Improving Their Jump

The ideal bascule, which makes jumping effortless and lengthens their athletic life expectancy, as well as making them successful in the competition ring, is when a horse folds his forelegs neatly underneath him, rounds his back, lengthens and lowers the neck, and then follows through with tidy hindlegs. 

Various faults occur, either by poor training, poor technique, lack of confidence, or poor conformation. One interesting jumping fault I’ve recently experienced, and haven’t really come across it before, is the slither technique.

Have you seen it? It’s when the forelegs get left behind and the horse literally jumps with his front legs under his belly.

Initially, I wasn’t sure how best to work on overcoming this fault, but as ever reverted to flatwork.

Showjumping is dressage with speed bumps.

The horse in question is rather large, with long legs. Like a super model! So the flatwork focused on engaging his hindquarters, getting him to lighten his forehand and bring his engine underneath him. Smaller circles and shoulder in have all improved his balance, and the canter has improved dramatically. He can now shorten and lengthen the canter strides without losing his balance and his hindquarters are doing more work than his shoulders.

Horses tend to slither over jumps when related distances are too short, which given this horse’s size puts him at a disadvantage. At every competition he will find distances a bit short. Which is why it’s so important that his canter is adjustable. It does mean for me that I have to be generous with my grid distances with him so that he learns, and develops the right muscles, to bascule correctly. Then once he is stronger and more adjustable in the canter we can start to teach him to work with the slightly shorter distances, that he would find in a competition environment.

Once a horse is starting to get the hang of basculing correctly the gridwork becomes invaluable. Having a quick succession of jumps, one or two strides apart improves the horse’s gymnastic ability because they have to extend and flex their joints in quick succession.

Over the last few months this horse has really improved and the slithering only happens when he gets too deep into fences. I’m enjoying seeing him going out competing with his owner now, and having more success.

The other factor that can cause horses to slither over jumps is when they are a bit slow to pick up their forehand and to lift the shoulder over jumps. Which caused me to use an A-frame with this particular horse the other week. A placing pole meant he didn’t get too close, and the A-frame really got him lifting his forelegs and tucking them up neatly. His owner could feel the difference in the bascule from the saddle – his back rounded underneath her over the fence.

Our next move is to try a line of bounces because this will make him pick up his feet quickly, and improve the muscle memory, which will mean that if he does get a bit deep into a jump he will be able to get himself out of trouble. Previously when I’ve done raised pole and bounce work with him he’s found it really difficult to organise his legs and keep his balance, which invariably means I have to get on and off a lot to adjust poles!

Just by using a combination of different exercises, you can make massive improvements to a horse’s technique and build the correct muscles. Recently, because this particular horse was jumping so well on a lesson, we did a bit of a Chase-Me-Charlie. I wanted to build the horse’s confidence a bit and see the extent of his scope, but I knew a single upright would be very difficult for him as he would have to pick up his forelegs very quickly; he’s much better in his technique but our high jumps needed to complement previous work, and not let him revert to slithering. So I build an oxer. The front rail wasn’t very high, perhaps 70cm, and there was a clear ground line. The back rail of the oxer, which wasn’t that wide, started at 90cm. As he cleared it comfortably I notched it up, and up, to an impressive 120cm. He cleared it easily, whilst still jumping correctly! I was so pleased!

Now we need to increase the height of the general exercises to build his muscles and confidence, whilst still using his body correctly and efficiently. Then they will definitely notice a difference at competitions! 

Holding the Mane

When I was little and learning to jump we were always told to “hold the mane halfway up your pony’s neck”. A phrase I would hear repeated with the next generations of children as I led th over jumps, occasionally with the addition of “look at the bunny rabbits waving to you in the field” to get them to look up. 

When I started my apprenticeship I was amazed that none of the instructors used this analogy. When I started teaching myself I often got strange looks when I suggested holding the mane for security when learning to jump. After all, I cringe whenever I see a rider restricting their horse’s jump by not allowing with their hands.

Today, to my delight, I was reading one of my coaching books and it had a whole section on holding the mane while learning to jump.

The author advocated putting two bunches into the mane in the right place so that the rider knows where to place their hands. After all, halfway up the neck can be quite difficult to gauge as you’re fast approaching your first fence! Also, you risk throwing your weight forward and becoming too heavy if you hold on too far up your pony’s neck!

Personally I find that when riders learn to jump they are often reluctant to move their hands away from their body, which although totally natural, makes it harder for them to balance. This means the hands are restricting the horse’s head and neck over jumps. Which may not be a big deal over a bottom hole cross, but the idea of learning to jump is to create good habits which benefit both horse and rider in the long term.

A rider concentrating on balancing in their jumping position will be more likely to wobble with their hands, using them to help balance whilst their muscles develop. So holding onto the mane can help the rider stabilise themselves until their muscles develop because they have something to lean on slightly.

I often see riders sitting up too early after a jump, which can be due to balance issues or a lack of confidence. However the pony is then snatched in the mouth so can then become reluctant to jump. Holding on to the mane helps keep the rider forward for longer and in balance with the pony. Then hopefully the rider learns the feeling of staying folded for a micro second longer.

A lot of instructors are probably now thinking, “just use the neck strap”. Personally I hate using the neck strap with beginner jumping. The neckstrap mainly sits at the base of the neck, so holding it doesn’t teach the rider to allow with their hands. Additionally, the strap also moves, which can cause the hands to snatch back over the fence, or for the rider to lose their balance because the neck strap has slipped and so their hands, which they are still using to balance, no longer have a fixed support (such as the pony’s neck). Top riders who have a neck strap know how to slip their reins correctly so can wrap their fingers in it for support without upsetting the horse’s jump.

The downside of getting riders to hold onto their mane is that they can be overly reliant on holding the mane, which means that they aren’t completely self-balanced. Also, if enough focus isn’t paid to where their centre of gravity is then they can risk toppling forwards.

When riding a course of jumps you often need to do some steering and riding in midair, or immediately upon landing, and holding the mane slows down the process and interrupts the fluency of riding a course. But then an instructor can introduce the idea of the rider hovering their hands over the mane when they are more balanced jumping. Also, teaching and practising cross country position will reduce reliance on physically holding the mane as the riders core strength and balance increases.

Call me old fashioned, but I will still be getting my clients, especially young children, to hold on to their mount’s mane when they learn about their jumping position and start going over fences because I would rather see happy horses jumping correctly with beginners, and beginners who are as safe as possible getting the feel for a nice, round bascule, rather than hollow, flat backed jumping. Below you can see even this high level rider has allowed her horse to stretch his neck over the large fence and is staying in balance with him, not restricting him in any way. 

Chase Me Charlie

As kids we all love Chase Me Charlie`s don`t we? The opportunity to jump as high as you can, and hopefully post a personal best.

My pony wasn`t the world`s greatest jumper, especially near fillers, so I never gravitated towards the puissance style classes. Some kids and ponies thrive off the pressure though.

Yesterday at the end of the Pony Club rally we ran a Chase Me Charlie competition. The idea of the day was to encourage the kids to come to camp, so we ran it in a similar manner to a day at camp – a mix of flatwork, showjumping and cross country.

All my young riders had poor hands over the fence – either they leant on them as they folded, or they fixed them at the wither, or tucked back with their hands as they folded. We worked over a jump without reins and stirrups before they rode a much tidier, secure, showjumping course. Unless they were concentrating on where they were going and forgot.

Until the Chase Me Charlie that is.

We started at a mere 70cm and to my horror all of my girls approached the fence leaning forwards, fixing their hands, and forgetting to allow with them hands over the fence!

After four rounds? By which we had only eliminated one rider we widened the wings so the pole was delicately balanced on the edge of the cups. We had a few more knockdowns then!

The problem I have with this competition is that everyone forgets how to ride – they cut their corners, they don’t balance the canter, they forget to fold or ride away. I saw all my good work of the day being undone rapidly!

There were a few exceptions obviously; a couple of the seniors rode the upright much more intelligently than they had earlier, as the height made them concentrate.

It was really interesting watching the horses jump. Their approach, their expressions, the way the riders panicked when it got out of their comfort zone, the horse’s technique and bascule. 

As ever, there were some surprise eliminations. In the shape of the ex-showjumper knocking a 1m upright. Or the point-and-kick eventer who hung a hind leg. Other impressive combinations were the little ponies who leapt vertically, or scrambled over, and the heavy cob who cleared 1.15m. 

Another area of concern I found was that the little ones didn’t know when to stop, so experienced horses were taking inexperienced, and out-of-their-depth riders, into jumps much larger than they should be jumping. Call me a scaredy cat, but I’d much rather keep kids in a safety zone so they don’t take it into their head to jump high at home, or even enter competitions at that height. It’s an accident waiting to happen.

One girl made me laugh. She was only ten and on her 13.2hh pony, and cleared 1.10m before retiring. As she exited the arena her older sister jumped the fence, knocking it down.

“Beat ya!” The little sister cried in delight! 

A couple of minutes later her other older sister cleared the fence and called the same taunt to her youngest sister.

It was interesting that the final handful of horses weren’t the flashiest, most expensive, most talented or most experienced horses. They were ponies who had heart.

The winner cleared 1.25m and the cremello 15hh gelding had a very neat bascule, and was very reliable and consistent on the approach. I was really pleased as it showed that money doesn’t buy the best horse!

Chase Me Charlie’s still don’t rate that highly on my list of show classes, but I found it really interesting to see it for the first time from the instructor’s point of view. There is such an element of luck too, as I’m sure many puissance riders will agree.

Affiliation

Competition season has already started for many people; if it hasn`t yet then you`re probably like me and have the first event entered and the countdown has begun.

I considered affiliating my horse this season, but after looking into the costs I`ve decided against it.

Did you know full individual membership for BE is £150 per year for the rider/owner, and then £100 for the horse. Horse registration for BD is £70 per year and £80 for the rider. To register for BS the rider is expected to fork out £129 for the rider and anywhere between £20 and £160 for the horse. So what does this membership get you?
1) Access to affiliated competitions; which are run more professionally and efficient, with correct equipment and professional course builders. However, most large venues hold unaffiliated events which are run to the same standard as affiliated competitions.
2) A good standard of competition, as the bumpkins who just go along for a bit of fun don`t bother to affiliate. However, classes are big and the standard is high.
3) Prize money. Not that is covers the cost of the class, diesel, start fee and any other costs incurred during the day. Unaffiliated competitions tend to be slightly less expensive and have prizes in kind.
4) A good way of grading your horse and proving his successes. However, if you ever sold your horse or he had a new rider then you may have over qualified him, meaning that his new jockey could not start competing at a comfortable level. A client of mine is looking for a horse and was told about this showjumper. However, he is affiliated, and my client would not be able to compete any lower than 1.20cm unless she went hors concours. This means that, whilst it looks good on paper, you may be narrowing the market for selling your horse.

After I`d thought about all this I came to the conclusion that whilst governing bodies are great for doing exactly that – governing the discipline and ensuring rules are fair and maintained – they are actually very elitist, and exclude the majority of horse owners or riders. I genuinely believe that there will be a decrease in membership of the various bodies and a decrease in competitors as the financial costimplications are just too steep to justify, and there will be a move towards joining riding clubs, at an annual fee of £20-40 and competing on riding club teams and against other clubs. This is more accessible for Joe Bloggs, and success is more achievable because the competition is not dominated by the professionals. It will be interesting to see if BD, BE and BS change their approach to affiliation and competitions, or whether a new level or group of competition will step into the space between riding club level and professionalism.

Our Showjumping Lesson

So last weekend we were up at the crack of dawn to travel to a showjumping lesson. It was with an event rider called Jonathan Chapman. The idea is that he isn`t a pure showjumper so can train us in cross country as well without confusing our jumping style.

The lesson was at 9am, so we were loading at 7 to give us plenty of wiggle room to get there and tacked up. As it took us half an hour to load my horse it was a good thing. I don`t think he liked going into the dark trailer when it was still dark outside, and then the trailer light didn`t work so we couldn`t use that to entice him on. In the end he was being too stubborn to follow a feed bucket, we had to give him a sharp tap on the hindquarters with his stick. He soon ran up the ramp!

Anyway, we got there with minutes to spare and tacked up quickly before getting into the arena for 9. It was a fab lesson and really beneficial so I thought I`d explain the exercise.

There was two fences set up as a related distance of four strides, but initially they were three canter poles. Between them were two poles creating railway tracks to keep the horse central and help their straightness. Towards the middle of the school was another jump so that you rode a 10m circle from the railway tracks to the fence and back to the tracks. There was also a Liverpool oxer and an upright with a filler on the two diagonals.

Almost immediately we started trotting over the poles, keeping a rhythm, and making sure our horses didn`t anticipate them and rush. After doing this on both reins we repeated it in canter, and then we cantered over the first set of poles and rode a 10m circle over the other pole before returning to the railway tracks and riding over the second set of poles.

The jump on the 10m circle went up to a cross pole. It was an excellent way of suppling the horses and getting them to jump from a relatively small stride. My friends horse tends to launch over the jumps which obviously meant that the circle became elongated. The cross also made us ride accurately to the centre of it, and not fall out through the outside shoulder. We did this on both reins.

Next we moved on to building the upright and then the oxer. That was quite large. Pretty wide and a bit over a metre. Considering I haven`t jumped since November it was a bit of a shock to the system. Next we changed the rein and jumped into the exercise over the upright, rode the circle, and then jumped out over another upright.

Jonathan was a very quiet instructor, not saying much but what he did say was spot on. He very much teaches that it is the riders job to set the horse up with a balanced gait, but the last two strides belong to the horse. I had the problem that I feel the need to ride to the fence, and push him on, particularly when it gets a bit bigger, so I had to sit and just wrap my legs round and squeeze the last couple of strides.

We had one sticky moment over the oxer when I didn`t squeeze enough and left him hanging. I think I was thinking a bit too much about the size. So Jonathan put it to an upright and I repeated the exercise until he was confident, and then I rode straight through the related distance as an oxer before doing the circle exercise. I found the circle engaged the hindquarters a lot, but it was difficult not to ride out of the circle and accelerate to the final jump. My horse suddenly found the power in his hindquarters, and I managed to keep the rhythm and got a flowing series of jumps. Then we rode the exercise before doing the related distance on its own. It was very useful for stopping the horses locking onto the jumps and checking they were listening to us and balanced enough to ride the circle.

To finish we rode a course, including the other two jumps, in which we had to use our corners, keep a very good rhythm, and keep it nice and steady. My round wasn`t perfect, but we had the chance to repeat the jumps which didn`t go quite so well, and finished on a good note with a very tired horse! Best of all, it started raining when we were loading up so we timed it really well.

I would definitely recommend Jonathan for lessons, and look forward to my next one in a few weeks. He is hopefully doing a cross country clinic this weekend at Aston le Walls, but because of the forecast and ground conditions I`m going to give it a miss and test our new skills at an indoor showjumping competition (emphasis on the indoor part). The cross country will have to wait until the weather is a bit better.