A First Jumping Lesson

I gave a pair their first jumping lesson this week. The rider has jumped before, but is bringing on her ex-broodmare slowly. We loose jumped her a couple of months ago to see if she actually knew what to do, but otherwise have focused on her flatwork to build her muscle and strength. Canter is coming along slowly with the help of poles to help her find the rhythm.Anyway, they had a go jumping over the weekend and felt it was a bit chaotic, so I decided to give them a better experience of leaving the ground.After focusing on transitions within the gaits whilst warming up, and getting the mare bending and thinking about her rider’s aids. I laid out three canter poles between K and E on the track. I used the track to maximise the arena so that the mare was most able to stay in balance on the turns. Her right canter is her weakest so I positioned the poles just off the corner to help them keep the canter rhythm until the poles. They could have a longer straight approach on the left canter because the mare can keep left canter together in straight lines.As is with horses, I rapidly had to move onto Plan B, when the mare decided that right canter was out of the question today. She often strikes off incorrectly, but can be helped out by a trot 10m circle before the canter transition. Not today though! There was no point banging our heads against a brick wall, getting frustrated. We’d jump out of left canter and try right another day. If she continues to struggle with it we’ll investigate further.So after trotting over the poles on the right rein, and then once on the left rein, I had them canter over the poles. The mare’s canter is currently very flat and verges on the point of four beat, so I kept the poles wide to improve her rhythm, and once her canter rhythm is established we can begin to balance it so that her haunches are under her body and she’s working her body correctly.Now it was time to leave the ground. I rolled the two poles closest to K together to make a teeny tiny cross pole. Then I rolled the third pole out so that it was a whole canter stride away from the fence. I wanted them to canter over the pole, have a whole canter stride and then pop the jump. This setup wouldn’t phase an inexperienced horse, but would put her in the right take off spot.They did it once, and met the first pole badly. With the mare only having one canter gear we have to adjust the distance of the approach so that she can fit several whole canter strides in. Which will help her jump confidently and neatly. A horse who has several gears to the canter can be adjusted to accommodate a set distance. I got my rider to ride deeper into the corner, which meant that they met the pole well the second time. I built the jump up to a bigger cross once we knew the striding and their line was right, and they flew over a couple of times, growing in confidence each time.To finish, I converted the cross pole into an upright. The biggest they’d jumped to date, but as the mare was already jumping that big over the cross pole, it was a mind over matter element for her rider. To know that they could jump it.And they did!

The plan now is to keep working on right canter, and do more canter polework to help establish the rhythm, and then using poles to help set up the mare for jumping, and to tell her where to take off until she is more experienced and has more understanding of the idea of flying.

Trying Bits

Last time I was showjumping Phoenix I wasn’t 100% happy with the bit and our approaches to jumps. She wasn’t overly strong, but the canter got a bit flat as she got confident and bold, so we almost ran downhill into the jumps. Which either meant her taking a flyer, or taking the front rail down with her knees. Or having a lucky escape! Before I start jumping her much bigger, I wanted to sort this out.

I felt there was a schooling or strength issue; if I could improve her balance in the canter then she’d find it easier to remain uphill on the approach to jumps. She’s an independent lady though, and doesn’t accept help easily. It has to be subtly offered otherwise she panics. Yes, special, I know!

I felt I needed some help with the contact to help me help her. Nothing too strong, but just different to her loose ring, double jointed lozenge snaffle.

I decided to kill two birds with one stone and take a trip to a local showjumping venue, which has an extensive bit bank. I’d have a lesson and try alternative mouthpieces.

I explained my predicament, and was given a loose ring snaffle, with two joints. But with slightly thinner, more contoured bars, and a full moon centrepiece. So what’s the difference, I hear you say? Well, to Phoenix, it’s a slightly less friendly bit of metal in her mouth, which will discourage her from leaning on my hand, and mean I can give lighter aids. Which should help me create the more uphill canter and help her to maintain it.

We spent a lot of time on the flat – more about this subject on another blog – allowing me to get the feel for the bit, and for her to accept its feel. To be honest, I didn’t feel a huge difference initially, she was fairly relaxed and accepting of the contact, but I did feel that she was more up in front of me, and less inclined to lean on the bit when I half halted. Which she sometimes does to evade sitting on her hocks and containing that powerful engine.

In the trot and canter work we played around with transitions within the gait. I needed to feel that I could adjust Phoenix easily, without her stressing, and that she used her hindquarters throughout. Particularly when she lengthens, she tends to go onto the forehand and leave her back end out behind her. Which is exactly what happens before jumps. By teaching her to shorten and lengthen in an uphill fashion, her hindquarters stay engaged and she’s lighter in my hand and in a better position to jump cleanly.

We then put this into practice with single fences and related distances, which highlight this weakness well. We jumped focusing on me helping her keep the balance of her canter throughout the approach, and after a couple of failed attempts when I held more than I needed to, and she panicked, we got it together, and she jumped beautifully out of a much better canter.

Moving onto related distances, I found that Phoenix was meeting the second element in a more uphill canter, which meant she pinged over them. Then I found that I could close my leg and ride her forwards if necessary to make the striding, without her nose diving or losing power.

It was a great session, really showing that you don’t want to be too quick to change tack, as often improvements on the flatwork will improve the jumping performance, but also that tiny changes to a bit can enhance communication between horse and rider.

Going to a bit specialist and trialling bits is definitely they way forward as more and more variations of bits come onto the market. It’s mind boggling, and can take a lot of time and money finding the perfect bit for your horse. Perhaps we’ll start to see some more bitting clinics in the calendar; where you go to a venue and have a meeting with a bit specialist, perhaps followed by a lesson to try it out?

An Unlucky Pole

I took Phoenix showjumping today. She stormed round the 70cm clear, pushed into third place by some whizzy kids. In her first 80cm class, she had a pole down. But was still the fastest four faulter to be placed seventh.

On a side note, before I return to my main reel of thought, I’d like to well, boast really, about how amazing she is to take out. Loads herself, waits patiently and quietly for her class, warms up calmly, waits quietly, jumps her best, and then stands round while her little fan hugs and kisses her neck. She really makes the day enjoyable from that perspective.

Back to my original topic of conversation. That pole we had down. It reminded me of a conversation recently held between friends. One friend was suggesting that there is no such thing as an unlucky pole, and it is becoming an excuse for sloppy riding and a lack of clear rounds.

After every jumping round I do, I come away planning my improvements. Even the clear rounds. Last time we competed and had the last jump of last round – yes, annoying because we were a good ten seconds faster than our rivals – I knew exactly what had gone wrong. In trying not to upset Phoenix’s fairly fragile canter I hadn’t half halted between the last two fences and she needed it. So she had bounded on in a flat canter and basically went through the jump. I beat myself up then for letting her down more than anything, and went away to strengthen the canter and ride related distances properly. That wasn’t an unlucky pole.

Today; what went wrong? I’m yet to see the video, but it was a related distance on a slight left curve. We had the second element down. Phoenix’s canter felt much stronger throughout the day and she wasn’t towing me onto her forehand. She’d jumped big into the related distance because it was a loud filler and I’d really pressed the go button, and I think that this meant the distance between the fences along with the line I rode, and the stage she’s at in her training meant that she just got too close to the second element and brought down the front rail of the oxer.

Now was that unlucky? I think it could have gone either way today. We could have gotten away with it. Neither of us did anything wrong, she wasn’t tired, her technique was neat, and it’s perfectly within her capabilities, but the sequence of events just didn’t flow on the day. It was unlucky in the sense that she was jumping very well and confidently so didn’t really deserve to knock one with such a slight error.

That doesn’t mean there isn’t anything for me to learn from today. Her canter still needs improvement as if I had more scope to collect her I could have adjusted her enough to correct her bold jump into the related distance. I could’ve ridden a wider line, but it’s hard to change course once you’re on it. I also think I over-rode the first element, but I think the more competitive experience we both get together the better as I’ll know exactly how much leg to use and she’ll be less likely to have a second look at a fence. I also think she’ll benefit from a few jumping exercises I’ve got planned to help teach her not to bowl on quite so much through a related distance, as that is a common theme. But we’ll do our homework for next time.

So is there such a thing as an unlucky pole? I think you can be unlucky as a pair in that you deserved to go clear from the way you rode the rest of the round and the minor error which caused the pole to come down. You’ve tried your best with your ability on that day. But that doesn’t mean it’s an excuse. After all, a clear round is the goal and a pole down is a less than perfect result, so improvements can be made at home.

We riders need to walk away from a knock down and try to work out how we can improve on it. Be it riding better lines, improving the canter, practising on different surfaces and inclines, practising with fillers or water trays, changing tack, boots or studs if they’re becoming a hindrance or any other weakness you feel you and your horse have. Then, we will achieve perfection.

The video from the 80cm class has just come through, so I thought I’d share it so you can see our slight error. It was a straightforward course, but full of related distances, which is the area we have we working on most recently so it was a useful test.

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.