Wayne Copping: ‘Knock Down’ Cross Country Courses Aren’t the Answer

Wayne Copping has been designing cross country courses for 40 years at all levels; his resume includes seven years as designer of Australia's Adelaide CCI4* and more recently he designed the cross country course for the 2015 Pan Am Games in Toronto. He kindly shared with us some ideas toward creating a safer sport by treating the cause, not just the symptoms of outdated cross country design concepts.

The final fence of Wayne Copping's 2015 Pan Am Games cross country course in Toronto. Photo by Jenni Autry. The final fence of Wayne Copping's 2015 Pan Am Games cross country course in Toronto. Photo by Jenni Autry.

I have been reading the various reports of safety committees and the FEI commissioned report into eventing safety over the last few months, along with some very interesting articles by other people concerned about the direction that the eventing sport is heading.

Although there has been much debate about various statistics concerning all sections of eventing, including the types of obstacles that cause problems, there doesn’t seem to be any further advancement in safety other than more rigorous MERs and development of frangible devices.

The gathering of statistics is a very useful tool to gauge the performance of cross country safety, but it is only a recognition of circumstances after the fact. Every time a particular fence or circumstance is highlighted, we tend to try and put a band-aid on what caused the problem. This is always a catch-up situation and will only eventually tell us if we are making progress with that particular area of cross country safety.

Similarly, it now seems that the use of frangible devices has actually led to a higher number of falls, according to the recent FEI commissioned study into eventing safety. We must remember, the FEI Cross Country Course Design Guidelines state that the design, siting and specifications of the fences must be established first before the frangible device is installed.

I firmly believe that frangible devices are still a very useful tool for the course designer to have, but they must be used only in the appropriate circumstances. I also believe that introducing stricter standards for the types of jumps allowed to be used in various situations, in conjunction with using current frangible technology, would significantly reduce the amount of falls on cross country.

Why we are using “tomorrow’s technology” to still justify the use of “yesterday’s obstacles,” which are ultimately jumps that caused a significant number of falls? Frangible technology must be used with “new age” fences and course design, and it is here where designers must be innovative and creative to be able to adapt to this concept.

Toward Stricter Course Design Standards 

To enable us to embrace a new system like this, we need to change our way of thinking about the design of cross country courses. We need to take a new look at everything that has been done before, including all styles of jumps, combinations and distances used, and move forward from there.

This will enable us all to work with a completely new set of design rules and standards, ensuring that the sport across the world will all be much more strictly regulated. As in many other sports, everyone competes with a very strict set of rules and framework for their sport, with the only variable being the ability of the athlete involved. It should be the same in our sport, with the only variable being the horse and rider’s ability.

We need to have courses built to the same standards and specifications around the world. The distances between jumps in combinations should all be within certain parameters according to the terrain and obstacles. Brush fences need to be regulated, both in numbers of jumps and size. There must be limitations on the numbers of combinations according to each star level, the styles of obstacles that can be used in combinations, jumps that can only be used as fillers, etc.

We must set much stricter parameters and specifications for course design into the future, as well as rules that are very clear to follow and understood by course designers. People may suggest that courses will just be clones of each other, but that is not true. The pure creativeness of the course designers and the difference in venues will still always make each course unique.

Cases for Concern

Distances in Combinations: I have read on various blogs the concerns over the changes in cross country from venue to venue, courses that are sometimes more intense and twisting with shorter distances and then longer, more open courses with very forward striding challenges.

I believe that we need to tighten up the range of distances offered to a set number and then design within that framework the courses, technical challenges and combinations. The use of a half-stride distance is not in the best interest of the sport and only results in an open frame, flat jump or a chip to a fence with the ultimate consequence.

Time: The matter of restricting riders from making the time by having a lot of combinations early and then later in the course only leads to them pushing harder to minimize penalties. Surely by measuring where the average horse is going to negotiate the course means that the top 10 percent in any class at any level should be able to make the time.

Time should be achievable by the better riders without overusing their horses or having to ride excessively quicker through some sections. This only then leads to longer distances in the combinations to cater for the faster riding. Technical questions should always be jumped or expected to be jumped at a more measured rate where the course designer is more in control of the setup and what is to follow.

Intervals between obstacles: The use of fences at regular intervals throughout the course is also an aspect of design that needs to be addressed. When horses are fresh we can go longer intervals between efforts, but I have found that keeping up a regular rhythm of tests in the halfway to end of a course keeps the horses “switched on” and more alert.

Anything over 20 to 30 seconds of galloping between fences needs to be avoided after the halfway mark; there is nothing worse than seeing tired horses being pushed on the flat for a minute or so without any jumping effort. This gives the horse the opportunity to switch off and realize how tired he actually is, and then it all comes unstuck.

Standardizing the levels: I sometimes think the sport is also trying to make the higher profile four-star events more than one clear step above three-star. Surely with the extra distance and efforts the technical challenges do not have to be so significantly more difficult than the previous level. If the course is set correctly and at the right level, does it matter if the best horses and riders in the world can go double clear? The less competent riders will always find their problems, and isn’t this the essence of what we try to achieve as course designers?

Rethinking and Restricting Obstacle Specifications

Brushes:  There seems to be a proliferation of brush fences on courses nowadays, anywhere between 12 and 20 per course for three-star and four-star and slightly less for one-star and two-star. Supposedly these are sited on course in the name of safety, however, the effect of making a horse jump a little higher for safety and not rub the top rails is being lost with so many jumps on each course.

Using brushes for safety reasons should be reserved for situations such as going into water, into sunken roads and anywhere that a horse is required to be a little sharper in front. Of course, the brush palisade, the angled fences and corners still play their part in any course, but the solid part must be at a height no less than 10 centimeters below the maximum allowed (ditch palisade excepted in certain situations).

The narrow triple brush fences that are only 60 centimeters high with 80 centimeters of brush should not be allowed in my opinion.

In line with my suggestions above, I propose that brush fences should be somewhere around a ratio of 1 to 4 of the total efforts for each course:

  • CCI4* 10-12 fences
  • CCI3* 10 fences; CIC3* 8-9 fences
  • CCI2* 8-9 fences; CIC2* 8 fences
  • CCI1* 7-8 fences; CIC1* 7 fences

Height must be no less than 10 centimeters below maximum height allowed for each class, palisades excepted.

Combinations: The principal design of a combination should be that the question asked at one element should prepare the horse for the next element, both in terms of shape required over the fence and the correct striding to be able to jump out confidently and with a good picture. In many instances this is not done, and combinations of obstacle types are being used that don’t compliment the question asked.

We now need to regulate what works together and produces the results the sport requires. Similarly, combinations either lettered or numbered should be restricted to a certain ratio for each level; this will also give the opportunity to open courses out more and allow for a more even speed around course.

As fences would be coming at more regular intervals, the horses would remain better focused and alert, while not being confronted continually with intense sections of jumping efforts. This would give more of a traditional cross country feel back to competitors and make them feel like they are going somewhere, rather than just turning and going back on themselves and being tested with just endless angles, corners and brush fences.

I propose that combinations on course should be limited to the following numbers:

  • CCI3* (maximum of 10 or no more than 50% of the total efforts)
  • CCI3* (maximum of 9, or no more than 50% of the total efforts)
  • CIC3* (maximum of 7, or no more than 40% of the total efforts)
  • CCI2* (maximum of 8, or no more than 50% of the total efforts)
  • CIC2* (maximum of 7, or no more than 40% of the total efforts)
  • CCI1* (maximum of 7, or no more than 50% of the total efforts)
  • CIC1* (maximum of 6, or no more than 40% of the total efforts)

There is also the thought that a combination should not be used before fence 4 or in the last two fences on course in a CCI. This allows for a proper start and end to each course.

Corners: The FEI commissioned study into cross country safety has found that corners or apex style fences have the highest fall rate of any obstacle. We have to ask ourselves how this is now happening. A corner fence is totally unsuitable to be used in any situation other than as a single fence or in combination on normal terrain with another similar obstacle. The question they ask is not really compatible with other forms of jumps or steep terrain.

They should only be used on flat or undulating ground in appropriate siting conditions and not used as a water to water, downhill or sidehill, over a ditch, after water or even as an uphill fence. The probability of things going seriously wrong in those situations is too great to bear.

I think the short back-rail concept needs to be discontinued as well due to the above factors.

The angle of the corner also needs to be regulated by the technical specifications and the question asked for each level. My suggestions as follows:

  • CCI4* any single corner at 90 degrees; combination or related fences at 80 degrees
  • CCI3*/CIC3* any single corner at 80 degrees; combination or related fences at 65 degrees
  • CCI2*/CIC2* any single corner at 65 degrees; combination or related fences at 45 degrees
  • CCI1*/CIC1* any single corner at 45 degrees; combination or related fences at 30 degrees

Oxers: Similar to the above, oxers have a higher than normal rate of penalties, probably due in part to them being the most common type of obstacle. My thoughts are that oxers also are now being used in positions which don’t really work for the style of obstacle.

Square-shaped, smaller-railed oxers both open and filled are not desirable for combinations and also should not be used in a galloping situation or as a “pick-off fence” for the rider. Oxers are a perfectly legitimate style of fence and one that should be encouraged to be used. The problem is using them in the right context so they achieve the result we are after as course designers.

Riders do like an open oxer earlier in the course so they have the opportunity to set their horses up to get a good response.
My suggestion is that open oxers also need to have some sort of regulation in the specifications, such as only being able to be used in the first 50 percent of the length of course and never in the final few fences when horses are starting to tire and become slower with their shape. Again, these fences should be sited only on flat ground and where the speed and angle of approach can be monitored.

Narrow Fences: The thinking is also now that some types of obstacles are just too narrow and are having an effect on a horse’s confidence and approach to a fence. I have seen many times the effect of the overuse of this type of fence and the subsequent spoiling of a horse’s career as a result.

I believe again we should introduce a restriction on the number of true “skinny” fences and regulate the width allowed in each course depending on the star level. This would only be for narrow fences in a combination; angled brush fences would be treated differently as to the width, but the suggestion is that nothing should be less than the proposal below in a straight approach:

  • CCI4* minimum jumpable width of 1.2 meters; maximum of 4 at this width
  • CCI3 minimum jumpable width of 1.2 meters; maximum of 4 at this width
  • CIC3* minimum jumpable width of 1.2 meters; maximum of 3 at this width
  • CCI2* minimum jumpable width of 1.4 meters; maximum of 3 at this width
  • CIC2* minimum jumpable width of 1.4 meters; maximum of 2 at this width
  • CCI1* minimum jumpable width of 1.6 meters; maximum of 2 at this width 1
  • CIC* minimum jumpable width of 1.6eters; maximum of 2 at this width

Coffins/Sunken Roads: Anywhere in the workplace today, occupational health and safety is paramount and officers are designated to assess the risks and hazards associated with that workplace. We needed to do an assessment of the risks and hazards involved in our workplace: the cross country phase. Essentially, the FEI commissioned study has done this and now we need to act on the risks exposed by using certain types of fences.

Do we need to continue using fences that have been identified as hazardous, are high risk and are of questionable benefit to the sport? Should we use a coffin fence only with broad jumpable width and not bring other factors into play? Should we not continue to use a bounce down into a sunken road, a bounce into water or a bounce out of water without severe regulation on how they can be designed and built?

These are all high risk fences, and does the reward pay well enough? There needs to be a general consensus about this, and then we must discontinue using certain styles and types of fences. As previously suggested, only jumps that compliment each other in terms of style, shape and size should be used together as a combination.

Uniform Measurement of Obstacles

One of my main concerns for the last few years also has been the inconsistency of measuring obstacles with regard to the top and base spreads. I have put a lot of thought into this about the best way to write a new wording for the rules.

I have used a system for most of my course design career of the convex quadrilateral, or simply called an isosceles trapezium or a right trapezium. This was introduced to me by the late Neil Ayer in 1986 when I was working with him on the World Three-Day Event Championships at Gawler.

I have prepared a number of drawings to illustrate how it can be done (see below) and here are two that demonstrate the concept:

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This drawing shows the trapezium for current three-star dimensions. It is a simple process to draw one up for each star level’s specifications and use accordingly.

I propose the following example of a new rule for measurement initially:

Measurement of obstacles for spreads: The top spread of an obstacle composed of rails is measured from the front face to the rear face of all materials making up the jump. In the case of a “box” shape obstacle, all parts must fit within either of the trapezium shapes as depicted.

The angle of projection of the leading face should never be greater than the base spread allowed.

The base spread measured at ground level should never exceed the projection of the angle of the leading face.

Reasons: The vertical face is always the focus point for the horse and rider with regards to the spread. Measuring the top spread above an angled face creates problems with depth perception, as this is always an indistinct contrast area and difficult for the horse to ascertain the actual point where the legs have to be in the air, as well as the overall spread of the obstacle.

Similarly, if the base spread exceeds the projection of angle of the top spread, this will give a false reading to the height and top spread of the obstacle, creating a flatter, lower shape to the jump.

Adopting this proposed measurement would mean that a lot of jumps would be oversized currently, but a 12-month implementation of this concept would give enough time for obstacles to be changed. Implementing such a change would mean all obstacles on all courses can be measured under one simple concept.

These drawings show how the various fences can be designed into this framework and how much in symmetry they appear, not just wide, flat and low-looking obstacles. (Click each drawing to view full size)

 The ideas expressed here are my own and things that I have been thinking about and working on for a fair period of time now. I hope they can be treated with thought by others. I am certain that the only way forward to minimize serious accidents, avoid having a course of “knock down” fences and even out the sport worldwide is to have a rigorous overhaul of everything we do.

Let us remember what worked well in the past and what didn’t and take those thoughts forward into the future to find a system that works without bias or criticism.

Many thanks to Wayne for sharing. More information can be found on his two Facebook pages, Wayne Copping and Australian Cross Country.