The long-standing (usually friendly) dispute regarding the automatic vs. the crest release has been quietly simmering for decades. Some say the crest release is obsolete and nobody uses it any more. Others don’t like it because it seems to lead to that other bone of hunter contention, lying on the horse’s neck with your hands up by their ears. Most will agree to disagree on the application, as long as the technique is executed properly.
Here, three experts weigh in on the differences, the proper execution, and when each is appropriate.
In my opinion, the crest release is designed for beginner and intermediate riders who need the additional upper body support while going over a jump. Pressing the hands on the neck prevents the rider from catching the horse in the mouth over the jump.
I find that one of the downsides to using a crest release is that most riders do not perform the release properly, and it can also cause some riders to get ahead of the horse. The other issue I see in the show ring with the crest release is rider’s pressing their hands on top of the mane or the rider that lays on the neck while performing a crest release. A proper crest release should involve lightly pressing the knuckles into the crest of the neck while still maintaining some sense of upper body balance.
Advanced riders should be striving to use an automatic release where the rider’s hands follow the motion over the jump and creates a straight line from the elbow to the horse’s mouth. With the automatic release, the rider’s hands are alongside the neck. In order to perform an automatic release, the rider needs to have balance and a good base of support, as you are not using your horse’s neck for balance.
It is for this reason that the automatic release is for advanced riders, although, it is not necessarily all or nothing. In some cases, an advanced rider needs to be able to do both types of releases. An example of this is if a rider gets left behind, and in an effort to prevent catching the horse in the mouth, a crest release may be the best option.
One issue I see in the show ring with the automatic release is the rider that doesn’t follow the line from the elbow to the horse’s mouth, and instead, reaches for the ears.
For those riders looking to move up from the crest release to the automatic release, increasing core strength and balance is key. These can often be accomplished through lots of work in the two-point position, grid work and jumping without stirrups.
First and foremost, let me say this about release/no release as a judge: I am looking for a forgiving hand forward and up the neck at least. Not a backward or so called ‘rotating release’ where the rider pulls back off the ground then lifts the hands up and over the jump.
- Riders learn crest release in their early stages so that they do not interfere with the horse’s mouth
- Putting hands on the crest supports the upper body, so it is a good balancing tool as the rider becomes educated and it can then evolve into an automatic release
- For beginners to advanced and this release never goes out of style – it is part of the fundamental basics
- The arm follows the rein to the horse’s mouth
- An educated release for intermediate to advanced riders
- The rider can then use an opening rein for turning and an indirect leading rein
- This release is more sophisticated and is expected at all upper jumping levels
The following hand allows the horse the freedom to jump up and use all of his parts. No release focuses on control off the ground, over the jump and on landing. It also makes the horse look stiff and inverted. That is also why I like to see less bridle and a softer hand that is generous and rewarding.
My concept of horsemanship is a ride that looks smooth and beautiful, with the jumps flowing and the horses jumping up in a soft forgiving hand. Yes, equitation is focusing on the rider, but is that not trying to allowing their mounts to perform the best they can?
Hunter judges are looking for even pace, a smooth trip and good, confident riding – not to mention good form that is not inverted, flat or rubbing the jumps. We are also not looking for over-bridled mounts who look strong and tense.
The key to the best performance is the execution of the proper release – whether it be a crest release or an automatic release.
I don’t necessarily agree with the notion that the crest release is for beginners and the automatic release is for more professional riders. I coach all three releases [short crest, long crest and auto], because I think different horses and different distances require a different release. A release can also cover up a distance that didn’t work out so well.
Obviously in the show ring, you don’t want to see the short release too often, because usually that’s covering up a horse that wants to be strong on the other side, or was strong on the approach. I think you’d see it more in the equitation. The short press release sometimes goes against the horse if the direction is lost. You can always use a short release if you’ve gotten a deep distance, whereas a longer release looks good if you’re showing off that your horse is prepared properly, as long as you’re not perched on the neck.
The long crest release falls under the term “drama” ‒ another boisterous subject on Facebook! It’s like everything else if it’s overdone. Having been a competitor myself, I don’t think there’s anything worse than the big, long exaggerated crest release when you’re laying on the neck, and landing on the neck as well because your balance isn’t good enough to hold it on the other side.
Being old school, we were taught to follow the mouth using the automatic release ‒ which I think is a silly name, it’s a following release. Rodney Jenkins and my father were huge on following the horse and that steering in the air was key. I do a lot of teaching and clinics and I find myself always reverting back to that ‒ you can’t lose the steering wheel in the air. You also get a better jump from your horse if you’re talking on the hunter side if you have followed your horse. An automatic release can also be useful when a bit more accuracy is required, such as during a derby or in the handies.
I’m big on hitting the center of the jump and being balanced, and I find you don’t see that as much anymore. I always coached it, but then when you start to judge you have to mark each jump and you realize how many people aren’t in the centre. When you don’t hit the center of the jump, then you obviously are getting square knees. Once again, with the automatic release you’re never letting go of the steering wheel, the reins, so you’re always in control of the direction and you land straight, too. Some people think that just because they’ve taken off straight, they’re going to land straight, but depending on which release you’ve used or what focus you used in the air, that can all get away from you.
It depends where you’re judging as well. I don’t think you would go to Wellington to judge and criticize anybody’s release. I always find Wellington in a league all of its own, like Devon or the big horse shows where you’ve only got the best. You don’t have as much controversy as to what people are doing ‘right’ or ‘wrong’. But if two people put in a perfect trip ‒ and it’s not too often that you have to slice the bread like that ‒ obviously, you would take the prettier release. To me, it’s a tiebreaker.