Per­fect Your Track in the Hunter Ring

Wow the judge with this top hunter rider and judge’s show-ring tips. Part 2: Prac­tice track-rid­ing skills and fin­ish each round on a good note.

Practical Horseman - - Contents - By Tom Bren­nan Pho­tos by Amy K. Dra­goo

In Part 2 of this two-part se­ries Tom Bren­nan shares ex­er­cises to prac­tice rid­ing your track and fin­ish­ing your hunter round smoothly.

Last month, I taught you how to ride for­ward on course, jump fences “out of stride” and use fo­cal points to make smooth, ac­cu­rate turns. This month, you’re go­ing to build on those skills by prac­tic­ing turn­ing around a jump as you ap­proach your next fence. This will help you stay fo­cused and on track in the show ring when you have to ride around other jumps, dec­o­ra­tions or ob­sta­cles. In this month’s sec­ond ex­er­cise, I will ask you to turn your head while jump­ing a small grid. This will im­prove your bal­ance, tim­ing and mus­cle me­mory over fences—it’s pretty fun, too! Af­ter that, I’ll share some tips for max­i­miz­ing one as­pect of hunter per­for­mances that of­ten re­ceives too lit­tle at­ten­tion: the jump re­cov­ery. Then, to add a fi­nal pol­ish to your round, we’ll dis­cuss how to end it on a note that will im­press the judge and leave you with a sat­is­fied feel­ing of a job well done.

con­fi­dent can­ter we prac­ticed last month. When you reach the end of the ring be­fore the turn to the jump, squeeze your legs to main­tain your horse’s im­pul­sion. Turn your head to look for the cone. Pre­tend the out­side line jump isn’t even there. As you ap­proach and pass it, look through it to­ward your jump and, specif­i­cally, the cone be­yond it. Ig­nore the out­side line jump as it passes through your pe­riph­eral vi­sion. You and your horse will be in­her­ently aware of the ob­sta­cle you are go­ing around. Keep your fo­cus on the cone as you make a nice smooth turn onto the di­ag­o­nal and can­ter over the jump.

Think about this ex­er­cise while plan­ning your track in the show ring. When­ever you have to turn around an ob­struc­tion to get to your next jump, ask your­self, “If this wasn’t here, where would I make my turn?” You’ll see that there is a clear, straight track to the jump. When on course, rather than worry about get­ting around other jumps or dec­o­ra­tions be­fore find­ing your track, look through those ob­jects and fo­cus on stay­ing on your track through­out the en­tire turn.

Home­work: Grid Ex­er­cise

On the long side or the quar­ter­line, build a very sim­ple trot-in gym­nas­tic line that both you and your horse have done be­fore

com­fort­ably. For ex­am­ple, you could set up a cross­rail to a ver­ti­cal to an oxer with a trot-place­ment rail ap­prox­i­mately 9 feet away from the cross­rail. Build the ver­ti­cal about 18 feet away from that (for one stride) and the oxer an­other 36 to 38 feet (for two strides) from the ver­ti­cal. Ad­just all of these dis­tances to suit your horse’s nat­u­ral stride so that he makes a steady one stride from the cross­rail to the ver­ti­cal and a steady two strides to the oxer.

With all gym­nas­tic school­ing, I like to start with a sin­gle pole on the ground be­tween each set of stan­dards to check the dis­tances. Then I add one jump at a time, start­ing with the cross­rail, then the ver­ti­cal and fi­nally the oxer. When you and your horse are jump­ing through this gym­nas­tic com­fort­ably, ask a friend to stand in the mid­dle of the arena per­pen­dic­u­lar to the grid. As you en­ter the grid, have her hold up a cer­tain num­ber of fin­gers on one hand. Without chang­ing any­thing else about your ride, turn your head to fo­cus on her hand and count how many fin­gers she’s hold­ing up. Keep your eyes fo­cused on her hand un­til your horse lands from the fi­nal jump. By the last ob­sta­cle you will al­most be look­ing be­hind your­self.

Through­out the grid, con­cen­trate on be­ing in the mid­dle of your horse—from front to back and left to right. Feel your body open­ing and clos­ing nat­u­rally over each jump, tun­ing in to what dif­fer­ent parts of your body are do­ing to stay with his mo­tion.

This ex­er­cise packs a lot of punch—some rid­ers are very un­com­fort­able with it at first and seem to lose con­trol of their own eyes. Ini­tially, they sim­ply can­not get them­selves to look at the helper. Over a short time, though, they mas­ter the ex­er­cise and, in do­ing so, gain great bal­ance and con­fi­dence. This, in turn, gives their horses bal­ance and con­fi­dence.

No-Drama Re­cov­er­ies

In ad­di­tion to for­ward, con­fi­dent ap­proaches, bal­anced, undis­turbed jump­ing ef­forts and smooth, steady turns, an­other el­e­ment that sets an ex­cep­tional hunter round apart from the rest of the class is the land­ing side, or back side, of jumps. Good rid­ers pay at­ten­tion to the ap­proach to each jump. Great rid­ers also work really hard on the ride away from the jump, fo­cus­ing on their path, rhythm and pace while set­ting up for their next turn. From a judg­ing point of view, a horse who can­ters very com­fort­ably, eas­ily and for­ward away from a great jump­ing ef­fort, stay­ing on the path smoothly—without any drama—proves he is re­laxed and broke. A top horse does not need to be man­aged by the rider the in­stant he lands from a jump.

You can make this more ob­vi­ous to the judge by stay­ing quiet in the sad­dle rather than let­ting your body “tell a story.” Don’t

broad­cast to the world, “There’s my dis­tance!” or “I have to get a lead change!” Re­mem­ber, great hunter rid­ers seem to melt away out of view.

An ideal re­cov­ery starts with a cor­rect fol­low­ing rein re­lease. Whether you are us­ing a long re­lease, short re­lease or are jump­ing out of hand, main­tain it un­til your horse has all his “land­ing gear” down. Give him the free­dom to land and fin­ish the jump smoothly. Mean­while, keep your eye on your fo­cal point be­yond the end of the ring. What­ever size the ring is, act as if it goes on for­ever and you’re go­ing to keep rid­ing for acres and acres in that di­rec­tion. This will de­ter you from cut­ting the cor­ner af­ter your jump.

As you can­ter away on your track, avoid do­ing any­thing else that might dis­tract the judge’s eye from your horse. If you need a lead change, for ex­am­ple, try not to gy­rate your body around in the sad­dle or throw your weight dra­mat­i­cally to one side. If you’re land­ing from an in-and-out and need to slow your horse down after­ward, try to do so as sub­tly as pos­si­ble, per­haps even with just your voice or by sit­ting up. A rider who starts gath­er­ing up the reins when her horse has barely got­ten his back feet down on the ground re­veals that she’s wor­ried about some­thing. The judge may won­der, “Does that horse bolt? Should I keep an eye out for it?” Sud­denly he or she is as­sess­ing the story that the rider’s body is telling in­stead of ap­pre­ci­at­ing the horse’s jump­ing style and way of go­ing.

Keep in mind, that in the hunter ring there are no bonus points for mak­ing a dif­fi­cult horse look dif­fi­cult. Fur­ther, you really don’t want to make an easy horse look dif­fi­cult.

Fin­ish the Way You Started

The end of the course can­not be taken for granted, ei­ther. If you still have a lead change to make af­ter the last jump or need to get past the in-gate, do that with the same con­fi­dent, pos­i­tive at­ti­tude you have demon­strated all along. Some­times rid­ers are so re­lieved to get over the last jump that they lose a lit­tle fo­cus at the end of the round. Al-

though judges are of­ten al­ready mark­ing their cards as you come down to trot, it is still part of your pre­sen­ta­tion—as is ev­ery­thing you do un­til you are out of the ring. For in­stance, re­sist the temp­ta­tion to undo your hel­met and let your pony­tail fall out the back as you exit the ring. Take pride in your horse and your­self for get­ting up early and do­ing all the prepa­ra­tion to show him at his best that day. Show re­spect for the judge and the com­pe­ti­tion it­self—and for the ex­cep­tional round you just put in.

Here is my fi­nal ad­vice: Keep it sim­ple in the show ring! Con­cen­trate on all the minu­tiae in your work at home. When you get in the ring, trust in your prepa­ra­tion and fo­cus on mak­ing this the best per­for­mance pos­si­ble. If you be­lieve things can go bet­ter next time, ad­just your prepa­ra­tion and try again.

Prac­ti­cal Horse­man thanks Lynn Ellen Rice for pro­vid­ing the fa­cil­ity and horse for these pho­tos.

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If you want to win in the hunter ring, you need to prac­tice all the skills that will help you plan and pro­duce a smooth, for­ward, con­fi­dent round without draw­ing the judge’s at­ten­tion from your horse and his per­for­mance.

2. Just as I did in last month’s fo­cal-point ex­er­cises, I be­gin this ex­er­cise by pick­ing up a for­ward, con­fi­dent can­ter. When we reach the end of the ring be­fore the turn to the jump, I squeeze my legs down and around Lynn Ellen Rice’s 9-year-old geld­ing, Cal­lucci, to re­mind him to main­tain his im­pul­sion. Then I turn my head to look for the cone. As the other jumps pass through my field of vi­sion, I pre­tend they are not even there. In­stead, I look through them to­ward the cone. That helps me judge where to be­gin my nice smooth turn to­ward our jump. The straight line from my el­bow to Cal­lucci’s bit guides him onto the cor­rect track. 2

1. To prac­tice find­ing my line to a sin­gle fence on a di­ag­o­nal as I go around other po­ten­tially dis­tract­ing fences, I place a cone at the far end of the ring be­yond the di­ag­o­nal jump. The cone is where I want my straight track to take me af­ter the jump. Here you can see the stan­dard of the jump I need to go around (in the fore­ground), the jump I’m headed to (blue with white flow­ers) and the cone be­yond it. 1

3 3. Then, as the cen­ter of the jump lines up with the cone, I can sit qui­etly and keep my eye on the cone.

4. In the air over the fence, I am still fo­cused on the cone, guar­an­tee­ing we land on the track I want to ride for the rest of the di­ag­o­nal, which will set us up for a smooth turn to the left when we reach the end of the ring. You can see that Cal­lucci has al­ready read the cues I gave him by look­ing in the cor­rect place— and has fig­ured out where we are headed next. We ap­proached this jump on our right lead, but he is get­ting ready to land from this nice straight jump­ing ef­fort on his left lead in prepa­ra­tion for our new di­rec­tion. I have not sac­ri­ficed any straight­ness, style or height of my horse’s jump­ing ef­fort by twist­ing or duck­ing or pulling on my left rein to make him land on this lead. My body is not “telling a story” about want­ing to go left af­ter this jump.

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