If You Build It

With the wonderful addition of social media including neat things like Pinterest, I’m seeing a lot of “homemade” cross-country schooling obstacles people proudly photo and post online. Like everything posted online — some jumps are really clever and look fun to jump, and others make me shudder with horror.

So I went in search of some information about building cross-country jumps, and to be honest, everybody who builds jumps has a favorite way of doing things. There is not much for blueprints and plans — because probably a lot of cross-country jump building is a bit hands-on — learning as you go. And that’s OK.

Part of the fun of eventing is turning different things available in your local area into inviting, interesting obstacles and creating a whole course yourself. You don’t have to be a carpenter (it helps, though) but you do need to have a basic idea of what makes a cross-country obstacle safely jumpable by a horse and rider. (The best online source I found was this good article online by expert builder and designer Morgan Rowsell.)

If you want to be sure what you’re making is “pretty close to spec,” you’ll probably want to refer to the USEA’s Cross-Country Guidelines, available for a free PDF download.  It was developed by the best course builders in America and it’s a valuable reference for measurements and what is legal and illegal.

Also, you may want to consider attending things like Waredaca’s “Expert Days” lecture on May 31, in Brookville, Maryland, where recognized course designers will be walking a course and talking about jumps. The USEA also offers a Course Designers educational seminar each year, and this year it is also at Waredaca in June.

Making just a few small jumps in your field? Here’s a couple of hints from my course designer sources.

STURDY AND SECURE. A simple obstacle, like a log, should be heavy and sturdy. A horse that makes a mistake and knocks it, even hard, should not have it tip over, roll, or fall. Even a small log should be braced, staked, or blocked to avoid rolling or sliding should a horse make a mistake. When a log can move or roll, there’s a chance a horse’s leg can get stuck under it and trap the horse or stop its momentum — and that’s when a rider is very vulnerable.

Avoid just tacking some planks to a couple of uprights or re-purposing pallets, a small table or stair steps, thinking that as long as it’s low it’s going to be safe — not so. Top-heavy obstacles can tip over or roll. Loosely stacked things can be a real hazard if a green horse misunderstands and lands in the middle of them.

Upright “vertical” jumps force a horse to jump awkwardly especially if they are just learning about cross-country. Don’t assume a horse will understand how to jump it at first asking. Even experienced horses will have trouble with a poorly designed obstacle.

Three nice smaller cross country obstacles that are sturdy, have a good outline and solid base as well as being wide enough to encourage a green horse who might wiggle a bit on approach. Photo by Holly.

Three nice smaller basic cross country obstacles that are sturdy, have a good outline and solid base as well as having a wide face to encourage a green horse who might wiggle a bit on approach. Photo by Holly.

SITING. The second important thing is how a schooling obstacle is situated or placed in your field. Do you want to be able to jump it in one direction or two directions? If you want to jump it both ways, it will need lots of room on both sides for an approach. Obstacles need to be fair to green horse — so that a he can “read it” and be able to jump it from a fair take off point. It doesn’t always have to be on a level spot, but site it safely if on a slope.

Don’t forget to take into account how it might jump in both wet and dry conditions, and the sun glare, or adjacent shade tree locations, too. Try to place an obstacle where a horse might have a couple of strides on flat ground before they have to take off to jump it, if your objective is to give a green horse or rider some experience at home.

A tip: Portable jumps are the BOMB. When you build obstacles that are portable, you have the luxury of being able to move the jump if the approach isn’t right, or if you want to try it a different direction.


Don’t let grass or weeds grow over your jumps.

BASIC STUFF. The face, or the outline in front of the jump, should be wide. The Guidelines recommend 16 feet pretty much across the board for the Beginner Novice level face, with a 12 foot minimum. Jumps get narrower as the levels progress. Don’t let the grass or weeds grow up to it or over it — a horse won’t see it and trip over it, or worse, you’ll hit it with your mower. (Ask me how I know this. He doesn’t know about it yet. Let’s keep that a secret between you and me.)

Logs are great obstacles. The pros turn them so the smoothest side is on top, because sharp branch ends or knots can scrape a horse’s legs or catch a boot. Traditional coops are wonderful introductory obstacles and can be built so that they are easy to move yet look solid.

Solid coop and a narrow-slatted coop built for both in and out of the arena

Solid coop built for both in and out of the arena.

Be wary of using leftovers or pieces and parts that aren’t quite big enough or long enough — this might look like slats spaced so far apart that a hoof could get between them. Or perhaps V-notches or holes that will trap a hoof or leg, or a stair-step jump with spaces between the boards. It might look neat to our eyes, but when a horse sticks a leg through it, disaster is sure to follow.

A solid front is usually OK. Use paint to make things interesting — it’s safer. Paint is often overlooked as a fun way to create neat stuff. I’ve seen some beautiful brick and stone artwork on plain plywood that is just fabulous and very real looking.

If you want to keep things natural, but want to preserve your wood surfaces, consider painting them with a good wood preservative or stain in a natural tan or brown. In my climate, a good preservative tends to last about two years before I have to touch them up or repaint. Barn paint available at farm supply stores also works well, but you usually have just two colors to choose from, barn red or white.

There are many ways to create good obstacles for schooling that don’t cost a lot yet get the job done. Stick to what works, keep things sturdy, and as one of my course designer mentors said, “Don’t scare the horses.” Good advice!