An Owner’s Perspective on Cross Country Course Design

Ryan Wood and D-Day Vant Plantanenhof at Plantation Field. Photo by Rebecca Hila. Ryan Wood and D-Day Vant Plantanenhof at Plantation Field. Photo by Rebecca Hila.

As our sport evolves and cross country courses become a different type of test than days gone by, it is natural that concerns arise about how we design that phase and how much of an influence it has on the sport as a whole. We have been hearing from national and international federations, and occasionally a competitor feels that it is necessary to step up and make a statement about specific courses, but rarely do we get the owner’s perspective.

Curran Simpson owns D-Day Van Plantanenhof, a Belgian Warmblood gelding who competes at the two-star level with Ryan Wood, and wrote in with his thoughts on course design in 2014, as well as the changing tides in the sport in general. As always, thank you for reading, and thank you Curran for sharing your thoughts with us. And be sure to weigh in with a comment below.

From Curran:

As an owner of an upper level horse, I feel compelled to comment on the recent Plantation Field International Horse Trials, which I view as a huge success. I have increasingly paid attention to course design and conditions as they relate to the health and safety outcomes for both rider and horse. Too many horses, including mine, have been subjected to trappy courses that cause injury and loss of confidence.

Recent articles have referenced an acceptable outcome from a four-star event in which 30 percent of the horses are eliminated, 30 percent of the horses have at least one refusal and the remainder finish clear. In the three-star at Plantation, 87 percent of the horses completed the cross country phase, with 68 percent finishing with no jump penalties.

The winners were defined by the ability to make the time. As an owner that cares deeply about the health and safety of the horse and rider, I can’t help but contrast the results from this year versus 2013, with many of the same horses involved.

Spectators and owners do not enjoy watching horses fail to negotiate jumps in a dangerous way. When an accident occurs, we often lose the valuable volunteers that keep the sport running once they see the tragic consequences of poor riding or course design that creates dangerous situations.

I was particularly stuck by an event this summer in which an up bank coming out of the water had a large 6×6 wood fixture placed at the top of the bank. I watched several horses struggle to clear that element, and then watched a horse that is considered one of the top Preliminary horses going fracture an ankle as it attempted to clear this obstacle.

Logs placed at the entrance or exit of any water obstacle force the horse to either awkwardly land into the water or stumble out of it.  The stress this creates on soft tissue is unacceptable. When asked about the need for these types of questions, the answer I typically get is that they are required to prepare a horse for a three-star or four-star event. This seems like a high price to pay to prepare a horse.

The CIC3* course design at Plantation by Mike Etherington-Smith was something to be modeled by other course designers. The horses and riders were challenged by obstacles that encouraged forward riding and in cases of trouble resulted in runouts rather than a significant number of rider or horse falls.

Recent statistics have shown that the overall rate of accidents has not decreased, even though rotational falls have. I applaud the use of frangible pins and modern fence technology to reduce the number of rotational falls. I believe the next step is to ensure course designers are qualified in partnership with senior designers that have a track record of ensuring safe, well-designed courses. Otherwise, as my Father once said, “you get what you pay for.”

My personal response in 2014 is to carefully review with my trainer (I have purchased over 40 entries this year), the course designer and event safety history before I enter. I believe the sport should rally to improve the quality of events. Entries in 2014 have reached historic highs at key events, providing growth to a sport that badly needs it.  Having safe events is critical to sustaining this momentum.


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