Perfecting a Course

I took one of my young clients to a local venue before he went back to school this week so we could practice his course riding.

They’re a fast developing partnership, but have a couple of creases to iron out before the season really kicks off.

The pony loves his jumping and has a tendency to take control: getting a bit long and flat in the canter, accelerating and then taking a long jump.

Unfortunately as his rider has been growing into him the pony has had the upper hand in the speed stakes, so now that his rider is strong enough, we can start to improve their technique on the course. After all, when things get fast you lose the accuracy and poles tend to fly.

We’ve been playing around with the braking system, finding the right bit and noseband combination for a strong pony and young rider’s hands and feel and have decided on the Myler elevator bit and flash noseband at the moment.

Before we started the session, I made sure my rider was on the ball and meaning business: checking he was sitting up tall, engaging his tummy muscles, maintaining a steady rein contact, and monitoring the tempo of the trot and canter. I find the pony responds well if he’s not allowed to get quick or start using his powerful neck and shoulders then the pony is more biddable when we come to jumping.

After a lovely steady warm up, showing a good level of control we started warming up over a cross pole.

It was only small, so I told me rider to maintain a very steady canter right up until takeoff point. This is to establish the leader in today’s relationship and make sure my rider is setting the rules. That we approach the fence in a controlled fashion and the pony does not rush the last few strides and stand off the jump.

After a couple of goes in each direction my rider had cracked this. He can ride his pony in an up and together canter which places them in a much better take off point, and because the pony is off his forehand he makes a far better bascule over the fence. The only blip we have is when the pony gives a pull with his head, and my rider collapses his core. Then they get fast!

We built it up to an upright, then placed the fillers underneath, before finally making it an oxer. Each time, I made my rider focus on holding his position and looking up over the fence for the whole of the approach, so that the pony didn’t get ideas above his station. After the fence it was all about bringing the canter back under control as soon as possible.

Then we started stringing the fences together. I wanted to develop the course whilst keeping a lid on the speed, which tends to gather. I got my rider to jump a related distance across the diagonal before cantering a circle in the corner, rebalancing and steadying the canter before jumping a third fence and then circling afterwards.

We continued the lesson in this theme: linking fences together, with circles in suitable spots. For example, when the pony was likely to have gotten faster and to have taken control. The circles sat the pony back on his hocks and gave my rider chance to sit up and re-find his core muscles as well as shorten his reins up if the pony had pulled them through his fingers. This meant that the next fence was jumped in a more controlled manner.

After doing a few courses like this, we found that the getaway from each fence was more controlled because the pony was anticipating a circle. We still had a couple of blips when the pony pulled and my rider collapsed forwards fractionally. This will improve as my rider gets stronger in his core, but at least the circles are bringing things back under control between fences so that the final jump on a course is jumped at 40mph, not 80mph!

Of course, in an actual showjumping competition the pair cannot circle mid course, but if the pony anticipates a circle and gets used to listening to his rider between fences then my rider can maintain the accuracy in his lines to fences and the pony will be more likely to clear the fences neatly. As my rider gets quicker at recovering from the fences on circles then circles will become redundant because my rider will be able to bring his pony back to a controlled canter on the straight track between fences ready for the next question.

I did have one grey haired moment in our lesson, when they jumped into a two stride related distance neatly, took a normal length canter stride, and then took off over the second element! The pony had to be very clever with his hind legs to keep the fence up, and my rider sat very well before circling and gathering themselves together. Then the rest of the course flowed far better. Yes, there will blips on courses for a little while yet, but if we can do damage limitation afterwards then the pair can still complete a course nicely and their relationship will go from strength to strength with my rider calling the shots.

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