Show-Jump­ing Skills for Even­ters

An even­ter’• guide to more dou­ble-clear round•

Practical Horseman - - Contents - By Sara Kozump­lik Mur­phy and Brian Mur­phy Pho­tos by Amy K. Dra­goo

In­ter­na­tional even­ter Sara Kozump­lik Mur­phy and Irish show jumper Brian Mur­phy ex­plain how even­ters can im­prove their sta­dium rounds and teach their mounts to be more care­ful jumpers.

Many Amer­i­can even­ters read­ily ad­mit that sta­dium jump­ing is their weak­est phase. Yet to­day’s medal win­ners—from coun­tries like France, Ger­many and Great Bri­tain—all look like they could walk into a jumper ring and not ap­pear out of place. Some top U.S. even­ters, such as 2018 World Eques­trian Games com­peti­tors Lau­ren Ki­ef­fer and Will Cole­man, are beau­ti­ful show jumpers, but as a whole, our skills are far be­hind those of other coun­tries. It’s time we Amer­i­cans take a look in the mir­ror and set the bar higher for our­selves.

One fac­tor help­ing us to do this is the U.S. Eques­trian Fed­er­a­tion’s event­ing show-jump­ing course ad­vi­sor, Richard Jef­fery. He’s push­ing course de­sign­ers around the coun­try to raise their stan­dards. Now as good as any in the world, our cour­ses at all lev­els are very fair to the horses—not trap­ping them into mak­ing mis­takes—but much more tech­ni­cal. There are twice as many re­lated dis­tances—jumps set on straight or bend­ing lines with eight or fewer strides be­tween them—than we used to see. So it’s eas­ier to knock down lots of rails.

The So­lu­tion

For­tu­nately, we’re sur­rounded by jumper rid­ers who know how to ride these cour­ses. The U.S. has some of the world’s best grand prix rid­ers. More even­ters need to tap into the in­cred­i­bly suc­cess­ful hunter/eq­ui­tation sys­tem that pro­duces them. But wait, you’re think­ing, event horses are dif­fer­ent from hunters and jumpers. They have to be so bold on cross coun­try; we don’t want them to be­come su­per­son­i­cally care­ful over their fences. True. But we can teach them to be more care­ful than they are now with­out di­min­ish­ing their courage. To do so, though, we need to im­prove our own skills. When a horse hits a pole, he learns to jump more care­fully next time only if he isn’t blam­ing the rider for get­ting in his way. Hunter/jumpers can teach us how to make that hap­pen suc­cess­fully.

Keep in mind: Even­ters tend to over­com­pli­cate things. Even at the four-star level, the jumps aren’t high enough to de­mand the ex­treme ac­cu­racy re­quired of grand-prix rid­ers, so you don’t need to learn all the sub­tle, so­phis­ti­cated tech­niques they use. In­stead, fo­cus on mas­ter­ing the fun­da­men­tals: Ride in a proper ring can­ter in rhythm and bal­ance from the cen­ter of each jump to the cen­ter of the next one, get your “num­bers” (the cor­rect num­ber of strides in re­lated dis­tances) and get out of your horse’s way. Here’s what you need to know to achieve all three of these goals.

Find Your Ring Can­ter

As good as even­ters are at gal­lop­ing across coun­try, many ride around sta­dium cour­ses too slowly and “back­ward” (with too much hand), of­ten adding more strides in a line than a pure show jumper would. There’s a com­mon mis­con­cep­tion that a “slow clear” is bet­ter than risk­ing hav­ing a rail down. In the past, tim­ing was more er­ratic and the op­ti­mum time was of­ten easy to achieve, but that’s no longer the case in to­day’s cour­ses. You need to ride for­ward to make the time. And in­cur­ring four penal­ties for be­ing four sec­onds slow is just as bad as four penal­ties for a rail down.

When we ask new stu­dents for a ring can­ter, nine out of 10 pick up ei­ther a long, lopey can­ter stuck in neu­tral or a can­ter with a 10- or 11-foot stride. Most of them just need to add 1 “mph” to the pace—they don’t need to be fly­ing around the ring. A good ring can­ter is smooth and rhyth­mic, yet also ad­justable. That’s where your dres­sage comes in. Strive to pro­duce the same steady, flow­ing, har­mo­nious pic­ture in the show-jump­ing ring that you aim for in the dres­sage ring.

TIP Plan your track from the cen­ter of each jump to the cen­ter of the next one.

In com­pe­ti­tion, the first jump on course is usu­ally a very for­giv­ing shape, which means that you can ride to it with plenty of pace with­out wor­ry­ing about knock­ing a rail down. So plan to start each round in your ring can­ter.

Ride Cen­ter to Cen­ter

On cross coun­try, even­ters rely a great deal on in­stinct. If a horse jumps too big or too qui­etly into a three-stride turn­ing com­bi­na­tion over two ta­bles, we al­low him to shift a lit­tle right or left off his line to make up the dif­fer­ence in the dis­tance. Car­ry­ing this habit over into sta­dium jump­ing, how­ever, can mean more rails down. To jump in his best-pos­si­ble form, your horse needs to square his body to the fence so he can push off both hind legs evenly and power his body up­ward, not side­ways. If he gets in the habit of shift­ing slightly right or left on take­off, he’ll learn to lean onto one shoul­der or the other or push more off one hind leg than the other. Al­low­ing him to do this re­peat­edly at home teaches him that it’s OK to cheat in this way. Then, in com­pe­ti­tion, he won’t “sit down” cor­rectly (rock his weight back onto his hindquar­ters on take­off) and jump in a proper shape, so he’ll be more likely to have rails down.

If, on the other hand, you in­sist that he jump the cen­ter

Mea­sure strid­ing in re­lated dis­tances based on a 12-foot stride.

of each fence at home, he may knock rails down if he’s a bit lazy or hasn’t de­vel­oped a cor­rect jump­ing tech­nique yet. But that will teach him to be more care­ful. Event rid­ers worry too much about knock­ing down rails at home and in the warm-up. If you’re con­sis­tently do­ing ev­ery­thing else right, these knock­downs are a good re­minder to your horse to pol­ish up his jump­ing tech­nique. This doesn’t hap­pen overnight, though. Horses who are still learn­ing the proper style of­ten try dif­fer­ent things be­fore fi­nally get­ting it right. For ex­am­ple, it may take three or four at­tempts on the same line. If your horse makes one mis­take and knocks a rail down, he might make a dif­fer­ent mis­take the next time. The key is to give him the same ride each time un­til he fig­ures it out.

For every sta­dium-jump­ing round, plan to ride a cer­tain track, or line, from the cen­ter of each fence to the cen­ter of the next one. No mat­ter what hap­pens, don’t de­vi­ate from that plan! When a dis­tance is a lit­tle too long or too tight—ad­just your can­ter, not your line. We’ll ex­plain how to do that next.

Get Your Num­bers

The more ac­cu­rately you ride each re­lated dis­tance, the closer you’ll get to ideal take­off spots and the eas­ier it will be for your horse to clear the jumps. To­day’s course de­sign­ers base these dis­tances on a stan­dard 12-foot stride, al­low­ing about 6 feet each for take­off and land­ing (de­pend­ing on the height you’re jump­ing). That means that a one-stride will be 24 feet, a twostride 36 feet, and so on, re­gard­less of whether the jumps are on a straight or bend­ing line. Ev­ery­thing makes sense; there’s no guess­work. If you prac­tice mea­sur­ing and walk­ing lines at home based on these dis­tances, then you can pre­dict how many strides

you should plan to ride in each line of a course. For more tips on walk­ing lines ac­cu­rately, see the “Mea­sure Your Steps” side­bar on page 24.

Many other vari­ables—such as a spooky jump, strange light­ing, small arena (which can make horses feel claus­tro­pho­bic and shorten their strides)—can in­flu­ence how eas­ily each dis­tance rides in the ex­pected num­ber of strides. Over time, you will learn to an­tic­i­pate some of these ef­fects, but your pri­mary job is sim­ply to be pre­pared to re­act ap­pro­pri­ately to any sit­u­a­tion that changes how a dis­tance is rid­ing in that mo­ment.

For ex­am­ple, if you ar­rive at the first jump of a five-stride line a lit­tle qui­etly, upon land­ing you need to close your leg and ask your horse to lengthen in the next stride or two so that the third, fourth and fifth strides can be nor­mal. Ide­ally, he will even slow down slightly in the fifth stride, gath­er­ing him­self to rock back onto his hindquar­ters for a qual­ity jump. If you don’t ad­dress the dis­tance prob­lem early, you’ll still be squeez­ing your legs in those fi­nal strides to close the gap, which will make your horse jump flat­ter.

A sim­i­larly quick re­ac­tion is nec­es­sary if you see a long dis­tance to the first jump. As soon as he lands, you must stretch up tall and “whoa” with both hands—never see­saw­ing your reins, which will ruin your straight­ness and risk a runout—to col­lect the stride im­me­di­ately so you won’t still be fight­ing to slow down on stride four or five, likely invit­ing a pole down. Great rid­ers like two-time Olympic gold medal­ist Mark Todd get that done in a sin­gle stride so they can then be soft again, giv­ing their horses every op­por­tu­nity to jump the next fence in a good shape.

To re­spond to sit­u­a­tions like this ef­fec­tively, you need to de­velop your “eye”—your abil­ity to ad­just the stride as nec­es­sary to

ar­rive at a good take­off spot for each fence. Ig­nore peo­ple who tell you not to worry about dis­tances. They’re ei­ther un­e­d­u­cated or so nat­u­rally tal­ented that they don’t re­al­ize how ef­fec­tive their own tim­ing skills are. If you don’t have that nat­u­ral gift, don’t worry. You can train your eye. But you’ll have to prac­tice, just the way mu­si­cians prac­tice their scales. For more in-depth in­struc­tion on how to im­prove your tim­ing, read Ge­off Teall’s ar­ti­cle, “See Your Dis­tances,” in last month’s is­sue.

ip >> Soften your rein con­tact on take­off.

Get Out of the Way

Nine out of 10 rails oc­cur due to rider er­ror, such as pulling on the reins in the ap­proach, throw­ing your up­per body for­ward on take­off or other­wise in­ter­fer­ing with your horse’s bal­ance and con­cen­tra­tion. In the ap­proach to every jump, carry your hands—main­tain­ing a straight line from your el­bow to your hands to the bit—with­out al­low­ing them to sep­a­rate more than a few inches. Sit up tall with your up­per body, giv­ing your horse time to jump up to you. Then let go! Soft­en­ing the rein con­tact on take­off is cru­cial, giv­ing him the free­dom to use his body ef­fec­tively. This is an­other crit­i­cal skill car­ried over from dres­sage: Learn­ing to ex­e­cute a half-halt gives you the abil­ity to let go.

Strength­en­ing your lower leg is also in­valu­able, as that helps you to main­tain your own bal­ance in the air. Be aware, too, of how eas­ily the weight of your head can throw your bal­ance off. Mo­men­tar­ily look­ing up high to the sky be­fore your horse lands can help you stay bal­anced so it’s eas­ier to or­ga­nize the mo­ment his feet touch the ground. As you land, think, “Get back on my can­ter, then get straight on my line.”

One mis­take that even­ters of­ten make is clos­ing the legs on the take­off for every jump. This is ef­fec­tive on cross coun­try, where we want to re­bal­ance and then ride for­ward to the jumps. But in show jump­ing, it can cause your horse to hit the rail with a front leg be­cause you’ve pushed him for­ward rather

On the take­off to a jump, soften your rein con­tact to give your horse free­dom to use his body.

than giv­ing him time to jump up with his front end. For this rea­son, jumper rid­ers of­ten lighten their legs con­sid­er­ably on the take­off at ver­ti­cals or square ox­ers with­out much width.

Put It All To­gether

Con­cen­trate on straight­ness: Take off and land on the same line.

A good jump­ing in­struc­tor will cover all of these ba­sics in every les­son, but you can also prac­tice them in very sim­ple cav­al­letti ex­er­cises. Set up two cav­al­letti or small jumps on a straight, six-stride (84-foot) line. To be sure that you’re truly rid­ing from cen­ter to cen­ter, build chutes to ride through by adding a pair of ground poles or cones on the take­off and land­ing sides of each cav­al­letti—about 10 feet away from it—par­al­lel to one an­other and to the track. (To make the setup even sim­pler, you can build just two chutes: one on the land­ing side of the first jump and an­other on the take­off side of the se­cond jump.) Start with them quite wide—about a foot in from the ends of the cav­al­letti.

Can­ter back and forth over the cav­al­letti sev­eral times in six strides, al­ways rid­ing to the cen­ter of each one. Then try ad­just­ing your stride to ride it in five, seven, eight, and if you’re more ad­vanced, even nine or 10 strides, try­ing to keep the rhythm steady and never chang­ing your line. Even when you have to ad­just your strid­ing within the line, al­ways try to do so smoothly.

Mean­while, con­cen­trate on straight­ness, try­ing to take off and land on the same line every time. You’ll be sur­prised how hard it is to main­tain this ac­cu­racy! As that im­proves, grad­u­ally bring the “chute” poles closer to­gether (to no nar­rower than 4 feet apart).

When that’s go­ing well, prac­tice the same ex­er­cise on a bend­ing line. Then put it all to­gether: Ride the bend­ing line to the straight line and vice versa.

Cav­al­letti are very low-im­pact ex­er­cises, so there’s no harm in do­ing them twice or even three times a week on good foot­ing, in ad­di­tion to your reg­u­lar show-jump schools. Us­ing them rou­tinely is a great way to im­prove all the skills we’ve men­tioned. It also helps to keep your horse “jump­ing fit”—strength­en­ing the mus­cles he needs for jump­ing. Jumper barns al­most al­ways have one or two cav­al­letti ex­er­cises set up in their rings.

Re­mem­ber, keep it sim­ple and seek qual­ity in­struc­tion. As your fun­da­men­tals im­prove, your jump­ing coach can help you fi­nesse the rest of your com­pe­ti­tion strat­egy, for ex­am­ple, by cre­at­ing a warm-up plan to suit your horse’s spe­cific needs.

Fi­nally, we highly rec­om­mend “prac­tic­ing un­der pres­sure” at lo­cal hunter/jumper school­ing shows. If you have a tight bud­get and/or sched­ule, con­sider re­plac­ing one of your planned events with a jumper show. This small in­vest­ment will pay off with valu­able clear rounds at fu­ture events.

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