This is my ten year old son on his 24 year old 11.2 pony - both of whom need to be carefully minded. They are jumping a fairly substantial fence. Quite a challenge and quite a risk many would say, but the two of them can do this time and time again with little risk. In fact my son can ride down to this fence like an international rider, in terms of getting his balance right and presenting his pony at exactly the right take off point, despite only being a novice rider. This is an explanation of both how I do this and why I do this:
WHY I DO THIS
I believe there is a very real problem with many riders of false modesty…or probably better described as low expectations. This is a problem that leads to all sorts of difficulties for our horses, and a vicious circle of deteriorating standards as low quality work leads to lower quality work and greater discomfort for both rider and horse. What we need is the opposite, a virtuous circle of better quality work leading to an improved way of going and more comfort for horse and rider, leading in turn to even better quality work. A dream? No, it’s a very real option, even for a novice rider. Here are two great examples of this for both Dressage and Jumping riders:
AVOID THE BUMPS
Many riders face the conundrum about whether they should use the rising or sitting trot. Let me answer straight away by saying that if you want to ride like an international rider most of us should choose the………………………………………….……………………….................................................................... ………………………...........................................………….............rising trot (posting trot).
To convince yourself of this simply consider what the horse does if he has an even slightly uncomfortable load on his back. He tightens and then probably drops his back to protect himself and all hope of a connection from ‘back to front’ is lost. So a rider that struggles and bumps in sitting trot is a rider that does little to help a horse improve.
However with a good rising trot the door is opened to the horse using his back. A good rising trot is one where the rider stays in a consistent balance with the majority of their weight through the legs, and the seat just ‘kisses’ the saddle before rising again. To do this the upper body has to be angled slightly forward and the seat moves forward and upwards towards the front arch of the saddle. Therefore there is very little movement with the rider’s shoulders as the seat swings forward and then back under the shoulders.
A ‘LIGHT BULB’ MOMENT
To test this balance change the diagonal several times by staying out of the saddle for the extra beat, rather than on the saddle. If your balance is good this should be easy and require no change of angle of the upper body or extra gripping of the leg. For many this is a ‘light bulb’ moment as they discover how unbalanced they are and how much their weight is changing during the rising trot. Changing this for the better will open the door to huge improvements.
With a well fitting saddle the weight is spread throughout the bearing surface on the back, so your weight will still be spread evenly on the horse’s back as in sitting trot, and you can be in as much harmony as a top rider….and the really brilliant thing is that as the horse begins to use and ‘come through’ in the back they become much easier to sit to. You can start to do very small periods of sitting trot. Job done!
SEEING STRIDES LIKE A CHAMPION
The other great advantage of a balanced rising trot is that this is the same balance that is ideal for coping with a horse that is a little fresh and the same balance required for jumping. So if you can do a good balanced rising trot you can start jumping…..and if you can start jumping you can also immediately start seeing or feeling strides as you canter to a fence. This is my second example of instantly riding like an international:
A top jumper is able to consistently present their horse at the fence in a way that enables them to take off using the perfect or near perfect take off point. They do this by seeing or feeling the stride from some way out – usually up to five strides, although some will boast they can see many more – and making the smallest change possible to the length of the stride to hit this take off point. This helps not only to develop a good jump technique and regular bascule but also builds confidence in both horse and rider.
DOING IT WELL FROM THE START
With the help of your coach it is possible to use a small ‘placing’ fence (approached in trot and with a placing plank in front of this to make the take off point consistent) in front of a second fence with initially say two or three canter strides in between. Then you can consistently come to the second fence and arrive at a good take off point. You also learn what size of canter stride is required for the show jumping round as you find the speed of canter and length of canter stride that perfectly fits the distance between the two fences.
As you keep repeating this exercise, and others like it with more strides in between the two fences, you always ride good quality approaches to the fence and develop your eye and feel for a stride. Then as you gain in confidence the vast majority of riders will find that they are increasingly aware of where their take off point will be and how they can best help their horse without making big changes. Result...happy riders and horses.
WHY USE A PLACING FENCE RATHER THAN A PLACING POLE
It is better to do this initially with a small placing fence rather than a canter pole on the ground, which is more commonly used. This is because when a mistake is made with the ideal take off point, when using a canter pole on the ground, the effect on the distance is the opposite of using two normal related fences:
If they get close to the pole on the ground on the approach a horse will complete the next stride further in than the normal landing point for a jump…which makes the distance to the following fence shorter than intended.
If they are far away from the pole on the ground on approach they will complete the next stride closer than the normal landing point for a jump….which makes the distance to the following fence longer than intended.
In addition when using a lead in fence there also tends to be less variation as many horses makes some adjustment to the stride themselves if required.
If you find all this difficult to visualise read this section again, with a pencil on your table to represent the pole on the ground, a glass to represent the fence and a fixed distance between your thumb and first finger to represent the length of canter stride. Then do this during dinner and everyone will think you need treatment!
QUALITY, QUALITY, QUALITY
It is much better for you and your horse to do the quality of work of top riders even for very small segments of exercises. It avoids establishing bad habits and it opens the door to all sorts of new higher-level options. It is possible in these two examples and it is possible in hundreds of other examples. If you have the right progression and the right quality of work then extraordinary progress is possible and retraining is not required as you move up the levels. You will probably also find your horse happier in the stable and happier to see you in the stable or field. So avoid the false modesty…you can do this! Truly Happy Days. William
(NB Many of you will know of my fifth leg training crusade and may think the above contradicts what I have been saying. Not at all. I use both strategies of jump training in an integrated programme. Using a placing fence and gradually bigger fences and grids to develop technique and confidence for both rider and horse, and in parallel doing fifth leg training exercises over smaller, more solid, fences on odd lines and using all distances between fences. One strategy will help the other.)
NEXT TIME......The most dangerous words in equestrian coaching.