• Katja

Pony 101: Obstacle Courses!

Welcome back to Pony 101 folx!


If you've been watching the Olympics, you might've caught some of the equestrian events and been WOWED by the athletic ability of the horses and their riders. In honor of the Olympics, I'd like to focus on jumping for this blog because who doesn't love a great horse chase scene where there are OBSTACLES??


Before I put aside my dreams and aspirations of equestrian competition, I was an eventer at heart. I love riding cross country--galloping across fields and leaping over immovable objects was 100% my jam. (And while my heart is still there, my body and my brain caught up and was like OMG WHAT ARE YOU DOING??? and fear has no place in the arena, so I wisely became a dressage guru)


Anyway, today we're looking at how horses jump, and what the size and shape of reasonable obstacles are, as well as some cool adjacent things (because honestly, once I get started, I really just won't ever stop) .


Before we get to the cool stuff, lets start with basic mechanics for the horse and rider. First off, any horse can jump. Just like humans, some are better at it than others. If you have a horse that likes to jump, you'll know it. They are looking for obstacles and if you get too near a fence their ears will perk and they will WANT to go over it. So here's the general breakdown:


Horses can jump from a trot or a canter (I mean, technically if the fence is low enough they could walk up to it and step over, but most horses will trot or canter to a fence). A horse's stride at the canter is 10'-12' and at the trot, is around 8'. Fences and courses are set using these guidelines, meaning that if you had the following jump set up:

a diagram showing the stride, take off, and landing length of a typical jump

The horse would have a full stride, then take off approximately 6' away from the jump, land another 6' away, then continue to canter. And, fyi, all these numbers are adjustable based on your horse and the height and width of the fence. (Remember, this is Pony 101!) Also, fun random fact, a horse loses sight of the obstacle to be jumped about 4' out from the jump. Because of where a horse's eyes are located on their head, they have a combination of binocular and monocular vision that results in blind spots immediately in front of and behind them. Which is fascinating when you look at all the pictures of horse people standing RIGHT in front of their horses. The horse can't see them, but the human is making eye contact like they can. The moral of this story is that the jump leaves the horse's field of vision as they take off and doesn't return until they've landed. Fascinating, right?


In competition, fence height starts at 18", usually reserved for beginners (both horse and rider) before gradually going up. Most hunter riders jump around 3' 5", jumpers compete at closer to 4'-5', and eventers also top out in the 4'-5' range, but their jumps are a lot more intimidating. So how does this relate to that magnificent chase scene you're writing in your book?

This scene from Lord of the Rings film is one of the best chase scenes I've ever seen filmed. It's just fantastic and is definitely worth studying as you work on creating your own. One of the first things you have to think about what elements your horse and rider might encounter. Modern forms of competition evolved from a combination of daily equine activities, military purposes, and entertainment. Steeplechases started as legitimate races from one church steeple to the next and the horse and rider had to navigate whatever they encountered along the way. Similarly, fox hunting meant following the hounds wherever they went. Both required horses and riders with loads of confidence and a solid training base. Ngl, legit fox hunters are some of the bravest riders I've ever encountered because you don't walk the course ahead of time, you don't get to check out the terrain, you make split second decisions and pray that your horse (and you) can handle it and that the landing and take off are gonna work.


Some obstacles you might encounter would be: fallen trees, piles of brush, cords of wood, stone or wood fences, a stream/water crossing, a ditch, a down or up bank. These are the types of fences that are generally replicated on a cross country course (aka: XC). They are solid and immovable--in spirit, in the sense of safety, the FEI [Federation Equestrian International] & other organizations have made huge strides (hahahahahaha, you see what I did there??) in creating safe courses for horses and riders so XC fences are easily collapsed should a fall occur. Just google XC fences and you'll get a bunch of examples (or click here because I googled for you!).


At the Olympic level, you have a max height of 3'9" and a max width of around 8' (the width changes based on the height included--feel free to check out the USEA's eventing guidelines here). To put the width in perspective, if you use the formula I gave you above, a jump with an 8' spread means more like 16'-20' feet of air time. This amazing photo is of the Cottesmore, an obstacle soundly regarded as one of the toughest in the world of eventing. It can be found on the Burghly XC course in the UK. I love this picture for many reasons, but you get an excellent idea of the height and breadth of it thanks to the camera man.


Let's also take a minute to dissect this brilliant mid-air picture because it's textbook perfect. The rider is balanced over the horse's back, not leaning forward. This is important, too far forward or back will affect the horses' ability to jump and the rider's ability to stay on. Both horse and rider are focused and if you look at the ears (ears tell you so much about what's going on with a horse) they are out to side, indicating the horse is checking in with its rider. They are also kinda floppy (technical term!) indicating that the horse is comfortable and confident. And finally, look at this horse's form. It's front end and hind end are tight and controlled. Seriously, that horse probably weights 1,500 lbs and it's just shooting through the air like it's nothing. I weigh a fraction of that I can't jump more than like, 2 inches.


Conversely, the rider has to make some big changes if the jump is downhill. This could be just a down bank, or a jump down into water. I have two examples. One is from the movie, The Man From Snowy River, the other is perhaps the coolest picture of anyone just casually taking a down-bank into water that has ever existed. First up, the movie clip:

There's a lot of great things happening in this scene and by movie standards, the riding is excellent. First we have a bunch of cowboys galloping, note their body position and how they aren't interfering with their horses. They are allowing for maximum shoulder and back movement, which equals more speed. At about the 14/15 second mark, one of our riders takes a jump. It's seamless and the horse flows from gallop stride to jump and right back into its gallop. Then we come to the MOMENT. All the wild horses have taken off down this scarily steep cliff and all the cowboys are noping out. BUT THEN... Jim is like "I got this." His horse jumps over that tiny log and they proceed to gallop down this hill. Check out his body position and how Jim adjusts by leaning way way back to help maintain their balance. At one point the horse jumps over another small obstacle while galloping down this steep incline. This is obviously an extreme, but is super cool. So can your horse run down a cliff? Probably, as long as the horse and rider trust each other and have confidence! Me? I'd be like the cowboys at the top of the cliff watching and shaking my head.


And just because this will never not be cool as hell, check out New Zealand event rider, Andrew Nicholson. Nicholson has been a top contender for New Zealand for years. He and his horses continue to place in top events. This shot of him taking a down bank into the water at the Rolex 3-Day event (which has since been renamed!) will forever be the level of coolness I want to evoke when riding. He does this one handed and is just like "oh, are there people here? am I in the middle of the most prestigious competition in the USA? huh. cool" The horse's name is Quimby, by the way.

So, aside from Nicholson's extremely relaxed manner, you'll note that again, he's shifted backwards, his legs are still underneath him. He's giving Quimby the rein he needs to use his head and neck freely. Quimby is alert and has already locked onto his next obstacle (his ears are forward and focused).


Right, So eventers are cool, but Katja, how high can a horse actually jump? The official world record is held by Huaso ex-Faithful, ridden by Capt. Alberto Larraguibel Morales from Chile. On February 5, 1949, the pair cleared an 8' 1.25" fence and captured the Guinness World Record. That's really really really really high. An interesting note is that the jump is slanted. The highest point is 8' 1.25", but the angle compliments the horse's natural arc. if it were straight up and down, it would be more difficult for a horse to judge the height. Here's video footage:


As of right now, no one has bested that height in an official capacity. What does exist at horse shows is the Puissance Wall. This is a competition specifically aimed at showcasing how high you and your horse can jump. These tend to max out at 7' and no matter what, it's super cool to watch. The puissance wall is a solid wall, so the horse can't even see the landing. In competition, it's made of soft blocks that are easily knocked down should a horse crash through it instead of go over it. Check out this video of Nick Skelton clearing the wall. It's cool because it goes in slow motion so you can see every single movement. Some cool things to watch in this video: Unique doesn't go at rocket speeds toward the jump, Nick keeps him collected, but you can see the change in the power and energy between his approach to the triple bar and when he turns toward the wall. In the slow-mo, you can see Unique lengthen his stride and open up so he has the momentum he needs. This is really important, jumping high isn't about speed, it's about coiling up the energy so the horse can spring over the fence. If you watch any XC or stadium videos, you'll note that it looks like the horse is almost slowing down as it approaches most fences--it's not, it's shifting its power and energy even more to the back end so it can propel itself over the fence. Okay, I'll shut up now so you can enjoy the video:

And guess what, you can do all that side-saddle as well. So if you're writing something more along the lines of historical fiction, women absolutely went tearing across the countryside and jumping things side-saddle. Riding side saddle is actually a pretty secure way to do things from a riding standpoint, so don't ever let anyone ever tell you otherwise. Let your characters ride side-saddle! Do it. DO IT. I present video proof:


Alright, we've reached the jumping adjacent part. I'd like to celebrate the incomparable Sonora Carver who rode diving horses in the early 1900s. Diving horses is absolutely as terrifying as it sounds. A horse was trained to gallop up a long ramp to a 40' high tower. Sonora would then jump on its back and they would dive into a pool of water below. PBS did a great 10 minute video about her and I highly suggest taking the time to watch it. During one of her performances, Sonora sustained an injury that resulted in blindness. But she kept diving. Which is just, like, SO COOL. (On a side note, para-equestrians are out there rocking it in many equine competitions. I'm a grade IV para-equestrian and I competed in dressage & eventing!). But back to Sonora, you can watch the film Wild Hearts Can't Be Broken, which chronicles her amazing journey and life. It's one of my favorite movies.

(image on the left sourced from: https://pressofatlanticcity.com/life/watch-now-sonora-carver-atlantic-citys-high-diving-horse-riding-trailblazer-celebrated-in-documentary/article_dccea829-915c-5571-91da-81f2c0d476eb.html // image on the right sourced from: https://www.historyandwomen.com/2019/10/sonora-webster-carver-horse-diving.html )


What do diving horses mean for your writing? It means that if you need to chase your heroine off a cliff and into the ocean, you can totally do that, as long as the water they're landing in is deep enough! I feel like I've covered a lot and still only touched on the basics. If you have any specific jumping questions for me, let me know!


I leave you with this, a video of my and my sweet, sweet, dragon competing at the Beginner Novice level of eventing. Our fences were 2'. The highest I've ever jumped was during schooling sessions and I maxed out at 4'. I usually stuck to the 2'-2'3 divisions. But this course was by far one of our absolute best (until about 1/2 way through I lost my rhythm, but hey, all that mattered was that we got from side to the other!) We ended up placing second.

Happy writing and/or riding! Be sure to shoot me any questions you might have or if there's a Pony 101 topic you want me to cover, let me know. You can find me on twitter at: @KatjaBookDragon

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