Dream Lesson: Cross-Country Confidence

Lesson objectives

  • Learning to jump different types of jumps, including combinations and accuracy fences
  • Improving Marmite’s confidence over ditches

Our trainer

It’s unusual to see a bad photograph of top eventer Kirstin Kelly – she’s one of those rare riders whose position seems to stay textbook-perfect over even the most daunting of cross-country fences.
At 36, Kirstin has already produced several horses who have gone on to great things, including Broadcast News (winner of a silver world championship medal with Mark Todd), Baggy Hillis and Clifton Shiraz. Kirstin and Baggy were members of a winning Trans-Tasman team at Taupo and were long-listed for the Sydney Olympics before the horse sadly went unsound.
A full-time rider/trainer, she does a huge amount of teaching around the wider Auckland area, from pony club level upwards. Currently, Kirstin has a string of nice young horses, including Just Fred and Good Charlotte, who are both beginning to make their mark. And, after a break from the big stuff, Kirstin’s keen to aim for international competition again.
Kirstin’s own jump training has come from two of the best – Blyth Tait and Vaughn Jefferis.

Kirstin Kelly

Kirstin Kelly

Julie Killick

Julie Killick

Our rider

Julie Killick rides the 12-year-old 16.1hh thoroughbred gelding Marmite, who she has owned for the past seven years. Julie describes him as a ‘sensitive new age guy’ and he’s been a little on the spooky side when it comes to cross-country fences, particularly ditches.
A former kindergarten teacher who now provides professional development for kindy teachers, Julie rode as a youngster but gave up, before getting back into riding 10 years ago. “It’s taken me a while to get the car and the float and the horse, which was a bit limiting.” She and Marmite have done some low-level eventing, but Julie’s birthday earlier this year provided the incentive to move up to proper horse trials. Julie and Marmite were aiming for their first Training horse trial at Te Rapa a couple of weeks after this lesson with Kirstin.
“When I turned 47 I thought we’d better do a horse trial before we both get too old and crusty!” laughs Julie. “Marmite could have done it years ago – it’s definitely the jockey.”

Before the lesson gets underway, Kirstin explains that she likes to divide cross-country fences into four different categories.

1. Gift fences

The majority of fences on a cross-country, such as roll-tops and oxers, fall under this heading. They don’t need a lot of setting up, so the rider can keep bowling along and take the fence in their stride.

2. Combinations

Unlike gift fences, these require the rider to rebalance the horse and hold a line.

3. Concept fences

Horses need to be educated about concept fences, which include ditches and water – they require specific schooling until the horse is familiar with the idea.

4. Accuracy fences

The name says it all. Corners and chevrons fall into this category.

“I find people tend to get bombarded when they walk the course and try to look at it as a whole,” explains Kirstin. “If you break it down and you know how to ride each type of fence, you can itemise the course in your head and not feel so overwhelmed.”

Kirstin Kelly Cross Country Training

Getting the line right is crucial. Kirstin shows Julie which part of the ditch to aim for

Kirstin Kelly Cross Country Lesson

Warming up over the ‘gift fence’

Two Point

Like all jumping riders, Julie needs to do lots of work in two-point to improve her fitness and strength

Rider fitness

While Julie and Marmite trot around to limber up, Kirstin’s main focus is on Julie’s position, which is pretty good.“
She rides tidily, her leg is stable, she sits tall through her upper body and I like the way she carries her hands – she’s got that elastic look through her elbow, which is great,” observes Kirstin.
Of course, no cross-country lesson would be complete without the dreaded two-point! And after a minute or so of trotting in two-point, Kirstin says this is something Julie needs to work on.
“You’re struggling a bit and every now and then you balance on the reins,” says Kirstin.
“When you’re in mid-flight over the fence, the only thing that’s keeping you there is your lower leg and this says to me that mid-flight you might not be so still and balanced.
“We’ve probably trotted for a minute and a half in two-point, but a normal cross-country goes for four or five minutes. If you can’t stay in two-point for that amount of time, you will get quite tired when you go across country, and then you’ll have to use your horse’s mouth to balance on, or you’ll be banging around on his back. Rider fitness is really important.”
Kirstin likes the amount of heel pressure Julie has and the way she keeps her heels down, but she still puts Julie’s stirrups up a hole, which feels a little uncomfortable to Julie at first. “When you hop on to go cross-country, your stirrups shouldn’t feel nice and comfortable – they should feel a little short until you’ve trotted around for a couple of minutes and your tendons warm up,” says Kirstin.

The gift fence

Julie and Marmite get to warm up over a typical gift fence – an inviting log. Kirstin says gift fences don’t require too much interference from the rider: basically the approach is in two-point position until about six strides out, at which point the rider rocks their shoulders back slightly, to help rebalance the horse, while keeping the reins even and steady.
Despite a positive ride from Julie to the small log, Marmite is a little hesitant at his first attempt – he takes a nervous step and chips in.
“When you feel he is a bit unsure, keep your leg wrapped around his side to give him confidence, but try not to rush him, so you don’t make him feel panicked,” instructs Kirstin. “Just stay focused, keep the rhythm and hopefully as he warms up we’ll see him keep that same canter, so he doesn’t feel like he has to shorten and drop behind the leg.”
After cantering over the log a couple more times, and with Julie concentrating on the rhythm, Marmite is soon starting to flow.

How do you see a stride?

This is probably the most frequently asked question when it comes to jumping and Kirstin says there is no easy answer – it simply comes down to practise, practise, practise! And while it may come naturally to some people, an eye for a stride is definitely something that can be trained, believes Kirstin.
“When I’m teaching, I see riders who are quite erratic with their distances, but when I ask them how often they jump, they say they only jump at lessons, because they don’t want to jump by themselves. Well, that’s no good!” says Kirstin.
“You only need to jump a rail on the ground to improve your eye for a distance. If you feel like you’re going through a patch where you’re not seeing your distances, put a rail on the ground and practise every day while you’re doing your dressage.”
Kirstin’s other top tip for learning how to see a stride is to count out loud six strides from EVERY jump. It doesn’t matter if you can’t figure out exactly where six strides is at first. However, by consistently trying to count the six strides, you will begin to get a feeling of whether you like the look of the distance or not – it’s all a question of brain training and discipline, believes Kirstin.

The concept fence – ditches

Because Marmite hasn’t been especially brave about holes in the ground in the past, Kirstin takes the chance to school Julie over a small ditch.
“People often say their horse doesn’t like ditches, but they are actually a natural obstacle and usually it’s the rider creating the problem,” believes Kirstin. “A lot of riders seem to think if they ride fast at a ditch, the horse is less likely to stop. No! It just means the horse will stop faster. That is one thing I see so much with cross-country riding that makes me really nervous – when the adrenalin kicks in and riders accelerate at the fence.”
Kirstin says ditches should be ridden in a consistent rhythm, with the leg on and a tall upper body. Six to ten strides out from the ditch, the rider should switch from two-point position to sitting tall, so if the horse props they won’t get in front of the movement, which could cause the horse to stop.The first couple of times over the ditch, Marmite is a bit sticky and chips in, while Julie is eyeing up the long stride.
“He isn’t a bold, brave horse; he’s the sort who needs to get deep and be sure. That’s his personality. So don’t think about going off the long step, because that will give you an untidy jump. If you ride for the same stride as him, you’ll be on the same wavelength. Focus more on the rhythm he’s giving you,” says Kirstin.“
It’s all about trust. If you trust that the horse will go when you get to the fence, you have complete inner calmness. If you come in thinking leg, leg, leg, because you’re afraid the horse might stop, and start chasing him, it feels frantic to him. That’s why cross-country is hard for people, because it challenges trust. If you trust an animal, you won’t hustle him or chase him.”

Using the whip

Because Marmite is still being a bit sticky about the ditch after jumping it a few times, Kirstin tells Julie to take her reins in one hand and give him a little crack behind her leg with the whip at the base of the fence. The whip should always be used behind the leg, never on the shoulder, which tends to make the horse think backwards.
“It’s all about not using a fast, aggressive ride to get over the fence, but using a positive, disciplined, rhythmical ride. Then when you get to the fence and feel the horse hesitate in the last stride, ‘bang!’ with the stick and don’t be slow about doing it,” says Kirstin. “It’s like taking a breath for me – it’s not even a conscious thought – because I don’t want the horse to leave the ground slowly and half-heartedly.”
And sure enough, when Julie gives Marmite a smack with the whip behind her leg on take-off, the jump is much more positive.
“Perfect!” praises Kirstin.

How often should I school?

Kirstin says she often hears riders at competitions proudly mention the fact that their horse has never seen a cross-country fence before, yet has just cantered around the Training. “I think – you idiot!” says Kirstin. “I take my young horses cross-country schooling four or five times before they go to a Training competition and I’ve had horses that in their first season of Pre-Novice/Novice have gone schooling every week in between competing because they’re still a bit green and gawky.
“Of course it’s a fine balance when the ground is this hard. But there’s no point in having a sound useless horse that goes out and gets eliminated! You’re better off to take your horse schooling until you feel you can go into a cross country and trust him. You can’t build trust if you don’t do it.”

Kirstin’s top tip

If you can jump a cross-country fence ‘cold turkey’ while schooling, without adrenalin, you know you have created a skill. At the same time, Kirstin doesn’t school over huge or complicated combinations with young horses. She sticks to smaller things, so if the horse makes a mistake he’s not going to be brutally punished. It’s all about training reactions.

Combination fence

Building on the ditch concept from earlier, Kirstin moves on to a ditch combination fence, consisting of a vertical-ditch-vertical. This is a Training-level combination, but while it looks innocuous enough, Kirstin says that it’s actually quite tricky.
“The horse may be looking at the ditch or trying to suss out what to do, so their focus mightn’t be on the first fence,” she explains. “The other factor is that it is downhill and the rider may be a little bit ahead of the movement.”
Kirstin says Julie should adjust her balance on the approach, push her weight down into her heel, keep her shoulders tall and chin up, so she’s in a strong position if Marmite hesitates. She should also get the canter balanced about six strides out – coming into a combination when you’re still trying to adjust the stride doesn’t bode well; it’s like driving into an intersection desperately trying to brake because you’re going too fast. “And when you fold over the first element, no Suzie Showhunter!” warns Kirstin. “Land tall, so you’re in a strong position to ride him to the ditch.”
Julie canters a circle and begins her approach, only to be told “STOP!” by Kirstin. “You were going to make a mess right from the word go, because your line wasn’t right. You need to have the horse straight and your line clear, so the horse can see the last element. Your horse doesn’t get to walk the course first – he gets a split second to absorb everything as he’s galloping towards it.”
With their line sussed and the right sort of canter on approach, Julie and Marmite make a lovely job of jumping through the combination. “Super, he jumped those really nicely,” praises Kirstin.

Accuracy fences – the corner

Julie and Marmite finish the lesson by jumping a corner. Kirstin says the key to accuracy fences is being accurate at EVERY fence you jump – if you make a habit of always asking your horse to jump right where you put him, holding your line to a corner or skinny won’t be a problem.
As with combinations, it’s important to get the right canter early for an accuracy fence – you definitely don’t want to be adjusting as you come to the corner. Once you have the canter, grow tall and focus on your line, says Kirstin.
“Think of your legs creating a train track, so the horse has to go straight between them,” she says. “And you want to get a deeper distance, because if you stand off, the horse has that split second where he may whip off to the side.”
With these instructions in mind, Julie does a super job of riding Marmite straight to the corner and he holds his line perfectly.
“Good job!” says Kirstin.

Cross Country Ditches

Marmite is a bit suspicious of the ditch initially, although he doesn’t actually stop – he just likes to get a deep spot and check things out thoroughly

Cross country whip

Using the whip at the base of the fence works wonders – Marmite jumps much more positively

Cross country confidence

The vertical-ditch-vertical combination. Marmite is clearly focused on the ditch beyond and backs off the first element (above left), but pops nicely over the ditch (right) before flying out over the final vertical with flair (see main photo at beginning of story)

Cross country accuracy

Getting the line and canter sorted in plenty of time is the key to jumping accuracy fences

Julie’s thoughts

Julie felt her lesson was wonderful – she particularly enjoyed all the help with ditches and says she will definitely be working on being more disciplined from now on.
“Kirstin is such a positive person, very patient and has a sense of humour, which are great qualities in a teacher. And the other thing I really appreciate is that she gives you a certain amount of detail, but she doesn’t give you TOO much. Some teachers feel as though they have to correct everything, which can be a bit of a head spin. Kirstin gives you things to work on that are manageable.”


Kirstin wants Julie to:
Make sure every step she rides is disciplined. “Be more particular – you need to be more focused, so that you’re in charge of every step.”
Keep up the cross-country schooling. “Marmite seems to me as if he’s genuine and wants to please you. But he looks like most horses that I see around eventing at the lower levels – their parents just haven’t done the mileage! Go out every couple of weeks and educate him.”