When Trust Fails Cross Country: An Excerpt from ‘Ride Better with Christoph Hess’

Welcome to EN’s 2023 rewind! We’ll be resharing some of our most popular stories from the year throughout the last few days of 2023. This excerpt first appeared on EN in June.

In this excerpt from his new book Ride Better with Christoph Hess, FEI “I” Judge in dressage and eventing Christoph Hess helps one rider overcome the lack of trust that is interfering with her cross country schooling.

Photo by Jacques Toffi.

I have a five-year-old horse that I would love to regularly jump cross-country. My goal is to someday take part in a schooling trial or small event. But, my horse lacks experience and I lack courage. What can we both do in order to reach my goal?

Trust between horse and rider is the key to future success. Therefore, the first goal must be to develop this trust—and it must be mutual. The horse must trust the rider and the rider must be able to rely on the horse. Your horse must accept you as a person he trusts and respects. This gives him security—security that you can develop when grooming, saddling and bridling, loading in a trailer, and through groundwork. When your horse trusts you, he’ll demonstrate the reactions you want him to—meaning, he’ll do what you expect from him. The horse that trusts his rider “on the ground” will also do so more readily under saddle.

Regularly hacking outside the arena (together with an experienced horse and an experienced rider) is the prerequisite for being able to start training your horse to jump cross-country. You must endeavor to develop good balance and supple relaxation while in a light seat, both on “solid ground” and over jumps. You will only be able to give your young horse the necessary trust if you yourself are already able to execute the tasks that you’re planning to ask of him when riding an experienced horse. Therefore, it’s important that you regularly have the opportunity to jump cross-country on an experienced horse. The experienced horse will give you the security and confidence that you’ll need in order to later train your own young horse.

When your horse trusts you, which is the key to success, then and only then, will he be able to solve the unfamiliar and, later, also tricky challenges put to him when going cross-country. The first steps must be executed with a very sensitive touch. It’s important that the training begins with small, inviting jumps that are wide from side to side and framed at the ends. Water should be clear and the ditches “friendly” and enclosed.

One non-negotiable requirement: the trainer, who must always guide you, should have lots of experience so that he can correctly estimate what you and your horse can handle. As a less experienced rider, you’re not able to accurately assess what you can ask from your horse and how you can move him forward methodically in order to always give him a good feeling about his work.

It’s an important requirement that you always approach new cross-country obstacles with a secure lead horse to help introduce them. The lead horse gives your horse security, as horses are herd animals and like to jump obstacles following after another horse. This applies especially to cross-country type obstacles, such as ditches and water. These will be much easier to jump or cross through when you’re following a lead horse, rather than trying to approach them alone with your horse.

Training horses—and this includes developing trust between you and your horse—takes a lot of time. Your horse needs time to process and understand what you want from him. Here, the wise old saying applies: “Less is often more!” Jumping should always take place in such a way that you are presenting your horse with only small challenges.

For the horse’s sake, a training session should never introduce too much that is new at one time. The horse must understand what is required from him, and he should also be having fun with it. Therefore, building trust with a horse is closely tied to building his motivation. Under no circumstances should the horse jump out of fear!

Regardless of level or discipline, every rider must convey confidence to her horse. The rider must never “let her horse down.” This is an important requirement for your horse to trust you. Therefore, you should only ride to jumps that you really want to jump—this means, you must first throw your own heart over the fence!

If you have doubts about riding over certain jumps, it is advisable for you to first practice on an experienced horse to gain confidence. Further, your young horse should be ridden back and forth over special jumps by an experienced rider. This secures your horse’s confidence and helps you to jump these fences with your horse later without a problem.

This excerpt from Ride Better with Christoph Hess by Christoph Hess is reprinted with permission from Trafalgar Square Books (www.horseandriderbooks.com).