Sunday, June 26, 2022

Taking a Fence:

And How to Judge if it’s Done Well 

Zoë Sharp


By the time you read this, I will be standing out in the middle of a field somewhere, probably in the rain. (It is, after all, almost July in the UK.)


The reason for actually taking a day away from my computer keyboard may sound like a strange one, although they reckon people do things as a hobby that you could not possibly pay them enough to do as a job.


I shall be attending the Dubarry British Eventing Horse Trials, being held at Eland Lodge at Draycott-in-the-Clay, near Ashbourne in Derbyshire. Not competing, I hasten to add, nor as a spectator. Instead, I’ll be fence judging on the cross-country phase of the event.


Well, I did say it might sound like a slightly strange way to spend a Sunday, but each to their own.


It’s a very long time since I actually took part in any kind of equestrian event, but I still enjoy watching the combination of bravery and skill demanded by eventing at any level. And it’s very satisfying to know I’m one of the large number of small cogs that help the day run smoothly.


It’s a nice theory, anyway.


Safety First

The main reason you have fence judges for a cross-country event is for safety. We are there to ensure the course is clear of spectators when the next rider approaches our obstacle, and to be immediately on hand if anything goes awry.


The last time I was doing this, I managed to catch two loose horses who’d dumped their riders. One had been attempting the fence before, and one the fence after. We also ended up summoning the paramedics—always on stand-by at competitions like this—for a fallen rider, and making sure she was clear of the course as soon as it was decided she was OK to move.


OK, this is a loose racehorse rather than an eventer,
but you get the idea...

Horse riding, it has to be said, is one of the most dangerous pastimes you can indulge in, along with skiing and motorcycling. What does it say about me that I’ve been known to do all three? (Not simultaneously.) Even with the advent of body armour and air jackets for riders these days, it’s still a risky thing to do. For those who haven’t come across one before, an air jacket looks like a waistcoat, but as soon as rider and horse are separated, an air canister triggers so it explodes into a very tight life jacket around the rider’s ribcage, and prevents the ribs being crushed in a rotational fall.

Most riders now choose to wear protective body armour or an
air jacket while out on their horses, regardless of activity.

Direction and speed

The fence judges are also there, of course, to make sure that each competitor attempts the correct fence, takes the correct route if the obstacle has several parts, and doesn’t incur any penalties.


Because cross country fences, unlike show jumps, are semi-permanent obstacles, you cannot easily alter the size of them between classes, so there are often several fences of differing heights in the same spot. If the rider has walked the course beforehand, they should know which one they need to aim for. If they need a memory jogger, the fence numbers are colour-coded for each class. But there are plenty who still get it wrong.


Jumping the wrong fence, and not going back to correct the mistake by jumping the right one, results in elimination from the event. 

The coloured numbers at the right-hand side of this pic
indicate the route for different classes on the day.

To stop people galloping madly at big cross-country fences in an attempt to finish the course fastest, there is an optimum time. Most riders will try to get as close to this as possible. Going too fast will not only exhaust the horse, but for every second in excess of 15 seconds under the optimum time, the rider scores 0.4 penalties. The same penalties per second are scored for every second over the optimum time.


There is an optimum time for every event, so going too fast 
can result in as many penalties as going too slow.


By its nature, a cross-country course is a test of horse and rider. Often fences will be very narrow, and must be jumped between the flags. If the rider catches a flag with their foot, for instance, and knocks it over, it’s up to the fence judges to decide if a genuine attempt was made to jump the obstacle, or whether it should count as a run-out, scoring 20 penalties, and requiring the rider to re-present to the fence.


A second stop at the same obstacle scores 40 penalties. Three stops and you’re out, unless it’s a novice event, and then they tend to let you keep going, as long as you don’t hold up the competitors coming along behind you at timed intervals.


An example of a narrow fence. The horse must
jump between the flags.

In the smaller and more novice classes, there can be a bit of dithering before a fence. This often happens where the landing side is much lower than the take-off side, or when jumping into water, if the horse isn’t very experienced.


There can be a bit of dithering before an inexperienced horse jumps 
into water, but as long as they don't step backwards, they're OK.

Providing the horse doesn’t take a step back with any foot, and the rider doesn’t circle away, even jumping from a standstill may still result in a clear. It’s not to be recommended, though, and it will make it very difficult to meet that optimum time, which relies on a reasonable forward pace.


Of course, if we have the typical British weather—ie, downpour—it can make the ground fairly treacherous. Fortunately, many of Eland’s fences have all-weather take-off and landing areas, so even if it chucks it down, that’s one less thing to worry about.


I confess I would not like to be jumping in these conditions.
Studs in the horse's shoes to provide extra grip are a must.

At one time, cross-country fences were fixed timber, and hitting one had nasty results. These days, they have come up with frangible pins, which allow the fence to partially collapse—enough, hopefully, for the horse to recover its balance without incident.


The devices which allow the top rail to drop down may prevent a fall,
although penalties are awarded if any are triggered.

So, think of me today, with whistle (for clearing a path) stopwatch (in case someone is held on the course, so we can time their stop and re-start delay) radio, and clipboard. I shall also have bug spray, sun cream, a rain jacket, and a folding chair.


For their part, Eland provides all their event volunteers with breakfast, a packed lunch, and supper at the end of the day, as well as flasks of tea and coffee, and—if it’s a fine day—even the occasional ice cream.


How have you been spending your Sunday?


This week’s Word of the Week is nudiustertian, meaning the day before yesterday. It comes from the Latin nudius tertius—today is the third day. Coined by Nathaniel Ward (1578-1652) in his work, The Simple Cobler of Aggawam in America of 1647.



I was delighted to be interviewed this week by fellow crime author Dawn Brookes for her podcast series The All Things Books Show. Catch it on YouTube:




  1. Do you get bonus points or penalty points if attacked by a swarm of Caro Midges? Also, I believe nudiustertian is also the name of a flower (related to orchids) that looks remarkably like a naked human. I may be wrong on that one.

    1. Fortunately, the competitors are usually travelling too fast to be attacked by Caro midges. Yesterday, considering the long grass alongside the course was thigh-high, I was more worried about adders!

  2. You need a manual to keep track of all the things you've got to do. Personally I have a very bad history with horses - they always win.

    1. My father also subscribes to the Ian Fleming theory on horses: dangerous at both ends and uncomfortable in the middle.

  3. Hobbyhorses with soft saddles are the extent of my experience with any rides upon the grand stallions and mares of fence jumping.