BEST OF WILLIAM MICKLEM – 3 – Racing towards a ‘fifth leg’ (Part One)

A fifth-leg supremo, William Fox-Pitt.

If you want to jump safely, the fundamental aim in training should be to develop your horse’s ability to look after himself. If your horse looks at what he is jumping, makes automatic alterations, and has quick reactions when getting too close or far away from a fence, or when slipping or tripping, he can be said to have a ‘fifth leg’. All horses should have a fifth-leg training programme as part of their preparation for jumping, however it is the one training area that is regularly neglected.

Fifth-leg training is about teaching the horse to use his brain and take responsibility for the jumping, and should be an integral part of your safety because it will allow more room for error and encourages the horse to find an extra leg in times of difficulty…..and this is vital, as it is 100% certain that we all meet the unexpected at times going cross-country and we all make mistakes! Fifth-leg training is also excellent and vital preparation for jumping against the clock in show jumping.


The heart of fifth-leg training is to work at the self-carriage of your horse….which of course should also be a fundamental aim of dressage training. However many riders find it difficult to allow the horse to find his own balance and try to do this for them using the rein. It is certainly very tempting to try and balance the horse by increasing the rein contact, but at best it will just reduce the speed and at worst it will actually prevent an improved balance. Slowing down will produce a better balance, but staying at the same speed and increasing the pressure on the rein cannot by itself change the balance.

To understand this better imagine you are sitting on top of a rickety old chicken shed that starts to fall. In this situation pulling strenuously on one side would make no difference to the movement of the falling shed and the same applies to horse riding. It is the horse that carries the rider and not the other way round, so no amount of pulling on the rein will actually do anything but change the direction or slow the horse down. In the name of supporting and blocking many rides simply prevent the horse from finding his natural balance.


Many people say that self carriage is impossible when you are galloping down to a fence on a cross country, but if you look at top class steeplechasers and their riders galloping over fences you will see that it is definitely possible. In particular look at these horses jumping after they have dislodged their riders, or when they are loose schooling at home - they all tend to jump much better when the horses have to take responsibility for the jump and for their own self preservation.

In addition look at cross-country film of William Fox Pitt, Mark Todd, Mary Thompson and Andrew Nicholson, all allowing their horses to work for them by using a soft rein contact. In these examples they do not try to use the rein contact as a support point but instead it is simply a communication point. Of course this doesn’t happen overnight and it doesn’t start on the cross country course. This work starts in the dressage arena and continues in the show jumping arena and out hacking and is an ongoing process that is vital preparation for safe cross-country riding.


However there are also fundamental differences between racing over fences and cross country:

Firstly you do it by yourself, not in the company of other horses, which encourages more level headed, less excited, responses from your horse.

Secondly, you should not go at your maximum speed in horse trials. Therefore the horses will be working well within themselves and this reduces the risks substantially.

Thirdly in steeple chasing a horse is taken close to their limit of available energy and invariably they finish tired. This explains the high proportion of strains and sprains with racehorses. But with cross country riding we should not have a tired horse if the preparation is good. If your horse is tired you should retire and come back another day because a tired horse is a danger to both you and himself. So with a good physical preparation your horse should finish ready and willing to do a little more.

These last two points are ones that every rider should sign up to if they are serious about having a real margin for error and reducing their risk.


Most of the type of horses I work with are safe because they have a strong instinct for self-preservation and will find a fifth-leg in times of difficulty. Unfortunately some horses don’t take sufficient care simply because they are listening too much to a rider who is over-riding. At best over-riding includes habitually kicking at the moment of take off or trying to physically lift the horse over the fence with the hands. Both of these are common bad habits and the cause of many knocked fences. At worst it includes a horse becoming afraid of the rider because of overuse of the stick and possibly falling as a result. What is certain is that a frightened horse is a dangerous horse, both to their rider and to themselves.

It is important that you don’t look at cross-country riding as something requiring great strength. It may be occasionally appropriate to use the stick to back up the forward aids, as long as the exercise is not a step too far for your horse. But the aim must always be to build trust and confidence, so keep asking yourself if this is actually happening. If it is not happening you need to talk some steps back and make things easier. So using the stick should be a rare occurrence and we should have zero tolerance to excessive or inappropriate use of the stick.


With your appropriate horse working well within their physical limits, by using regular fifth-leg training, and by making sure with the help of a coach that you follow a ‘step by step’ progressive training programme, you will create a significant margin for error and reduce the risks. Then cross-country riding becomes fundamentally safe. Happy days. William

NEXT TIME…..BEST OF WILLIAM MICKLEM – 4 - Racing to a fifth-leg leg (Part Two). Specific ideas for fifth-leg training and why a horse with plenty of gallop is safer.

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Comment by sheila foley on December 11, 2009 at 4:24pm
i agree completely.young horses in particular need to be allowed to make mistakes in order to develop a "thinking brain"so they can learn to sort things out for themselves.a bit like letting a child touch a nettle so they know better next time because you allowed them to make that mistake.

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