Thinking On Your Feet

Last week I taught a pair of siblings at a cross country venue. They both rode well and it was a positive experience for both them and their horses, however I came away thinking that both riders needed to be a bit quicker on their feet; more reactive if something was going wrong, and quicker to correct their horses as they erred.

So I drew up a plan for the next chapter of lessons.

Firstly, I am going to leave them to warm up their horses independently; I will observe, ask questions, and expect feedback from them. Initially I`ll probably have to guide them closely, but I hope to soon see them giving me feedback such as “he feels a bit stiff on the left rein so I spent a bit longer riding circles to improve his suppleness” or “he`s not responsive to my leg in the transitions so I`ve been riding more frequent transitions and correcting my aids …”

Today we warmed up in this fashion, and I hope they understood the general direction my teaching is taking them in. Now for the jumping part.

Both horses are very capable, but I wanted my riders to stop being passengers who aim and fire, but to think about each stride of a jumping exercise or course, so I concocted this exercise which can be adjusted to suit various abilities.

I strode out a line of three jumps; two strides between the first and second, and three between the second and third. I made them uprights of approximately 2`3″ so that height as not an issue. To make the exercise harder, both on the rider`s mental agility and the horse`s suppleness, you could reduce the number of strides between each fence. Once they had ridden through the grid on both reins to warm up I added in the extra element.

After jumping the second element my riders had to turn right or left, jump a small cross pole on a curve before re-jumping the second element and finishing the grid. This took both horses by surprised, and initially the circle was a bit more egg-shaped than I would like, but after a couple of goes they all got the hang of it. As they jumped the second fence they needed to be riding and turning towards the cross pole, with their outside leg behind the girth, and as they jumped the cross pole, they had to be turning towards the second element. This meant that the riders had to quicken their thinking. The cross pole drew both horse and rider to the middle of the jumps, thus giving them a good eye for the circle.

Here I should mention that the younger of the two siblings nailed this exercise first time on the left rein. He rode a perfect circle in a lovely balanced canter – I almost didn`t want him to repeat the exercise!

Now that they were both getting on top of the exercise, and riding their horses to each fence I asked them to ride a figure of eight from the second fence. Initially both found it quite tricky, but as soon as the elder balanced and collected her canter on the approach her horse stopped getting flat over the fences so was much more rideable round the turns. The younger has a very supple horse, who quite happily rode counter canter on the circles, so we need to work on his ability to change legs over and after fences so that they didn`t lose the rhythm and quality of their canter which has a detrimental effect on the jumps.

I couldn`t quite decide how to take this exercise forward now, but as both horses were very consistent in their canter leads I decided not to get the riders to choose their direction as they went over the second fence, but rather I chose to focus on their accuracy and make the second element a skinny fence and raise the height of the first and last fence. The final fence was the biggest to encourage the riders to ride positively away from the exercise, and help the horses go from quite a collected canter to a biger, more powerful canter.

It took a couple of tries, but I was really pleased with how they both jumped through the exercise. The riders were thinking, the horses listening, and you could see the improvement in the horses canter and jumping technique because they had engaged their hindquarters and were utilising their hocks over the fences. Hopefully the riders feel better placed to make tight turns in a jump-off, but are also thinking more about the way the exercise is going so that next time they will be able to correct and support their horses better.

How to make this exercise harder:

  • reduce the number of strides between the line of fences
  • make each jump higher
  • make the cross poles uprights
  • bring the cross poles closer to the line of fences so that the circle is smaller
  • make the final fence into a skinny
  • make the second fence a skinny
  • get the rider to choose a left or right circle depending on the leg their horse lands on
  • instruct the rider as to which way to turn as they jump the second fence
  • ride the figure of eight instead of a single circle

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