The bell rings, you set off aiming for the first fence, you pop over it… And suddenly it’s like everything begins to speed up and rather than being the pilot, you have somehow been relegated to passenger status. All the ‘if this then that’ scenarios you have spent months practicing are just gone and you are hoping that somehow, through the grace of God, you will make it through the two finish flags, still on board!
Jumping tracks or courses is what many riders aspire to achieve with their horse . However, the majority of riders who love jumping and want to jump spend so much time focusing on the actual jumping part and so little on polishing up their technique between fences, that when they reach their goal of completing a course of jumps, the fact that they are on the ground, navigating from one fence to the next, for about 95% of the round, results in luck (as opposed to planning and skill) that dictates if the poles stay up or not (and if the rider remains mounted!).
Much of our success jumping tracks or a course of jumps comes from the quality of flatwork preparation we put in before hand, rather than time spent actually jumping. Maintaining balance, rhythm and control around the track is what makes the difference between consistent clear rounds and having the odd sporadic moment of success amid usually disappointing rounds peppered with poles down and refusals.
I believe this must be mastered in two parts. Firstly, perfecting your position over a fence (which I have exercises you can use HERE >> ) and then secondly, once you can seamlessly shift in and out of your jumping position, you can begin working on remaining in control for the entire duration of the ride!
Courses are made up of jumps that are connected together with either straight lines or turns between them. The problems begin when your horse begins to speed up on the straight lines which can use you, the rider, to become anxious and nervous. This is also what leads to a lot of run-outs and flattening over fences which can bring the poles down. Riding a course of connected jumps also magnifies problems with bending, turning and suppleness. Any issues here will result in your horse losing balance around corners which often results in a loss of overall control while riding the track and you becoming flustered with just too many things to do to bring it all back where you want!
One of the reasons that jumping is broken up into different phases or parts is to show riders that each separate piece must be mastered in its own right before being put together. The phases are; the approach, the take off, the jumping, the landing and the getaway. When all pieces are ridden correctly the result is an effortless, graceful jump that sets you up perfectly for the next obstacle on your course.
As mentioned, today we are chatting about the part between the fences. Many riders just focus on maintaining control between the fences, however they go about achieving this the wrong way. Constant pulling on their horse’s mouth will only result in the horse falling onto the forehand and pulling back. By failing to also factor in balance and rhythm, is often leads to a loss of rhythm and impulsion, which results in a loss of balance.
Here are some exercises you can do to really establish and then maintain that all important balance and rhythm around your tracks.
I suggest beginning by working over poles on the ground, and once you have gotten the knack of regulating and maintaining your horse over the poles, only then begin to build small jumps. I also recommend beginning each exercise in trot, so you can focus on your position and how you are riding the line or pole, before cantering the exercises. If you encounter any problems, take it back to trot again and work through the problems.
Sometimes our desire to ride more complicated and challenging work with our horse results in us rushing over basic training issues. These same problems are easily masked when the stakes (or jumps) are low. However, ignoring basic training flaws will inevitably always result in an even bigger problem later down the line, when more difficult questions are being asked.
Take the time to correct any basic issues early in your horse’s training; focus on building a strong correct foundation to work from
Begin by setting up a pole or a jump on the centerline approximately 6 to 8 meters before X. As you ride up the centerline toward the pole, focus on maintaining your rhythm and not allowing your horse to speed up or slow down.
Also pay attention to how straight your horse is on approach and, how easy it is to keep him on that straight line. If he tends to wander or weave left or right, use your legs to bring him back and then continue to ride the line you have chosen.
Also consider how well you can continue to preserve the rhythm after the pole and around the bend when you reach the top of the arena. There should be no visible difference in your horse’s stride, energy or your level of control throughout the line, both before and after the pole.
Once you feel comfortable doing this in trot and canter, you can begin to work in more difficult turns and bends. Ride the same pole on the centerline, pop it and continue on straight again until you reach X or just afterwards. Once there, begin tracking right, in a half 10m circle. When you reach the outside track again (the long side of the arena), immediately track right taking you across the centerline on a diagonal line. As you reach the other side of the arena (just before the corner), track left and if you have continued to maintain the rhythm and balance, when you reach the middle of the short side of the arena repeat the exercise again, instead this time on the other side (track left after X).
Again, begin in trot and only when you can truly maintain the rhythm, balance and control, practice in canter. If you cannot perform a flying change, ask for trot as you cross the diagonal each time and then pick up the opposite canter lead, in preparation for the next corner.
There are many variations of this exercise you can do while riding, and of course building an actual jump instead of the ground pole is part of adding to this exercise.
The second exercise I recommend is focused more on controlling your horse while continuing to create impulsion after the fence. Using the same pole or jump, approach in canter and on landing, allow your horse 7 canter strides, before bringing him back to trot. However, you will only keep the trot for 5 strides, before picking up canter again.
As you become more in tune with controlling your horse while continuing to create energy, you can ask for the trot at 5 canter strides after the fence. What you are looking to do here is regain control of your body as quickly as possible after the fence, so you can correctly ride the getaway and begin building a good approach to the next fence.
The last exercise I suggest can be built on from this. Once you have tracked left or right at the top of the arena, after popping your pole or jump, ride a 10 or 15 meter circle in the corner. Again, the focus is on maintaining the rhythm and balance. Your horse should not fall in on the circle, or rush around the circle.
You can then begin to add a 10m circle in the corner before you begin your approach to the fence as well. It should be a fluid progression all the way, around the circle, down the line, over the fence, after the fence and again round the circle. No speeding up, no breaking into a different gait, no falling out through the shoulders, no swinging of the hind quarters, just a correct, forward going, balanced rhythm throughout the exercise.
Lastly, I feel it is vitally important to understand how courses are built and the flow that the course builder has envisioned happening as different horse and rider combinations navigate the track. Take the time to study courses of jumps. Look at how they ride, the bends, the turns, the opportunities to rebalance the horse. By doing this, you will subconsciously begin to make subtle changes as you ride the jumps that will, if you have that correct foundation, make all the difference between a clear round and 4 penalties.
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