What Makes A Good Jumper?

No, the answer is not a warm one! This post is going to look at the technique of horses, how to improve it, and whether the technique changes over different fences.

Firstly, a horse who jumps well has a good bascule. That is, he rounds his back, uses the shoulders to lift the forelegs, which are tucked up against the body. The head and neck stretch downwards, and the hocks flex so that the hind legs tuck up cleanly. A horse jumping well gives the impression of arcing over the fence.

Above is an example of a good bascule, and below is an example of a poor bascule.

Now every horse is different, so they may not have the perfect jump technique, but if they use their body to the best of it’s ability then they should clear most obstacles. I know one pony who doesn’t have the greatest conformation and doesn’t stretch his head and neck over the fence very well, yet because he is very clean with his legs and can pick them up quickly he rarely knocks a fence. Another horse I know relies on his talent rather than technique, as he can be a bit lazy with picking up his feet (sometimes they just dangle in the air) but to make up for it, this horse just jumps bigger so his body is much higher than the fence and there’s then room for his legs to dangle! So there’s scope to have a slightly quirky jumping technique, but in order to help keep your horse injury free and jumping clear rounds it’s important to spend time improving their technique and style.

It sounds silly, but keep on top of the flatwork. Building a top line, getting him to work his abdominals, and strengthening the hindquarters will all help improve his jumping ability.

Secondly, we can use grid work. The quick fire series of fences improves their gymnastic ability, i.e. Their ability to tuck up their legs and round their back over each fence. It also builds muscle tone. Gridwork, along with placing poles, also places your horse to the jump at the correct distance away for take off. This is important if a horse tends to get too close or stand off jumps. After all, taking off from the correct place makes his job much easier and his bascule should improve. Bounce fences are the ultimate test of muscular strength and gymnastic ability as the horse has to contort their body rapidly.

Different fences can help improve a bascule too. An ascending oxer will encourage the shoulder to lift more, and the forelegs to tuck up higher. If a horse is still slow to pick up his legs, or drops his hindlegs a little early an A-frame against an upright will encourage a snappy tuck up of the forelegs and for the hindlimbs to stay folded for longer as the horse jumps the apex of the A-frame. A triple bar encourages the horse to open his frame and stretch out.

Rolling a ground line pole away from the front of the fence will encourage a longer bascule as the take off point is further back. This is good for those horses who get a bit close and jump up rather than forwards, with a steep bascule.

A pole placed one canter stride after the fence will encourage a horse to sit up after, which means that they will focus on the jump until the very end; keeping the hind legs  tucked up and then shorten and rebalance their canter upon landing. 

Mary King recommends resting a pole diagonally on a parallel oxer, which make the horse look down and focus on the fence, so encouraging a stretch in the head and neck. We used to do a similar thing as kids with fillers (we had homemade boards of wood painted in psychedelic computed) by placing them under jumps. I guess a water tray will have the same effect.

Loose jumping is also useful for developing technique as the horse is unhindered by the tack and rider.

These exercises should get you started with improving your horse’s jumping technique. Now, let’s see how different types of fence require a different technique.

Well the obvious point to begin with is the fact that the dimensions of jumps can vary. You have narrow but tall uprights, or wide, lower oxers. When the fence is an upright, the horse needs to make a steeper bascule, using the shoulders more, and snapping up his legs out of harm’s way. To approach this fence you need a more collected canter, with the hindlegs underneath. With a wide oxer the bascule needs to be flatter, with a take off point that’s slightly further away. Here, the approach needs to be a powerful, balanced canter, but with a bigger stride.

In a similar vein to uprights, plank jumps look more solid, and often don’t have a ground line, which means a horse is likely to back off the fence whilst simultaneously being drawn into the bottom of the fence, so more power is required from a collected, bouncy canter to clear them.

From showjumping fences, we move onto the stark contrast of cross country fences. Logs, table tops and other plain obstacles are designed to be jumped from a long striding canter or gallop so the horse should have a shallower, longer bascule. To jump banks and drops, you want to shorten the canter so that the hindquarters are underneath the horse in order to make a steeper bascule. 

Skinny fences, and twisty combinations, require accurate riding, which is far easier to achieve in a shorter, steadier canter.

Next time you watch either a showjumping or cross country competition on TV pay close attention to how the riders adjust their jumping technique in order to successfully negotiate each obstacle.

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