We all know what it is to be waiting in for an essential caller when there are urgent tasks needing to be done outside, and daylight is short this time of year. So when I was asked as a favour to walk the cross-country course, I was happy to oblige, and because any walk is wasted without a dog along, I took a dog.
The course borders a game shoot, and so we are bidden by notices to keep our dogs on the lead. Although my dogs are better behaved off a lead than many people’s are when on one, I obey the request out of politeness, and also because others walking the course might see one dog off a lead and release theirs as well.
Therefore I take the oldest dog, who is delighted to be out on his own with me.
When you walk a course prior to riding it, you walk with a particular horse or horses in mind, because they each have their peculiarities, their likes and dislikes, and so you need to study the going and the fences in the way that they would come to that particular mount.
But I have never ridden either of the horses I am now walking the course for, so I take a pad and pen to note down anything that might be helpful to any rider, as well as to sketch out the route and fences.
I am looking for the slope of the ground relative to the approach into the fence, trees that need to be steered round, patches of going that are deeper than the rest, ground that falls away or rises on the landing side, approaches that give a false line into a fence, branches that obscure a horse’s view or a rider’s.
There are fences that are ‘rider-frighteners’ but straightforward to horses, and there are fences that look unremarkable to riders but strike the eye of a horse in a different way, for their vision is different from ours, as is their perception of light.
Jumping from light into dark is a matter of trust for a horse, as is having its feet under water, for horses are very protective of their feet. Ground that slopes away on the landing side needs a different touchdown from the level landing, and therefore a different approach, while ground that slopes laterally on the approach can put inches on a fence, or take them off, depending on how you ride at it.
Then you have to note places where you can make up time if you are on a slower type of horse, but where a flightier animal might run on too freely and be hard to check back before the next fence complex, places where an under-confident horse might back off at the last minute, places where a bold horse might jump itself into trouble by landing too close to the next fence, or potentially missing a tricky turn.
Each fence asks a question, and horses answer differently according to their characters and stage of training.
It is better to walk a course alone, without the distraction of chatter from a friend, no matter how knowledgeable that person may be.
Having found your hazards and angles, then walk with someone if you have a mentor, or walk again alone, because if someone cannot help then they are better left behind.
On the day, you may ride a different route from the one you have planned, because once you have left the start you have to ride the course as it unfolds beneath you, but by then you can change the plan as it presents itself because you know all the ifs and buts.
And you need to see all this in daylight, which is why we are here, and I let the dog off his lead briefly to check the depth of the water-jumps, where he stands grinning back at me, showing that they are not that deep at all.
Back in the farmhouse kitchen, we go through my notes over tea and the last of the fancy Christmas biscuits, a comfortable cat on the table overseeing everything, and the old dog fast asleep and warm before the range.
The daughter of the house hopes to be able to walk the course if she can get there early enough next morning, but if not, at least we have done our bit to help.