Recently I wrote a blog about using poles on a circle to improve the rider and horse, and I mentioned that I had used a similar exercise with a jumping pony and his rider.
I’d been schooling the pony on the flat quite a lot before Christmas and had noticed how his jumping technique improved when his canter was slightly bigger striding on the approach. However there’s a fair size and strength difference between me and his owner … Well maybe not in the leg department as her stirrup length are almost too long for me.
Anyway, she’s riding a much more consistent canter on the flat now, and the pony is staying straighter, with a more even rein contact and a bigger stride, with the hindquarters working well. However, when you factor in a jump he drops behind the bridle, bounces up and down with short strides, and suddenly the hindquarters stop working and he’s on the forehand before three strides out he has to extend and rush to the fence in order to clear it.
This is fine for 70cm, but if you want to start looking at the bigger tracks then we need to make sure his body works as correctly and as efficiently as possible so that he can clear fences consistently with little risk of injury.
Being bigger and stronger, I apply the leg quietly as soon as he drops the canter and I can balance him between my leg and hand so that he is taking me towards the jump without going too fast or falling onto the forehand, but this is very difficult to teach someone else, particularly if they aren’t aware of the drop in power in the canter, or feel he gets too strong.
To help me, I concocted this exercise. It began with three canter poles on a gentle curve, and then four canter strides in a straight line to an upright. I used canter poles on a curve as when they’re in straight lines the pony tends to rush them and can change his canter lead quite happily. I wanted consistency, and that doesn’t come with flying changes at the moment!
Before starting the exercise I adjusted the bit. My rider schools on the flat in a snaffle, but jumps in a three ring Dutch gag with the reins on the bottom ring. Now this acts as a fulcrum so the slightest pressure down the rein is magnified on the poll and bars of the mouth. If she is to achieve the balance between hand and leg, she needs a direct action on the head, not an exaggerated one. I think this, because I jump him in a snaffle, is one of my advantages. Despite her groans, I changed the rein settings and explained my reasoning. I also said that I wanted subtle adjustments to his canter at the moment, not giant steps. If he felt strong on any of her approaches she could always ride past the exercise to reduce his level of anticipation.
Initially they cantered through the poles on both reins and then I raised them on the outer side, but my rider still had to ride to the centre of each pole. After the first couple of goes, her pony did indeed anticipate, and the canter dropped then accelerated just before the poles. However, the poles corrected it and my rider benefitted from the feeling of the correct canter and did manage to maintain the rhythm on the approach a couple of times. She also had to remember to press the pause button between the poles and keep her upper body steady so they didn’t rush through the poles.
Next, I added in the upright. I didn’t want to hang around, and both are experienced enough not to need a cross pole to begin with. I also needed the jump to be a height that the pony respected, so that we got the full effect of his erratic approach. Also, I mentioned his anticipation earlier, which makes me reluctant to repeat an exercise too many times without changing the question.
They rode the canter poles brilliantly, and because their canter had been set up, my rider felt the drop in power of the canter when her pony saw the fence. I explained to her how to apply the leg quietly and ride forwards towards the fence but keeping her hand and upper body steady to discourage an increase in speed.
The second time was better, but as I was being picky, we noted the one stride of half power, which was significantly better than four, but still not perfect. After all I want her to feel any slight change in her pony so she can read his reaction to fences and ride correctly to get out of trouble, especially when they start going cross country.
We had problems next with anticipation, so after riding past the poles and establishing the canter they usually have on the flat (which came from taking the time to establish a good trot) they rode the exercise again. The approach was brilliant, she corrected his slight drop, and she had her leg around him after but kept her hands still and steady in his mouth for four perfect strides before meeting the upright and making a lovely shape over it to land on the correct lead for the turn.
She was really pleased with both herself and her pony, and I’m hoping that she remembers that secure, balanced canter they had for this week’s jump lesson, where I want to use more poles to help establish the canter before and after the fences.