When I teach my students how to jump, we start with the basics:
The jump should be a continuation of your horse’s canter. For that to happen, you need to do your flatwork and use your position to help balance your horse.
The greatest mistakes I see riders making are:
- Forgetting about flatwork around the turns, resulting in an unbalanced, confused horse with not enough track to find the jump.
- Having a weak position and either hitting their horse’s back with their bum or catching their horse in the mouth with their hands.
In a George Morris clinic, he explained the importance of having a strong 2-point position. He asked his rider to show the 2-point at the walk, trot, and canter, both with and without stirrups. When she began to fatigue, he told her to grab mane to help hold herself up and out of the tack.
Why is our position important over a jump?
The Horse’s Jumping Motion
When a horse jumps, their weight rocks back to their hind end to create a “spring” that helps lift them over the jump. While the hind end is used to get off the ground, their neck is actually what helps get them across the jump. On the landing, their neck is outstretched, front legs reaching towards the ground, and hind legs still up in the air, finishing the jump.
The Rider’s Jumping Motion
As the rider, your job is to help guide and support your horse over the jump. However, you are not meant to jump for your horse. To jump well, your horse must be balanced.
Almost all riders, including myself, have a tendency to put more weight in one stirrup than the other. The solution is to be aware of this and train yourself to first notice when it happens and then correct it. Remember, your position directly affects your horse, so an imbalance in you will be mirrored by your horse.
If you’ve done your flatwork properly and supported your horse out of the turn, then you should be able to ride to the jump with soft, leg-to-hand contact, and a light seat. On your last stride, touch the saddle with even weight in both stirrups to help balance your horse. Sink deeper into your heels as your horse lifts off the ground, and follow their neck with your hands, keeping your weight centered, but out of the saddle. On take-off, you want to maintain a central balance on your horse while allowing them to use their neck to complete the jump.
At the top of the fence, your hips should be back, out of the saddle, with your weight centered and pressing deep in your heels. It’s usually at this point where I see riders fall apart. For the landing, your horse needs their head and neck, as well as the freedom for their hind end to complete the jump behind you.
The main reasons that horses knock fence rails down are because:
- The rider catches their mouth on the take-off (typically trying to balance using the reins) thus affecting their horse’s ability to jump with their front end. You know this has happened with a rail is knocked down by the front feet.
- The rider’s bum touches the saddle before the horse has finished jumping. This affects the horse’s ability to fully lift their hind end up and over the fence, resulting in rails knocked down by the hind legs.
When perfecting your position over the jump, I recommend holding your 2-point position for 2 – 3 strides before and after the fence. If you feel confident you’re balanced for take-off, still aim to keep yourself out of the saddle for 2 – 3 strides after the jump. This allows your horse to finish the fence and have a soft, rewarding feel, before going back to work around the turn.
Make sure that you are strong enough to hold yourself out of the saddle. Mistakes like these lead to sore backs, refusals, stopping, and bucking. If you have a horse willing to safely carry you over the course of fences, please don’t take advantage of that willingness by accidentally slamming their back or catching them in the teeth.
Build Your Strength
At home or in the gym, I suggest you do the following exercises at a minimum of 3 sets of twelve repetitions:
- Squats – chest lifted with weight in the heel.
- Plank – 3 sets of 30 second to 1 minute each
- Kettlebell Swing – use your hips and not your arms
- Plie to calf raises – the slower you go, the stronger you’ll be
While schooling your horse, aim to hold your 2-point position at every gait. While working at the trot, hold your 2-point position until your body begins to fatigue and your position is compromised, then return to your full seat.
No stirrup work is an excellent way to build strength. Remember, you want to ride off of your calf, not your thigh when working without stirrups.
My favorite exercise to determine evenness in both stirrups is using slippery stirrups. Remove your stirrups from the saddle and connect the two stirrup leathers. Ride with the connected stirrup leathers over your saddle. If you step too much in one stirrup, it will act like a lever or see-saw and you’ll know it right away!
Do Your Flatwork In The Turns
A jump is simply a continuation of your horse’s canter. Therefore, the quality of your canter determines the quality of your jump. Warm your horse up with a mix of lateral movements including leg yields, true bend, counter bend, shoulder-in, and haunches-in to get your horse responding to your leg aids. Once you’re on course, apply your flatwork as needed to keep your horse straight.
Example: If your horse is drifting and throwing their outside shoulder, ask them to move their shoulder in and add a counter bend for a stride or two to help straighten.
Example: If your horse is leaning in or cutting the corners, ask for a leg yield out (half-pass). Regardless of whether or not you accomplish the entire lateral movement, you’ll be applying familiar leg aids and asking them to correct their track.
Even if you’ve created a balanced canter around the ring, you still need to support your horse around the turn. Turns naturally slow our horses down, so the leg is an essential element in maintaining rhythm. The turn is also the last area that you can make any lateral changes help to balance your horse.
The most common mistakes I see riders make around the turn are:
- Turning with inside rein, causing the shoulder to drift out and the horse to be imbalanced between the front and hind end.
- Cutting the turn and not giving themselves enough space to find a straight approach to their jump.
Thankfully, the solution to both of these problems is flatwork.
When you turn to approach a fence you should go through the following sequence:
- Look to your jump to find the straight approach and determine which track you’re going to take.
- Touch the saddle and close your leg to support your pace as your horse turns.
- Use a direct outside rein to keep the outside shoulder from bulging out, and outside leg to help balance your horse around the turn. Your inside leg should also be active in helping to shape the turn.
- Close your leg and lighten your seat while coming out of the turn to encourage a bold fence.
If you’re still learning to jump, or occasionally miss a distance, remember to count your strides. Counting your strides when approaching a fence will help you determine whether you need to close your leg, back-off by opening your chest, or simply regulate the stride you have to the base of the jump.
Note: Leave your horse’s mouth alone. Half-halts are fine but once you’re two strides out, yanking on the mouth isn’t going to do anything. Instead, use your body by stretching away from your horse and add your voice, if needed, with a “whoa.”
Practicing Your Turns
An excellent way to practice your turns is to work on smaller circles while riding on the flat. Adding single ground poles into your schooling rides will also help you adjust your eye without adding any extra stress on your horse.
Establishing A Rythm
Rhythm is essential for hunters and equitation, but we can all benefit for finding a rhythm. This ensures that your horse’s pace is consistent throughout your course. Consistency also helps you to find the jumps more smoothly and ride with only minor corrections or adjustments.
If you’ve ever heard a trainer tell their rider to count “1-2-1-2-1-2” all the way around a course, then you’ve seen someone practicing rhythm.
Trainer, AC Jones, of First Call Farm in North Carolina tells her students:
1-2-1-2 Let the jump come to you