An eye-popping cross country training facility is preparing to open its gates wider than ever in 2024.
Anna Bruce previews what you might expect at the Homelands Equestrian Cross Country Training facility in West Sussex
Modestly signposted and reached via a gravel track that traverses the ‘South Downs Link’, the gates of Homelands Equestrian open to a surprisingly majestic scene that is likely to attract eventing riders of all levels this year.
The Homelands Cross Country Training facility in the village of Patridge Green, easily accessed off the A272 in West Sussex, has been carved from 23 acres of what were once arable fields and part of a floodplain of the River Adur. The land has been developed and landscaped to create a training venue offering over 70 cross country fences, with each fence giving riders – and horses – a real cross-country experience.
It is the brainchild of Australian eventing rider, Ben Leathers, a BHSI and British Eventing Accredited coach, who explains “Our area is served well with flat cross-country fields or arena eventing centres, but what it lacked was something that a partnership, perhaps one aiming for a three-day-event, could jump over”.
Corners, skinnies, ditches, ha-ha, steps, water, angles, curving lines and related distances are all well-presented – and nearly all in dimensions from CIC* to fences that some riders might only wish to tackle when under the whistle.
Big earthworks to create the terrain needed big machinery
The opportunity to practice over fences such as these is rare, but in addition it is the topography of the field that further enhances the experience.
There are mounds and cuttings that are reminiscent of Blenheim and Burghley, and it doesn’t take much to imagine the kind of committed riding required to jump these cleanly.
But “It just flows” Ben assures me “You learn that, by pushing off the top over a fence, the horse negotiates the terrain and pops out. It gives you a chance to practice those combinations you might’ve been tempted to check in to during competition and the practise helps you develop your feel.”
The fences were built by the hugely respected James Willis, who also had a hand in creating the naturalistic topography that provides numerous ups and downs to negotiate around the course.
“James has such insight, he just scribbled the plan of mound elevation, steepness, breadth on an A4 sheet!” says Ben.
That plan was then handed to incredibly skilled landscape developers who had previously honed their expertise by building golf courses. They also provided the input to sow appropriate grasses for both wildlife diversity and rideability and Ben then added a chalk-draining gallop track running around the perimeter of the field.
There’s also an amphitheatre style setting around the water jump, with newly planted lime trees that can add a different challenge on the approach, while on take-off, or step down, the landing is secure and kept at an optimal depth to encourage the horses.
Flagged and dressed, newly painted and with the grass cover at an optimal length, the course simulates a competition and, with so many lines and options available through the combinations or around the field, you get an inkling that this facility will help train a horse’s ‘flag-sense’.
“Last summer I practiced mowing various lines into the grass to give riders a guide but we also have the opportunity to re-position many of the fences because they are portable so there will always be a fresh challenge for riders to practice over” says Ben.
The portability of many fences means some have been given a new home at Homelands from the nearby, previously British Eventing competition venue, at Firle Place and others have been loaned to the South of England Horse Trials when needed.
With the quality of the cross country course, and further nearby fields lending themselves to show-jumping, dressage and stabling areas, it’s not hard to envisage a competition or training camps being held at the venue.
“There’s certainly potential in many areas and I’m also seeking investment to upgrade the arena near our stables so we can offer more in the way of a coaching or competition facility there” says Ben.
“Because our cross-country course is so open and spacious, you can ride over the fences at competition speeds and there aren’t many venues where you can do that.”
Ben admits he has jumped all (bar one) of these impressively presented fences on his own horses “They are really good fun to ride but there is one that I’ve yet to jump - even 5* rider Francis Whittington said I could get rid of that one!”
“Some of the others look unjumpable but actually ride brilliantly.”
In terms of thrill-seeking, the course certainly ticks the boxes for coaches helping their top students and riders looking to move up to the next level of competition but equally Ben says, “Some of our own liveries just want to ride around the fences and enjoy the terrain.”
No doubt they will also enjoy the view, complete with fields and hedgerows running down to the River Adur. For Ben, who first started this project some four years ago, it is not only a sight to behold but also the culmination of his vision to take cross-country training to new heights.
Article by Anna Bruce