Fences and hurdles or, more correctly, ‘flights’ of hurdles, are obstacles to be negotiated in different types of National Hunt race and, consequently, differ in their construction, height and rigidity. Fences, which are used for steeplechase races, are the more substantial, higher and less yielding of the two. Steeplechase fences typically consist of a rigid steel or wooden frame, filled with artificial or real birch, cut to size and bound together. With the exception of a water jump, all steeplechase fences must be a minimum of 4’ 6” in height. By contrast, hurdles, which are used, unsurprisingly, in hurdle races, consist of individual, lightweight panels of cut brushwood, each at least 3’6” in height. The panels are driven into the ground, side-by-side, at an angle, to create a ‘flight’ of hurdles at least 30’ wide and at least 3’1” high.
In Britain, a steeplechase, or ‘chase’ for short, is a horse race run, under the Rules of Racing, on a turf racecourse equipped with fixed, or portable, steeplechase fences, which runners must negotiate. Steeplechase races are run over advertised distances between two miles and four miles and two-and-a-half furlongs. According to the Rules of Racing, steeplechase races over two miles must have at least twelve fences and longer races must have at least six fences in each subsequent mile.
Steeplechase fences come in three varieties, namely, plain fence, open ditch and water jump. A plain fence, which must be a minimum of 4’6” high, consists of a rigid wooden or steel frame stuffed with compacted birch cuttings, real or artificial, the density of which defines the stiffness of the fence. An open ditch, of which there must be one in every mile of a steeplechase race, is a plain fence with a ditch on the take-off side, thereby creating an obstacle with a wider spread – 11’ as opposed to 8’ – than a plain fence alone. A water jump is optional on a steeplechase course but, if included, there can be only one such obstacle, at least 3’ high, with an expanse of water at least 9’ across and at least 3” deep throughout.
Originally, steeplechasing was a form of point-to-point racing, in which horses raced across a stretch of open countryside and were required to negotiate natural obstacles they encountered along the way. The first steeplechase on record was the result of an impromptu wager between two huntsmen in County Cork, in southwestern Ireland, 1752. They raced their horses over a distance of four miles between the steeples of two churches – in other words, they were, quite literally, ‘steeple chasing’ – and the idea soon caught on with other huntsmen and women.