If you don’t know much about horse racing, you’d be forgiven that it broke down into two categories: jump racing and flat racing. In its simplest form that is correct, but, as with most sports, it is actually much more nuanced than that.
Jump racing can be broken down further, with hurdle events and steeplechase races being mixed in alongside cross-country races and even bumpers, which are flat races taking place under National Hunt rules. The entire thing becomes even more complicated when you look at the different types of jumps that you can experience, too.
Rather than just being a jump over either a hurdle or a fence, steeplechase races contain a wealth of more specific jump types that add a challenge to the horse.
There is an open ditch, for example, as well as a water jump. These add their own level of difficulty to a race and are used in order to ask questions of the horses participating that having a plain fence alone couldn’t ask. Pretty much every jump racing course in the United Kingdom, if not the world, will haver its own variation on these different jump types, which we’ll look at in more detail here.
Looking Specifically At Races
The first thing to point out is that we’re looking specifically at the different types of jumps that you can expect to see during a National Hunt event. That is to say, we’re not going to be looking in detail at the various types of jumps that you might come across whilst watching a show jumping event.
Whilst that is a remarkable skill all of its own, it isn’t the same thing and the verticals, oxers and triple bars that you’ll see being used at a showjumping event are not used in horse races but are instead limited to those events.
There are some jumps in showjumping that, at the very least, are designed to look like the types of jumps that you’d see at a National Hunt racecourse. Water jumps, for example, present horses with the obstacle of water before or after a fence. Unlike on a racecourse, however, these tend to be low and wide and the water is contained in a tray. It gives you some indication of what to expect in the Grand National that a jump with a ditch or a tray of water beneath an Oxer is known as a ‘Liverpool’, after the city in which the National takes place.
The most obvious place to start when it comes to discussing the types of obstacles that you can expect to come across on a jump racing course is with the water jump.
They range in the difficulty that they present the horses with, starting with water crosses at lower levels and moving to combinations of fences with a drop into water or even a water hazard coming before the fence. The water can be no more than 14 inches in depth. Even so, the drag that it puts in the horses makes it a difficult obstacle to cope with during races.
Some horses are naturally cautious of water, meaning that a confident rider is often required. Training will usually involve building a horse’s confidence over water jumps, as well as helping them to adjust their footing in order to cope with the water. Riders will often get their horses to step into the water during their investigation of the course before a race, testing the footing as well as the depth and any other issues that might add complexity. Cross-country races can sometimes involve a water crossing, which are longer obstacles that need to be ‘waded’ through.
One of the most famous water jumps in the world is the one at Aintree that is used for the Grand National. The fence itself is two foot and nine inches tall and comes at the end of the first circuit. On the other side of the fence is a water obstacle that is about eight foot and ten inches in length, meaning that the horses need to continue their flight into order to make it to the other side and then be able to carry on their race. Cheltenham Racecourse is another venue that features a water jump, which is used for some of the big races.
Open ditches are, as the name suggests, areas of shallow ground that come before a plain fence. Typical plain fences have a spread of about eight foot for the horses to jump, but when open ditches are added that is stretched out to be about 11 foot. That means that the horses have to be able to jump even further in order to land safely and carry on racing.
According to the Rules of Racing, at least one of the obstacles faced by a horse during a steeplechase event must be an open ditch, which tells you a lot about where they’ll be found.
There are few fences in horse racing as intimidating as Becher’s Brook at Aintree Racecourse. Though it doesn’t look like much from the take-off side, standing at about four foot and ten inches, the jump’s difficulty lies in what is on the other side.
The landing side between five and ten inches lower than the take-off side, meaning that horses have to be able to cope with that lack of ground where they’d expect it to be on the landing side. In the National, it is the sixth and 22nd jump that the horses have to get over during the course.
If Becher’s Brook isn’t the sport’s most intimidating fence then there is an argument that The Chair is. Even the name sounds scary, with the fence being the reverse of what you’d see at Becher’s Brook. Here, the ground is six inches higher on the landing side than on the take-off, meaning that it comes at the horses quicker than they’re expecting.
What makes The Chair so difficult to jump is that there is a six-foot wide ditch on the take-off side before the horses even get to the fence that they’re trying to get over.