Testing the best

There is more to course-designing that arranging a few wings and poles in an arena, in fact, the course-designer is one of the most important elements of showjumping. Some of our leading course-designers talk to Jumping Around and let us in on a few of their secrets.

Have you ever walked a showjumping course with butterflies in your stomach — it’s too big, too wide, my horse has never jumped a water tray before? Well, this may surprise you, but the course-designer is likely to be feeling just as nervous.

“I’m a born worrier. I worry about too few clears, then worry even more about too many,” says former showjumper ‘Bob the Builder’ Ellis, designer at the London 2012 Olympics.

Bob began building in the 1970s and readily admits being nervous, especially during big competitions.

At top level, getting it right is a necessity. International shows run to strict timetables and must also entertain the paying public and often a TV audience, too. The course, therefore, is crucial — which puts pressure on the designer.

“Building for the best comes down to fine lines. The course needs to be very technical with distance questions and a tight time-limit,” says Bob. “If the time’s too lenient, they can jump at their own pace, keeping them going forward means some will make mistakes.”

While they need to make riders think, it’s important for designers get it right, whether it’s the Olympics or an unaffiliated class. To get the correct result, riders should be tested and horses well schooled. So how is this achieved?

Years ago, a quick solution was to put a stile on a short distance from the fence before or a fence next to a water jump to take the horse’s eye off the job in hand. But as fence-design and surfaces have evolved, so have the ‘tricks of the trade’.

And Bob and his colleagues are adamant: “They aren’t tricks. They’re questions asked of the rider.”

David Cole, one of our most experienced designers, says trick fences are detrimental to a competition: “They’re not good for the sport. They upset the flow and spoil good horses.”

So what are course-designers trying to achieve?

“The art is to test horse and rider at different levels,” is David’s answer. “Novice courses should be flowing, with perhaps one related line. Horses at that level make their own mistakes.”

Faced with a novice class of 100-plus entries, designers can be pressured by show organisers to reduce the number of clears. However, using tricks for the sake of going home an hour earlier isn’t on their agenda.

“I wouldn’t build any differently if there were 15 or 500 entries,” says Bob Ellis. “You don’t punish horses because the show’s busy.”

Nevertheless, the designer wants the winner to be the best on the day and their tools of the trade have evolved.

“You can ask questions through fillers — a solid block might make a horse back off, while gaps can make it peer through the bottom of the fence. I also find blocks of one colour can change a horse’s outlook,” says Di Boddy, Arena UK’s resident designer. “And if you use a square oxer on an even stride, the inexperienced horse can easily tap out the front rail.”

Water trays are good ‘rider frighteners’

“Novice riders get worried by water trays. They sometimes come to grief by persuading their horse there’s a problem before they even reach the fence. Watch the top riders, who treat water trays as just another fence,” says David Cole, who makes sure such tests are positioned carefully.

“Siting them away from the collecting ring in novice classes is a no-no as horses can back off and come off the bridle there. I prefer to use them with a vertical or Liverpool [one low pole on the take-off side with several poles on the back wing]. This encourages the horse to jump and helps it realise there’s nothing to fear.”

Di Boddy thinks water trays should be introduced from the start.

“Horses get a terrible shock if they meet one for the first time when they’ve got to a higher level,” she explains.

International designer and former BSJA chairman Peter Gillespie has strong views about courses for inexperienced horses.

“In newcomers, Foxhunter and age classes, riders should expect the course designer to help them produce horses,” he says. “Above that level, you can be more creative.”

One of Di Boddy’s indoor favourites is a curved line on four or five strides.

“This isn’t a trap, but it does show up who thinks about the job when they walk the course,” she explains.

Di says the correct route would be the middle one, but depending on the line riders take, the distance can vary by a whole stride.

“A curved line asks questions of riders’ schooling and their ability to keep the horse straight,” adds David Cole.

Doubles and trebles can prove difficult for the novice horse.

“Fillers can be crucial. For young horses, I use solid fillers or small walls in the first element, they encourage a better jump in,” explained Irish International designer Brian Henry, “If the first part is all poles, the horse focuses instead on the later fences and can lose accuracy. I like between 25% and 33% of a novice class go clear, and where you site doubles and combinations is crucial.”

An early combination can catch out a horse that isn’t yet in a rhythm and if it’s set away from the entrance even the most experienced horse can revert to herd instinct and try to join his pals in the collecting ring.

Planks are often the course-designer’s friend.

“They need careful horses and accurate riding,” said Brian, who refers to tighter times as “My extra fence!”

But, warns Peter Gillespie, the time element must be planned carefully.

“Make it too tight and you inhibit scope and ability. We’re not trying to produce 1.50m scurry horses or Cheltenham Festival runners,” he points out.

Apart from specialist Derby tracks, lighter materials are increasingly in vogue.

“Decades ago, fences seemed like mountains, with vast amounts of heavy timber, but today I think we’ve gone too far the other way,” reflects Peter. “Novice horses have less respect for light fences and I believe horses should learn their craft over as many different types of obstacle as possible.”

Another difference from the ‘good old days’ is innovative wings and decorated fences. The horse may not take any notice, but these certainly make the sport much prettier.

Bob Ellis thinks safety cups were a great invention.

“The horse won’t injure himself or lose confidence if he lands on a back bar, because the cups collapse,” he explains. “The trend for lighter equipment does mean fences don’t have to be so big and wide, but I still think there’s a need for a couple of more solid fences to vary a course.”

Gates are a good example of the before and after. The heavy five-bar variety has now been replaced by a much lighter split version in which just the top part is dislodged.

Nevertheless, designers do sometimes resort to old favourites.

“We can’t go backwards but it’s interesting to introduce brush fences occasionally,” says Di Boddy. “They certainly suit the bolder horse.”

Designers are in agreement about their preferred surface — grass.

“You have to make allowances for ground conditions, but grass is best for jumpers, even though it needs more maintenance,” says Bob Ellis. “Artificial surfaces are great, but grass produces riders. They have to learn to ride gradients and support their horses on corners. At Hickstead, with top riders and horses I use the gradients to my advantage by varying distances. Normal distances there tend to ride short as horses get a lot of spring, but you do need to know the venue well.”

Peter Gillespie is of the same opinion: “Surfaces are superb and have given competitors the opportunity to jump in any weather, but the trend has also shown that many haven’t the knowledge to achieve the same results on grass. At its best, grass is the queen of surfaces.”

Brian Henry agrees – “A grass arena lets us test the rider more. Our main problem is moving fences to better ground when it rains,” he said.

Di Boddy, however, points out that a surface was a blessing when she built a HOYS newcomers qualifier with well over 100 entries in a deluge of rain.

“The going was the same for the last horse as the first, and that’s important,” she says. “There’s room for both and some horses have preferences, but in the future, I believe most novice classes will take place in artificial arenas.”

This all proves that the designer has a huge part to play in the future of show jumping at all levels. A course can make or break a show — and if they have a bad experience, riders are will be less inclined to part with their hard-earned cash at that venue in future. But with people such as these at the helm, the sport in Britain is in safe hands.