This final lesson covers two types of jumping: stadium (show jumping) and cross-country. The first involves negotiating a series of jumps in a ring or arena. It requires a lot of thought and planning. Jumping a course of fences can be scary, exhausting, and exhilarating, all within 30 seconds. If you think that sounds thrilling, wait until you try cross-country jumping, negotiating jumps in open fields and in the woods. This is as close as riding gets to heaven. And guess which horse you ride for this lesson? Good old Nemesis, that horse you met and rightly rejected in lesson 2.
Nemesis Very tall, sleek, and muscular, Nemesis can be wild, bossy, and a real bully in the field. He tries to keep other horses away from the hay bale if he's eating and the water trough if he's drinking. In his stall, he doesn't much like people disturbing him, especially at dinner time. If anyone walks by, he makes ugly faces. He sticks his head over the stall door, lays back his ears, shows his teeth, and waves his head. He consistently acts up when being shown for sale, which is why he's never been sold and why you're about to ride him. Once he's tacked up, though, Nemesis's behavior generally improves, although he's been known to issue a nip if his girth is cranked up too tight, too fast. Under saddle, he's considered frisky. He'll also act up if the rider doesn't let him know who's boss or gets too confident too soon and doesn't stay on guard. I'll bet he doesn't seem so intimidating anymore, does he? Once you're up on Nemesis, he's probably going to feel a lot like Tiki did in lesson 3. He moves ahead easily. This horse definitely has places to go and things to do.
Stadium Jumping Generally, a stadium course has 12 jumps, but it can vary anywhere from 8 to 16. There are all types of jumps and configurations that require you to change direction and your horse's lead. I'm not going to deal with competition, because the subject could take up an entire book. There are lots of rules and you have to learn about such things as scoring and penalties. But quite apart from the competitive aspects, you should know how to jump a course properly.
Have a Plan To jump a course of fences successfully, you must have a plan. Otherwise, all you'll be able to do is scramble through and hope for the best. In planning, remember to allot time for:
Course checks, or checking to make sure you're still on the correct course. Every third or fourth jump plant an imaginary flag to help keep you on course.
Breaking Down the Course The biggest mistake people make jumping a course of fences is thinking of it as one long course. Instead, break the course down into a series of three or four jumps, and think of each series as separate. Usually, that gives you a beginning, a middle, and an end to plan out. Each has its own set of problems:
The beginning -- the challenge here is for you to get your horse going and for both of you to become comfortable with the surroundings.
The middle -- here you usually have to negotiate higher jumps and more turns; this requires a more technical approach to riding.
The end -- you're getting tired and may lost concentration, and your horse is getting excited and probably wants to speed up. You have to force yourself to focus and avoid rushing to the finish.
The height of a jump makes no difference. Course designers are quite capable of making an 18-inch jump practically impossible. For example, consider the difficulty of completing an 18-inch jump that's set at a 90-degree angle from an immediately preceding vertical of 3 feet, 6 inches.
The most difficult jump is the first one. I don't care if the first jump is 18 inches and the last jump is 6 feet. The first jump is still the most difficult because it's where you strive to establish the rhythm and attitude for the entire course. The next most difficult jump is the last one. Now, the horse has no way to know which is the last jump. Only you know. But time and time again, I've seen riders inadvertently convey this to their horses either by letting down with relief or speeding up because they are excited they are almost finished. The horse ends up dragging off the last rail. If a course has 12 jumps, ride the twelfth as though there were 13.
Using Your Seat for More Control In the previous lesson, you were jumping individual jumps. To jump a course of fences, you have to change how you jump. Jumping multiple jumps in different patterns and sequences and heights requires more control. Instead of just letting Nemesis jump the jump, as you let Magic do in the last lesson, you must take charge. One way to get more control is by changing your seat. You need to sit in the saddle between the jumps rather than remain in half seat the whole time. But this should be a very light seat, not a full-balanced seat. Don't distribute all your weight on the seat bones; let your inner thighs support some of it. This lighter seat will better enable you to make the transition from a sitting to a jumping position. In jumping a course of fences, you'll usually come from the sitting to jumping position at the precise second the horse pushes off with his hindquarters to jump the jump.
Remembering a Course of Fences and Designing Your Ride If you think you can't forget a course, you're wrong. It's actually very easy to do. And even one bad jump will defeat your plan. So memorize the course before you jump. It will take time and mental repetition, repetition, repetition. These tips should help:
Identify the in gate, out gate, left side, and right side of the course. Name each part out loud.
Stand outside the ring, facing where the course begins. With your index finger, point at the first jump; name the type of jump out loud. If you don't say it out loud, you'll forget. Keep your body in the same place. Don't turn yet.
Point now in the direction of the second jump. Then turn your body toward it. This helps you visualize what you'll see when you're on the horse. Follow the same procedure for each subsequent jump. Point, then turn.
Mark the course. If you were competing in stadium jumping, you'd be allowed to walk the course, but not mark it. Nevertheless, I encourage my students to do this when learning. I have them place natural objects, such as small dirt clods or little sticks, in the ring to mark their recovery zones or perhaps the places where they'll need to change reins. The act of placing the objects helps them remember.
You can also use your seat to control Nemesis on the approach to the jump. For some jumps you'll sit on the approach, and for others you'll be up. Strive to become proficient at changing from a deep seat to a half seat. Suppose Nemesis tries to slow down in front of the jump. Take a deep driving seat and drive him forward to the jump. Conversely, if Nemesis is keen and trying to rush the jump, take a light half seat, sitting on your thighs as opposed to your seat bones. When going over the jump, however, you should always be in the jumping position. If this sounds tough, it isn't. In fact, by now you'll probably find that it comes pretty naturally.
Pace Riding a course of fences involves pace and path. Pace is the more important of the two. Most people go too fast in a course of fences, on a horse that isn't adequately collected. The horse should be agile, his back rounded, and his hindquarters up underneath, helping to carry the additional weight of the rider. Keep his top line rounded, with his head positioned to receive direct communication from you with a minimum of resistance. Your pace should be so steady on a course of fences that you can count each time the horse's leading foreleg rhythmically hits the ground. One of the most valuable exercises I teach is counting the strides around a course of fences, not just the strides in front of a jump.
Many kinds of things can destroy the horse's rhythm, including these: Bending to the outside around the corner, or leaning into the corner -- these are two very common reasons for destroying the pace of a course. In both instances, the horse will speed up or change his rhythm. Not knowing where you're going -- there's nothing worse than uncertainty. Horses hate indecisive riders, especially when jumping. Know the course as well as you know the floor plan of your home. You cannot change your mind once you set out on the course. Cutting corners -- use the full dimensions of the course to give you time to control minor infractions. Approaching improperly -- the more excitable the horse, the shorter the approach; the more lethargic the horse, the longer the approach. This will tell you that on Nemesis, for example, you'd use a shorter approach. When riding a horse like Toby or Sampson, you'd use a longer approach. Other things that will destroy the pace include insecurity in the horse or the rider. Your anxiety can cause the horse to change pace or become anxious himself. A good way to relax is to remember to breathe.
Path In planning your path around a stadium course, allow for centrifugal force. If you're trying to turn a turn, the horse usually will drift to the outside. The barn or the out gate also affects your ride. Nemesis is more likely to increase speed when moving toward the barn or out gate, and to decrease speed in the other direction. He might even break stride. You've got to take this into account as you guide him through the course and make the necessary adjustments to keep his pace uniform. Different jumps require different approaches, of course. A low, wide jump requires a flatter, faster "strung out" approach, as opposed to a higher, vertical jump, which requires a more collected, slower approach. The course layout also affects your approach. What you need to do in preparation for the next jump largely determines the angle you jump at, the degree of collection, and so forth. Say you're about to take a jump that will require a hard turn to the right after landing. You'll need a more collected, energetic jump than you would if the next jump called for a straight-on approach.
Stride Jumping courses generally are laid out to a 12-foot stride, but some course designers throw in 18- and 10-foot strides. To jump a course of fences successfully and negotiate different types of jumps, you must be able to lengthen and shorten your horse's stride. To lengthen the stride, take a more driving seat -- sit down more fully in the seat -- and pulse your lower leg more steadily. Keep your hands relatively steady, if not giving. (With some horses, you have to give just a bit to get them to extend). Think of it as trying to create a longer, lower horse, but not a faster one. The longer stride will make you feel as if you're going faster, but your horse's pace won't actually change. To shorten the stride, you want the converse -- an elevated, collected horse. This means you take a lighter seat and deliver a sharper, slapping motion with your legs. You also set your hands more firmly, raise them, or both, depending on the horse.
Rating the Horse to the Jump Adjusting Nemesis's stride and putting him in the correct spot to take a jump is referred to as rating the horse to the jump. Before you can do this, you have to develop an eye for the jump. This means being able to judge instinctively where the horse will take off for the jump, based on the distance to the jump as well as on the horse's speed and impulsion. One way to develop this eye is by counting the strides out loud. Strangely enough, most people sense when the count will be off -- when the horse is definitely going to take off for the jump at the wrong place -- but they can't tell as easily when the takeoff will be correct. Fortunately, it's more important to know when it's going to be wrong. The sooner you know Nemesis isn't going to hit the right spot to take off, the sooner you can adjust. Beginners usually know about three strides before the jump; advanced students know about eight strides before. If you're really, really good, you'll know before you come around the corner.
When It's Wrong, Drive You learned in the previous lesson that you must go forward to the jump. Take this lesson a bit further: If the horse is going to be off on his approach to the jump, drive. Drive the horse with everything you've got! Your horse is probably out of stride and he's going to have to put in a chip shot -- an extra little step -- or take the jump very long. It doesn't matter, to get yourself out of this mess, drive.
Lead Changes A course of fences will require you to change leads. The recommended strategy is to make a flying lead change on the straight line, but it's hard to do. Instead, change leads at the preceding jump or just before making the turn to the next jump.
Changing a Lead During Takeoff Say you're coming into a jump of left lead, but you need to change to right lead to take the next jump. You communicate this change of direction to Nemesis by establishing a bend while over the first jump. If you were going straight over the jump, you'd close both legs and push both hands forward at the beginning of the release, when you take off. To communicate a lead change, however, bend Nemesis during this phase -- not as you go over the jump, but during the takeoff phase, when he gathers and releases. It's important not to do this too early because you could end up with a run out or a refusal. To initiate this bend during the gathering, use your bending aids. Use both legs, the inside leg at the girth and the outside leg behind the girth. The outside rein will be longer than the inside rein, but with equal contact. Sounds familiar, doesn't it? This is a common way to communicate a change of direction and establish a lead change. Of course, you must also look at where you're going, and when you land, your body must be poised to receive and react to this bend.
Changing a Lead Before a Turn In the heat of jumping a course of fences, it's sometimes difficult to land on the correct lead. If you fail to get the correct lead over the jump -- in preparation for the next jump -- you can change the lead as you turn toward that next jump. At the apex of the turn -- the deepest part of the turn -- you must establish a period of suspension so that Nemesis can physically change the bend of his body and the way his feet are traveling. This occurs during a split second. There's a break of the canter stride into the trotting stride, just enough time for each foot to hit the ground once. You accomplish the lead change here the same way you do any canter lead. But the half halt is a bit more abrupt and up. Remember, failure to jump off the correct lead or take corners on the correct lead in a course of fences invites disaster.
Upgrade Your Riding Attire When you start to take jumping seriously, riding attire can really make a difference. You'll be driving your heels down a lot with jumping, and if you're also going to ride cross-country, you'll have branches and briars at your legs. Proper, tall riding boots will help keep your legs from getting pinched and poked and will give you a better base of support than will lesser boots. You already should be wearing an approved riding helmet and a protective jumping vest.
Drifting In a course of fences, centrifugal force can be a friend or your enemy. Because of it, a horse will rarely drift to the inside. As you come around a corner, Nemesis is more likely to drift away from the turn, not into it. When you're riding a course of fences, then, you always aim for the inside standard. Even if Nemesis doesn't drift to the outside, it's a fairly easy job to leg yield him out to the center of the jump, but it's nearly impossible to leg yield a horse back to the center of the jump once he's drifted wide.
Recovery Zones I mentioned above that you should set up recovery zones. These are like planned rest periods, where you and Nemesis can regather yourselves. Just how many recovery zones you establish will depend on the length of the course. Usually, you plan one after every three jumps. Try never to extend that to beyond five jumps. Leg yielding will become integral to this. You leg yield deep into a corner (get as close to the fence as you can) to create space where you can regather yourself and your horse and review your plans for the next set of the course.
Approaches off a Corner Your line of sight is very important. Four strides before the start of your turn toward the jump, you must look at the jump -- more specifically, at the inside standard of the jump, not the jump in general. Then you look at the deepest part of the corner, where the turn is most acute, to begin gauging your approach to the jump. With each stride you now take, constantly check where you are, the deepest part of the corner, and the inside standard. Constantly. Once you reach the deepest part of the corner, focus on the remaining bend of the turn and on the exact approach spot for the jump. This is of paramount importance before you start into a corner. Make sure your lead is correct! During this turn, it's critical that the horse stays equally balanced on all four feet, with his weight evenly distributed. He cannot lean into the corner. Complete your turn before you jump.
Jumping at an Angle Some courses require you to jump at an angle to get the correct line for the next jump. Remember that doing so makes a jump wider for the horse. If at all possible, avoid jumping spreads, or any other jumps with depth, at an angle. This might include a water jump. The easiest jumps to take at an angle are verticals, although any angled jump will change how the horse jumps. Usually, he will jump bigger than you expect.
What to do if...something goes wrong within three strides of a jump. Generally, if you are in the approach -- within three strides of the jump -- you have to jump the jump. Drive! Hard! Do not try to stop. Trying to stop a horse this close to the jump is a bad move. The horse could run out to the side or crash into the jump. Hold onto the mane and jump. Let me make one exception. If the jump is 18 inches or less, you probably could stop the horse or turn him out without too much trouble. But when you get to higher jumps, the general rule is to drive the horse on.
What to do if...you lose a stirrup. This is not uncommon among riders just learning to negotiate a course of jumps, and it usually happens after a jump. Bring the horse down to a walk or trot and try to regain your stirrup; if you can't readily do so, stop before you enter the next approach and retrieve it. In a competition, you're never supposed to stop your horse completely, but while learning, always play it safe. If you start losing one or both stirrups before the jump, it's usually because you're driving the horse foward and literally kicking the stirrup off your foot. To drive the horse forward, your legs should rotate back from your knee, not kick straight back. You also should be sure to keep your heels down. Lifting your leg can cause you to lose a stirrup.
What to do if...unexpected distractions occur. Say you are not in the approach to a jump but something unexpected happens. A kite drifts over the course, or a motorcycle pulls up nearby. It might be something as mundane as another horse getting loose. Stop! Err on the side of safety while you're learning. Otherwise, never give up, even if you ride the beginning of the course badly. Success hinges on your recovery times and continuing. Stop only for safety reasons.
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