Where did I leave off. Oh right, I'd sort of finished the dressage overview and now I will succinctly describe the heart of the event, aka the cross country part of the competition. If you've ever watched the track and field cross country, you are a leg up on what this phase is all about. In a nutshell you get on a horse, you bolt out of a start box and you gallop out in a field and you jump fixed obstacles then you cross the finish line. Amen. Now certainly there is way more to it than that. Certainly, but if someone were to ask you what equestrian cross country was you could say that and no one could contradict you. If you have to always be right then you would say that.
If, however, your interest is piqued read on. So the day starts early because you either have to be on your steed and warmed up before your assigned "ride" time or you have to feed your horse, clean your stall, stress, yell at people or what ever you need to do. The ride time is when the organizer has decided you must leave the start box and begin your cross country ride. You are also assigned ride times for dressage, so you are told what time to be where to perform by some arbitrary method for two out of three phases, but usually you are on your own for the last phase when you are trying to pack up to go home, take off bandages, remove poultice and be in the ring to show jump before the starter has a stroke screeching for you to be "on deck". But I digress.
Getting ready is a complicated ritual which involves getting dressed in your "lucky" breeches, putting your socks and boots on the "lucky right or lucky left" foot first, digging through mountains of "I might need this stuff" to find your "lucky" whip and kissing the front of your helmet (I saw Mike Smith, race jockey, do that. At the time of this writing, Mike Smith had ridden Zenyatta to a 19 out of 19 winning streak so I think it is a ritual everyone should adopt so here it is). You need to take a couple minutes here to walk around and stress a bit. If you have barn help, you will go watch other riders on course so you have yet another opportunity to freak out. Then you have to clean your horse, unless you are a big shot and have someone who does that for you, then you have to put your horses boots on by yourself, because that's what is done. Then you walk around and stress out a little but more. Then the saddle pad, saddle, breast plate, running martingale and bridle go on. Then the bridle comes off because you forgot to change the bit, because you always need a special bit for cross country. Then you have to take the saddle off and reposition it, because you couldn't possibly have gotten that right the first time. Then you run to the Porta Potty, because, well you figure it out. Depending on just exactly how much of a big shot you are you may repeat this last bit several times. Since smoking has become such a no no, you have to have the Porta Potty run to take up the time when you would have been aggressively chain smoking and being a cow to everyone.
So then you figure it must be time to get on. At this point you will either be about three hours early, or your time will have started and you will still be at the barn which is easily a 10 minute hack to the start box. Once your time comes, they start the clock whether or not you there, and since it is a timed event it is bad if you are not there. If by some weird set of circumstances you have a working, organized crew who will get you on your way to the warm up before your start time, you will get on your horse and make it say half way to the warm up before you realize you have forgotten your medical arm band* and everyone gets all excited if you forget your medical arm band* so you have to gallop madly back to the barns and begin a frantic search for it, because God only knows you couldn't possibly have put it somewhere where you could find it. Then you will have to pee...again or whatever.
Let's just assume from this point you eventually arrive at the warm up area in time to walk, trot and canter around and have a few warm up jumps from the practice fences provided. Depending on how much of a big shot you are the few warm jumps will range anywhere from three to three hundred. Much like in the dressage warm up, this is the best place for viewage. I have very scientifically categorized and rated the turn out in this phase. I could go on and on about it, but I do believe I will save that for a time when I need to get that bit of snarky off my back. Oh, turn out is the pleasing (or not) look you have assembled for your shirt, hat, breeches, gloves, saddle pad, boots etc. etc. etc. And how clean and shiny your horse is, and how clean your tack is. Having been to Wal Mart, you just use your imagination to envision the endless extremes and interpretations of what tasteful is. Right.
So now you've done your warm up, and depending on who or if someone has helped, you either feel super confident and raring to go , or you are a mass of sobbing jello. Now someone will bellow that you have one minute till your start time. Which is your clue to go calmly to the start box where you and your horse will stand quietly while the time counts down. When they say go you may leave the box and ;you should do so at a canter from which you can build on. Not that any of that happens, but that's what is written in the books I've read so it must be true. Anyway what really happens is you get about half way to the start box and your horse will realize that all the horses left in the warm up are it's best friends even though just a few scant minutes ago he hated all the other horses breathing his air and has spent an inordinate amount of time kicking, biting, and striking out at any and all who dare to come near. And having realized that he has only you for companionship, he will drop his neck in an amusing kind of wiggle and spin violently and high tail it back to the safety of numbers. This will go on for some time. Eventually you will get in the start box, and three, two, one Go! you will be off.
The course. Depending on whether or not you are a big shot your course will vary by level of technicality and just plain difficulty. There are several levels in which you can compete. Common sense and a host of rules and regulations will dictate what level you are doing on this day. Normally the course designer will have given you a couple "let's get going, confidence building" couple first fences at all levels. This is also handy if you have begun your course way after the time has started and you don't have the opportunity to warm up as above. You have a wide variety of fences to negotiate. Among your options may be any of the following: coffins, drops, water, ditches, fallen logs, broken bridges, banks up and down but regardless of the kind of fence they will appear h.u.g.e. and i.m.p.o.s.i.n.g and depending on how many of these things you've done really really scary.
Now to make things even more interesting, you are allowed to walk your course as many times as you want. You can wring your hands and gnash your teeth and analyze and over analyze and generally work yourself into a proper lather, BUT, you don't get to show your horse any of the boogies out there till you dart out of the box. Sweet huh? So off you go.
The idea is to go exactly as fast as the optimum time. At the lower levels this could be anywhere between 300 and 450 meters per minute. You will probably move along at this pace for four or five minutes, and you will have to allow for jumping which may involve a little preparation before a fence or combination of fences or turning situations and the like. So you need to have a pretty good idea where you want to be on your "minute markers". Minute marking is a time consuming, tiresome exercise whereby you walk your course with either a meter wheel or GPS and when you've gone say 350 meters and you're supposed to be traveling on your horse at 350 meter per minute you will make some complicated note as to where you are and know that when your stop watch goes off on the minute you should be at such and such a place. You will do this for the rest of the track marking and memorizing. Then you will meet up with all the other people in your division and you will discuss where the minute markers are and there will be a general consensus making your work of the last hour or two redundant. Of course you must remember to turn the watch on before you leave the box or the whole exercise is for naught.
If you have a stop, the time continues. If you fall off you are eliminated. If your horse falls touching shoulders and hip, even if you stay on , you are eliminated. If you ask directions or are randomly given directions or suggestions you are eliminated. If you thought this would be a good time to listen to your Ipod or talk or text on the phone you will be eliminated. And don't even think about using a two way radio cause, guess what? elimination. So it's a good idea not to have any problems. That way you can gallop around, jump the jumps, negotiate the finish flags and bore everyone spitless with your brilliant, worthy of Olympic coverage, once in a lifetime, foot perfect round.
Now you will return to the barn and spend the next three to four hours cleaning, icing, walking, icing, wrapping, unwrapping, icing, poulticing, re wrapping and clean some more. At about midnight you will return to the barn to annoy your horse some more with a evening stroll, a jog to see if there is any evidence of soreness, and depending are what you think (not a good idea) you will unwrap, check for heat or swelling, stress, re wrap and fret the rest of the night. If you are a big shot someone does all this barn stuff for you, but you still get to stress and fret.
In the morning you will arrive at the barn a little bleary eyed from too much celebration/commiseration and too little sleep and repeat the midnight exercise all over again. But now you will have the opportunity to practice your mind reading skills to ascertain when your show jump ride will happen. Naturally there is a ton of material for this phase as well, so you'll have to wait for the next gripping episode.
*Medical Arm Band. A little form which is housed in a plastic jacket with six miles of Velcro that does not velk. You fill the form out with lots of lies like your age and weight. It will also list your non-existent blood type, your allergies, all your recordable accidents, which, depending on how big a shot you are, will not have enough lines. It will also list your primary care physician, insurance and a host of personal data that you’d rather no one know about. It will also ask for your name. Sticky wicket, you have to wear your own arm band, not someone else's, even though you can’t find yours and you’re late and you have to be at the start right now. The organizers and the police, I mean Ground Jury get really pissy if you aren’t the same person as is on your arm band. You try to wear your arm band on your, wait for it, arm. That’s why it’s called an “armband.” You have to wear your arm band when entering any jumping phase at an event.