Preparing for Cross Country Like Preparing for an Exam

Practicing for high-pressure competition starts with the fundamentals of preparation. Photo by Shelby Allen.

For the first two weeks of December, I was taking my final exams of the semester in law school. The timing works out well in the fall semester because the exams are in early December, so there’s no chance of a horse show distracting me.

Even though I wasn’t horse-showing during those weeks, I couldn’t help but thinking about how exam preparation is similar to cross country preparation. In law school, the final exam in a class generally counts for 100% of your grade in that class. You are responsible for digesting all of the material, lectures, and cases over a four-month period, and then you have to sit down for two or three hours one day and write essays to demonstrate that you’ve mastered it.

It’s broadly terrifying.

Horse shows are the same way. No one sees the day-to-day, week-to-week, month-to-month training. The judge doesn’t know that it took you six months to persuade your horse to go on the bit in the canter departure or three years to figure out how not to be crooked on the centerline.

All they see is the finished product, and you have five minutes in the ring to show off your training. In the case of cross country, you have a few minutes on the course to put your training to the test. Does your horse have the balance required to navigate terrain questions? Do you have the adjustability to bring her back for a technical combination? Does she understand skinny and corner fences? All of those questions and more are what the course designer asks of you — and they are the test of whether your training was on point.

On an exam, the professor cannot possibly cover all of the material that you’ve learned over the course of three months. We study hundreds of cases in these classes; asking about all of them would be impossible in a three-hour exam.

In the same way, the course designer cannot put every conceivable question she wants to put on a cross country course. She can cover the main bases for the level — at intermediate, for instance, a drop into water, a couple of corners and skinnies, and some terrain and adjustability questions — but she cannot possibly throw the whole book at you.

So how do you prepare for a big exam? Do you try to guess what the professor is going to ask, and focus on those areas? Or do you study as though any one topic could be the main essay question, going in-depth everywhere in the hopes that you can be an expert on every conceivable question the professor might ask? I do a little bit of both.

I try to cover all of the major topics so that I am prepared for anything. If you try to guess what the professor is going to ask and guess wrong, you could be very unhappy on exam day. However, it does pay off to think about what the questions could be, given what the professor tends to emphasize in class and the connections that have come up again and again during the semester.

How often do you replicate “high pressure” in your practice? Photo courtesy of Ema Klugman.

So, how do you prepare for a cross-country test? Do you guess what the course designer is going to put on the course and focus on that, or do you try to comprehensively cover everything so that you will be prepared for whatever ends up being on the course?

Again, it’s probably a case of doing a little bit of both. As a long-term approach, the latter idea is best because you want your horse to understand cross country inside and out, no matter who the course designer is. But if you are preparing for an event where you know there will be a hard coffin, or a sunken road, it is probably smart to school those types of questions in the weeks leading up to that event, especially if they are unusual or relatively new to your horse.

It’s not a bad thing to study strategically, but in the end, you need to be able to have the tools to conquer anything the course designer throws at you. That means that the basics are a priority, and all of the themes of cross-country riding that any good designer tests are key: balance, adjustability, turning ability, and accuracy.

The analogy applies another way: when you prepare for an exam, you have to flex your muscles in a way that resembles the test itself. I have made the mistake of reading and re-reading study materials for hours on end but never actually taking a practice exam. I might have all of the right ideas in my head, but if I cannot produce them in a time-pressured setting, they are useless.

The same can be said for cross country. We can school the questions all we want, but if we don’t practice in a time-pressured, adrenaline-filled way every once in a while to prepare for the show, we may not be able to produce the best results in competition.

For example, if you always jump corners from a slow, controlled canter and give your horse walk breaks after each combination you practice during a cross-country school, you aren’t replicating what you are going to face in the actual competition. You and your horse have to know the feeling of being a bit on the muscle, or a bit tired when it comes to the end of the course, and still make it work.

That’s not to say that there’s no time for slow, methodical cross country training — of course there is. But if all we do is re-read the cases and never take a practice exam, the feeling of sitting down for the test (or heading out of the start box) can be totally foreign.

The cross country test of eventing is unique. Although we know the dressage test in advance, and we know the basic range of possibilities that will be tested in the show jumping in advance, we don’t really know what the cross country course will throw at us. Thus, the preparation for this phase is crucial.

Studying different kinds of courses and the trends of course designing can help, but in the end being well-rounded in all of the subject matter will produce the best and most consistent results. (That, and going to class, of course!)

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