So you're worried about going Off Course...
Updated: Feb 16, 2022
One morning last fall I was riding a young thoroughbred in the open schooling at a horse show when she began to get increasingly wound up by the other horses in the ring. It was producing the opposite effect of what I intended to accomplish by riding her in the morning, so I elected to enter a crossrail class to use as a warm-up instead of lighting her up in a crowded ring.
I saw a group of trainers and students in front of the course map and took a quick glance from horseback at the bulletin board to see where the first jump was, assuming that like all hunter courses there must be only one logical path from the first jump.
I went in the ring, picked up the right lead, jumped the quarter line single, continued to the outside line and found myself at the pinnacle of my professional riding career: I went off course in a crossrail hunter class. (For those wondering, apparently the crossrail course entailed going around the first jump of a bending line set on the outside and jumping only the out. Go figure)
The face you make when you go off course in the crossrail hunters. Photo credit: Colin Macdonald
I had to laugh when I realized my mistake, because I went from being a rider who was constantly worried about going off course to one who has apparently become overly confident in their navigational skills.
At one point in time, going off course was a very real fear and a pervasive threat to my success at horse shows. As a junior, I rarely went in the ring without some level of concern about where I was going and the occasions where I actually have gone off course are permanently seared into my memory.
Reflecting on my early junior career, I realized that no one ever actually taught me to memorize a course. It was a skill we were just expected to have as riders, and it always felt like a personal shortcoming that remembering where I was supposed to go did not come naturally. My routine consisted of looking at the course map posted on the bulletin board at the in gate, meeting my trainer for the course walk, and then being on the receiving end of what felt like a million instructions pertaining to our plan, all the while harbouring some confusion about the track itself.
I speak from experience when I say that if you aren’t confident about where you are going, you won’t have enough mental real estate left to focus on executing your plan. Additionally, if you are feeling nervous about any other element of the class, it can be detrimental to your ability to focus on things like memorizing the course.
If you struggle with any kind of show ring nerves or have anxiety about remembering your course, having a strategy that works for you personally to remember your course can help alleviate some of that anxiety, feel confident about where you are going, and allow you to focus on the rest of your plan.
The course map from the first round of New England Finals, circa 2012.
When I started riding again on my own, I was aware that I was at a disadvantage compared to when I had ridden as a junior and young amateur in a professional program: Instead of being fit from riding multiple horses a day, for the first time in my life I could relate to people who complained about feeling sore after a leisurely trail ride.
While I had significantly less saddle time and no professional guidance to improve my riding, I decided to focus on the things I could control without a trainer or multiple horses to ride and set out to improve my mental skills. Through books, magazines, and podcasts, I sought out all the information I could find about how accomplished riders approach their show day. Despite having fewer opportunities to ride and being out of the show ring for several years, when I returned to the show ring a year later it was without the anxiety that had plagued me as a junior about memorizing my course.
Stress about remembering the course is something I hear about frequently from my riding friends and even my own clients, so I’ve decided to use this blog post to share some techniques that have worked for me personally to overcome this particular anxiety.
Everyone is different and it’s important to find a strategy that works for you individually, but hopefully some part of my process resonates with anyone who worries about remembering their course.
1. Familiarize yourself with the course as early as possible.
I like to go up to the ring as soon as the horses are fed and take a picture of the course map on my phone once it’s been posted. That way, I can familiarize myself with the course prior to walking, and if I’m wondering where the next jump is during the course walk, I can always refer to the diagram on my phone. In the flip phone era of my junior years, taking a photo of the course map was not an option. Now that I am old(er) and wise(r), I never miss an opportunity to take a picture of the diagram.
Walking, then riding the course at OHJA Finals in 2009
2. Divide the course into sections.
If remembering 12 jumps seems like a daunting task, remembering three sequences of four jumps might be more manageable. For example, the course map below could be divided into the following sections:
1-2-3-4AB Single, Bending Line, In and Out
5-6-7 Diagonal Line in 5 strides, left turn to the Vertical
8-9-10-11 Roll back to the bending line, Quarter line in four strides towards home
Course map provided with permission from Hugh Crawley
3. Walk the course twice.
I like to walk the course twice, which means I am usually one of the first people waiting to walk the course and one of the last to leave.
I use my first course walk to familiarize myself with the track (referring to the map on my phone as needed) and to measure the number of strides between each jump, and then I walk it again to go over my specific plan, ie. where I intend to take options for an inside turn, and to walk the jump off course. During the second course walk, I try to visualize myself riding the course and walk at a faster pace to emulate the feeling of being on course and cantering from one jump to the next. If you’re new to riding and want more information on how to walk a course, this video from USEF provides a great introduction.
4. Identify each jump using descriptive language.
If repeating “single, outside line, roll back, diagonal” isn’t creating a vivid picture of the course in your mind, using descriptive language to identify each jump can help differentiate between different jumps on course.
The colour of the poles or standards and type of fill are both descriptors I commonly use when going over with course with my students, ie. “red flowers”, “lattice standards” or “blue planks.”
Pictured below is a yellow and orange jump I’ve always called “Sunburst” because that’s what Ainsley Vince of Linden Ridge always called a similar jump at Palgrave. While I was walking that course, I passed a group of students whose trainer called the same jump the “peacock”...to quote Shakespeare, a rose by any other name would smell as sweet!
The Sunburst Jump, aka The Peacock
5. Practice makes perfect
The more often we do something, the more comfortable we become doing it. I introduce the concept of courses early with my students by having my walk/trot students memorize and trot over pole courses. If you wait until you’re learning to jump to learn how to walk and memorize a course, you have to learn and perform multiple new skills at once, instead of practicing existing skills over higher obstacles. Similarly, memorizing two courses at once at home will set you up better to be able to compartmentalize and memorize a first round and a jump off at the horse show, rather than waiting until you’re at the show to remember two separate courses.
6. Don’t get Overconfident
If there’s anything to be learned from my crossrail mishap, it’s that there’s no shame in taking the time to study a course, showing up early to walk the course, or taking a few minutes to yourself ringside to visualize the course and go over your plan. Horse shows should be fun, and developing a process to confidently memorize courses is one thing we can all do to minimize stress at the show.