Show Jumping

“There’s a bit of a stigma with people who think your measure of success is how big you’re jumping,” says Trish Mrakawa of Dewinton, AB, Jump Canada coaching chair and a senior hunter, jumper and equitation judge. “It’s not whether you are jumping 1.15 metres or 1.20 metres. It’s about how well you did it.”

At all levels, riders should be able to ride with good balance, rhythm and stride control. “It’s also hugely a mental task,” says Mrakawa. “Can they refocus if they lose it, can they handle it when things go wrong? I also look for good distraction control; if you’re riding for the first time at Spruce Meadows, you are going to be distracted.”

“One of the biggest things in moving up is rider confidence. It’s an easy thing to lose and a hard thing to gain. As a coach, I have to tread a bit lightly. You have to encourage someone, but it’s a fine line managing their confidence.”

She sits down with her students to develop a yearly training plan with goals for each competition and discusses what skills they will need to move up. “I like to bring kids up through the ranks doing equitation, but because we have Spruce Meadows in the backyard, a lot of people get into jumpers right off the bat. It’s not all about speed and going fast; it’s about skills development. It’s about goal-setting and really having a guideline. I like my students and their parents to look at (Equine Canada’s) Long Term Equestrian Development booklet and see the different skills they will need to have.”

She says moving up the levels is very horse-dependent. “For a lot of people, the leap to 1.10 metres is huge. If they have a good horse, they can progress nicely to 1.20 then go to 1.30 metres. Then there’s a huge jump in size and technical questions at 1.40 metres.”

Mrakawa says the difficulty of the same division can vary dramatically between showgrounds. “For example, we have Rocky Mountain Show Jumping, where the 1.10-metre class can be on grass in the grand prix ring, which is a lot more competitive and difficult than 1.10 metres in a smaller sand ring somewhere else. Spruce Meadows is very competitive. Their Classics shows in winter, spring and fall are good for people who don’t have really expensive horses. For their summer series, you have to be a pretty committed rider.”

Mrakawa says she is fortunate to have a couple of schoolmasters in her barn capable of jumping at the grand prix level. While they may pull three or four rails during a class, she says that’s not the point. “Those horses are worth their weight in gold, because they are teaching the riders how to ride the big fences and they don’t stop. It’s about athlete development.”

For riders who are serious about moving to the higher levels, Mrakawa says it’s important to ride other horses than just their own – challenging, but part of the education.

Sometimes monetary constraints dictate how quickly a rider can move up. “People who are on a budget might not be able to do two or three competitions a month during peak season,” says Mrakawa. “I let them know that if one every other month is all they can afford, they are going to progress a lot slower and they may have to change their plan or modify their goals.”

Horses progress at individual rates, so let your coach ride your horse to determine where it’s at. “It’s really the technique it has, its confidence, how it’s utilizing itself and if it’s jumping the best it can. I have one that can jump the moon, yet has meltdowns at shows. We’ve taken it very slowly with her and started at 1.10 metres until she got rolling, then went up to 1.20 and so on. We have to be careful to make sure she doesn’t lose her confidence.”


Grand prix rider Jaimey Irwin teaches students from training level to grand prix and operates Stoney Lake Equestrian in Stouffville, ON, with wife Tina Busse-Irwin. He says it’s a fairly even progression from training level through first, second and third level tests, but “The big goal for most riders is to make it to prix St. Georges.” It’s important to have your coach’s input, as he or she “will have good idea what level you should be training at and competing at.”

Irwin finds third level tends to be a tough one for riders moving up, because the introduction of flying changes presents a lot of problems for horses and riders alike. “Some horses can’t handle it properly and get really hot and nervous; some do the change late behind and if they’ve been taught that way, it’s difficult to retrain it. A lot of people don’t make to that level because they don’t have a horse that is able to do a proper flying change,” says Irwin.

He says you are ready to move up when you feel like you have fulfilled the requirement of the previous level, are feeling really confident and getting good marks. “If you are consistently getting high results, it might be time to look at moving up. If you’re getting poor results, maybe you should move down and see if you’re more comfortable at a lower level.”

Irwin likes his students to be training a level higher than they are competing at. “It’s a lot more comforting for them when they get to a show and they are able to focus on the riding test.” The same is true of the horse’s mental and physical development . “If you have a horse at home that’s training at, say, third level, but has never been to a show, put them in something really easy like first level so they have a chance to relax within the test. And pick a small show that has a nice, but not electric, atmosphere. It’s important at the beginning to make it a positive experience for horse and rider.”

Irwin says riders shouldn’t obsess about small mistakes: “It’s never going to be perfect, that’s for sure. Handle the movements with confidence and realize there is always going to be a weakness.”


Michele Mueller of Port Perry, ON, is a Level 2 coach who is on the 2012 Canadian Equestrian Team short list with her mount, Amistad. “Students have to know their job and how to approach each fence they’ll encounter on course,” says Mueller of the preparation that breeds the confidence necessary to move up. That means horse and rider must be well-schooled to handle obstacles such as drops, banks, ditches, water and table jumps. “I want to feel like they are locking on a fence and not going left or right, are not gawky or being a tourist looking at all that’s going on around them. They have to be able to answer the questions posed with confidence before I’ll move them up. Accidents happen when you push young horses too fast.”

Her students are schooling one level higher at home than that at which they are competing. “It’s as much mental preparation as it is physical,” says Mueller. “I have some students who are certainly capable of competing at training level, but aren’t comfortable moving beyond entry. If you don’t have confidence, you are not going to be able to move up.”

She considers the toughest move up to be from training to preliminary level. “To me, it’s the ultimate for the horse and rider. It has all the elements – skinnies, bigger drops, bigger jumps up banks, it’s more technical. It’s like a smaller advanced course with all the same questions. If a rider gets to preliminary and does well, as long as the horse is scopey enough, that horse and rider can go all the way. Once you have a preliminary under your belt, your confidence soars.”

She says the extent of many horses’ ability doesn’t extend beyond pre-training and for safety’s sake she won’t let students move up a horse that doesn’t have the athleticism or lacks the confidence to go beyond that level. “Sometimes, people can’t afford to buy a horse that can get them to the higher levels. A lot of riders can’t get past pre-training – and that’s okay. They’re still happy when they come off the cross-country course.”