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?