On Course With Ian Stark at Rebecca Farm: 4*-L XC Course Preview

Photo by Erin Tomson.

Ample rainfall this year has made for clear, smoke-free skies, and beautiful footing on the cross country course at Rebecca Farm. Riders can expect a characteristically challenging but fair 4*-Long course from FEI course designer Ian Stark. I gathered some super cool insights and only bounced off the back of the golf cart once as we toured the course today.

The original course, designed by Mark Phillips, went counterclockwise around the property, and ran in that direction for approximately a decade. Ian Stark changed the direction and design of the course when he took over as designer and it has run primarily clockwise around Rebecca Farm for the past decade. This year, Ian has changed up the direction and design of the course again and created quite a few new challenges for horses and riders.

After an inviting first fence, Ian sends the horses up and over the large mound for fence number two. It’s not an especially hard question, but it does make the horses and riders start thinking and making decisions very early in the course. Ian said it keeps them from “mucking around” and “I need them to concentrate and focus from the get-go.” In other words, no wasting time! Ian introduces quite a bit of terrain very early in the course, and the first combination presents at 3AB. “It’s not horrifically difficult, but it is pretty testing for horses that have just started. So it’s important that the horses and riders are warmed up correctly.” The horses will come galloping up the hill to 3A and there is very little time to line up and find the correct line to the narrow brush at 3B.

The riders have a bit of a breather at fences four and five, and then into the Ogopogo water at 6ABCD. They jump in over an alligator and then take a bending line left through the water and over the “gator bait” which is a roast chicken. Then the horses will travel over the island and through the trees to jump a log drop back into the water, and finally continue up the hill on a sharp bending right line to jump a narrow tabasco sauce bottle. “Hot stuff,” as Ian cheekily says.

Photo by Erin Tomson.

I asked him what the most challenging part of this question would be, to which he replied, “I think the first two elements are fine, but if they’re a bit sticky at the third element – and it’s a big drop – then it might muck up the striding to the angled tabasco sauce bottle and there’s a real risk of running out or chipping in a little stride.”

Fence 7 is a big solid gallop fence, which Ian set on a curved line of approach. He explained that on a long straight gallop it’s quite difficult to get both the speed and the balance right, “so by putting the bigger classes on a turn, it forces them to slow down… and it stops them from running the risk of galloping like nutcases at a big table.”

8AB presents some gnarly terrain if I do say so! 8A is a narrow, angled brush and on landing the terrain takes the horse down a deep hollow, and back up to part B in just four strides. “When you’re in the bottom looking up at that, it looks like a massive wall. And then you’ve got to hold onto your line and jump the B element. It looks horrific … but it should ride really well. He says because he’s not riding hahaha – I’m now an armchair event rider!” Oh Ian, you have quite the sense of humor!

A quick reprieve from technical fences at number nine is quickly followed by an interesting choice at 10AB. Ian has flagged the entire, wide face of 10A, allowing the riders to choose one of two very different lines. If riders choose to approach part A on the far left, they save quite a few strides (and thus time) but run the risk of a runout at part B due to the severe angle they will be jumping on. If they choose to approach part A of the far right, they have a much straighter approach to the B element but add quite a few strides on the approach. “It will be interesting to see what they do. They have a choice, and I love to give riders a choice and make them think… and then they usually screw up when they’re thinking too much,” he said with good humor.

Photo by Erin Tomson.

The second half of the course continues in the same pattern of challenging, technical combinations alternating with galloping type fences. Ian tasks riders with having the right combination of speed and balance throughout each element on the course. Fences 13ABC take the horses through the main water complex: a big jump into the water at 13A is followed by an up bank and bounce for elements B and C. The horses will need to maintain a significant amount of power to successfully jump up the bank and bounce over part C, then continue up the hill toward the VIP tents before they “take a deep breath, turn, and launch into orbit” at number 14. The massive drop is followed by 15AB, back into the water at the bottom and a right-handed bending line out over an angled corner. I can barely breathe just thinking about it!

Ian said he really likes fences 17AB because “it’s all about the horse staying on its line and the rider being in balance. With long reins.” The last combination on the course is “tough enough” according to Ian. A big galloping fence at element A is followed by a six-stride line to quite a challenging angle over elements B and C in two strides. “But if they’re a bit tired, they can swing out and add a bit more time and distance to it. So that’s why you’ve got to be agile and adjustable to turn in the air and then still hold the line.”

The final three fences are all big, solid galloping fences. However, Ian set all of them on curved approaches to keep the riders thinking and to prevent them from going too fast at the end, particularly if they’re trying to make up time. “The 4*-L course is 5,710 meters, which makes it 10 minutes and about 3 or 4 seconds to ride.” Ian said it’s only a smidge over minimum length, but he takes into account the higher elevation here in Montana. Many of the horses running at this level are used to training at or near sea-level, so an increase in elevation makes a difference in how easily they can tire on course. He emphasized several times during our tour today that horse welfare is the number one concern. The last jump is brightly painted in blues and greens to make it stand out visually to the horses, so they jump sharply at the end.

Best of luck to all the horses and riders out there on Saturday – we’ll be cheering you on!

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