Angus Smales – designing cross country courses

When flying around a cross country course, you may not have the chance to think about the design but sub-consciously you’ll get a sense of how it rides. A good course design should flow nicely, allow your horse to stretch and jump at a good pace, but also test how the horse comes back using accuracy jumps such as corners & skinnies.  The course should also fit in to the landscape naturally using the features of the land to either help less experienced horses and riders or challenge the more experienced combinations further depending on who the course was designed for.

Designing a cross country course is a niche job which needs the right experience, knowledge and creativity to do it well. So we thought it would be interesting to take a look at Angus Smales’ career pathway to find out how he got involved, how he goes about designing a course and what he’s learnt along the way.

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Riding career

Angus Smales is an International Event Rider who has completed six four star events by the age of just 25. Based in Leicestershire, Angus is one of Britain’s up and coming stars. Angus started riding his first pony, a 7 hands high mini Shetland called Moffy before he could even walk. At just 10 years old, Angus was in the senior Pony Club show jumping team and in the following year got called up for the senior eventing team as well. At the age of 13, he represented Great Britain in Ireland on the Pony eventing team. Angus elected to choose horses over going to University and has been working with horses full time since 2006. The highlights of his career to date are winning the British Championships in 2011 and competing at his first Burghley in 2007 when he was only 20 years old. As well as eventing, training and bringing on horses to sell, three years ago Angus decided to follow his personal interest in to cross country course design.

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How did Angus get involved?

Having always enjoyed riding Ian Stark’s courses, Angus asked to shadow Ian to gain work experience. He spent time with Alec Lochore (who was the Eventing Manager for the London 2012 Olympic Games!) to learn on the job. Angus also won the first British Eventing Bill Thomson Bursary which was established to help new course builders and designers learn their craft and to ensure continual safety developments. Winning enabled Angus to spend time with Eric Winter (who designed this year’s Mitsubishi Motors Badminton course) and following this, Eric offered him his first real work at Keysoe Equestrian Centre designing the 80/90/100 tracks. Angus is now responsible for all the tracks at Floors Castle, at Keysoe and several local unaffiliated and Pony Club courses too.

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What does it involve?

Angus believes that time on site is crucial for getting the designs right and finding inspiration for new ideas. Initially, he spends time on the land with a notepad and GPS, walking the grounds and seeing what the land has to naturally offer to trigger ideas for fences. There is no set formula for designing a course and Angus feels that it should be an organic evolution of the existing tracks with various influencing factors. Watching how a course rides gives him ideas of how to change distances, alter angles and re-site fences. Angus will spend anything from 3-8 days on site depending on how much ground work is being carried out. Ideally this will be done over the winter so that there is time prior to the event itself to install the course and dress and flag each jump. However, when building during the winter, Angus considers how the tracks might change throughout the season. For example, at Keysoe a wet spring event will affect the ground and partly dictate where the tracks can go for events later on in the season so you need flexibility and imagination to ensure you can provide a fresh course when required.

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What has Angus learnt?

When competing, Angus wouldn’t ride a course any differently due to his knowledge about them, but he now can’t walk a course without seeing the faults or admiring the great bits and is always looking for new ideas. Angus feels the sport should always be looking to improve and become more professional across all areas of organisation. Course design involves a keen willingness to learn, acknowledgement of mistakes and ongoing development and he hopes if he proves any good at it that he can go onto designing Championships and 4* tracks in the future.

If you plan to train or compete at Keysoe this summer, let us know how you get on riding Angus Smales’s tracks! Angus, supported by some great owners, will be competing too on several super horses and already this season won an advanced section at Belton Horse Trials and has completed Bramham International Horse Trials CCI3* coming a very respectable 16th!

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