USEA Convention: So You Want to Build a Cross Country Schooling Course?

Photo courtesy of the Vista Schooling and Event Center, a gem of a cross country schooling destination in Aiken, SC. The course was designed and built from the ground up by Tom Caniglia, who has been intertwined in the business for over 40 years as a rider, trainer, and more.

One of the most valuable sessions at the convention I attended this year was given by course builder and new USEA board member Morgan Rowsell, who developed a handy guideline entitled, “Create A Safe Cross-Country Schooling Course.”

This probably put together the most comprehensive yet compact set of advice I’ve seen yet to help lower level riders figure out what’s what when it comes to schooling cross-country obstacles. The sheet I got at the convention should be available online for download from the USEA, and when I find it I’ll provide the link. But here’s a bit of what Morgan had to say that we all should be paying attention to.

Morgan first said that having a safety policy regarding your schooling course is absolutely vital. He listed at the top of the page several points that every policy should include, such as signed waivers, never school alone, mandate appropriate safety equipment, know and consult with local trauma centers and have a medical plan.

He feels it is a responsibility of all of us in eventing sport to be vigilant about safety – and reminded us that schooling is not always doing our best riding – and riders are not under the umbrella of a competition, and no officials will be coming to make sure you’re up to snuff. There is a difference when competing as riders are more on their game with their adrenaline is up.

The first discussion Morgan said you have to have about building a schooling course is to have the right space, a big enough area, and the right footing. A discussion of footing included some simple but important tips about mowing your field. He said that you should plan your mowing around your growing season and mow more often in the fastest growing times.

Simple things like mowing regularly keeps the grass from growing in clumps but spreads it and covers the bare spots. This creates better, more even footing. Mowing does other good things, too, Morgan said. Mowing is a safety prevention action. Frequent mowing allows you to keep the weeds down, but also allows you to look for holes and survey for obscured or overgrown ground lines, broken jumps, or other problems on your course.

Photo by Holly Covey.

He had another little tip: have a mower that allows you to use your bumper to push the jumps a little bit — perhaps 6 feet  or so — as you mow, just to move it over a little. He warned that many animals like the protection of a jump over their holes and moving the jumps keeps them from making the holes permanent, and also keeps the grass growing in empty spots and reduces damage to overused jump take off/landing spots.

In keeping the field’s footing good, he explained aggravators pulverize the roots of the turf and have specific uses, but aerators poke holes in the turf. Courses should get aerated at least twice a year, and he advised that if you have done your mowing religiously – fertilizing and seeding are not as necessary.

Morgan talked a little bit about the types of jumps that a typical schooling course should have. He feels for most schooling courses, the jumps should basically stay at the height and difficulty of Training level or lower. “You really don’t need anything bigger than Training level.  You don’t need a lot of tables or upright fences. Eliminate risky fences. Keep it safe by putting a gallop fence on a bend or slightly uphill and not on a long, straightaway approach.”

In talking about jumps (there are some great tips on the back of the Guidelines sheet), Morgan said that often there is not good quality lumber to build jumps available, and that he seeks out marine grade lumber which is more expensive, but lasts longer. He suggests that you check the integrity of the wood regularly — check screws and nails popping out and fix them — and start with proper bracing and framing so the jump is sturdy enough. “It’s important for proper construction, if you use a local builder, that they understand the concept of a horse standing on a jump, and not being able to fall through it.”

Morgan suggests that if you want to make things harder, use brush to make a jump bigger or more difficult rather than solid lumber. On corners: “When we dress a corner of flags, you will need ground lines, and your flags need to be plastic to avoid splintering and spitting and impaling a horse. You want to have a course that simulates competition but you also don’t have to put out a lot of decoration just to go schooling.” However, he reminded that you do have to make sure they don’t jump on the wide part of the corner, so a straw bale there that you replace when it gets moldy works well.

Another tip: If you are able to make a water jump, be able to drain the water from it to avoid deterioration of the jump when it fills with organic material and volunteer weeds, grass, or insects and reptiles.

Morgan suggested the following jumps as good types to start with on your schooling course: two corners, two roll tops, two wedges and a table, all in Novice and Training level heights. Putting these out in different configurations and changing their locations, in addition to ditches, banks and water, will give you a wide range of choices for schooling.

One of the most valuable pieces of advice he shared was to consult and use a licensed designer, most of whom are very approachable, happy to help you create a fun place that is safe to practice with your horse yet educational. Using the resource of experienced course designers will be one of the best investments in your schooling course.