Monday, October 3, 2011
On September 30th, there was a course design clinic offered at UNH with Richard Jeffrey. For those that don't recognize the name, this was the man that designed the stadium courses for WEG, Rolex, and Burghley, just to name a few. His credentials are simply too many to list and if you want to learn from one of the best, he's the guy to listen to.
It was an all day clinic, running from 9:30am to 4:30pm and including lunch. The first half of the day took place in a lecture hall, going over theory and rules. We also discussed the process that Richard uses to design a course and some tricks that he's picked up along the way. He described course design as being similar to having 'feel' on a horse. You can't teach feel, you learn it during time in the saddle. The same can be applied to course design. He said that sometimes he'll move a fence and he's not even entirely sure why he did. It just felt like it needed to be moved.
There is a lot of theory to cover in stadium course design. We covered the different types of fences and their relative difficulty, the importance of lines, and striding. Some of the theory was more applicable to designing courses for something the size of Badminton, but much of the theory applied to lower level courses as well. I particularly liked the comment for designers to not try to be clever. The point in eventing is not to see who you can get to have a rail, the point is to give them a test in the specialized phase of show jumping.
There were a couple points that stirred up debate with his primarily eventing crowd. The most contested was the idea that each level should have their own course, rather than the common practice of having one course for all levels that is raised and lowered as needed. As he put it, you don't have a Novice rider ride the same dressage test as the Preliminary rides but with the first and last moves removed. A Preliminary combination should be given a more technical course and a Novice combination should have a simpler course. I personally agreed with the idea, but it was not a popular one, particularly with riders showing multiple horses and trainers with riders at multiple levels. It does make course walks more difficult, but since all of the fences were basically in the places where they would be I thought it was perfectly manageable. Of course, that could be my h/j background talking.
After lunch, we went outside to build the courses that would be used for the UNH horse trials. We went over selecting materials and how to lay out a course. With a ring crew of fifty people, it was pretty quick business to get the jumps built once the top rails were all in place and measured. We spent a couple hours getting the fences measured, squared, adding fill, and walking it until everyone was comfortable with what was being built. We also went over how courses are measured, walking along while the distances were wheeled. The courses were sweeping with inviting turns, making the most of the small arena. Richard mentioned that this was the smallest arena he had ever designed for, which put things in perspective when I looked at the arena and thought it was a good size.
In many ways the clinic was a great success. Having a process and theory to help build out courses that ride well can do nothing but help. I definitely feel better equipped to try my hand at course design for schooling shows or around the barn. It was interesting to get the perspective of someone that doesn't accept 'that's how it's done' for an answer and challenged us to look at the phase differently.
It wasn't a perfect clinic. It was a bit awkward at points when he was faced with the realities of a horse trial that doesn't have huge sponsors. Richard was uncomfortable with the heavier show jumping rails and even with the location and footing of the arena. The decision was made to make the fences at maximum height and width, due to the trial being at the end of the season. The TD and organizer were on board with this, and there were no protests logged by anyone. The actual courses were beautifully designed, but probably more challenging than most of the riders going to UNH were expecting. UNH is usually seen as more of a friendly move up event. Richard had no way to know that, or to know who was entered at the event.
Six horses were eliminated on the Preliminary stadium round between the Preliminary division and the Preliminary/Training division. I've never seen carnage like that in stadium. Zero eliminations in Training but a heck of a lot of rails. Four eliminations in Novice. By the time Beginner Novice went in the word was already out that Cross Country was being shut down due to the deteriorating conditions (non-stop rain all day) and it was now just a two phase. What caused the carnage, the rain or the courses? I think both. The actual courses seemed to ride well in terms of the turns, but maxed out was too much of a question for the riders that were there that day and in those conditions. I had two rails, which for Fiona is rather unusual. Was it the course? The line between 4 and 5 didn't ride well for anyone and with a square oxer at the end, she tipped the front rail with her back legs. That rail went for about half the rides, making me think something was up. The second rail was all me, overriding due to my concerns with the footing.
I liked the courses, I enjoyed riding mine. I saw some mistakes and rough rides that came from people not used to seeing the questions asked. People cutting inside of an island and giving themselves a terrible line to a fence and then having the rail. The questions weren't difficult in and of themselves, but I think it was something the eventers weren't used to seeing. With all of the rain I wish they had dropped the fences a hole just due to the footing, but I did sign up for Novice and that means I have to be prepared to jump a 3' course.
What next? Will this have any kind of influence on designs in the area? Will there be a movement toward having individual courses for levels? I'm thinking there won't be any significant change. It's a case of bad timing, but after the carnage I don't think anyone will be jumping on board with the new ideas. It's a pity since I'd like to see more courses like what I rode. The questions were straight forward, they just took a rider that knew how to handle them. I didn't get stuck in any corners, I always felt like I was being presented for my next fence. The courses were probably more demanding than most of the riders were expecting, and combined with the height and conditions, they took their toll.
Richard made a comment that the USA is losing their medals in the stadium phase and fixing that had to start at the grass roots level. I agree completely, we need to stop lowering the fences and making the courses easier. We need well designed, challenging courses to make us more savvy in that phase. Hopefully the organizers took notes on what was said and we'll see courses that ask those questions again next year and hopefully the competitors won't be caught off guard this time.