Course design seminar

In an effort to better understand course design and maybe one day become an official, I went to a SJ course design seminar. It was free, air conditioned, and to become a qualified course designer you have to do the seminar. Andrew came to get a better understanding of courses for his judging and there was free lunch!

There were about 10 people at the seminar, despite being open to anyone interested. Every person in the room other than me was a qualified official in some way, being either a course designer or a judge. Luckily I already knew most of them!

So, get a cuppa and settle in for my 6.5 pages of notes.

The role

Course designers are responsible for the horses, the riders, themselves, the smooth running of the competition and the safety of all involved. It's safe to say it's an important role that isn't taken on lightly. A course designer has to be aware of the level they are designing for (riders and horses) and a course shouldn't be designed to trip combinations up but to test the training and ability of the combinations.

Types of courses

Young horse classes need to give horses a chance for a long and successful career. The courses should be inviting, combinations should be one stride or left out and distances between related lines should be more than 6 strides.

For kids, amateurs and ponies you need to keep in mind that the riders are green, the courses you design should prepare them for a move up in height and be encouraging. Courses should not reward reckless speed, so incorporate turns and avoid long run ups to jumps, especially at the end of a course. In classes lower than 70cm our rules say that optimum time classes should be used. Courses should be designed with this in mind.
The perfect combination of a green horse and an amatuere!

For classes with experienced horses (higher heights) you should build courses towards the highest/hardest class of the day, don't go all out in the first course. Horses should be challenged but not overwhelmed, combinations shouldn't be used as the main source of difficulty. The total combination of efforts of all the classes the horses will do needs to be considered, don't put maximum efforts on the first class.

Course design

Don't use all the material available in the same day or the same course. If you're designing for multi day shows introduce fill over the days, and if you have something you want to put in the main course, introduce it on the first day and put it away before bringing it out again, don't put totally new things in the biggest classes.

The first fence doesn't need to be up to height, put it one hole lower. Fence heights should be adjusted for the footing, if it's deep sand keep the height a hole down. If it's a good surface, jumps can be built to height.
A liverpool!

A good course should flow, and it should test the training level of the horse, and cooperation and coordination of the horse and rider, the horses boldness, carefulness and concentration, the riders judgement and concentration and the scope of the horse.

A course can be made more difficult by adjusting the obvious things like height, width, distance, and time allowed. As a rule of thumb oxers should be as wide as they are tall. The width can be adjusted slightly to increase the difficulty, but not by much. To make time more difficult a designer can wheel inside lines.
Planks like this are one of the hardest jumps for horses, it appears solid and it very upright

While a course should always be flowing and there should always be at least 3 straight strides before a jump, there are a number of less obvious ways to making a course difficult. The types and combinations of jumps can be changed. Fill can be used to draw a horses eye down, causing rails.

Changing the length of strides just slightly will over all make a course harder, especially as not all horses have a standard stride length. By changing the stride length between jumps it keeps the horses and rider on their toes.

The more strides you put between a related line, the more chance the rider has to stuff it up. That's a good thing because it means a rider will pull a rail all on their own without any help from anyone. In a double, if there is only one stride a rider doesn't have much time to mess it up. If it's two strides a rider has a chance to change something, possibly resulting in a rail.

When you design a course, it should have about half oxers and half verticals. All the questions shouldn't happen together, they should be spread over the course. The turns in each direction should be about equal, and distances should be mixed. Having variety between courses is also important.


When it comes to fill and fence colour, the surroundings need to be taken into account. Look around, make sure the horses aren't jumping directly towards an open marquee, and that the jump can be distinguished from the background. Different decoration can soften a jump and make it more inviting. Horses struggle to lock onto jumps that are a solid colour, and things that are round, wavy and curved can cause problems.
Wavy boards are spooky, and this jump caused a lot of stops

Fill should be added later in the course, not in the first two jumps. Water in a liverpool will draw a horses eye down. Placing fill lower down will do the same so to make a course more encouraging, fill can be placed up higher. However if it's a large class putting fill lower down will cause rails and help separate the class out.
See how this is lower down? In a green horse course it could be raised to be more encouraging. For the record, this is 4*

In a double fill should only be used in the A element unless it is the same fill and then it can be used in both. For doubles, placing the oxer before the vertical if a safer option.

Placement of plants, flowers pots and fill can also soften a course and help draw horses in.
Plants look nice and soften jumps. You can also see this is an unfilled B element and A has a gate in it

The seminar went into detail about how to measure distances between fences, how to do a course plan and other things regarding the building of a course. We also sat a test and designed two courses with different requirements, and it was really tricky. it's a skill that needs a lot of practice.

It wasn't exactly what I expected but a lot of the information will be useful for when I am walking a course. I definitely have a better understanding of what a designer is planning now, and a lot more respect for the job they do. It's huge!


  1. This is awesome - thanks for posting such detailed notes! This area is so interesting to me bc so much of what you have written above makes sense when I think about it, but not all of if is stuff I would have necessarily thought about or figured out on my own. Very cool way to look at things tho!

    1. Yeah, I was the same for a lot of the points too. Sometimes you just need help to take a step back and see the bigger picture! Hopefully it helps!

  2. Interesting! I was super fortunate to get to talk to the course designer while scribing for stadium at the American Eventing Championships last year and it was really cool

    1. Any oppourtunity to learn is a good one. Especially looking at high level stuff like that!

  3. That is so fascinating! Thank you so much for sharing your detailed notes! I really like how they focused on the small things that you can change to separate classes of horses and riders, instead of just jump height and combinations. This would really be a cool area of study!

    1. Yes, I found that interesting as well, especially something so small like putting a jump 30cm back, so a horse has to lengthen it's stride just a little to help spice things up a bit. i think there would be on end of possibilities to learn and change things!

  4. Really great takeaways - thank you for sharing :)


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