting bark work for spooky horses to gawk at, forward three strides over a little house in the water, and a bending four strides to a relatively nice right handed brush corner at the lip of the ramp out onto land. I say relatively nice corner only because I know that worse ones are coming later.
After that, we quickly proceed to the tobacco barn combination, which looks a lot more frightening than I imagine it riding, although sometimes it can be awkward for a few horses due to the change in lighting that comes along with jumping into a barn and out over a skinny but decent sized B element.
Stonehenge makes an appearance again this year; as one of the signature combinations at this competition now, it seems to consistently ride well. This year they have two very decent airy corners coming off a straight gallop on a forward stride, which seems again to invite a straight, accurate, and bold approach.
At 11ab, we encounter an intriguing question, where the A and B elements are so far apart you wonder why they are not separately numbered. However, it seems that as you continue on the course, this is simply to set you up for questions that are similar in nature. The theme of this course is a) jump ditches and b) jump very large obstacles with a sizable drop on the landing side while maintaining control and accuracy for a following question.
Fence 11 is one that makes an appearance almost every year on the Advanced course, and the horses almost always balloon over it and tend to roll down the hill more than a little on the landing. The B element of this question is a little on the understated side, but it has a ditch underneath it, and I think horses will look at it a bit more than the riders expect.
Of course, the biggest concern of every rider that I spoke with is fence 13ab in the brand new water complex. With a whopping log at the top of an uphill ramp suspended over a very deep ditch as your entrance to the combination, I couldn’t even get a proper picture of the B element from the takeoff side of the fence.
I had to get Jon Holling to hold my camera above his head and press the button haphazardly, hoping we could include both elements at once. Once you’ve properly gotten over A and Jenni has taken your picture with pure terror on your face, it is then your duty to gather your horse on a long rein down the slope on a bending five strides to a fairly beefy corner in the water.
But wait! No breathing yet! Fence 14 immediately follows this, with another proper rider frightener — a big brush ditch and wall that you might not want to get too close to when you’re walking the course. See Jennifer Holling for a size perception check.
After that we run downhill to fence 15ab, which is another test of your ability to land on a large drop and stay accurate and bold in a distance that’s just long enough to get disorganized. The B element is a lovely brush keyhole with, what else, a little ditch dug under it just in case. I think this should ride well though because if you’ve gotten this far, your horse should have had a few experiences with this question already, and they should be fairly broke to the aids at this point.
From there we proceed around the lake in a new path hitherto unused, with a tricky skinny chevron as a standalone on an uphill approach that might ride a little oddly as it has no context and follows such bold efforts as 13-15. The last real question on course is the coffin at 18abc, which features a relatively small jump in, bounce over the ditch and then one quick stride up and over the C element. With horses feeling maybe a little tired, and a little bit overwhelmed mentally, the sharpness of both body and mind required at this question will be a true test. If you think this coffin looks doable in comparison to the rest of the course, don’t worry — Ian confirmed to EN that his new coffin combination will be ready next year to keep the riders awake at night.
There are lots of elements to this course that I’m not familiar with, and I don’t think I’m alone. When you hear that Ian Stark designs courses that Murphy Himself would have delighted in, believe it. And then go watch videos of Ian riding Glenburnie and Murphy Himself on cross country, and you’ll understand why he designs these attacking, positive courses that maybe frighten the riders a bit more than the horses.
You can also here Ian’s own perspective on the course over on CrossCountry App, where he gives audio analysis of each fence in a guided tour recorded by course builder Tyson Rementer. Click here to listen to the audio, and keep scrolling for a fence-by-fence preview of each fence on course.