If you’re interested in getting involved in the world of eventing, you’ll need to be able to thrive in cross-country horse riding. While the discipline can be demanding, it’s also one of the most exciting activities that you and your horse can perform together.
Before you take your first steps into cross-country riding, it’s important that you grasp the basics of the discipline, including the rules and what to expect. Here, we’ve put together a beginner’s guide that will introduce you to the essentials of the discipline. We will cover:
Cross-country horse riding — sometimes referred to as just cross-country, “XC” or as Hunter trials — is an equestrian sport that sees rider and horse tackling a long course with jumps and other obstacles designed to simulate riding at speed across the countryside. It is one of the disciplines contested during eventing, along with dressage and showjumping.
The event is a test of the speed, endurance, and jumping ability of the horse, as well as obedience and conditioning. An expert cross-country rider will need to demonstrate their knowledge of pace and ability to ride technically for extended distances. As the rider and horse compete at higher levels, the courses will become more difficult, with higher, trickier fences and greater distances to tackle.
In the UK, official cross-country riding only sees competition at events that are run by British Eventing. When someone refers to “affiliated” cross country, they are talking about an event that is sanctioned and organised by British Eventing.
Cross-country riding works a little differently to other eventing disciplines in that affiliated competitions don’t take place outside of eventing, where all three sports are contested during a single competition. While British Dressage and British Showjumping control each of their individual sports, affiliated cross-country does not take place outside of meet-ups organised by British Eventing. This guide will therefore refer to the levels and rules used by British Eventing.
While affiliated cross-country riding takes places at British Eventing competitions, that’s not to say there aren’t unaffiliated, standalone events. These are generally known as hunter trials and consist of individuals or pairs competing across a longer course in much the same way as the cross-country phase in eventing. The rules for each competition can differ from organiser to organiser.
These are purely cross-country events and you won’t find riders expected to then ride dressage or perform showjumping. However, many eventing riders who want to practise the cross-country phase will enter and compete in hunter trials.
To compete in affiliated cross-country riding at events, you will need to become a member of British Eventing. There are a few options:
For a more in-depth look at the British Eventing membership levels, please read our eventing guide.
The aim of cross-country riding is to make it around the course with as few penalties as possible and within a fast yet safe time, and the rules reflect this. For each course, there is:
Each competitor is timed from the moment they cross the start line to when they reach the finish, with time penalties added for each second over the optimum time. In addition, to encourage safe riding, there are time penalties for coming in well under the optimum time. The optimum time is calculated by dividing the length of the course by the pace required at each of the British Eventing levels, as defined in the Members’ Handbook.
There are also a few jumping faults that will result in penalty points:
The penalties for each fault are:
|Refusal, run-out, or circle at an obstacle||20 points|
|Second refusal, run-out, or circle at the same obstacle||40 points|
|Third refusal, run-out, or circle at the same obstacle||Elimination|
|Third refusal, run-out, or circle across whole course (Novice level and above)||Elimination|
|Fourth refusal, run-out, or circle across whole course (BE105 level and above)||Elimination|
|Fall of rider anywhere on course||Elimination|
|Fall of horse anywhere on course||Elimination|
|Riding the wrong route||Elimination|
|Missing an obstacle altogether||Elimination|
|Jumping an obstacle twice||Elimination|
|Jumping an obstacle in the wrong direction||Elimination|
|Every second over the optimum time||0.4 points|
|Every second in excess of 15 seconds under the optimum time||0.4 points|
|Exceeding the time limit (double optimum)||Elimination|
The winning horse/rider is therefore the non-eliminated team with the fewest penalty points. It’s also important to remember that cross-country takes place in combination with dressage and showjumping as part of an overall event. The penalty points from this phase are combined with the ones picked up elsewhere to see where you place in the entire competition.
As cross-country courses are longer in length and have more obstacles than showjumping courses, more than one rider may be completing the course simultaneously. Often, riders will start in a staggered fashion, sometimes in pairs, so it may be the case that several riders are moving through the same part of the course.
Because this presents a new element of hazard and the potential for other riders’ performances to be affected, there are specific rules when riding with other competitors:
Note: British Eventing’s rules are more expansive than the summary provided in this guide, and they are updated annually. Therefore, it’s best to refer to their Member’s Handbook for the fullest and most up-to-date guidance.
Affiliated cross-country is only contested as part of eventing competitions, so the levels and how you progress through them follow the British Eventing model.
For each of the ten British Eventing levels, there is a set difficulty required for the cross-country phase of the competition. As levels increase, the courses become longer, harder, and more diverse. You can expect a greater quantity of jumps that are higher and more varied in their design and placing, as well more distance to be covered at a faster pace.
Here’s what to expect from the cross-country course at each of the British Eventing levels:
|British Eventing level||Cross-country course specification|
|Length||Pace||Number of jumps||Max jump height||Max jump drop||Max depth of jump into water|
Note: The BE100 Plus, Intermediate Novice, and Advanced Novice are levels intended to give the rider a taste of the next full level up. The events in these categories have tougher showjumping and dressage phases but retain the cross-country standards of the current level.
The BE80 and BE90 have no requirements so they can be entered when you feel that you are ready to step up. To progress through the British Eventing levels beyond BE100, you will need to earn Minimum Eligibility Requirements (MERs) in competitions, which are attained by achieving a result with:
Each level has a minimum number of MERs you need to have earned from a level below it before you can compete. BE100 Plus, Intermediate Novice, and Advanced Novice can be tried at any time provided the rider meets the requirements for the level before them. Here are the MER minimums for each subsequent level:
Note: Some levels have certain other requirements to do with age or alternative qualifications — please refer to British Eventing’s Members’ Handbook.
A cross-country course is a route and set of obstacles a horse and rider must follow when they are competing in the cross-country phase of an event. For British Eventing competitions at the National level, course lengths will range from 1600–4000m and there will be between 18–40 jumps, with the exact amount depending on the level of competition.
Every obstacle in the course is numbered to show its position in the pre-determined jumping order, as well as having a red flag (on the right) and white flag (on the left) that indicate what direction it needs to be approached from. A black stripe on the red flag indicates that an obstacle is optional, so another route can be taken without the rider being penalised.
Each cross-country course is created by a course designer, who specialises in making the route a suitable test for those taking part. For example, courses for novice riders and horses may use terrain to naturally prepare and lead up to a jump, while an advanced course may see a jump positioned on a slope to make it more challenging. Designers will always try to create a test that is fair and examines the rider and horse at the correct level.
The majority of cross-country courses are located outdoors and run through fields and wooded areas to accurately represent the terrain of riding in the country. In most cases, the course will incorporate the natural features of the area to reflect the fact that this is the type of countryside found in that particular region. Therefore, expect to find flatter courses in low-lying regions and more slopes if the event is held in a hilly region.
Each course has a start box, which is a small area where the horse and rider wait for the signal to commence their ride. Typically, the first fences in the course will be fairly unchallenging, allowing the horse to find its stride and focus before moving into more technical obstacles. The difficulty tends to ease off towards the end of the course again so the horse can gain speed and finish well.
There is a wide variety of cross-country jumps available to course designers, ranging from natural obstacles, like a tree trunk, to man-made obstacles, like a tyre fence. Some factors affecting a jump’s difficulty include its height, width, and design, as well as its proximity to other fences and where it’s placed within the terrain. Unlike showjumping, most cross-country obstacles are solid in their design, though some are designed to collapse for safety and scoring reasons.
Here are some of the most common cross-country jumps and obstacles:
Before you participate in the cross-country phase of an event, you will have the opportunity to view a plan of the course and to walk it. Walking the course is an essential part of your preparation before riding it, as it allows you to see in person what’s in store and to formulate a plan for each jump.
When you walk the course, there are several things you should look out for. These are:
Like showjumping and dressage, cross-country has rules on what you need to wear and what tack is necessary for your horse. While appearances are not as important as in other phases, British Eventing still has certain requirements that must be met, though there is more focus on rider and horse safety owing to the demanding nature of the cross-country riding.
As a British Eventing competitor, you’ll need to follow these rules for dress in cross-country events:
There are also a few optional items you’re permitted to wear:
When it comes to colours for your outfit, the cross-country phase provides a lot more freedom of choice than dressage and showjumping. The general idea of choosing a colour scheme and pattern is to be as individual as possible so that you stand out from other riders and are more visible to judges and approaching riders on the spread-out country course.
There are a few tips that can make your first time choosing colours as easy and painless as possible:
There are also rules about what tack you can use on your horse in the cross-country phase of British Eventing competitions:
Now that we’ve covered the basics of cross-country as a sport, you can begin to think about getting ready for your first competitive cross-country ride, whether that’s as part of an affiliated event that also has dressage and showjumping phases, or a standalone hunter trial. In this section, we’ll share some tips to help you prepare, as well as some effective cross-country exercises.
Before your first cross-country event, it’s a good idea to familiarise yourself with what to expect at the competition. At a hunter trial, you will only be riding cross-country, but when you’re eventing, it will be one phase of three (alongside dressage and showjumping). With this in mind, be sure to familiarise yourself with the schedule for the event and to work out when you will have time to prepare for each discipline properly. Each event has its own timetable and running order, often determined by whether it’s a one-day or three-day event.
When you first arrive at the event, you’ll need to find the secretary to register for the event, pay any fees, and get your hat tagged. They will also be able to provide you with any information you need about the site, as well as giving you access to the course plans for the ride(s) ahead.
It’s advisable to arrive as early as possible at the competition site, as this will ensure you have plenty of time to walk the cross-country course, which is a process that can take upwards of an hour. Make sure you know exactly what route you will be riding, decide what optional fences to take (if there are any), and pay attention to the weather and footing conditions.
When you find out when your slot will be, it’s important to remember that you could be paired with another rider depending on the format of the event and how many entrants there are. This means that you need to be prepared to ride with another competitor in close proximity if necessary, as well as being familiar with the rules for sensible riding alongside others.
When your riding slot comes around, you’ll need to make your way to the start box and wait for the course time-keeper to begin their countdown. You can’t leave this area before the timer reaches zero and you’re not allowed to have a “flying start” where you’re not moving from a standstill.
As you get underway, you will find that the course begins with easier fences, like roll-tops or logs, that will help you and your horse to establish a rhythm and build confidence. The jumps will begin to increase in difficulty and technicality in the mid-section, before becoming more manageable as the route winds to an end, allowing you to gallop at the finish.
Finally, your time will be recorded, your faults will be assessed, and your total score will be calculated by the judge.
For cross-country, one of the key areas to work on is your horse’s fitness level. The sport is, after all, designed to be a test of your horse’s endurance, foremostly. This means that you will need to put in the right amount of training sessions and distance work to ensure your partner is ready to compete over the 1600–2800m course that you will experience at the most basic British Eventing level.
Improving the overall fitness of your horse is known as conditioning. If you already ride a few times a week or have already been training for dressage and showjumping, your horse may already be at, or could be on the way to being at, the base fitness level necessary for basic cross-country courses.
If you’re not sure, it’s worth bearing in mind that the ideal pace for the first level of British Eventing is 435m per minute, so if you’re not able to maintain that over the 1600–2800m required for BE80, it’s likely you’ll have to do more conditioning work. Try riding these distances with some basic jumps to see how far along you’ve progressed.
Every horse’s training starts with distance work, which is an essential part of conditioning. This will begin with walking and trotting at slow speed to improve endurance and build the fitness necessary for cantering and galloping. It’s important to build up slowly, as soft tissue injuries can occur if too much is attempted too soon. With a bit of patience, you and your partner will move up the gears.
Once your horse is able to comfortably gallop for short periods, you can begin to undertake interval training. This is the practice of working up speed to a gallop, holding pace for a while, then allowing your horse to reduce its speed and rest before galloping again. The aim of these intervals is to work up an increased heart rate, rest, and then work again before the heart rate has fully recovered to increase cardiovascular fitness with less overall galloping.
Another way to condition your horse without making them gallop for long periods is to introduce hill work into their routine. Working up an incline that is within their capabilities will work your partner harder without putting them through overly strenuous galloping that could cause injury.
There are a few considerations you need to bear in mind when conditioning:
When you’re training for cross-country, simple fences, like logs and rolltops can be useful when you are trying to build endurance and pace. However, your horse will get plenty of practice with simple jumps during showjumping training, so you’ll need to switch things up if you want to get your horse brave enough to comfortably handle the more complicated obstacles in cross-country.
With this in mind, you should look to incorporate the likes of ditches, banks, and water into your cross-country training sessions. By seeking out these obstacles slowly on a loose rein, your horse will have time to consider and become familiar with them. Once they are able to accept that kind of obstacle, they will have much less apprehension when approaching them at pace.
Remember to start small with any ditch, banks, or water training. Your horse is likely to stop and eye up the obstacle the first time they see it, as they’ll naturally be suspicious. Be patient and give them time to get used to the idea of crossing the obstacle, and don’t be afraid to let them circle once or twice as they look at it from all angles. Back this up with positive reinforcement as the horse gets a little bit closer — it’s another brave step for them!
The key to instilling bravery in your horse is to allow them to think for themselves while providing support and encouragement if required. It’s a much more natural process than forcing them to face a strange new obstacle quickly or forcing them when they’re afraid.
While dressage and showjumping training can take place in the paddock, to get some real practice at cross-country, you will need more space and access to a variety of obstacles. As the hardest discipline to replicate, cross-country is often the weak spot in a first-time eventer’s experience and training, so it’s worth putting in some effort to improve your riding before entering affiliated events.
Depending on your location and circumstances, it may be the case that you have access to these facilities. However, if you can’t easily get access to a course, it may be worth enrolling at a cross-country riding schooling session near you, where you will get the chance to train and get advice from an experienced instructor. Before signing up for an affiliated event, you may also wish to enter some local hunter trials to practice and get to grips with the competitive nature of the sport.
Below, you can find a few of our video tutorials to assist in improving your and your horse’s cross-country riding. You can access these and even more content by subscribing to Horse & Country.
Cross-country riding is a challenge to master, but it’s also incredibly rewarding for horse and rider. We hope this guide has given you a good overview of the sport and how to start.
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