Written by: Tracy Hanes

Before you tackle the first cross-country fence on course at an event, there’s one initial factor that might present a challenge for you and your horse: the start box.

Thumbnail for The Start Box, Minus the Hysterics

Tracy Hanes photo

Even if you’ve been out to a horse trial or two and had no problems, your horse might suddenly begin objecting to going to the start box by balking, rearing, bucking or getting anxious and tense. Here is advice on how to deal with start box issues from 2007 Pan Am team silver medal eventer Waylon Roberts.

“The first couple of times you go to a horse trial, there’s a lot of activity going on and your horse may not understand or notice what happens when he goes from the warm-up area to the start box. The next time, however, he may get a little wound up if he hasn’t had confidence-building rides the first few times out.

Sometimes things go fairly smoothly at the first three events when it’s time to go to the start box, then he’s terrible at the fourth and you aren’t prepared for it. I went through this with Paleface (my Pan Am silver medal partner) who suddenly started rearing when we had to go in the box. It’s a phase many horses go through and you just have to work through it. Former racehorses who have experienced the tension and excitement of race days from their time at the track may get the sense that “Oh my god, something’s about to happen” as you start going to the start box. If you are nervous heading to the box, the horse will sense it, which could make matters worse.

You can practice coming out of the start box at home by building one using jump standards and rails, but it’s not the box itself that is the issue. It’s more likely that your horse is leaving other horses behind and heading by himself to the box and he’s started to understand what’s about to happen once he’s been to a few horse trials.

A lot of it is knowing your horse, knowing how he reacts, and how to calm him. If you’ve already done dressage and show jumping, you don’t have to spend a lot of time warming up – about 20 minutes is enough. It might be best to quietly hack around for 10 minutes getting the horse to relax, then jump a couple of jumps and head to the start box. Familiarize yourself with where horses are starting and finishing the course, as you don’t want to find yourself in someone’s galloping lane. Find a quiet place to ride and go chill out.

You will be given two minutes’ notice; don’t jump anything after that. Walk around and through the box a few times. You’ll want to be at the box 30 seconds before you start.

Have a knowledgeable, confident person with you who can lead your horse if he starts getting upset or reluctant about going into the box. You don’t want a lead shank or anything that clips to the bridle, but you could have your ground person use a piece of rope or string that can go through the bit and easily be pulled away as you leave the box. Your helper might also want to carry some mints to reward your horse when he goes in. See if your horse will stand in the box for the final 10 seconds; if not, walk in three seconds before, halt and go. (If you leave the box early, you’ll be penalized.)

You want to go from a standstill to a walk, trot and canter as quietly as you would around your arena at home. Sit up straight and start with a quiet rhythm. Teach your horse to go quietly to the first fence and approach it as if you were stadium jumping. Starting out frantically is going to wear your horse out; getting into a rhythm is the key to effective cross-country riding.”