Taking a Show Horse on Course: Tips for Making the Switch from Hunter/Jumper to Eventing

Photos courtesy of Amy Nelson.

Many hunters and jumpers see eventing friends having a great time on cross country, and want to make the switch. Their horses jump 3’ or 3’6” comfortably in the arena, so how hard could it be? Making the switch from the ring to the field isn’t impossible, but it’s not as easy as you might think. There are a few things to keep in mind to make sure you and your horse are properly prepared for the task.

First of all, pay attention to the types of questions. A showjumper or hunter has two basic types of fences: the vertical and the oxer. In higher levels you have the triple bar, which is still very similar to the first two. Everything tends to have the same basic elements — poles and standards. Then you make a right hand turn to poles and standards. Maybe a left hand turn with poles and standards; perhaps a brick wall filler, or some flowers, or bushes, but still with poles and standards.  

In eventing, it’s way more! The USEA Cross Country Obstacle Design Standards book lists around 36 types of obstacles you might encounter on cross country. Mind you, not all will be seen at lower levels, but as you climb the ranks it will be everything from ditches to drops, banks, water, coffins, corners, trakehners, helsinkis and everything in between. While some of them are not appropriate at lower levels, your horse will see them as you pass by to go to your particular question. This can be scary for them!

Next, let’s look at terrain. Your horse needs to be confident on all sorts of terrain, from jumping uphill, to downhill, off a turn, in and out of water. When it rains, or is rock-hard dry, your horse has to jump confidently in spite of what the footing is like. It won’t always be consistent footing like in the arena. This might worry your horse.

What about atmosphere? How about the golf carts, people, and barking dogs? Maybe it’s raining — watch out for umbrellas! Or wildlife. I have been on course and actually almost trampled a wild turkey! Not to mention the herd of deer that darted by as we were in the start box. Your horse is supposed to be concentrating on the 36 specific obstacles, not worrying about atmosphere.

Finally, let’s throw into the mix that the horse cannot see the course ahead of time. Just like your jumper round, except again, you are dealing with terrain and dozens of different possible questions. It’s not as straightforward as simply different colors of jumps like in a stadium.

Maybe your show hunter will jump a log pile. How about a log pile that’s a different color, that’s on a hill next to a lady with an umbrella and a barking dog and a golf cart, as four deer scamper by into the woods. What then? How do you prepare your show horse to become an event horse? The answer is practice, practice, practice. Start him out at a level where he is going to feel confident. Take him out on schooling days. And when you do his very first event, start small.

Have you ever wondered why the top of show jumping is around 5’3”, but top level eventers jump 4’1”?  Sure, the horses and riders get tired. They do three disciplines instead of one. But perhaps, it’s also because the sheer number of obstacles, plus terrain, plus footing, plus the atmosphere of an event is difficult to master.

Maybe a good rule of thumb is start one foot smaller than you jump at home. Jumping 3’6” – go Beginner Novice for your horse’s very first event. Or even Starter Level. It’s better to take him on course and find it’s too easy, and make him feel like Superman the first time out. Don’t be ashamed of the SIZE of the fence. It’s not about size. It’s about all the other elements in play.  

Go Eventing.

Amy Nelson has been riding hunter/jumpers and eventers for 25 years and is based in Rochester, IL.  She retrains OTTBs, problem horses, and trains eventers at her own show barn, Hummingbird Stables.  She competes with OTTBs in upper level eventing, has qualified for the AECs at many levels, and has competed in the RRP Thoroughbred Makeover.  Her goals are to compete at the one-star level this year, and eventually four-star. You can follow Amy on Facebook here and on Instagram at @amynelsoneventer. Check out more of her “Eventing Shorts” on EN’s Blogger’s Row