• Share:

What Goes Into Designing a Cross-Country Course?

Three Féderation Équestre Internationale course designers share strategies and goals when designing these flowing yet challenging obstacle courses.

by Emily Girard | Mar 25, 2024, 10:09 AM

According to the FEI Cross-Country Course Design Guidelines, a cross-country course “focuses on the ability of athletes and horses to adapt to different and variable conditions … showing jumping skills, harmony, mutual confidence, and in general ‘good pictures.’”

In order to achieve this, the FEI turns to course designers, who are responsible for planning and arranging cross-country courses with obstacles aimed at appropriately testing horses and riders.

Designed by Derek di Grazia, the cross-country course at the 2023 Land Rover Kentucky Three-Day Event presented by MARS Equestrian contains multiple water obstacles. Photo: Devyn Trethewey/US Equestrian

“There are many aspects of course design depending on the level,” said Derek di Grazia, an FEI course designer who has been designing eventing courses since the late 1980s, including for such events as the Olympics and the 2024 Defender Kentucky Three-Day Event presented by MARS Equestrian. “Every site is different, so it is important to understand the parameters that come with the site, as well as the different possibilities that exist.”

Di Grazia said his main goal in cross-country course design is establishing good flow, using the terrain in the best way possible, asking the appropriate exercises for the given level, and managing risk.

“Risk management is always a huge part of course design. The more you learn about how to create a course, the more you learn about how to manage risk,” di Grazia said. “It's being able to balance the course so that you are asking different types of questions throughout the course.”

The FEI offers specifications for the flow and measurement of a cross-country course. These guidelines recommend courses start with three to five fences before leading into the main obstacles, or questions. The FEI suggests that courses end with three or four easier fences off a turn, to “produce a feel-good factor” for horses at the end of the course.

Designers use different jumps with different profiles, such as jumps that are ascending, round, spread fences, and more vertical type fences. Jump location is key, but so is the profile of the jump that is being placed in a particular location. Different profiles and different types of jumps create a variety of looks and contribute to the course’s level of difficulty.

“Initially, it's trying to get the flow and the feeling correct. Once you have that, then it's about being able to put the correct exercises in the right place,” di Grazia said. “You're going to have different intensity based on the level that you’re designing for. You’re trying to create a course that's interesting, educational, that makes the athletes think but at the same time is up to the level that's being asked.”

David O’Connor, USEF’s Chief of Sport, has also been designing eventing courses for multiple decades, beginning in the 1990s. His mentors included five-star course builders Mick Costello and Mike Etherington-Smith. Like di Grazia, O’Connor has witnessed changes in the format of eventing, with new guidelines making cross-country courses less endurance-focused and calling for more technical courses.

O’Connor points out that the use of frangible, or breakable, technology also has increased. Frangible obstacles on FEI cross-country courses are inspected and approved by British research laboratory TRL to make sure they are up to safety standards. The FEI lists more information on frangible devices, including a register of approved deformable obstacles, at inside.fei.org/fei/disc/eventing/risk-management/devices

O’Connor noted this increase as positive, as it greatly decreases the risk of rotational falls.

“If somebody makes a mistake, you just minimize the risk in that whole process,” O’Connor said. “I hate horse falls, so [I support] anything that we can do to reduce them, and these types of technologies are having a huge impact on that.”

When he goes about designing a course, O’Connor keeps the viewpoints of both athletes and spectators in mind.

“I'm always looking for terrain and horses going up and down, because I think that increases their ability and their strengths about using their footwork, which is fun to watch,” O’Connor said.

Next, O’Connor tries to tie the features together, collaborating with course builders and determining necessary materials, such as logs and fences.

“You have some mounds or maybe some natural terrain that you want to tie in together and make sure that those are spread out through the course, not just clustered all together,” O’Connor said. “Then you figure out what materials you’re going to use. The modern-day world has gone into portable fences, so people can move them around instead of having something that's more permanent.”

Ian Stark, USEF’s U.S. Eventing Team European High Performance and Cross-Country Advisor, designs cross-country courses and mentors other equestrians and designers. Photo: Myah Vasquez Photography

O’Connor explained that the partnership between course designers and course builders is “a huge part of the process.”

 “The top guys are the artists. Working with the course builder is really an important part of trying to create whatever that vision is that you have and then you go from there,” O’Connor said.

Di Grazia has a similar design process, surveying the area and creating mockups of jumps before they are built to see how they fit with the terrain. Despite this planning, courses often have to be revised during the building process.

“I like to be there when we place the jumps to make sure that they fit where you are putting them,” he said. “A lot of times, you'll design, and you'll think that you want to have one type of jump, and then you put it there, and it may not work. You have to be able to change that and do something different.”

In addition to being a five-star course designer, Ian Stark has been an Olympic eventing rider, sports commentator, equestrian trainer, and mentor for other course designers throughout his career. Currently, Stark is USEF’s U.S. Eventing Team European High Performance and Cross-Country Advisor.

Stark said that the initial surveying of the terrain is the hardest part of his design process.

“If you've got a very flat piece of ground with no natural hills and bumps and hollows, you've got to then create them. You've got to make man-made bumps and dig out ditches, and you've got to be much more imaginative with your designing,” Stark said. “If you've got phenomenal terrain, you could almost overuse all the space and drops and downhill fences, so you have to then make sure you don't get too carried away. So it's really assessing the ground, assessing the level of competition that you've got, and coming up with the best you can do.”

The actual methods by which course designers sketch out their plans vary based on the personal style of the course designer and builder. O’Connor uses the app CourseWalk but said that plans can be drawn out on anything from graph paper to the back of a napkin.

“You spend a lot of time out on the field staring,” O’Connor said. “You find the track that you want, you stare at the ground, and then see if it kind of comes to you. Then you put it down on paper.”

Stark explained that, similar to O’Connor’s, his creative process does not stop after his course is designed, as courses often need to be edited during the building process.

“You've got to be prepared to alter and change right up to the last minute, because not only have you done your own designing, but then you've got the technical delegates to come along and approve your design, and then the grand jury have to come along and approve it, and then the riders have to approve it. There's a lot of movement going on,” Stark said. “At the end of the day, it's all about a team working together, and you've got to come up with the safest and most correct option for the horses.”

Collaboration between cross-country and show jumping course designers is also essential to ensure a consistent level of difficulty throughout every phase of the competition.

“Part of the requirements for the cross-country course designers is they have to walk the show jumping track with the show jumping course designer and make sure that the two courses tie up,” Stark said. “There's no point in having a tough cross-country with a mild show jumping, so we try and marry the two together. The two designers work out a plan, and we walk the course and come up with some answers.”

O’Connor elaborated that course builders’ creativity is vital, as these courses need to have a variety of colors and shapes to keep horses interested. Horses see fewer colors than humans do, so rather than varying the color of objects, establishing contrast is more important in ensuring that horses can properly navigate a course.

“It's not just what that fence is, but what's around it,” O’Connor said. “If the fence blends into what the terrain is afterwards, there's no contrast, and then they have a hard time judging it.”

The FEI course design guidelines have an entire section covering a horse’s perspective of a course, offering guides as to what designs are easiest for horses to navigate. It dissuades designers from placing white fences before water obstacles, dark-colored rails in shadow, and downhill approaches (because downhill approaches require more help from riders to maintain balance).

“A horse is a 'prey animal' and can see forwards and backwards, so it cannot focus like an athlete, a 'predator.' Therefore, at narrow questions and corners, it sees the fence out of one eye and a wide open space with the other,” the guidelines state.

In other words, course designers must also be mindful of the fact that horses have side-facing eyes, and thus see their surroundings differently from humans, who have front-facing eyes.

Stark said his eventing experience has given him skills to use in this aspect of his course design. As an experienced eventer, Stark is familiar with the feel of a cross-country horse and what designs are the most natural and understandable for horses. Because of this, Stark recommended that more current or former eventers take up course design.

“Having ridden at that level, I know what horses can give,” Stark said. “I'm thinking from the horse’s perspective. That’s how I'm hoping that I get the distances right, and, therefore, (horses) can understand it and have time to read it.”

Another important consideration when designing courses is alternative obstacles. The FEI states that “alternative obstacles, if possible, should be designed as the same type as the direct route, and not interfering with it.” O’Connor said that these alternate routes are common at higher levels, but less common at lower levels.

“If you feel like your horse can't do the exercise that the course designer builds because of strengths and weaknesses of the horse that you're sitting on, then you could have this alternative way,” O’Connor said. “We call them Black Flag options: they can jump straight away, or they can go over here and jump this other one, still be clear, and not have any penalties except that it will take you more time. And that's the ‘penalty’ for not being able to do the straight route.”

O’Connor explained that these alternate routes have had a “huge effect” on international team competitions like the Olympic Games.

“You have such a wide variety of people that are there. Some countries play the sports all the time, but you have other countries that are not so experienced,” O’Connor said. “In some ways, you have to build two courses so that countries that don't play it all the time can get around, because they have alternative ways to get around.”

O’Connor said he believes mid-level courses, around the three-star level, are the hardest to design. He explained that these courses are in a middle ground between teaching horses and riders skills and testing their expertise.

“For example, at the lower levels, you maybe have six or seven strides between fences, so everybody has time to be able to react. Horses can see it, and riders can react to it, and you're comfortable with it,” he said. “At the five-star level, that might only be two or three strides, so your instincts get a lot quicker, and the horses have to be comfortable about being able to do that. So that bridge, that three-star level, is hard to get right.”

But, to di Grazia, the five-star level is the hardest level to design for.

“The five-star level leaves very little margin for error, so there's a lot of thought and a lot of time that goes into designing those courses,” he said.

Stark offered yet another perspective, saying he is “not very good” at designing courses for lower levels and adjusting to the educational expectation.

“I get a little bit ambitious. I wanted mini versions of what the big boys were jumping,” Stark said. “I had to learn to tone it down and give what people were expecting and wanting.”

No matter the level, though, Stark said the most rewarding part of course design comes after the competition, knowing that all participants got through his course safely.

“When you're designing, you watch every rider, and you feel responsible for every rider and every horse, and you can't relax ’til the end of the day,” Stark said. “If you watch the end of a cross-country course, and the horse finished with an enthusiastic expression on their face, that's probably the biggest reward of all. And if riders come and say, ‘My horse got better and braver and bolder throughout,’ what more can you ask for?”

“I enjoy the creativity of it,” O’Connor added. “It's fun, and it's just another thing to educate yourself in your sport. I think it makes you a better cross-country rider, a better trainer, (and) a better coach, as well as keeping your hands in what's happening in the technology in this sport.”