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Make your cross country riding safer

This article has appeared previously with Equestrian Life. To see what is in our latest issue, please click here.

Michael Jung (GER) and FischerRocana FST at Les 4 Etoiles de Pau, 2016 - Photo Trevor/FEI

Michael Jung (GER) and FischerRocana FST at Les 4 Etoiles de Pau, 2016 - always a picture of balance.

© Trevor Meeks/FEI


By William Micklem
Cross country riding is not a high risk sport like mountain climbing or motor cycle racing and statistically it is safer than swimming or sailing. However it is important to identify the key elements of safe practice and be methodical in our approach to safety. - William Micklem - Author, Inventor, Educational Presenter and Passionate about Equestrian Sports.


Cross country riding is often associated with steeple-chasing but there are fundamental differences between the two sports. Firstly you do it by yourself, not in the company of other horses, which encourages more level headed, less excited, responses from your horse. Secondly, you should not go at your maximum speed in horse trials. Therefore the horses will be working well within themselves and this reduces the risks substantially.

Thirdly in steeple chasing a horse is taken close to their limit of available energy and invariably they finish tired. This explains the high proportion of strains and sprains with racehorses. With cross country riding the horse shouldn’t be tired if the preparation is efficient. If your horse is tired you should retire and come back another day because a tired horse is a danger to both you and himself. So, with good physical preparation, your horse should finish ready and willing to do a little more. With the horse working well within their physical limits, and by using a progressive preparation and the expertise of a coach, cross country riding becomes fundamentally safe. Every rider needs to sign up to this strategy if they are serious about having a real margin for error and reducing their risk.


Cross country safety pic1



I like working with all three of the different disciplines in horse trials; dressage, show jumping and cross-country, and would not like to restrict myself to just one speciality. This goes against the modern trend of using a group of specialist trainers working with the same horse and rider. However, with horse trials a holistic and complementary training programme is vital if we are to avoid treating our horses as machines.

If more than one coach is used, they need to work truly as a team and be in harmony, with one core set of priorities and one common language to communicate with the horse. I am saddened by the narrow-minded mechanical approach of some specialist dressage and jumping coaches, who fail to do this and in consequence fail to treat horses as individuals. A HorseTrials coach that is an all rounder, with expertise in depth and breadth across all the disciplines, will be able to achieve greater efficiency and greater success in a more humane and cooperative way.

If we want our horses to fulfil their potential and have a long life in horse trials we need to continually work to be more efficient in both training and competition. The key to efficiency in training is to fit the work for the dressage, show jumping and cross country into one integrated programme, with every exercise helping the horse in more than one area at the same time. This is why it is important to find a coach who understands the overall demands of horse trials or specialist coaches that have a good general background and are prepared to be part of an integrated coaching team.

For horse and rider, the relationship of the different phases is of vital importance in training. The mixing and matching of different exercises in both dressage and show jumping exercises should prepare your horse for cross county. This is why the type of dressage or show jumping training that forcefully dominates the horse is at best unhelpful and at worst dangerous. What you require is an obedient horse that accepts the rider, but not a submissive horse that waits for the rider to make every decision and does not use their brain.

The dressage and show jumping combined should produce a responsive, athletic horse with both the physical and mental fitness to go across country. This is the preparatory work for cross country and it should also be the revision work between cross country schooling sessions, mixing and matching with the cross country exercises. By using such a complementary training strategy, combined with good coaches and facilities, you will be able to reduce the risks in both training and competition. A complementary strategy, based on communication, not strength, and on the horses thinking for themselves, will also go a long way to successful ‘fifth leg’ training.


Cross country safety pic3

Perfectly balanced, allowing the horse to find its own balance with little contact to the rein – Philip Dutton riding Woodburn at The Land Rover Burghley Horse Trials 2008.

© Peter Nixon/FEI


So what is fifth leg training? It is all about teaching the horse to use their brain and take responsibility for the jumping and is therefore a vital part of your safety. If your horse looks carefully at what they are jumping and makes automatic alterations and quick reactions when getting too close or far away from a fence, or when slipping or tripping, they can be said to have a ‘fifth leg’. All horses should be put through a ‘fifth leg training’ programme as an integral part of their preparation for cross country. It is the one area that is regularly neglected in the training of event horses despite its obvious need. If you want to be safe across country the fundamental aim in training should be to develop a horse’s ability to look after himself. The wonderful pay off here is that training in this way will allow room for error. Fifth leg training is also excellent preparation for learning how to jump against the clock in show jumping.

The good news is that a horse can be taught to do this. In the initial dressage and show jumping training, horses should establish calmness, self-carriage and the confidence to work things out. Regular use of grids with the very lightest of rein contacts and schooling over a wide variety of obstacles and terrain at slow speeds will all help the fifth leg training. Some horses don’t take sufficient care simply because they are listening too much to a rider who is over demanding and over riding. It is important that you don’t look at cross country riding as something demanding great strength and particularly close to fences you must sit as still as possible. If a horse is distracted by the rider or ridden in a mechanical way the result will be a greater risk of an accident. The task is to put your horse ‘in gear’ in a very positive way but then allow them to look after you and trust them to take decisions on your behalf.

The heart of ‘fifth leg training’ is to work at the self-carriage of your horse. Many riders find it difficult to allow the horse to find their own balance. It is very tempting to try and balance the horse with the rein contact, but at best it will just reduce the speed and at worst it will actually prevent an improved balance. Apart from giving the horse the right direction and speed it is difficult to do anything else with the rein contact. Slowing down will produce a better balance, but staying at the same speed and increasing the pressure on the rein contact cannot by itself change the balance. To understand this better imagine you were sitting on top of a shed that was falling. In this situation pulling strenuously on one side would make no difference to the movement of the falling shed and the same applies to horse riding. It is the horse that carries the rider and not the other way round, so no amount of pulling on the rein will actually do anything but change the direction or slow the horse down.


1 • SELF CARRIAGE Allow the horse to be in self-carriage. Do not try to support through the rein contact because this only restricts the use of the head and neck and encourages the horse to take more weight forward as they try to lean on the contact. The reins should always be a communication point not an attempt at a support point.

2 • TURN OUT TERRAIN As far as possible, even just for their holidays, turn your horse out on hillsides and in fields with varied terrain so that he gets used to going up and down hills. This is especially important for a young horse. You should try and buy a horse who has had this experience and avoid those who have only experienced a flat arena and minimal turnout. Watching horses gallop freely and nimbly over undulating fields should also encourage riders to trust their horses to look after both themselves and their riders.

3 • RIDING TERRAIN When riding out, deliberately walk, trot, and canter up and down banks and over undulating ground. You may not live in the country or in a area suitable for hacking, but this is of such benefit to your horse that you should consider transporting him to somewhere with good hacking on a regular basis so that he learns to become more agile.

4 • LOOSE SCHOOLING With the help of a coach, practise loose schooling your horse – without a rider or tack – over fences. This will teach the horse to make decisions about how to respond to the exercises without relying on his rider to guide him. This isn’t easy to do without the right facilities so get together with friends, hire the right facility, and loose school a number of horses on the same day.

5 • MINIMAL INTERFERENCE During jumping training, make sure you interfere with the horse’s jump as little as possible. It is difficult to sit still and make only the smallest of changes as you ride but, if you can do this, it will greatly benefit your horse’s fifth-leg training as they are allowed to take more responsibility for the effort needed and for making small changes to the take off point.

6 • ‘WATCH’ EXERCISES Put logs or sleepers in front of every stable door, between fields, and along riding tracks. In this way your horse will have to continually practise looking after himself, watching where he puts his feet and developing his coordination. This is particularly important for young horses.

7 • BANKS AND WATER Build solid, wide banks around your yard, along the side of the drive and between paddocks suitable for jumping at a slow speed on a regular basis. Then using small solid sides permanently fill a natural dip, in or near the yard, with water (including ways for excess and dirty water to drain away) and then ride through it on a daily basis. This might be on the route to your riding arena.

8 • LEAVING THE STANDARD ARENA Try doing your dressage training on varied ground occasionally. It is useful if part of your schooling area has a small incline so that you can practise maintaining controlled impulsion as you go up and down a slope. As well as the benefits for fifth-leg training, this has considerable advantages for the physical development of your horse.

9 • VARYING JUMP DISTANCES During a jumping training session, start with standard jumping distances, but then both slightly shorten and slightly lengthen them. A standard showjumping stride length is This process may take many months to achieve and the expertise of your coach, because a degree of collection and extension is needed, but the results will be worth it.

10 • ‘HUNTING’ OVER FENCES Make all small, 50–75cm (20–30 inches) schooling fences as solid as possible so that your horse treats them with respect. With the guidance of your coach, jump them not only on straight lines but off turns and at all angles, and gradually using varied terrain and varied distances between fences. This is all done with the minimum of interference with the rider just choosing the right direction and speed. Don’t worry if he hits a fence, this will help him develop a safe jumping technique. Your coach can guide you about doing the same thing over slightly bigger fences, however do not school over big, solid fences at home for reasons of safety and maintaining the horse’s confidence.



Cross country safety pic4

A past student of William’s, Sara Mayberry.


A student of mine, Sarah, bought a young mare called Glen Shira who appeared to have a natural fifth leg and good enthusiasm for her work – possibly a little excess of enthusiasm! She rode her for three months successfully and then went to Australia for three months. While Sarah was away she arranged for Glen Shira to be ridden by a competent and experienced rider to continue the mare’s education. This rider rode in a very controlled and controlling way and taught Glen Shira to listen to the precise aids of the rider and be very well behaved coming down to all fences. Unfortunately in the process the mare stopped thinking for herself.

On Sarah’s return she took Glen Shira to a small horse trials almost immediately – mistake number one. Outside in the practice ring before the show jumping it was apparent that the mare was a very different horse now and was waiting for directions in front of the fences. Then half way round the course she came to a fence on a bad stride and with Sarah leaving it to her to cope. In the past she would have just read the situation and coped without difficulty by chipping in a short stride or more likely by using her scope to take off early, especially as she was always so clean. Instead she climbed all over the fence and deposited Sarah on the ground with a broken collar bone.

After Sarah recovered, Glen Shira went back to school and once again got in the habit of using her fifth leg. Together they formed a great partnership and were eventually short listed for the Barcelona Olympics, despite the fact that Sarah was little more than a weekend rider. This could never have happened without fifth leg training.

About William Micklem

William Micklem is an international coach, best-selling author and renowned speaker based in Ireland. His popular book, the DK Complete Horse Riding Manual, has now been translated into eleven languages and is one of the top selling horse manuals in the world. He is the inventor of the Micklem Multibridle, recent winner in the BETA International ’08 innovation awards, and is a regular contributor to international equestrian conferences. William was formerly National Coach for Bordnag Capall (The Irish Horse Board), National Coach for the Irish Junior and Young Rider Event Teams, and Training Director at the Gleneagles Mark Phillips Equestrian Centre. He is a Fellow of the British Horse Society and Equestrian Federation of Ireland Tutor. William also breeds horses, including Karen and David O’Connors’ Mandiba, Zara Phillips’ High Kingdom, and found Karen and David O’Connors three famous Olympic event horses Custom Made, Gilt Edge and Biko. For more information – www.WilliamMicklem.com.





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