When it comes to stadium jumping for eventers – or navigating a hunter course or a dressage test for that matter – speed and straightness are the rider’s biggest challenges, says veteran riding coach Sally Sainsbury of Bond Head, ON. The ability to steer accurately, thus achieving straightness, and to regulate your rhythm to the question at hand, are keys to success. Those are the rider’s responsibilities, while the horse’s is to jump the jumps.
Here is a series of exercises Sally recommends to help develop those necessary skills over the winter in the indoor arena. She prefers exercises over very small obstacles that are simple to set up and non-taxing for the horse. The objective of these exercises is to maintain rhythm and promote awareness of the outside rein and leg while having the horse go forward. These can be done indoor or outdoors and with any level of horse and rider.
Walk the horse in a circle over the poles. If he jumps them, don’t make a big deal about it; he’ll soon understand he needs to walk. Walk over the centre of each rail where you’ve marked it with coloured tape. Pay attention to the horse’s shoulder, as most want to move it to the outside. Hold the outside rein and use your inside leg to put the horse into the outside rein. You won’t need much inside bend.
Count the front feet footfalls between each rail. You might want a helper count for you so you can concentrate on the rhythm. If you’ve constructed the circle evenly, you should get the same number of steps between rails. If the rails are off, shorten or lengthen to keep the same number of steps. This mimics the goal of jumping: to maintain a regular rhythm and to make adjustments as needed.
Tip: Count out loud.
Carry on to trot. It will be harder to maintain even steps, so this is when a helper counting out loud is very useful. Again, maintain the same number of steps between rails and try to keep your horse keep aligned on the circle. When you are able to do three circles each way with the same number of steps between, you are ready to canter.
Tip 1: Imagine drawing a circle on the ground between the poles. You want the horse’s inside feet on one side, outside feet on other side and his to nose follow the line. This helps you visualize the correct bend and prevents you from bending the horse’s head too far to the inside.
Tip 2: As you come to each rail, look forward to the middle of the next rail.
This exercise incorporates the X at the end of the ring. Canter a 20-metre circle and pop your horse over the X until it feels comfortable. Now, reduce the size of the circle to 15 meters.
You have more leeway in making a distance work on a circle, because you can fade in or fade out to make it work. On a straight line, a horse has to be able to compress or lengthen to make the distance.
To create a 15-metre circle, use three cones as markers. Walk 15 steps to the middle of the ring from the middle of your X. Put a cone down, walk seven-and-a-half steps back towards the X. Turn left, walk seven-and-a-half steps and put the second cone down. Walk 15 steps the other direction and put the third cone down. It doesn’t have to be perfect, but you want to give yourself markers to look at.
Canter around the cones and over the X. Try to maintain the same lead and the same angle at the approach and exit. Open the inside rein a little to guide the horse and use the outside rein to keep him from overflexing and to control the shoulders.
Tip: If you don’t have actual cones, anything will do – in this exercise we used piles of leaves and clumps of grass, but a glove or coffee cup works just as well!
Raise the poles in the 20-metre circle to small verticals. The horse will read those better than rails and they are easier to jump. These exercises ride easiest with verticals. To make any part harder, change them to Xs.
Pick up the canter and work with the same plan – to keep the same number of strides between jumps. Have your helper count out loud. Each horse’s stride is different, so don’t get hung up on whether it’s three or four or five strides, as long as the number is the same between each obstacle. Remember to use your outside aids and eyes.
Tip: If four jumps come up too quickly, do three. To increase the difficulty, increase or decrease the number of strides between fences, but keep them equal.
Canter a large oval over the end X and the three outside verticals of the circle. Now you can work on the number of strides from the X through the little verticals and down the outside back to the X. This is a great way to change things up by increasing and decreasing strides between fences, working on getting away from the jump quickly, collecting on one side and lengthening on the other … the options are endless.
Tip: When turning to the X at the end, think about how you rode the line in 15-metre circle. Try not to pull the horse off the line to the outside before and after a jump.
Make a little course using the three outside verticals of the circle and the end X, working on increasing and decreasing the number of strides from the X to the verticals and back to the X.