Perspective: How Can We Make Cross Country Schooling Safer?

A number of riders have shared with us their opinions about a recently proposed rule change by the USEA concerning the increased number of MERs to move up to Preliminary, Intermediate and AdvancedAs of March 12, this change has been tabled until the 2023 competition season. Ema Klugman, a professional rider and coach and the editor of Jumper Nation, adds her thoughts on cross country schooling to the mix. To read other Perspective pieces on this topic, click here.

Photo courtesy of Ema Klugman.

The proposed rule change requiring more MERs prior to horses and riders moving up to preliminary has spawned a lot of important discussions around safety in our sport. People have brought up a number of ideas around tweaking the proposal, most of which focus on competitions and qualifications. But as anyone who competes in eventing knows, only about 2% (or less) of the time we spend riding our horses is spent at actual competitions. Let’s say we ride 300 days per year; if we do a show per month, we’ll only be competing for a maximum of 24 days per year. The other 276 days we spend practicing.

We should do everything we can to improve safety at competitions. But falls also occur when we are practicing. Probably the most dangerous activity we engage in while practicing is cross country schooling. Most people haul to a facility to school cross country—either a designated schooling course, or a competition course which is open on specific days following a competition. There are usually rules in place—requirements to sign a release, wear a cross country vest, and an approved helmet—at these venues, but there are a number of ways that we can make cross country schooling safer. Here is a (non-exhaustive) list of ideas:

  • Have colored numbers on every jump to specify their level. For example, a prelim jump could have a green number (the specific number wouldn’t mean anything, but the color would). This would help people know which jumps are which level. Sometimes people mistakenly attempt jumps that are much harder than they appear.
  • Have organizers check footing around jumps and remove them (or place flags in front of them) if there are safety concerns. They should also check for footing irregularities in the water jump (I once had a horse fall while cross country schooling when jumping into water because of a dip in the ground on landing).
  • Absolutely require cross country vests for schooling—even at one’s own property. (More on this below.)
  • Require an ICP instructor to accompany juniors and amateur riders when schooling, or develop a system to have ICP instructors oversee schooling for everyone for the entire “schooling day.” The latter model could work well for events which have open schooling days a few days after competition. Part of each rider’s schooling fee could go to an instructor (or maybe two, if the venue is large) who could oversee schooling.
  • Emphasize rider responsibility. Riders need to be aware of their own and their horse’s limitations. It is tempting to try to jump every jump on a property if you’ve just paid $60 to school there, but that is rarely a good idea. Riders need to make smart decisions, particularly when the conditions are not favorable (i.e. muddy ground or very hot weather).

Supervising a schooling session.

I see photos and videos all the time on social media of people — even top professionals, who should be setting examples for everyone else — schooling cross country fences without a cross country vest. You may think you look cool in your t-shirt, but you don’t. I liken it to the discussion around helmets — people used to say it was an inconvenience to wear a hard-hat, or too hot, or some other stupid reason — but now those arguments are rarely accepted. Everyone is expected to wear a helmet. Wearing a XC vest is not difficult, just like wearing a helmet isn’t.

Cross country schooling is a very important part of horse and rider education. There will always be risk involved with jumping solid obstacles on varied terrain. Riders often practice for a move-up by trying out new or bigger combinations while schooling, which is a crucial part of preparing to debut at the next level. So of course there will be some mishaps. Horses and riders will make mistakes. But having safety equipment, good footing, appropriately labeled jumps, and coaches present reduces these risks. Cross country schooling venues should standardize these procedures to keep horses and riders safe.