usea convention notes: level creep

One of the most interesting discussions (for me) at convention was the Course Builder’s forum.  There were some good updates on new rules (frangible pins, measurement of top spread on angled lines) and then a pretty informative discussion on “level creep”.

I first learned about level creep in 2014-ish when the proposed rule to have 1 or 2 fences on XC and stadium that exceeded the max height for the level by 2″ came up.  In my recollection, people were concerned that this constituted another excuse for level creep and making levels too challenging for the horses and riders competing at them.  My opinion of that was that if  horse is running around a 2’7″ XC but can’t safely clear one simple 2’9″ fence, then they probably can’t really safely run that BN course. 2″ should NOT make that much of  difference on a straightforward question. That opinion is even stronger now that I am more experienced at both riding and have a deeper understanding of  how courses are built and managed.


we’ve come a long way!

So, let’s start with the basics. What is level creep?  For the purposes of this discussion, I’ll define level creep as the steady increase over time of the size of fences and difficulty of questions on rated XC courses across the country.  Just in case it wasn’t self explanatory enough.

Why do we care about level creep?  It depends who you are. If you’re a rider who sees courses becoming larger and larger in front of your eyes, maybe you feel like you’re being sized out of your division.  If you’re an organizer, you are hearing people complain about your courses, and wondering how you can keep people happy and safe.  If you’re a course designer, you’re trying to build courses that help riders be successful but also meet the requirements for the level.

And maybe, no matter who you are, you’re wondering “WTF is this even real?”

this fence measures at the appropriate height for BN (2’7″ with 4″ brush)
but it is technically too challenging for the level, based on the downhill approach and jump toward the spectator area

So is level creep real? In short, yes. But also no.

The overwhelming opinion of the course designers and officials in the forum is that we see true level creep only when courses have been existing at too low of a level in the past.  Certainly, those course are getting bigger and more technical, because they weren’t big or technical enough in the past.  And this, in and of itself, is a problem.

First, it’s not fair to have riders across the country competing at the same level (be it BN or Prelim) on courses that are different sizes.  If someone is jumping around 2’3″ or 2’4″ getting their BN points while other people are only getting Intro points for that height, that is inherently not fair. (And yes, everyone acknowledge that this happens, even if sometimes rarely.)

Second, allowing riders to feel that they have become competent at a level on courses that are under-sized and under-technical is doing them a disservice when they either visit other venues or try to move up a level.  Running 2’4″ cross country does not prepare you for a real 2’11” Novice course.  This was seen as a problem mostly at the Training and Prelim levels,  because the jumps to Training and Prelim are so big.

still a nice-sized fence, but on a much friendlier straight-away and level approach

If a level at a venue is creeping up to the national standard, can that really be considered level creep?

Course designers don’t want people to struggle (or worse, fall) at any level. But that’s not all on the course designers, is it?  And making courses smaller in order to accommodate what people in the area are used to or interested in riding is doing a disservice to the sport.  So they look at their results, evaluate their courses, and adjust within the requirements for the level as necessary.

Across California, I (and other professionals and officials) have noticed courses becoming smaller and more appropriate to the level at Training and below. This is a reflection of course designers and organizers acknowledging the problems in their courses and making changes.  This is the same process that the same course designers are going through at other venues in other areas, but instead, they are increasing fence size or technicality.

beginner novice fence 3 — under 2’7″ as it’s on a downhill approach
(you measure from takeoff, not the base of the fence)

What does this mean for riders?

For me, it confirmed the idea that level creep is mostly a non-issue.  I trust my course designers and officials — who are required by the USEA to change with regularity at each venue — to keep things within the requirements of the level, while giving an appropriate challenge for the level.  But what about you?  Have you experienced level creep? Do you see it clearly at events you attend?

But it also means that our voices are being heard to make changes.  When the courses in California were too technical and too big (four-ish years ago), riders and trainers made comments on the official USEA comment forms and personally to officials.  And course designers stepped up, re-evaluated, and fixed it.

If you’re a rider who is concerned about a question at the level, there are a couple of things you can do.  First, whip out your measuring stick and measure that bitch.  Fences are measured by putting a level on the top of the fence and measuring the height from the ground at the average takeoff point (six feet away and center), or landing point (for drops).  From the base of the fence itself, depending on how it’s set in the ground and how level the approach is, there can be 4″ or oven 6″ of variation.

the same fence as above measures above 2’7″ on a level approach,
and makes a nice, friendly Novice question for the beginning of the course

Second, if you really feel that a fence is not appropriate for the level based on your measurements, approach an official or course designer.  At the very worst, the official will tell you that the fence is appropriate and that will be that.  Possibly, they will talk to you about the elements of the fence that make it appropriate within the level.  Possibly, they’ll make a change — whether that means swapping out the fence, adding sand to raise the takeoff, or removing it from the course entirely.  This goes for fences that are not appropriate for a level because they are too small also.  How many of us would complain a bout a gimme fence on course?  I never have.  But those fences also add to the perception of level creep — because if I’m jumping a 2’3″ coop at Novice and thinking that’s appropriate for the level, obviously a 2’11” table is going to be a big change for me and my horse.

During this session the course designers also discussed making themselves and their contact information more readily available and visible at events.  They want to hear from us if we have concerns, because this is the immediate feedback about their work that they need. It also gives them an opportunity to help educate riders and trainers.

This sport lives on the backs of the lower level riders.  As riders, we want to be here, and as organizers we want you to be here.  This should be fun, but it should also be the good kind of challenge.

I think there will probably always be people who complain about fence size at the lower levels — it’s just the nature of having a lot of amateurs in the sport.  Or perhaps it’s a reflection of something that I’m not seeing.  Are you concerned about level creep?  Are there aspects of this that I’m missing?


13 thoughts on “usea convention notes: level creep”

  1. level creep is a fascinating subject to me. i only ever do unrecognized events and as such have seen my fair share of way-too-soft courses (tho luckily my area also offers unrec courses that mirror the recognized courses), and agree that it’s doing nobody any favors to make jumps smaller than the advertised measurements.

    when i think of course creep tho, it’s not so much about fence size or height, as it is about style and technicality. for instance, combinations and the allowable distances between, straight v bending lines, proximity to elements like ditches, banks and water, and specific style of fence. there are certain types of fences you don’t see until specific levels, for reasons, but that sometimes appear earlier in ‘baby’ versions. baby trakehners, baby weldons walls. baby skinnies, like wedges or arrowheads.

    there was a baby wedge on a beginner novice course i walked this past fall (didn’t get to ride it bc of rehabbing horse, wah). it was essentially a skinny-ish rolltop, maybe 8′ across with BN-sized depth. but the face of it was about half that width, and centered with cutaways from that center face going out to the sides. and green shrubby plants nestled into the cutaways. the N version was significantly skinnier still.

    honestly it looked like a cool fence and i would have been fine with taking a shot at it — but i also felt pretty certain that there are few people who would think that schooling skinnies was part of preparing for everything you might possibly see at BN. that, to me, constituted course creep.


    1. Ok VERY INTERESTING. If the fence was winged by other fences I would personally say it was a fair, if challenging, question — since it would present like a big winged chevron and not so much a skinny (if I am imagining it correctly). However, you’re totally right that this is a type of level creep that I didn’t even think about! And in that regard, we’ve seen course designers and TDs stepping in to get the courses back in line with what is fair for the levels. For example, at WSS this year we had to pull a log out of the water (3 or 4 strides away, can’t remember) off course because it was too close to the water exit per a new rule.

      But yes, all very good points. And the fact that all course designers and organizers are at least 1* riders means that their idea of “fun challenge” might be a little different from the average BN rider’s idea of fun!

      Liked by 1 person

      1. yea this jump in question stood on it’s own – not nestled into a line of fences or flanked by anything else, so yea. an actual “skinny” (i use quotes bc the true width was like 8′ but that face…. that face was narrow!).

        another thought that crept into mind after thinking about this for a while was in reaction to the supposition that adding a fence 2″ above the stated maximum height for a level should be fine — that if someone can’t handle a 2″ difference then maybe they aren’t prepared for that level anyway. my reaction to this is…. the level should be the height and technicality it is stated to be. not above, not below.

        my example for why i feel this way: i know a lot of horses who are limited in height bc of old injuries or some other physical condition. we have one local adult who wins literally freakin *everything* at BN bc…. they’ve been doing it forever. but the horse isn’t allowed above that level bc of a scary past injury that almost claimed its career. is it fair to put something 2″ higher on a course that’s stated to be a lower height, without that rider necessarily knowing upon entering the division — believing the division to be within the height allowable for her horse? i personally don’t think so. i think the levels should be what they say they are, and if the maximum height is stated to be 2’7 (excluding brush fences) then… that’s what it should be.


      2. Definitely agree with all of that. I would be okay with the bigger fences on course if it were clearly stated in the rules and therefore riders knew what they were getting into.


      3. But I think the prevailing opinion on that proposed change was that one 2’9″ fence does not “prepare” a horse and rider combo for Novice the way it was intended to in the proposition. You can bang around 2’7″ all day long and not quite be ready to go 2’11” with one 3’1″ fence thrown in there if your horse is limited, had bad technique, you suck at riding as I do, etc.

        This was the same as what people said in the forum about moving up the levels. Nobody expects one level to ADEQUATELY prepare you for the next (or they shouldn’t). You get that through schooling and lessons and other hard work. But one level obviously shouldn’t trick you into thinking the next one will be a cake walk either.


  2. Really interesting. I actually though level creep meant something else so thanks for defining it. I thought level creep was putting more difficult concepts at lower levels (like combinations or skinnies or whatever). I remember reading about how upper level riders don’t think these sorts of challenges are appropriate for the lower levels just because the heights are lower and if you want the challenges, to go up a level. I really like the different challenges at the lower levels, but that’s apparently a different topic.
    In my limited experience in this area, I have seen so much variance in fence height on XC and your blog kinda explains it a bit for me. I totally agree with the idea that facing little 2’3″ jumps doesn’t prepare you for actual BN heights and would like to see more standardization across venues. For example, most of Woodside’s BN jumps are TINY and they list themselves on the omnibus as like moderately challenging or something like that. I think it’s a pretty soft course and since it’s my home base I have found myself unprepared for other venues in the past. Now I just know better. I think having more intro courses would help so that people like me who want smaller jumps can just do intro instead of having to do BN and complaining about it being “too big” just because it’s actually at height.


    1. You’re actually right — level creep includes putting difficult questions (combinations, skinnies, scary “looking” fences even though they are a straightforward ride) at the lower levels. I’m just clearly myopically focused on height and width!

      Obviously we’ll never get straight uniformity across the area, let alone the country. But having some idea of what you’re getting into at each level is really important.

      I also have to say that I love how much more you and D are eventing now!!!


    2. I also think that certain challenges should be presented at the lower levels! A horse should be able to ride a generous combination or related distance at intro. It doesn’t seem “fair” to move up in size, width, and then additionally add in combinations or bending lines! Obviously a good course designer (kinda the crux of my point in the blog) will choose softer fences for more challenging/new questions at a level, but if we’re thinking about progression, then we ought to include some of the more challenging concepts at a lower level also.


  3. There were a couple of places this year where I encountered the small jump problem on course (Training). They would throw in something my horse could step over and then ask us to jump a maxed table, and to me, that seemed unnecessary and somewhat dangerous. Give my horse the best chance to read the height of the jumps and make them all fairly similar to that height, please!


  4. So I have never heard of this, not being part of the eventing world, but you did a fab job explaining the issue. I thought it was going to be a blog post about someone you bumped into who was a little creepy. LOL! My trainer practices a very of level creep by trying to sneak up the rails when I’m not paying attention. It’s amazing how my brain will be like, “NO!” but I’m sure Knight has no concept or doesn’t even care. Good writing and Happy Holidays!


  5. Oooo this is super interesting! I think of this in another way. I’m on the east coast/midwest Area 8+2 and I can see this happening a little. I think (at least in my area) that some event venues are made to be harder/easier. We have our local HT which is practically in our backyard and only a 20min drive. It’s the moveup venue. Everything is super straightforward and basically is just a “big” version of the previous level. Like if you were going to run Novice the course is more like a big BN. This is great for a confidence building move up and everyone loves it. As a BN rider I’ve jumped about all the Novice and a few training fences schooling. It was a great move up to BN. But that’s the purpose. Confidence. The closer to the east coast there are “harder” venues. That are made to challenge you-when you’re ready. While our backyard venue is amazing I saw bigger questions at the “harder” venues. And I knew they would be maxed, level creeps. When I went to Maryland I had a half coffin, down bank 90 degree turn downhill to a cabin, big solid 2’6 upbank and a big brush that was easily 2’9 or more. That venue course is more of a challenge then my move up at the beginning of the season where there were no combinations minus a line that was maybe seven or eight strides. I think this system works pretty well. We know what venues will have a challenging course and which will be a bit easier. A problem that arises however is those people who only will run __ farm’s course over and over again. Then go to something much tougher and think it’s insanely maxed out when in reality it’s more true to the level and trying to get you ready to move up! There’s some venues I simply don’t like that are trappy or not ideal for my horse. So I just don’t waste my money on it and pick the fun events that are a good challenge for where I am in my expirience!


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