Ah! Cross country jumping! The reason that we all get out of bed in the morning! Desp ite this being the most dangerous phase of eventing, this is the one that we like the most. However, there are more hazards to navigate than just the fences and the most stressful moments can sometimes involve the Hors’Etiquette of overtaking another competitor, being overtaken or negotiating unforeseen speed humps.
The difficulty when overtaking another competitor is that the rider being overtaken probably has no idea you are there – after all, you have come hurtling up from directly behind them. Until riders come fitted with rear vision mirrors, your arrival on the scene will be a rude shock to your fellow competitor. Most riders at overtaking speed have no problem announcing their intimidating presence at full noise, so the bellowed refrain of “RIDER COMING!!!” is a common cross country day sound. However, emitting fearsome sounds at high decibel has the unfortunate side effect of doubling the shock of your arrival, for the rider being overtaken. Not only has an UFR (unidentified flying rider) hit their radar, but the UFR is screeching and hollering and generally behaving in a very hostile way!! The overtaking rider must be aware that, in all likelihood, the rider being overtaken has had (or still having) some issues on course and is pretty riled up! Increasing the adrenaline levels of this rider could result in them making some fairly random decisions, most of which make them exceedingly difficult to overtake.
Until ordered to get out of the way by an official, the rider being overtaken is not obligated to clear you a path, so when overtaking, don’t act as if you have HRH in front of your name! YOUR timing is crucial – it is much easier to overtake a horse when you’ve got a whole paddock to do it, but most often people leave it until they are at the next fence (or worse, a string of fences) to start shouting, and then they get very agitated very quickly when the equine speed hump doesn’t take their horses back teeth out in order to pull off the fence for them!! Overtaking on cross country is just like overtaking another vehicle on the highway, some parts of the road are equipped with overtaking lanes (a whole paddock of ‘em), some parts are double lines where it is not safe to overtake (over the top of a fence) and all the rest is ‘overtake with care’.
Like everything else in life, communication is the key. Tell the rider in front where you are and what you’re doing. Use their name if you know it, or their number if you don’t - this will help cut through their focus so that they actually hear you. “NUMBER 92, I’M OVERTAKING ON YOUR LEFT!!” Clear directives, spoken authoritatively help you take control of the situation and will usually have the rider in front change their path slightly to allow you past. Again, good communication can make a stress-laden situation much, much calmer for all concerned.
So, You’re the Speedhump?
When being overtaken, you have some simple rules to follow as well. The first thing that you must do is keep your cool!! If you didn’t already know it, the fact that you are being overtaken means that things have likely gone pear-shaped. Even if you were winning before, you’re probably not now, so the aim has changed and you are now playing the game of survive-and-learn. It’s much nicer playing survive-and-learn without an adrenaline charged maniac inserted under your horse’s tail so as soon as practical and safe, change your line to move out of their way.
If the overtaking rider has left it until you are right at a fence to announce their presence, you have to make a call whether to pull off the fence or not (unless the fence judge has told you to let the rider through). If you have committed to the fence, you don’t have much of an option. It can be not safe for you to pull off the fence, because if that rider is very close, pulling hard left or right might put you directly in (their) harm’s way, and it could be potentially pretty upsetting for your horse.
Alternatively, the speed hump has no right to defiantly hold their ground and then stop at the fence and tempt the still competitive horse to do likewise. Your decision as to how to handle that damned, raucous screech of “RIDER COMING!!!!” right in front of a fence will have to incorporate the risk of your horse stopping. Spooky fences, water and ditches are definitely fences where it might be more appropriate for you to concede your path to the next rider. I can hear your brain thinking, so before you get ideas of ‘hitching a lift’ over something spooky, I should warn you that it can be classed as outside assistance and you can be eliminated. That’s not to say that you give the other rider a full minute to make a clean getaway, but don’t tack right onto the back of them and make it apparent that without their help, you weren’t gettin’ over that ditch!
Dealing with the General Public
As you are galloping madly around the countryside, you will encounter other forms of speed humps and potential booby-traps. The general theme here will also be “Keep your Cool!” so that you, your horse and those around you stay safe. The most common form of non-equine speed hump will be the course walker, the competitor walking their course while you ride yours. If you come across a course walker in the middle of a gallop stretch, resist the urge to bellow “RIDER COMING!!!!” from 300m away. Remember that the middle of the paddock is fitted with overtaking lanes, and that the speed hump has presumably got some horse sense, so change your line and go around them. Scaring crap out of that person will only result in random movement in an unpredictable direction and, likely as not, they will end up dead in front of you. If you really have to verbalise something, “Be Aware!!” or “Eyes Up!!” are good ones because the phonetic sound of those phrases means that you will be heard without bellowing like an angry bovine.
If the speed hump is in a place where they affect your approach to or getaway from a fence, or they are inconveniently located in a gateway or turning point that you can’t avoid them, then you do have full permission to shout “RIDER COMING!!!!” (or whatever phrase floats your boat). Try not to lock your eyes onto them because you tend to go wherever you look, so if you stare at the fleeing course walker, you’ll follow their movements and accidentally chase them down!! You also have a decision to make – is it safe to continue toward the fence or are you going to have a silly miss because you were distracted? If, in negotiating the speed hump, you have lost too much focus or quality of canter, you will be best to find a way to re-approach the fence. It is far easier to protest 20 penalties given because you turned away from a fence, than it is to lament the fact that someone got in your way and now you’re sitting in the back of the ambo!
If you decide to press on with your original path, you have to be able to get your concentration back on the fence, and both you and the horse re-committed to jumping. I have found that, if provided with a big enough distraction, I will return to bad habits. So, as sure as the sky is blue, if I find a wandering speed hump, I will hook-n-pull like a pony club kid and add stride after stride until no more fit! Be aware of what your habits and lurgy’s are so that you can accommodate them and ride appropriately.
As mentioned, good communication skills help you no end with managing the unforeseen hazards of cross country day, but so will a good sense of perspective. Very few of us get to play this game for sheep stations, so realising that it’s not the end of the world that a competitor held you up for 15 whole seconds when you were coming 17th in the Pre Novice B, will make you significantly less bitter and twisted. That sense of perspective will tell you that we do this crazy sport for a reason that we call fun, and that coming home intact is actually the start of success.
So, with your new armoury of communication skills and perspective, happy cross country riding (and speed hump negotiating!!)