Corners, skinnies, offset combinations-even trees in the way of an otherwise unassuming fence-all put a premium on accuracy when you're jumping a cross-country course. Negotiating them successfully requires a good plan, good steering--and, if things go wrong, a good mantra: "Don't freak out." That's what I remind myself when I get off my line to a fence. Whether I accidentally let my horse fade a little left on the approach or he jumped a little right into the first element of a combination, we're still not that far off. Making a big move to pull him around with one rein would be like overcorrecting a car in a skid: I'd compound the problem rather than fix it. Instead, I respond subtly, sitting up and using my hands and body as a whole -- literally moving both hands over and using the corresponding leg aids -- to ride him as a whole and shift him back onto the correct line, then using legs and seat to keep him coming forward into a connection with both reins and keep his engine firing.
How do I know what the correct line is? I walk the course-possibly several times. At each fence and combination, I look at the various approaches and decide which one will work best for my horse's abilities, then note visual cues to help me find that line when I'm on course. For example, I might tell myself, "I'll jump Element A just to the left of this dark knot in the wood and jump Element B right over the center support post." If a fence doesn't have obvious markings, I use a distant tree or a fence-line, figuring out how to line up with it to approach the fence correctly.
On course, I start looking for each line as soon as I come around the turn to that fence, shifting my gaze back and forth between the fence and my visual cue until I know I'm in the right place.Once I know I'm on the right line, I can turn my full attention to the fence.
As I'm finding my line, I also set my horse up for the fence by bringing him down from his cross-country galloping pace to a bouncy, energetic canter that's just a notch up from show-jumping speed. I usually start setting him up about a dozen strides away (fewer for simple galloping fences that don't require so much change in frame or pace). When a cross-country question demands accuracy, though, I want to get him "packaged": balanced and listening to me enough that I can easily steer and adjust his stride to find the right takeoff spot. Again, packaging isn't just about pulling on the reins. It's about using my whole body (sitting up and even a little behind the motion if necessary, closing my hand and putting my leg on) to shift his balance from his forehand, where it tends to go when he's galloping in the open, to his hind end-so he's in a more compact frame and has the agility in front and the thrust in back to manage the obstacles.
The two most common mistakes I see that make it tough for riders to get and stay on their line are that they don't adjust pace soon enough or to an adequate degree. If you don't adjust soon enough, your horse will come wheeling around the corner and shoot past the fence because he didn't know it was there or understand he was supposed to jump it. If you don't package him enough-don't notch the pace down enough, or don't keep his engine firing as he slows-you may not have the balance and the steering to navigate a skinny or an offset combination.
Kim Vinoski and Winsome Adante (owned by Linda E.A. Wachtmeister's Plain Dealing Farm, Inc.) were named to the USET three-day event squad after winning the 2001 Blenheim CCI*** and the 2002 Rolex Kentucky CCI****. Kim's column "Why Dressage Makes All the Difference in Eventing" appears in the October 2002 issue of Practical Horseman magazine.