Introducing a horse to cross country for the first time might seem nerve-racking. But just like introducing a horse to showjumping with cross poles and easy questions, you can introduce a horse to cross country slowly and carefully.
Done right, you’ll find that each outing builds up a little bit more confidence in your horse. But getting it right from the start is important, so that you build a good foundation for later on. The very first outing is often one of the horse’s first tests of their bravery and confidence (whether they’re young or just new to XC), so taking some time to do it properly can really pay off in the long run.
Here are some things to consider when you go for your very first cross-country schooling session. Keep in mind that you should always have a trainer or someone experienced to help you through these steps, especially if you are also new to cross country.
Bring a Lead Horse and Rider
Nothing gives a horse confidence like other horses. For your first outing over cross-country fences, you should try to bring a lead horse along. It isn’t always possible, but if you do have a friend or coach who can accompany you, it can make for a much more positive outing.
You want this horse (and its rider) to be confident, honest, and experienced, so that if your horse isn’t sure, you can ask the lead horse and rider to canter or trot over the fences while you follow directly behind. Often, they’ll just follow the lead horse right over, like you see in hunting or steeplechasing. It’s particularly useful at obstacles like water, ditches, and banks where inexperienced horses will often be wary.
Sometimes, this can make the world of difference to an inexperienced horse. Having a nice steady trot and canter behind them to start with can also help to settle a horse who might be fresh or spooky when they’re surrounded by so much open space.
Add a Neck Strap!
It’s always best to come prepared, so if you don’t jump with a martingale then a neck strap (or a single stirrup leather in a pinch) is a good idea for your first time going XC. And a neck strap isn’t any reflection of a lack of riding ability. In fact, William Fox-Pitt uses one every time he goes cross country, and he’s one of the world’s top riders.
Other than helping you to keep your balance if needed at a gallop, the neck strap is also very useful for young horses who might over-jump, hesitate, cat leap, or “climb” their fences. This way you can grab the strap instead of the mouth, and your horse won’t feel like he’s done something wrong by being jabbed in the teeth when he jumps.
Plus, there’s that one extra benefit….it gives you something to hang onto if the excitement of big open spaces and jumping combined gets a bit much for your equine partner!
Take It Slow
Don’t arrive at your first cross-country school expecting to do ditches, banks, logs, water, corners, skinnies, and everything else. Even if your horse is feeling brave, it’s best to err on the side of caution and not ask too much of them. Start off with a relaxed walk so that your horse can settle, before taking them for a trot or canter around. The aim is to build their confidence and create a positive first experience for the horse.
Pick a couple of easy, confidence-building logs and fences. Then if all goes well, you can build up to something more testing. Generally, it’s a good idea to only pick one or two small “challenges” and keep the rest of the questions really easy. It’s always better to end the session three jumps too early than one jump too late. That might even mean that you go home after just jumping a log or two, initially. You’ll have to use your own judgement to figure out how many questions your horse can handle in a session without feeling overwhelmed.
For your first cross country session, it’s important to keep everything low-key and set your horse up for success. Spend as much (or as little) time as needed, and remember to always end on a positive note.
That way, you’ll feel that your horse is more confident next time and you can build on that by expanding his comfort zone incrementally until you have a cross country machine!
Have you done any cross country? Share your best tips with us in the comments.