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.