August 2017 - Candid With Karen
Written by Karen Healey
Saturday, 29 July 2017 19:25

Course design is all about helping horses and riders get better.

I enjoyed designing the courses for the first Whitethorne American Tradition of Excellence Equitation Challenge in June and some of the questions I got about those tracks made me think course design would be a good topic for this column.

I’ve designed the courses for the USET Talent Search Finals four times, most recently last year’s East Coast final. And, along with the Whitethorne class, I’ve truly enjoyed the task. I wouldn’t want to do it on a week-to-week basis because there is not enough time to be creative, but doing it for these special classes is really fun.

Because this was the first Whitethorne Challenge, I was starting from scratch but there were familiar steps to follow as I approached it. First: what is the class being judged on? The specs dictated that it was to be “Hunter Derby type” courses, and I wanted to make sure they had enough questions for the riders and not have them be a normal hunter course.

Fence height is an influential factor. Having it be 3’3” and not 3’6” or 1.1M, you really have to screw up to make it too hard at that height. Most of the horses are so good they can cover up rider mistakes and help riders answer the course’s questions.

The fence height and having an idea of the abilities of the field, I knew I was building for both very green riders and an especially strong crop of riders in the 12-14 age bracket. They are good riders with lots of ability, but not quite mature yet. And, (Challenge creator) Georgy Maskrey-Segesman wanted to make sure the course was accessible for some of the younger riders. So, my challenge was finding the right balance.

Along with judges Bernie Traurig and Stacia Madden, I was a little disappointed to see some round-one riders try to ride a set number of strides (11) between fences one and two. There was nothing in my mind regarding distance between those fences, yet some walked it and rode it as if they had to get 11 strides in there. This part of the course is similar to something I’ll do at home or a clinic, which is build a course where the focus is one exercise that enables us to work on a specific thing, and that part is measured very carefully and precisely. The rest of the jumps are put down without specific striding in mind. They might be short, long or right on stride.

At another place on the first day’s course, I set a vertical to oxer line, with 80’ in between, intending that it would ride as a short six strides. But some of the riders were walking it as five strides. “Are you crazy?” I asked. “Eighty feet is not five strides!” I went back and made it a little longer distance. The next time I think I would write on the course plan what striding I wanted there, which I did at the last Talent Search course. I think the five-stride idea there comes from the “If in doubt leave it out” way of thinking, but I’m much more interested in how the horse jumps, not what number of strides they get. And the point of stating a specific striding on the course plan is so the riders can demonstrate their ability to shorten or lengthen their horse’s stride and still produce a good jump.

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For the second day’s course, the main feature was a large “box” made of decorated hay bales interspersed with six jumps. The box was new to a lot of people out here, but it’s been used before. I first saw it as part of a Handy Hunter course at the Pennsylvania National Horse Show at Harrisburg: the show used to publish its courses in the premium. George Morris used it one year, with some changes, when he designed the courses for the USET Hunt Seat Medal Finals at Madison Square Garden. That was much more difficult because it was only three strides across the middle, so when you had to make a turn inside the box, it was really tight.

When riders first saw the second day’s course, I think some of them were a little freaked out by it. But we all noticed significant improvements in riding during the second day. They’d gotten their nerves out of the way and those who had not ridden on the Grand Prix field before now had some experience with it. I think the riders really took Stacia and Bernie’s instruction to heart. And, from the course design perspective, you always want to see courses that contribute to improvement in the horse and rider and I think the Whitethorne courses did that. Bernie’s comment on the courses was: “They provided the opportunity to gallop and to earn bonus points for accuracy, connection and brilliance.”

The questions a course asks really aren’t new. It’s long to short, short to long, steering and accuracy. You never want to build courses that demoralize: you want them to help make the horses and riders better. I’m glad the Whitethorne tracks seemed to do that and I thought it was a terrific event.