If you have ever watched any jump racing, you will no doubt be aware that there are several different types of jumps that can be used during the events. Whilst the likes of cross country events use all sorts of different obstacles and the things that horses need to jump in eventing can be a myriad of various things, we are concerned specifically with the materials that are used to make up both hurdles and fences on National Hunt courses. There is a difference between the two, which is why hurdles are what younger and less experienced horses tend to jump.
Fences, on the other hand, are used as obstacles that the more mature and experienced horses have to take on during their journeys around the racecourse. Anyone that has ever seen the Grand National or the Cheltenham Gold Cup will know just how dramatic an impact a fence can have on a horse’s progress around the course. Indeed, an inability to get over a fence can cause shocks in the eventual winner of races, which is why they are seen as being the most thrilling obstacles that are used in the world of horse racing.
The best place to start is by having a look at hurdles. The smaller of the two obstacles used in jump racing, hurdles still boast a minimum height of three foot and six inches, so it’s not like they are tiny.
At the time of writing, 40 different racecourses around the United Kingdom host races involving hurdles. If a race is going to use hurdles then it needs to be at least two miles in distance and have a minimum of eight of them during the course of the event. They are seen as the perfect obstacle for young horses learning to jump.
This is because they are made from small branches, which are known as brush, and have a degree of flexibility to them. Whether you’re talking about young horses or those that have previously run over the flat and are making the transition to jump racing, the hurdle is an ideal way for them to learn their craft. That is because those that don’t quite get the height that they need on their jump can kick into them and they are likely to give way, such is the extent to which they are flexible and able to move when under pressure.
How Fences Differ
As you might well have figured out by now, fences are a different beast. They are the larger of the two obstacle types, having a minimum height of four foot and seven inches. These are the obstacles that are used in steeplechases, which are seen as amongst the hardest race types that National Hunt events can offer. They are also featured in raced across 40 courses around the UK, with the distances of said races ranging from two miles to four and a half miles. They tend to be made from a mix of birch wood and spruce.
Horses need to have mastered the art of jumping over hurdles before they are able to progress to fences. It would be cruel and entirely wrong to ask a young horses with little jumping experience to move straight to trying to jump fences, given the lack of flexibility in the materials used to build them. Only once a horse has mastered the technique needed for jumping will them move to take on fences. The good news is that fences allow for thrilling races, given the tricky nature of making it over them leading to falls and unseated riders.
When it comes to the Grand National, the fences used to be made of wooden stakes that were topped with spruce. Though the topping allowed for some leniency, the wooden stakes made them dangerous. As a result, developments in technology have allowed changes to be made to the jumps. Nowadays they are made of what is known as ‘plastic birch’, which is a layer of synthetic shrubbery about 15 inches tall that is placed on top of a lower wooden fence. Spruce is then placed on top of that and is around 14 inches deep.
Why They Are Used
You might well wonder why, exactly, hurdles and fences are used in racing. Certainly that is something that animal rights activist ask on a regular basis, wondering why it is that horses are asked to get over them when they pose such a risk to them.
Mostly it is because before the creation of National Hunt Racing horse races would be arranged ad-hoc between different points – often between churches in two different towns (hence the word steeplechase). Along the way the horses would have to jump natural obstacles like hedges, brooks, water ditches and other things. Indeed, you may recognise many of the names of the famous Grand National fences reflect their origins before it was run on a formal racecourse, e.g. Beechers Brook.
Therefore, modern jump racing reflects those origins. Horses also jump obstacles naturally and while they need to be trained to jump specific human made hurdles and fences it is something a horse does out of instinct and so it was incorporated into racing.
In the modern day the answer as to why we still have fences is that they are used in order to challenge the jockeys and their mounts, adding a sense of difficulty that make jump races much harder for horses to cope with than simply flat racing. Those horses that are incredibly quick on the flat will struggle when fences are added to the race.
The materials used in hurdles and fences have changed over the years, making them much less sturdy than they used to be. Not only that, but the heights of fences have been lowered, with the specific aim of making it as safe as possible for the horses to take on the jumps. Whilst there are still deaths every year, there are far fewer than there used to be and the Jockey Club is constantly working to make things safer and safer for the animals that take part in jumping events. It will never be risk-free, but mitigating the risk as much as possible is key.
Noteworthy Hurdling Events
There are numerous different hurdling events that take place around the world, with Cheltenham boasting two of the key ones. The Champion Hurdle takes place during the Cheltenham Festival and is run over two miles 87 yards. During the running, there are eight hurdles that horses need to get over in order to stand a chance of winning it. It is the last leg of the Triple Crown of Hurdling, which also includes the Fighting Fifth Hurdle at Newcastle Racecourse and the Christmas Hurdle at Kempton Park Racecourse.
The latter race is seen is something of a trial for the Champion Hurdle, coming about three months before it and offering a glimpse into the horses that are likely to be competitive at the Festival. The Festival also boasts the Stayers’ Hurdle, which is run over two miles, seven furlongs and 213 yards. That has 12 hurdles for the horses to jump, which is why it is considered to be the leading long-distance hurdle event during the National Hunt’s racing calendar. Such is its import that it is the feature race on Day Three of the Festival.
Noteworthy Events Over Jumps
Whilst the most famous hurdling events are only likely to be known particularly well by people that watch racing with interest, the same is not true of the most famous jump racing events. Whilst the likes of Australia and the United States of America might claim that they also have jump racing events that are worthy of a mention, there are really only two races that fit into the category of being world famous: the Grand National and the Cheltenham Gold Cup. The former race is often referred to as the ‘World’s Greatest Steeplechase’.
In fact, such is the extent to which the Grand National is considered to be a test of a horse’s ability to cope with the challenging nature of the jumps, the fences themselves have become famous over the years. Names like ‘Beecher’s Brook’, ‘The Chair’ and the ‘Canal Turn’ are enough to strike fear into the heart’s of talented jockeys. It is run over four miles and 514 yards, with 30 jumps in place over the two laps of the course. It has been called the ‘ultimate test of horse and rider’, thanks to the difficult of the fences on offer.
The Gold Cup, meanwhile, is the blue riband event that takes place on the final day of the Cheltenham Festival. It is the race that the rest of the meeting builds towards, with all of the best horses, trainers and jockeys desperate to win it at least once during their careers. In truth, it is less challenging than the Grand National, on account of the fact that it only has 22 fences that need to be jumped during the three miles, two furlongs and 70 yards of its running. Even so, it is still a challenge for the horses and jockeys concerned, which is why it is so highly regarded in the industry.