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Setting The Standards

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Learn How to Design a Hunter/Jumper Course for Your Arena

By Kathryn Selinga



Setting up a jumping course, whether for practice or a schooling show, can be a daunting task. There are a number of factors and details that go into each track that must be considered to provide a safe experience for equestrians and their horses, including striding, arena space, footing, and more. To break down the components piece by piece, we talked to 1996 Olympic Course Designer and FEI licensed "O" Jumping Course Designer, Linda Allen, and Professor of Course Design and Construction at Centenary College, Tara Clausen.


Safety First

Above all else, Allen suggests that those planning on creating a course should seek the advice of a licensed designer. "Anyone setting up a course for a competition, whether it's a little one or a bigger one, should take the opportunity to work with a licensed course designer two or three times to get insider tips, and so they don't inadvertently get someone hurt or send someone backwards in progress," she says.

Next, there are certain features that every course, no matter the discipline or difficulty level, should have. "There are two overriding principles when you set up jumps," she continues. "Number one, they're safe and number two, whatever you set is appropriate for the occasion—for whatever show or class it is, and the level of experience the people jumping the course will have. And I think it's really important that you have both of those things. If you meet those two objectives, then you won't go wrong."

Clausen agrees. "Any course should have the appropriate distances [between fences] so that it's safe, and have safe equipment as well, including rails and cups. The United States Equestrian Federation (USEF) now requires safety release cups on oxers. Schooling shows don't, but if the
organizers have them or have access to them, it's a good safety practice."

"The number of falls, especially horse falls, has gone down dramatically [since making breakaway cups mandatory at rated shows], because the pole will get out of the way…to me, this is as important in schooling as it is in a competition. You don't want to turn a mistake into an accident. Any horse can make a mistake and you don't want to turn that into an accident and have either horse or rider hurt," adds Allen.


The Basics

When putting together a track, it is also important to know who your riders will be so you have the appropriate number and type of obstacles. In hunters and hunter equitation, there are typically eight fences, which includes each jump in a combination. "Basic elements of the hunter course would be a single jump, direct lines, and something that's going to encourage a flow to the canter…a hunter course should use distances that are the same so that the horse can pick up one canter and stay the same from beginning to end. And a hunter course should be fairly basic in terms of the questions that it's asking, because you really just want to give the horse the opportunity to jump well," says Clausen.

"When you get to an equitation course, that's where a bending line becomes very appropriate; potentially with something like a rollback turn somewhere on course, and possibly including an in-and-out or a combination," she continues.

In jumpers, there is an eight-fence minimum, and combinations are only counted as one question. Most courses have around 10 obstacles, according to Allen. There is also a six-jump minimum for jump-offs.

When planning, you should also make sure you have the right amount of equipment for your needs. "You can't design a course with 15 obstacles if you only have eight to work with, so you have to know what you have to work with and be flexible," says Allen. 

On the other hand, if you have ample equipment, that can work to your advantage. "A lot of times what I like to do is, if I have the space, include additional jumps that I may or may not use in each individual course. If I'm setting for a horse show where we're doing different divisions or different trips, I might have a quarter line jump that I use as the first fence in the first round, but then I don't use it in the second round," Clausen explains.


The Setting

Once you are familiar with the elements and equipment that you'll need, it's time to think about the environment that you'll be working in. "If you're building a course in a 70' x 120' indoor arena, you're very limited in size and therefore limited in what you can set. Having a 200' x 250'  area in a field someplace, that's very different. And if you create the same course for both, it would be inappropriate for one or the other," says Allen.

So what should you do differently? "Some of the things I tend to do for a smaller ring or an indoor arena, where the horse's step is going to tend to shorten, is I wouldn't set on a regular stride…if you set a five stride line at 72', you're going to end up with maybe half of the riders adding in six and potentially chipping in, and some of the riders doing the five and leaving long or having to battle to do it," says Clausen.

"What we actually do at Centenary that helps [in the indoor], is we have 10' rails instead of 12' rails. So that can be something that, when you're working in a smaller space, can be really handy—just go down to those 10' rails, and it does make a substantial difference and gives you room to work around the jumps without feeling like they're in the way," she elaborates.

Appearance is also key, and, believe it or not, indoor and outdoor rings require different decorating and filling techniques. "[In a small indoor arena] you have to be careful that you're not getting too wide, so you'd want to use things that go in front and back of the wings and not stick out too far…maybe just use something that hangs on the wings, but that would be about it," details Allen. "Where in big, outside arenas, especially if you don't have too many jumps to fill up the space, you would build up each jump to use up a little more real estate and give the impression of the arena being more complete, rather than looking too empty."


The Arena

While an outdoor versus indoor setting plays a large part in your course design, the shape and size of your ring are just as important. "The easiest arena to work with is rectangular, because that's what we see most often, and a normal size is somewhere between 120' - 150' wide and 200' - 300' long," says Allen. "That's the ring that [a beginner] would have the easiest time with because pretty traditional hunter courses fit in it. You have to be more experienced to come up with things that ride as smoothly and easily, especially for novice riders, if the ring is more square or has a different shape."

But even the most basic arenas can throw you for a loop. "Even if it's rectangular, you need to know if the ends are rounded or square, because with very rounded ends, you can't use the same number of strides on the long side of the arena, because you run into the curve—so that's a factor," explains Allen. "And what's unique is sometimes, as a course designer, you get thrown by little things like a drain in the middle of the arena, or trees in a field, if it's outdoors."

The size and shape of the arena don't just factor into how many fences can be placed in a course, but where they are set up as well. "The track is what determines how long the course is. In a small arena you'd be lucky to get two jumps up the long side, so you're going to go up and down a number of times. In a field, you don't want to go the length of the arena, come back, the length of the arena, come back, and so on—you'd do more short diagonals, utilizing across the arena," says Allen. 

"Whether you're setting for practice or horse shows, especially if you've got a smaller ring, pay attention to how far off the corner your jump is, coming out of the turn to a line. A basic rule of thumb is you always want it to be at least three or four strides off the corner so that the rider and the horse have the opportunity to get out of the corner and get straight before they're getting to the jump," adds Clausen.

The same can be said about the type of obstacles used. "If I was going to add a liverpool or something of the sort, and I thought some horses or riders might have an issue with it, I would just make sure that I didn't put that in a corner, or a complicated or bending line—and I wouldn't put it at the end of the ring on the short side so they'd have the opportunity to get a good, straight approach," she continues. 



Now that you've considered the size and shape of your arena, plus the setting, you're good to go, right? Well, not quite. Believe it or not, the footing and terrain also play a big part in how you should design your course, as it can have a substantial affect on the stride of your horse. It's such a big factor, in fact, that Clausen begins her Course Design and Construction class with typical distances and things that can change a related distance on course, "like going uphill or downhill; toward the gate or away from the gate; the footing—whether it's hard, soft, deep, that type of thing," she says.

"Generally, fairly solid footing will lengthen the horse's stride. They'll get across the ground better. However, older horses will have the opposite reaction with harder ground," says Allen.  "Deep ground pretty much consistently shortens horses' strides…going uphill,
their stride will shorten and their ability to jump the width of
an oxer lessens. Going downhill, you would think it's the opposite, but it actually varies…the ground needs to be fairly level and have fairly good footing before you can jump full width."


Logistics and Preparation

No matter how much knowledge you have of course design, nothing can replace proper preparation to make things go as smoothly as possible. "It's really important that you draw the plan to scale on a piece of paper—draw out the arena really accurately, and then when you draw your obstacles on the plan, draw them to scale. So the size of your obstacle in your indoor arena is going to be much bigger than a big outside arena…you have to have it accurate in order to know what will fit. Otherwise, you're going to be standing out there in the middle of the arena setting up and discovering that your calculated course just doesn't fit that well," says Allen.

"Once I have it on paper, what I'll always do is first just lay out a rail everyplace that I want a jump, so that I don't have to move a lot of stuff more than once. So I'll actually lay out my entire course with just poles on the ground and make sure that what I had in mind and on paper does indeed fit in the ring the way that I like it to, so I can make any modifications before I have my standards in place," adds Clausen.

If you'll be setting up multiple tracks for different
disciplines or levels, be sure to take that into account as well. "If you're changing from hunters to jumpers, you
should know which jumps will stay in the same location,
and if other jumps are moving to other locations. A lot of people start out and they draw a different plan for each course, and then when they're building it, they're shuffling through a lot of paper. Most experienced designers will
put all of the courses on one piece of paper and use
different colors to mark the numbers on the course," explains Allen.


The Final Touch

Keep in mind that oftentimes, riders who are participating in schooling shows will move on to rated shows at some point, so it's imperative to simulate one. "If you're doing a schooling show, then it should be preparation for a rated or licensed show. If it's very different conditions, it's not good preparation," says Allen. 

And, most of all, both of our experts stress the importance of safety. "Make sure the safety of horse and rider is number one. You don't want to over face your riders and horses. Of course, when you're designing a course you don't always know who they are until they get there and they're jumping. In that respect, less of a challenge is more, rather than getting caught up in trying to make it too, too challenging," says Clausen. 


This article originally appeared in the November 2012 issue of Equine Journal, and is reprinted with their permission.  For more information on the magazine, please visit

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