Eric Smiley: Don’t Be an ‘Arena Rider’

In this excerpt from his book Two Brains, One Aim, FEI judge and popular clinician Eric Smiley reminds us why riding “outside the box” is a necessary component of every horse’s training—and of particular importance when preparing a horse to compete over a cross-country course.

Photo by Irina Kuzmina, courtesy of Trafalgar Square Press.

In the last 20 years or so, more and more people have become “arena riders,” opting to work their horse in the relative “safety” of an enclosed ring rather than venturing out into open spaces and riding over varied terrain and footing. I am very well aware of the reasons for this; not least the rider’s uncertainty of letting go and trusting her horse when they do get out into the country.

But horses that spend the majority of their time in arenas need to refresh their natural instincts in order to feel comfortable in the great outdoors. From a coach’s perspective this means that when I start thinking about cross-country training I must first look at encouraging riders to allow their horses to be horses and teaching them what they should expect by doing this. Only then can you have a meaningful training session; otherwise too much “school” riding goes with you into the country—to the detriment of good cross-country riding.

This is not a contradiction to my feeling that the fundamental skills of all three disciplines—dressage, show jumping, and eventing—are the same no matter what the discipline. I am merely making the point that cross-country includes many skills not tested in the arena. Some of these skills lie dormant in the horse and may never have been learned by the rider. To truly make the most of the cross-country experience, it is important to rekindle these instincts in the horse and develop the rider’s awareness of them.

Cross-country has its dangers and it is the coach and rider’s responsibility to mitigate these risks. To show jump in the country and look for a perfect takeoff spot does not always make it safer, nor should riders be overburdened looking for good distances. Some might say otherwise. I would argue that it shows fundamental flaws in the concept of cross-country riding and the training that goes into it. Many of the skills are complementary, but many are unique to riding over solid fences outdoors.

Crossing the country is not a refined science; to do it well requires two minds and their instincts. Horses have a wonderful awareness of where they are and what they need to do—if they are allowed!

Cross-country riding is about being in a trusting partnership: two individuals, each fully understanding their role, working for a common cause. It is not fair to ask a horse to jump something that he has not been taught in training. He must be allowed to develop the skills he will be asked to demonstrate when competing.

By the same token, riders need to do their bit. Many skills require practice: the change in balance, the variation in speed, judgment of speed, and how to ride the terrain. The ability to change the whip from hand to hand as required, being able to shorten the reins after a drop before a narrow jump, and moving the horse onto a chosen line. It is irresponsible of riders not to have honed these skills and have ingrained them as second nature.

  • Having the stick in the wrong hand and running out at a corner jump is irresponsible!
  • Traveling downhill to a narrow jump while grappling with long, unknotted reins and running out is irresponsible!

In training, horses need to know they are being asked to take an interest and not just do what the rider instructs. Once involved, it is possible to run to a fence without needing to arrive perfectly, as the horse that makes a decision will always be “right enough.” This is a win-win situation: two minds, solving problems, and being able to beat the clock because of the seamless join between galloping and jumping. This is cross-country.

This excerpt from Two Brains, One Aim by Eric Smiley with Ellie Hughes is reprinted with permission from Trafalgar Square Books (