Showing posts with label Practical Horseman. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Practical Horseman. Show all posts

Monday, December 10, 2018

Time for the Hourglass: Part 1

MICHAEL DOWLINGJAN 10, 2018

In the first section of our two-part series, top hunter/equitation coach Michael Dowling shares a creative jumping exercise for tuning up your position and track-riding skills.


This fun, simple-to-set-up exercise strengthens your (and your horse’s) jumping technique and improves your track-riding, striding and balancing skills.

Looking for a fun, easy way to strengthen your position and improve your jumping rounds? My hourglass exercise is simple to set up and beneficial for any riders with at least some experience cantering small courses and jumping bounces (no-stride combinations). Shaped like an hourglass, with a double bounce in the middle and bending lines to four single verticals in the corners, it will develop and strengthen your basic position and make you a more effective, reactive rider. For example, when your horse jumps into a line on a too-forward stride, you’ll be better at correcting that quickly on the back side of the jump.

The hourglass will also hone your skills for track riding, measuring stride length and balancing your horse. At the same time, it will enhance his jumping technique, tightening his front end and strengthening his hind end while improving his straightness, adjustability and rideability between the fences.

For collegiate athletes, who essentially compete at shows as catch riders, this exercise will improve your ability to build a rapport with unfamiliar horses in a short amount of time. You’ll learn how to develop the trust and confidence essential for successfully bonding with new horses.

One of the best qualities of this exercise is that it challenges riders of different levels in different ways. As I walk you through the steps, I’ll point out the questions it poses for Novice, Intermediate and Open riders (the Intercollegiate Horse Shows Association divisions for riders jumping 2-foot to 2-foot-3, 2-foot-6 to 2-foot-9, and 2-foot-9 to 3-foot, respectively).

Whatever your level, it’s critical that you approach the exercise step by step, just as you would with any other gymnastics. Instead of planning to get through the entire lesson in a single day, break it down into easy-to-accomplish steps and confirm that you’ve achieved confidence and proficiency at each before moving on to the next one.

Also keep in mind that making progress is not about jumping big fences. You can achieve much more and also reduce the pounding on your horse’s legs by practicing well-thought-out exercises over small jumps. For this hourglass exercise, I keep both the jump heights and the distances fairly conservative. This encourages horses and riders to focus on good technique rather than fall into the bad habit of galloping through the course and getting long and flat.

Know Your Different Seats

You have four different seat options in hunt seat equitation: full seat, half-seat, light seat and driving seat. For this exercise, you need to be very familiar with the first three:

Full Seat

This is when your entire seat (seat bones and buttocks) are in the saddle, providing maximum connection to your horse's back. It offers the most balance and control, which can be especially useful for rollback turns, lead changes, etc.


Light Seat

In this position, which is between the full seat and the half-seat, your seat bones make light contact with the saddle, but the rest of the backside is still clear of it. This is basically the same position you have during the sitting phase of the posting trot. While offering you some support, it still allows your horse to move freely forward. Much of your riding will be done in this position.


Half Seat, also known as jumping or two point position

Your weight is balanced on just the two points of contact between your legs and and the horse. We use this seat to follow the horse's motion- for example, over a jump - and to encourage him to utilize his body as freely as possible.


Now back to the Hourglass

To set up, study the diagram below. Build a double bounce out of three small crossrails in the middle of the arena on the centerline, separated from one another by about 10 feet. (You can adjust this distance to as short as 9½ feet if your horse has a very short stride or to as long as 12 feet if he has an especially long stride.) After the third crossrail, build a simple vertical 60 feet away on the diagonal to the left. Build another vertical at the same distance on the other diagonal to the right. Add ground lines on both sides of each vertical. I like to keep these verticals simple—no need to fill them with walls, flower boxes, etc.



You’ll ride only half of the hourglass pattern in this first exercise and it may take you more than one session to accomplish all the steps.

If you are a Novice rider, this is all you’ll need. If you’re an Intermediate or Open rider, build two more verticals on the approach side of the crossrails, 60 feet away on the diagonals, so that you create a mirror image of the first two verticals. Set all of the fences so that they can be jumped safely in both directions—and be sure you have plenty of room on the far sides of the verticals to make comfortable turns between them. If your arena is too small to do this, eliminate one of the crossrails, converting the double bounce to a single bounce.

If you’re a more advanced rider, you can change the crossrails to verticals. You could also build this gymnastic in an open field, lengthening the lines between the double bounces and verticals to a standard five- or six-stride distance (72 or 84 feet, respectively).

For riders of all levels, I strongly recommend having a ground person on hand, not just for safety’s sake, but also to reset poles and adjust the distances as necessary.

Warm-up

Before beginning the exercise, do a thorough warm-up on the flat, getting your horse in front of your leg (responding obediently to your leg aids). Include both longitudinal exercises—lengthening and shortening the stride in all three gaits—and lateral exercises—circles, serpentines, etc.—to supple your horse’s entire body. If you’re more advanced and familiar with leg-yield, turn on the haunches, shoulder-in and haunches-in, do a few of these in each direction.

As you warm up, review your four natural aids: legs, hands, seat and voice. Be sure to use all of them for both upward and downward transitions. (One of my favorite questions to ask students who say their horses aren’t listening to them in downward transitions is: “Were you using all four of your natural aids—or just your reins?”) Also practice the three seats you’ll use during this exercise: full seat, half-seat and light seat. (For a more detailed explanation of these, read the “Know Your Different Seats” photo gallery above). Spend a little time on each seat in each gait.

Starting Out

Step 1

Centenary University student Michael Andrade turns Norway onto the centerline in a forward, active posting trot. About 10 feet away from the first crossrail, he stops posting and settles into his light seat. With his eyes up, he’s careful not to tip his upper body forward toward the jump.


Step 2

Because he is an experienced rider, Michael uses a shorter crest release than I’d expect a Novice rider to use. Even so, he’s careful to keep his hands in place on the neck over all three crossrails so Norway can concentrate on doing his job.


Step 3

After the bounces, Michael sinks his weight into the saddle and his heels, lifts tall in his upper body and uses all four natural aids to initiate a downward transition to halt.


Step 4

Norway responds obediently, coming smoothly down to the halt in between the two verticals. They hold the halt for 4 to 6 seconds.


Novice Riders

If you are a Novice rider cantering small courses proficiently, this exercise will improve your ability to stay with your horse’s motion over fences without interfering with him in any way. You’ll also learn how to reorganize after a fence in time to approach the next one straight and in control.

You’ll ride only half of the hourglass pattern, but that will still give you plenty to do. In fact, it may take you more than one session to accomplish all the steps. That’s fine! Always progress at your own pace. This exercise requires a strong base of support (a well-positioned lower leg and deep heel) and lots of core strength (strong abs and back muscles), so if you feel yourself begin to tire at any point, end on a good note and save the rest of the exercise for another day. In the meantime, add more two-point practice into your regular schooling sessions to build up your strength.

Set the crossrails about 2 feet high and the verticals between 2-foot and 2-foot-3. If your horse is green or has trouble with straightness, turn the two verticals into crossrails. If you have never jumped a double bounce before, take the poles out of the first crossrail for the beginning of the exercise, replacing them with a single ground pole about 9 feet from the next crossrail. After you’ve done the single bounce comfortably a few times, put the first crossrail back in.

Start by turning onto the centerline and approaching the crossrails in a posting trot. About 10 feet away from the first one, assume your light seat by lifting some of your weight up out of the saddle while still maintaining light contact with your seat bones. Check that your lower leg is securely positioned at the girth with your heels directly below your hips and your weight down in your heels. Lift your eyes to a high spot in the distance—the top of a tall tree or, if you’re indoors, the top of a window or other visible object.

As your horse takes off over the first crossrail, allow his motion to close your hip angle into a half-seat. Meanwhile, smoothly follow his motion with a long crest release, pressing your hands down against his mane about halfway up his neck. No hands floating above the neck! Maintain this release through the double bounce while keeping your eye on your focal point and staying in your half-seat, letting your hip angle open and close with his motion. Concentrate on staying down in your legs and keeping your weight in your heels. This is very important. Don’t be tempted to sit up or interrupt your rein release in between the crossrails. Wait for him to land all four feet on the ground after the final crossrail before sitting up and feeling the rein contact again.

At this point, it doesn’t matter if he lands trotting or cantering. Either way, keep him straight on the centerline while you reorganize and reestablish your own balance. Then drop your weight in your heels and seat, get very tall in your upper body and use all four natural aids to ask him to come smoothly down to a halt. Ideally, the halt should be straight on the centerline, right between the two verticals, but don’t worry if you don’t get that exactly right the first time. It’s more important that you and your horse stay relaxed and positive from beginning to end.

Ask him to hold the halt for 4 to 6 seconds, just as you would for an equitation test. Then move forward again into the trot and make a wide, sweeping turn back to the centerline so that you approach the bounces in the opposite direction. Ride through them just as you did the other way, asking him to come down to a halt on the straight line again afterward.

Repeat this a few times until you feel confident over the bounces and your horse is responding obediently to your aids. It’s essential that you establish this rideability on the back side of the fences before moving on to the next step.

Now you’re ready to add one of the verticals. Approach the crossrails in the same way as before, only this time, as you ride through them, turn your focus to the left-hand vertical. After your horse lands from the final crossrail, return to your light seat, lift your upper body tall and stretch your heels downward. Then follow a gently bending track to the center of the vertical. In the show ring, this 60-foot distance would typically ride in four strides, but because the jumps are low and the bounces tend to have a compressing, buoyant effect on horses’ canters, this should ride in a quiet five strides.

Over the vertical, apply your crest release and go into and out of your half-seat slowly and smoothly—rather than jerking abruptly into and out of it. Again, allow your horse to complete his jump before sitting up. Then drop the weight into your heels and seat and use your legs, weight and voice in conjunction with your arms and hands to ask him to halt straight on the diagonal track before you get to the corner. This will reinforce the earlier lesson of halting after the double bounce, reminding him to always land and wait for your next signal. Don’t worry about what lead he lands on at this stage. Just try to maintain it until you ask for the halt—in other words, try not to let him anticipate the corner and swap leads automatically. This, too, is good prep for equitation tests.

Repeat this a few times until you can maintain a steady rhythm from the bounces to the vertical with five strides of approximately the same length. If you have trouble fitting in the five strides, stay more on the outside track (ride a wider curve between the bounces and vertical) to make more room.

If you’re still not managing the five, remove all of the poles from the crossrails and vertical. Then place one ground pole between the standards of the vertical and one between the standards of the third crossrail. Practice cantering over these poles, riding as curved a bending line as necessary to produce five—or even six—strides. When that’s going well, replace the jumps and ride the line again. Don’t be afraid to circle whenever you feel your horse rushing. He must be rideable before continuing.

Once you are competently navigating the bounces, vertical and halt, prepare to ride the same exercise without the halt, continuing through the turn instead. To reorganize and balance your horse properly for the turn, sink back into your full seat after the vertical. If your horse landed on the left lead and is properly balanced and educated, he should do a flying change. If he’s not balanced or is green, do a simple change of lead through the trot. Take your time to organize and do it well. Slow down to trot, take a deep breath, then ask him to go forward on the right lead. In the intercollegiate world, simple changes are perfectly acceptable—so long as you do them correctly.

Keep the rhythm consistent around the turn, using plenty of space to ride a nice smooth track. If your horse feels balanced coming out of the turn, go to your light seat and aim for the center of the other vertical. If he doesn’t feel balanced or starts to rush at any point in the exercise, make a circle. Remember, the goal is to do each part of the exercise in balance and control.

After the second vertical, if your horse doesn’t feel rideable enough to continue on to the bounces, drop into your full seat and make a left-hand rollback turn to the rail. Repeat this a few times to teach him not to anticipate the next part of the exercise.

When you feel comfortable and in control after the second vertical, continue cantering on a bending line back to the bounces. As you did before, sit up tall in your light seat and ask for five steady strides. At this point, your horse, having figured out the exercise, might make a beeline for the bounces, trying to get to them in four strides. Be ready for this. Drop your weight in your heels and think of leaning a little away from the bounces. You might even need to ride a wider shape to fit in the five strides comfortably. This is a great lesson in effective equitation. It takes a lot of core strength and balance to create the right outcome.

After riding through the bounces, ask for another straight halt on the centerline before you reach the end of the arena. Then give your horse—and yourself—a pat for a job well done.


Monday, November 12, 2018

Ryan Wood: Build Confidence Over Corners - Part 1

JENNI AUTRYJAN 18, 2018



This top eventer shares his four-step plan to safely and successfully introduce this cross-country obstacle to your horse.

When introducing corners, the key to remember is that jumping corners is all about progression. First you need to establish the correct canter on the flat and then work over a simulated corner in the arena before heading out to jump a corner on a cross-country course. Only then will your horse jump it as confidently as Sarah Hughes’ Alcatraz, a 12-year-old Hanoverian gelding, is jumping it here.

Corner fences are a common element seen on nearly every cross-country course in America. Starting at Training level, horses and riders need to be prepared to answer the corner. When introducing riders and young horses to corners, I use the same approach each time, starting by building a simulated corner in the arena to introduce the concept and then move to jumping an actual corner on a cross-country course.

Whether you are training for dressage, show jumping or cross country, there is always a progression. You start with the basics and gradually work your way up, and it is no different when jumping corners. First, you need to have the correct seat, leg and hand aids in place, which I describe in the next section. Then you build confidence by jumping a simulated corner in the arena using a barrel and two standards, which will set you up for success when you leave the comfort zone of the arena and jump a corner on the cross-country course.

Jumping corners confidently starts with having the right canter. A corner is an accuracy test, and for these types of questions I like to tone down the between-the-fences gallop to a slower speed in the approach. You still want a forward, positive canter, but approaching at a slower pace gives your horse more time to see the fence and understand the question. Before working on the corner in the arena, practice this canter, focusing on your aids. The combination of seat, leg and hand aids you use approaching the corner will give your horse every opportunity to confidently jump it

Develop the Correct Canter

Step 1:

You can practice developing the correct canter in the arena or wherever you do your gallops. I start by working in the between-the-fences pace I use while going cross country—galloping forward at a faster speed. You will be in two-point with your seat out of the saddle and your knee at a 110-degree angle. Be sure to shorten your stirrup leathers enough so you can keep your backside off the saddle in your two-point.

Step 2:

Now I start to bring my upper body back and slow Alcatraz from the gallop to a positive, forward canter. This is the canter I establish before a corner. To practice, pick a marker in your gallop field, like a tree or jump. Practice slowing from your gallop to your desired canter by the time you pass the marker. Depending on how quickly you are able to slow and balance your horse, you might need to start well back from the marker. The more you practice, the easier it will be to make that transition.

Step 3:

Then I sit firmly in the saddle in a defensive seat, bringing my upper body back so it is upright. My legs are in a steady, driving contact with Alcatraz’s sides—think Phillip Dutton and his vise-grip legs—which makes it clear to Alcatraz that I want him to go forward confidently. This is the position I use four to five strides in front of the corner.

Step 4:

As I bring my seat closer to the saddle, I move both of my hands several inches wider apart to create a channel for Alcatraz’s shoulders. This is the hand position I use in the approach to the corner to encourage him to hold his line. This hand position and driving leg aid will send him forward and make it very clear that you want him to jump
the corner.

This article was originally published in the December 2017 issue of Practical Horseman

Monday, October 15, 2018

Gymnastic Exercise from Kent Farrington at the George H. Morris Horsemastership Training Session

Olympian Kent Farrington instructed riders over a gymnastics course on the second day of the 12th annual USEF George H. Morris Horsemastership Training Session.

Current World No. 1-ranked jumper Kent Farrington gave a gymnastics demonstration before teaching two sessions on the subject during the second day of the George H. Morris Horsemastership Training Session. After horses and riders warmed up, they worked on different gymnastic exercises, progressively adding an additional exercise each time until the riders were jumping a gymnastics course.
Kent stressed the importance of jumping the least amount possible—just enough to ensure the horse learned the lesson. “I don’t want to jump extra jumps for fun, you’re just beating up on the horse for no reason,” he explained. “The least amount of jumping I can do to accomplish the lesson, that’s my goal.

One of Kent’s exercises was two oxers set side by side on the end of the short side of the ring. A ground pole was placed 18 feet in front of each oxer. Riders cantered in on the right lead over the first ground pole and oxer, circled to the left and approached the other ground pole and oxer on the left lead. Riders then executed a rollback turn to the right after the fence, turning in the opposite direction the horse would anticipate. The theme of rollback turns toward the rail carried over from the warm up and earlier gymnastic exercises.
“The horse sees the corner of the ring he thinks he knows what’s coming next,” said Kent of the landing after the second oxer. “That’s why you want to train him there and circle to the right.”

In every exercise and throughout both sessions, Kent encouraged the participants to take an individualized approach to training their horses. “Use each opportunity you can to make your horse better … you can break apart the exercise any way you like,” he said.
Decisions were left up to the riders—whether to circle and get a more forward canter before the jump; whether to do a downward transition on the landing side of the fence; whether to execute a flying or simple change—the focus was always to work on the weaknesses and to make ensure the horse was not anticipating, but listening to the rider. 

Friday, September 14, 2018

Sharpen Your Course-Riding Skills: Part 1 - Tune Up Your Eye

In Part 1, top trainers Traci and Carleton Brooks will teach you how to tune up your eye.

Getting your horse to produce his best jumping effort over every jump is all about finding the right canter for the approach and using your eyes. Lexi Wedemeyer is demonstrating this perfectly here. She and her horse are both in excellent balance and focused on the jump. She’s already found her distance to the takeoff spot and is just about to raise her eyes to a focal point in the distance.

Amy K. Dragoo



Have you noticed that as you ride around a course, it tends to get harder, rather than easier? That’s because you have a constant stream of variables to tackle, including the questions posed by the course’s turns, jumps and striding options as well as the many aspects of your and your horse’s performance, which can change from one second to the next. Maybe he lands off a jump with too little pace and threatens to break to trot or perhaps your balance tips forward onto your hands. If you don’t address each variable immediately, you won’t be ready to face the next challenge in time, so things can unravel quickly.

Instead of schooling courses over and over again at home, the best way to prepare yourself for these high-pressure situations is by practicing specific exercises that zero in on the most fundamental skills you need on course. We’ll share three of our favorites in this article. Whether you’re a beginner just learning to ride courses or a more seasoned competitor heading to Indoors, these exercises will improve your balance, accuracy, feel and eye (ability to judge the distance to a fence) while improving your horse’s obedience, adjustability, responsiveness, focus, balance, rhythm and straightness.

When you set up these exercises, we recommend using as many solid obstacles as possible—walls, logs, barrels, etc. These give you an actual barrier to jump, which helps you focus and encourages your horse to jump around the fence in a nice round shape. There is no need to make any of them big (even with advanced horses, we don’t go above 3 feet). The purpose of all of these exercises is precision, not jumping high. Beginners can replace any of the fences with small crossrails, cavalletti or ground poles.

We always advocate using both reins to steer so that you’re influencing the largest part of your horse: his shoulders and belly. In general, control your turns by balancing and steadying with the outside rein and leg and guiding with the inside rein and leg. Sometimes you may need to use one rein more than the other, but always keep contact with both.

We’re also big proponents of visualization. Before you begin each exercise, study the diagrams, then ride through it in your mind. This will make your sessions more productive.

Exercise 1 Diagram



Start by picking up the canter on your horse’s better lead and establish a good rhythm, making sure he is between your leg and hand. You should feel him “filling in the reins”—offering equal pressure in each hand—so you know that he’s ready to respond to your aids. Ask yourself, “Does this feel like the right canter? Could I open or compress the stride if I need to?” Then start counting out loud in rhythm with his stride—“One, two, one, two.” As you approach the jump, raise your eyes to a chosen focal point in the distance, parallel to or just above your eye level, while keeping the jump and track to it in your peripheral vision.

Step 1



As you enter the marked lane four to six horse lengths away from the jump, try to judge whether you’re going to arrive too close (deep), too far away (long) or just right. Here, you can see Lexi has entered the lane in a nice medium canter—not so forward that she’s at the end of her horse’s stride, but not short and choppy either. He’s traveling in a good balance and “filling in the reins”—you can see the contact is neither slack nor too tight. Lexi has recognized that she needs to move up to a forward distance, so she’s lightened her seat. However, she’s gotten slightly ahead of the motion. We’d like to see her weight shift back closer to the middle of the saddle, which would open the angle in her elbows more. Lifting her eye and chin would help to accomplish this.

Step 2



In Lexi’s next approach to the jump, the distance to the takeoff spot is a little long, so she opens her inside rein to bring her horse in on the curve slightly. At the same time, she maintains contact with her outside rein and supports him with her outside leg. This controls his belly and shoulders (so he doesn’t bulge his shoulder out), as well as his head, so the shape of his body mirrors the shape of the curve. With this slight adjustment, they’ll jump the fence where you see the white circle. Notice, too, that she’s starting to close her hip angle to be ready to go with the motion when he leaves the ground.

Step 3



This time, Lexi’s distance to the takeoff spot is deep, so she adds pressure with her inside leg and takes both hands to the left to encourage him to fade toward the outside of the lane, aiming to jump the fence where you see the white circle. Again, she’s doing a good job of making the shape of his body mirror the shape of the track (rather than pulling his head to the outside, so his body curves away from the track). Notice how square her shoulders are to the fence. This is easier to achieve if you think of your outside shoulder being the last part of your body to come around the turn. Doing this also helps you to maintain contact on the outside rein and keep your outside leg against the horse’s side to provide support.

Exercise 1: Tune Up Your Eye

Your eyes are the most dominant part of your ride. Where you focus them not only determines where your track will be but also significantly affects your balance, which, in turn, influences your horse’s balance. Keeping your eyes level helps you maintain your balance and stay anchored and safe on the horse. A common issue we see is being ahead of the motion, which can be resolved by raising your eyes.

Choose focal points that are at or above your eye level. If your eyes are 10 feet above the ground, that means your focal point should be 12 to 16 feet high (depending on how far away it is). We all naturally tend to drop our eyes, so it’s always important to raise them slightly higher than the intended focal point before letting them settle down to it. For example, if you’ve chosen a tree outside the arena to focus on, look first at the very top of it—don’t start down at the trunk. This technique is especially useful over fences. Use it to get the idea of “up and over” in your mind and body. That way you won’t be tempted to lead with your shoulders, which tips your balance too far forward, but rather with your chest and the tops of your hips. The idea is to let your horse jump up to you and then you follow, allowing his jump to close your angle.

As you warm up on the flat, choose a focal point outside the ring and practice riding around a bend or half circle that ends on a line heading toward the focal point. As you trot or canter around the bend, raise your eyes above the focal point, then let them settle down to it.

When you get the hang of this sensation, identify more focal points around the ring and do the same with them. This is a great technique to incorporate into your warm-up at shows, too.

Now set a small vertical on one end of the arena, far enough off the long side so you can jump it on a curve from either direction and then end up traveling perpendicular to that small vertical after landing. Jump this a few times on each lead to warm up.

Next, use agricultural lime (available at garden and hardware stores), spray paint, polo wraps or foam poles (or pool noodles—be creative!)—anything a horse can step on safely—to mark the edges of a curved lane starting at the base of the jump and extending several strides away from it in both directions (so you can jump it on both leads). Make sure your horse can travel straight for one or two horse lengths before and after the fence. The result will be a large half-circle interrupted midway through by the jump. Make the width of the lane 9 to 10 feet if you’re a beginner and slightly narrower if you’re more experienced—but no narrower than about 6 feet. Widen the lane by 2 or 3 feet at the base of the jump on both sides. Do not use solid poles for this purpose, as they could injure your horse if he steps on them.

Starting on your horse’s better lead, canter a few circles to establish a good rhythm. Then start counting out loud in rhythm with his stride—“One, two, one, two”—as you enter the lane to the jump. Meanwhile, raise your eyes to a chosen focal point in the distance, keeping the jump and the track to it in your peripheral vision.

Initially aim for the center of the vertical. After your horse lands, keep straight for one or two horse lengths, then make your turn in the next corner slightly more square (closer to a 90-degree angle) while asking him to regather himself for the next straightaway. Then circle across the arena to jump the fence again. After doing this six or seven times, change direction and do the same on the other lead.

Next, approach the vertical with a new plan: When you’re four to six horse lengths away from it, try to judge whether you’re going to arrive too close (deep) or too far away (long). Adjust your track accordingly: If you’re going to be deep, open your outside rein slightly and use some inside leg to encourage your horse to fade toward the outside of the lane. If you’re going to be long, open your inside rein and use some outside leg to bring him in a little.

When you’re jumping on a curve like this, changing your track by as little as 4 inches to the left or right can add or subtract as much as a foot to or from the distance your horse has to travel to the takeoff point, so keep these adjustments very small. Be mindful about his entire body, not just his head and neck, asking him to be perpendicular to the fence one to two horse lengths before and after it.

After doing this six or seven times, change direction and do the same on the other lead.

Developing a good eye takes time, so be patient with yourself. Instead of concentrating on the jump, think of it as just another canter stride. Try to keep the same pace and rhythm throughout the approach, jump and recovery. If you have trouble judging whether you need to fade to the outside or inside in the approach, ask an experienced rider to stand about six lengths in front of the jump (and a few feet to one side, so you don’t risk running him or her over) and give you input as you ride by.

This story was originally published in the August 2017 issue of Practical Horseman.

Friday, July 6, 2018

Richard Spooner's Cartwheel Bounce Exercise

Kim F. Miller

Top jumper rider Richard Spooner shares one of his favorite bounce exercises. This exercise works for all levels of horses and riders and can help your horse engage his hindquarters and produce a "snappier" shoulder action.

Richard Spooner and his long-time partner Cristallo on their way to winning the $50,000 Las Vegas Classic in 2016.

Richard Spooner is coming in hot for the finalĂ© of the Longines FEI World Cup™ North American West Sub-League, at HITS Coachella February 10. With a win in Las Vegas and top finishes in Sacramento, Calgary and Del Mar, he’s all set, points-wise, for springtime in Paris at the Finals. He doesn’t plan to ride his newest star, Chatinus, whose “can’t touch this” attitude has led to remarkable rounds in their six-month partnership. He’s not sure yet who he’ll ride in the Saturday showdown, but whichever horse he chooses will be familiar with a favorite gymnastic exercises: the cartwheel triple bounce.

It’s a fixture in Richard and Kaylen Spooner’s home arena in the Los Angeles area’s Agua Dulce. For their Grand Prix horses and prospects, its main purpose is teaching or reminding them to stay bent slightly to the inside throughout their jumping effort. The curving track requires the horse to use their hindquarters and produces snappy shoulder action.

The exercise has a lot to teach riders, too, as Richard demonstrated as the head coach in the USHJA’s Emerging Jumper Rider Gold Star clinic in January. It teaches riders to “participate” in the jump by using the leg correctly and maintaining some inside rein while jumping through. Inside bend is a tenet of Richard’s system for suppleness and control, on the flat and on course, and the cartwheel requires it. “Horses have a tendency to creep their ribcages to the inside, so you have to use your leg to keep pushing them to the outside, maintaining the inside bend,” Richard explains. It also underscores his emphasis on leg over hand. “There’s a tendency for riders to just use the hand to find the jump, then during the jump, work very hard with the leg to hold down the stirrup. They should be using it to push the horse to the outside.”

To set a cartwheel triple bounce, use three verticals with the inside standards set six feet apart. The outside standards should be between 12 and 14 feet apart. Plenty was accomplished by riders at a height of two feet during the Gold Star clinic. That’s a good height to start, and the exercise can be raised depending on the horse’s experience and athletic ability, and your goals for it. #FEIWorldCup

Friday, June 8, 2018

Ride Your Hunter Round Like a Pro

Wow the judge with this top hunter rider and judge’s show-ring tips. Part 1: Practice pace and turning to a line.

When deciding how to pin hunter classes, judges ask themselves, “Which of these horses would I most like to ride?” With rounds lasting only 90 to 120 seconds, there’s not much time to demonstrate that your horse is the answer to that question. From the moment you enter the ring to the moment you leave, your performance must exude ease and confidence. Communication between you and your horse should be nearly invisible. Nothing should distract the judge’s attention from his round. In fact, the best riders seem to melt into the scenery—all you notice is the horse. Exceptional hunter riders allow the horse’s expression to come through so every obstacle he meets is simple, forward and enjoyable to watch.

How do you produce a round like this? By making a fantastic first impression and demonstrating beautifully consistent rhythm from beginning to end as well as smooth turns and balanced takeoffs and landings. I’ll give you tips and exercises to practice at home to achieve these things. This month, I’ll discuss pace and give exercises on how to practice maintaining it to a jump and through a turn to a line. Next month, I’ll share an exercise on how to turn around a fence to jump another fence on a diagonal and another exercise to turn your head while jumping through a grid to improve your ability to look ahead.

Start the Way You Want to Finish

A winning round starts right from your opening canter and first jump. This is not a warm-up or a freebie jump—it counts. Canter the first fence as if you’ve already cantered four jumps. This sets a tone that you plan on doing this round smoothly and with confidence.

The most frequently used symbol on my judge’s card for the first jump in the Adult Amateur division is the notation I make for slow and close. Riders tend to be hesitant and underpaced. As a result, they end up too deep and/or weak to the first jump. This makes me think, “Do they even want to jump that?” If the feeling you’re presenting is, “I’m not sure I want to be out here right now,” then you shouldn’t expect a great score.

1. To practice riding forward and straight to the fences, I place a simple flowerbox on a quarterline. I put a chair at the far end of the arena in line with the flowerbox so I can focus on it while I make my approach.

2. As I canter Callucci around the turn to the flowerbox, I look beyond it to their chair. When it lines up with the center of the flowerbox, I ask him to go forward. This creates a confidence and rhythm in our approach. You can see he is perfectly straight. As a consequence, I don't need to make any major changes to his stride in front of the flowerbox. Instead, I simply sit up a few make any major changes to this strides away from it and let the "jump" come to me.

3. In the air over the flowerbox, I keep my eye on the chair - where I want us to end up. My job at this point is to let Callucci take care of the jump while I stay quiet and balanced in the saddle.

4. After he lands, my eye is still on the chair. This helps me stay on track without losing my pace or rhythm. Again, Callucci remains perfectly straight, following the cues from my balance and focus on the chair.
Some hesitation comes from nerves. For tips on combating them, see the sidebar, “Keep Your Cool,” below. Some of it is lack of experience. Perhaps the biggest difference between amateurs and professionals is that amateurs “wait until it’s time to go” whereas professionals “go until it’s time to wait.” Professionals are confident going forward to the jumps—even when they have not yet determined a takeoff spot. If you are already going forward and need a small stride increase to get to the jump correctly, it’s available to you. If you need to wait and give your horse an extra fraction of a second to settle the stride, that’s easy to do, too.

However, if you’re overly cautious and don’t go forward to the jump, you won’t have those options. You may see a distance late in the approach and try to attack it. Startled and thrown off balance by this sudden change, your horse will make a mediocre jumping effort and land on the other side disorganized. Worst-case scenario: You approach the jump cautiously and then see the need to slow down even more. At this point even the most athletic horses will struggle to do their job. Without impulsion, straightness and confidence, our kind partners find themselves digging out of holes our backward rides produce right in front of the jump. This can result in an awkward chip, a refusal or crash. Even if the jump isn’t a total failure, you still have created a drastic change in pace, which is a major fault in our sport because of these unsafe scenarios.

Similar errors occur often on single fences with long approaches. For some riders, this is a Pandora’s box. Feeling as if they have too much time and need to be doing something, they get caught up in changing things—sometimes multiple times—whether they are looking for the perfect distance or trying to straighten their horses.

Riders showing in the 2-foot to 3-foot-6 hunter divisions merely need to arrive in the vicinity of a good takeoff spot to give their horses the opportunity to jump a fence well. They don’t need the same precision that riders jumping 4 or 5 feet need. Instead, they should focus on establishing the right rhythm, pace and track, and then relinquish control of the distance.

The following exercises will help you do that. You will need an adjustable horse who is willing to go calmly forward. (Although these exercises are designed primarily for riders jumping at or below 3-foot-6, they’re easy to modify for all levels.)

Homework: Pick up the Pace

Begin by practicing picking up more pace. Get comfortable with the concept of going forward until you see it’s time to do something else, whether that’s calmly and subtly asking your horse to wait or to increase his stride slightly without changing his rhythm. Here’s how:

Place a flowerbox or pole on the ground on a quarterline or on a long approach on a diagonal. The goal is to go from one end of the ring to the other end on a straight track, jumping the obstacle “out of stride”—maintaining the same forward, rhythmic canter the entire way, without making any changes.

As you enter the turn, look where you want to end up. Find something specific to focus on, like a leaf on a tree branch or a knot in the wood of the indoor wall. This is your focal point. The ground pole or flowerbox should just be a part of the straight path to your destination. You can glance at it briefly, but focus primarily on your point beyond the end of the arena. Your body will follow your eye and so will your horse. If he strays from the track, don’t take your eye off of your focal point. Keep looking at that point while using your legs, seat and hands to guide him back on track.

Coming through the turn, go forward. This not only improves your chances of jumping the flowerbox out of stride, but it also helps make your horse straighter. Imagine if you have a loose piece of string on a table in a serpentine-like shape. If I tell you to straighten it by pushing on either side of the string, it will take forever to get it straight. However, if you pull the two ends apart to lengthen the string, it’ll straighten right out. It is the same with your horse. The best way to straighten him is to lengthen him.

Once you’ve established that forward canter, stay on it. Tell yourself that this is no different from any other approach. I hear so many students ask, “What do I do when I don’t know what to do?” Trust that when you don’t see a distance to the pole or flowerbox—whether you’re 20 strides away or two strides away—you have taken care of your pace, rhythm and path. All you have to do is sit up and let the jump come to you. Whatever the outcome, it will be better than a last-minute change coming from panic.

Canter this way over the pole or flowerbox in both directions two or three times. Then go on to other things. Revisit the exercise later in the ride or on another day that week, just to remind yourself about the importance of a consistent pace, path and rhythm. Repeating these consistent approaches will give your “eye”—your ability to judge the distance to a good takeoff spot—a chance to develop. You will never get that chance if you change your canter on every approach.

Make Smooth Turns

Another often-underestimated element in an exceptional hunter round is turns. Done correctly, they make jumping much easier. Done incorrectly, they make jumping much more difficult. If riders turn too early or too late, they usually end up attacking the jump, pulling back on the reins, hoping for more time or trying to move the horse left or right to correct the path belatedly. All of these throw your horse off balance, limiting his ability to jump a square, straight, quality jump.

1. As I canter around the end of the ring, I turn my head to look at the first jump in the line. Meanwhile, I stay balanced in the saddle and connected to Callucci, ensuring that he maintains his nice forward rhythm. I initiate my turn as the standard of the second jump in the line starts to come into view between the standards of the first, as you can see in this photo.


2. Then, as the two fences line up, I focus my eyes on a point beyond the far end of the ring while asking Callucci to go forward to the center of the first jump. You can see that his focus is straight ahead as well.
3. As he jumps the first jump, I keep my eyes focused on that point beyond the end of the ring. Despite the extreme heat (during a mid-summer photo shoot), Callucci is still looking eager and interested in his job. His trajectory stays perfectly straight while we're in the air over the first jump.

4. As we approach the second jump down the line, I drop my weight lighlty into the saddle to support Callucci on takeoff, but I am still concentrating on my focal point.  I know that he is in the best position to jump well because we've maintained a great rhythm, pace and track from start to finish.
Maintaining the same pace around turns is challenging for many riders. They canter to the end of the ring, lose the pace on the turn and then try to find the canter again afterward. In a beautifully smooth hunter round, that canter has to be present and accounted for throughout the entire turn.

Another troublesome habit that ruins turns is riding with “laser vision” between your horse’s ears. Riders who do this usually turn first and then look to see where they are. It’s like shifting lanes in a car: You shouldn’t just turn your car and then see if you ended up in the correct lane.

These mistakes are especially common when the approach to the jump involves going around another obstacle. For instance, having to go around an outside line to get to a single jump on the diagonal seems to really play with people’s eyes. Riders tend to wait until they’re past the first obstacle before planning the turn. By then, they have missed the correct turn and end up on the wrong track to the fence. They spend the next several strides correcting that mistake and re-organizing, which often destroys the jump and the flow of the round not to mention confuses the horse.

The solution to turning problems like these sounds simple, but it isn’t always easy: Look before you turn. Get comfortable turning your head to look where you want to end up - before you start your turn—then bringing your horse into line with where your focus is. Remember, your body and your horse will follow your eyes.

Homework: Maintain Pace Through The Turn

By giving yourself a system to rely on, you can develop quality turns and eliminate erratic and inconsistent approaches from your courses. This next exercise, turning on a line, and the ones I’ll share next month will improve your turns and your ability to look ahead.

Turning on a line builds on the focal-point skills you learned in the previous exercise. Set up two fences in a line down the side of the arena, at least five strides apart (72 to 76 feet, depending on your horse and fence height).

Canter to the end of the ring and squeeze your legs on your horse’s sides while holding enough rein contact to prevent him from going faster. This will engage his hind end with energy and improve his canter. It also will help you maintain the pace through the turn so you have the same canter when you leave it that you had when you entered.

As you canter across the end of the ring, turn your head to look at the first jump in the line. When the second jump comes into view between the standards of the first jump, initiate your turn to the line. As you complete the turn and the two fences line up, ride to the center of each one, focusing your eyes on a point beyond the far end of the ring.

Practice these two exercises until you’re comfortable maintaining your pace to a fence and around a turn to a line. Next month, I’ll give you two more exercises that will build on and enhance those skills.

Keep Your Cool

To begin a round with confidence, make sure you have done your homework, arrived early enough to learn the course and discussed your ride with your trainer. The more times you can get in the show ring, the better your nerves will be. If you are not able to show frequently, find ways to mimic a competition scenario at home or at a friend’s farm. Set up a course in the ring and put a few warm-up jumps in another ring or adjoining paddock. Warm up in this separate area just as you would for a show, then walk into the ring and ride the course as if you were at a horse show with nobody talking you through it. Jump the course just once and tell yourself to live with the results. This “no-second-chances” attitude will help you learn to process your rounds and prepare better for next time.

To perform your best on show day, use the same strategies that schools teach students before tests: Get a good night’s sleep, don’t leave things to the last minute, wake up early enough to eat a good breakfast and stay hydrated. It can be mentally challenging to wait hours for your class at the horse show. Many riders get too nervous to remember to eat or drink, and that really affects their performance. Try to get something in your stomach a few hours before your class, even just small sources of protein, like nuts and grains. Fuel the machine to keep your body performing and your brain firing. If you can, bring a supportive friend to remind you how fortunate you are to have the ability to ride in a horse show. This is all supposed to be fun! Afterward, assess your day as a stepping-stone in a long journey, not the end result.

Practical Horseman thanks Lynn Ellen Rice for providing the facility and horse for the photos in this article.

From IHSA to A-Circuit

Hunter rider, trainer and U.S. Equestrian Federation ‘R’ judge Tom Brennan began his successful career as a member of Stonehill College’s equestrian team. While earning his degree in psychology, he won two individual championship titles at the Intercollegiate Horse Shows Association Nationals and captained his team to the IHSA team championship title in 2002–03. He then joined Tony Workman’s training business, Winter Hill Farm, in Hillsboro, Virginia, as a groom and worked his way up to his current co-trainer position. Along the way, clients such as Lynn Rice helped to partner him with talented horses in the show ring. He qualified for Indoors for the first time on Dividend, then rode Gramercy Park and Purple Heart to multiple major championships. In 2012, Gramercy Park was named the USHJA World Championship Hunter Rider Program Hunter of the Year and Tom was named the WCHR National Emerging Professional Champion.



This article originally appeared in the June 2018 issue of Practical Horseman and is re-published with permission.

Friday, May 11, 2018

Five Takeaways from Anne Kursinski’s Flat Session at the George H. Morris Horsemastership Training Session

Anne Kursinski began the clinic with a flatwork demonstration for the 12 participants.

Five-time U.S. Olympian Anne Kursinski stressed the importance of flatwork at the 12th annual USEF George H. Morris Horsemastership Training Session.

Olympic veteran Anne Kursinski started off the first day of the George H. Morris Horsemastership Training Session in the saddle, giving a flatwork demonstration to the 12 young and talented participants with play-by-play narration of what she believed they should be striving toward.

Once the riders were mounted, Anne put them through their paces, instructing them to work the whole horse with lots of transitions between and within gaits, a healthy dose of lateral work and, of course, no George Morris clinic would be complete without abundant no-stirrup work.

Here are five top tips boiled down from today’s session:

1. Body Awareness and Position is Key

It’s paramount to control body position to speak the horse clearly. The rider’s whole body influences the horse’s whole body to become one unit. “Position, position, position on the flat,” Anne stressed. This will help you to not only use your aids correctly, but also at the right moment. “Horses will try to put you in a place that’s less effective,” she explained. It’s up to the rider to have the discipline and awareness to react appropriately. Anne articulated that correct body awareness and position is so much of what makes a rider successful, using examples of greats like Beezie Madden and McLain Ward.

No-stirrup work was a common theme throughout the two sessions.

2. No-Stirrup Work Increases Effectiveness

Anne had riders work without stirrups in the walk, trot and canter as well as in lateral movements and transitions. She noted that most of the riders’ transitions were better when they didn’t have their stirrups to rely on because they were sitting deeper, with a better feel of the horse. Rider Hannah Loly agreed that she felt more connected to the horse without her stirrups because it forced her to use her whole body.

Anne had all the riders knot their reins to ride with long arms and short reins, encouraging a steadier connection.

3. Knot Your Reins for Better Connection

Anne knotted each rider’s reins, making them noticeably shorter. “Ride with long arms and short reins,” said Anne. This allowed riders to feel a better connection through the bridle and keep their hands steady. Clinic participant Cecily Hayes noted that the shorter reins helped to prevent her horse from evading the bit and for Caitlyn Connors, the knot kept her hands better placed.

Olivia Woodson (foreground) and Alyce Gene Bittar work on circles with Anne watching on.

4. Think Like a Horse

From the moment Anne began teaching, she encouraged riders to learn to communicate with the horse in their language. “Horses won’t ever think like human beings, but human beings can think like horses,” Anne said. The rider must learn to have a two-way conversation with the horse and to work with him, not against him. This includes consistency with aids, developing timing, feeling and learning when to be strong, when to be light and above all to always focus on the horse. The rider should learn their horses inside and out, discover the strengths and weaknesses. “The sign of a great rider is a happy horse,” said Anne.

Hannah Loly (left) and McKayla Langmeier work on half-pass in canter.

5. Think of Flat Sessions as the “Gym” for Your Horse

Throughout the clinic, riders lengthened and shortened gaits, made frequent transitions between gaits and practiced leg-yield, shoulder-in, haunches-in, half-pass and counter-canter. Anne compared flatwork to a horse going to the gym, doing his weight training, yoga, Pilates, even acupuncture. This develops a more athletic, elastic, sounder and stronger horse. Riders can’t expect this to happen overnight, however. Self-carriage and development takes time and consistency.

Above all else, Anne emphasized the importance of always thirsting for education. “There’s so much out there to learn. This is just scratching the surface,” she said. Anne also encourage riders to pay attention to the details. “Always strive to be your best … As George would say, ‘perfect practice makes perfect.’”

 Re-published article with permission from Practical Horseman.

Saturday, March 3, 2018

We’ve All Been There …

… wondering why we struggle with riding skills. Jim has the secret for getting from THERE to HERE


We’ve all been there, dejectedly sitting in the bleachers after yet another disastrous round as the star du jour rides by, using invisible aids while sitting motionless in the saddle.

“Why is this so HARD?” you ask yourself. The bad news is that riding well is hard to learn. The good news is that every good rider, at one time or another, has been right there with you in the bleachers. The important thing to know is that you can be a better rider—you just have to decide to get better.

First of all, riding well is hard to learn because it is not all about you—your horse is part of it, and probably the main part. If you want to learn how to ride well, you need to understand horses—how they think, how they react to certain situations and how they move underneath you. I say, “learn,” but it’s not like memorizing the multiplication tables from 1 through 12. When it comes to horses, your learning curve will trend upward for as long as you live—that’s the fun part. And while we are busy having fun, I thought I would pass along some of the things I learned the hard way so that you don’t have to repeat my mistakes.


Think Like a Horse


One of the hardest things to learn, especially for redheaded boys (like I was), is that horses don’t wake up in the morning and decide to ruin your day. Horse logic is not always the same as rider logic. As a prey animal, horses are always alert for danger and easily—squirrel!!—distracted. Once you look at the world from their point of view, you can understand why they react the way they do and teach them that you are there to keep them safe.

Their reaction to liverpools and ditches is understandable if you think about it—again, from their point of view. To you, it is a simple ditch, 24 inches wide and 12 inches deep, but to them it is the China Syndrome. Thousands of years ago, one of their potential ancestors was not careful about where he stepped and took himself out of the gene pool. Horses are spooky for a reason: Saber-toothed tigers ate the non-spooky ones a long time ago. Horses are quick to react. You and I may know something is not a threat, but your horse says, “Why take a chance? That plastic bag snagged in the bushes could be about to pounce.”

Once you understand this and learn to think like a horse, it changes your actions when your horse reacts violently to things. If you punish your horse for spooking at a sun spot in an indoor arena, you confirm in his mind that sun spots are something to be afraid of. If you allow him time to look at it in a nonconfrontational way, he will decide that he was wasting his time spooking at it and be willing to accept sun spots as part of his environment.

Staying With the Motion


Being quadrupeds, horses have certain gaits and produce certain sensations when we are (however precariously) trying to remain attached to them. Most of the horses we ride have four gaits with four distinct rhythms: the walk with four beats, the trot with two beats, the canter with three beats and the gallop, a fast canter, with four beats. My point in this is that your horse takes different actions with his body to produce each of his gaits and his actions will change how you perceive his motions and how your body needs to react in order to look as if you’re sitting motionlessly.

Here is one of my favorite examples of this: When your horse trots, his shoulders remain level but his hips move up and down and he swings one hind leg under his body while the other hind leg pushes back to propel his body forward. Ever wonder why sitting the trot smoothly is more difficult to learn than sitting the walk or the canter? This is why: At the walk and the canter, your seat moves back and forth in rhythm with your horse, but at the sitting trot your hips must move alternately up and down in order to follow your horse’s motion correctly. If you understand your horse and his movement better, then the actions you must take with your body to stay with his motion become more understandable.

Your Leg, THEN Your Hand


Improved understanding will lead to better riding. Once you can follow your horse’s movement correctly, you can apply your aids with much more precision. BUT, once again, before you start to apply aids, you need to understand what you are trying to achieve with those aids.

Basically, you use your aids to put your horse’s forces at your disposal—to enable you to move faster than you can run on your own, to jump higher than you can jump and to eventually feel that, in general, the law of gravity no longer applies to you. Like anything else worthwhile, this does not happen easily, nor should it. Beverly Sills, the legendary opera diva, said, “There are no shortcuts to any place worth going.” I wouldn’t have it any other way.

As you continue to progress along your learning curve, you will discover that much of riding is counterintuitive. By now, you probably understand that for your horse to strengthen and improve his dressage work, he needs to lower his head slightly, relax the muscles of his back and become stronger and more energetic with his hind legs. However, you are doomed to failure until you also understand this simple rule: You don’t pull your horse’s head down. You push it down.

Once you understand this rule, you have been handed the keys to the kingdom of the horse. The first time you feel your horse step from your inside leg to your outside rein is a supremely important moment in your development as a horseman. Your first experience of this response will usually be at the trot on a circle. Make the circle about 10 meters in diameter. Now increase the size of the circle by closing your inside leg and pushing your horse toward your outside hand. Instead of speeding up, your horse accepts your leg, responds by stepping farther under his body with his inside leg and seeks a connection with your outside hand. In simplistic terms, you now have your horse balanced between the accelerator and the brake. From this point on, you know how to ride from your leg to your hand rather than the other way around. At first intermittently, then consistently and finally, generously, your horse will put his strength at your disposal.


Let Your Horse Do the Jumping


Learning to ride well over obstacles is equally as hard as learning to ride well on the flat. Just as with dressage, I have one very simple rule for you. To illustrate it, during my lessons and clinics and after a few warm-up jumps, I ask riders, especially young teenagers or older riders who are so terrified that they have regressed, the following question: “How many jumps have you jumped today?” The responses will vary widely in numbers and accuracy. Once students have expressed their opinion, I will say, “No, you haven’t jumped any.” You see, that’s my rule—“Your horse does the jumping!” You are just along for the ride. Most horses like to jump, especially if they are unencumbered by the rider’s hands. If a horse truly does not like to jump, there are other jobs he can do, and it is up to us to steer him down the correct career path.

Once we have a horse who likes to jump, we need to stay attached to his motion and ride him in a rhythm. My reasoning is this: It is difficult to ride well—and for him to jump well—if we are continually either left behind the jumping motion or topple forward on landing. Time spent in perfecting your position is never wasted. I have written numerous books and articles on the correct jumping position and you can find a list of some at the end of this article, but my short version is to adjust your stirrups so that you have approximately a 90-degree angle behind your knee when seated. Over small obstacles, your jumping position is the same as the top of your posting trot. Your stirrup leather should form a vertical line and there should be a straight line between your elbow and your horse’s mouth. Remember to follow your horse’s mouth with your elbows, not by closing your hip angle.

Once your position is secure and independent, then ride your horse in a rhythm before, over and after the jump. To help keep the rhythm in the approach, count out loud until your horse leaves the ground. You can tell yourself you had a good jump when you have approached, jumped, landed and departed in the same rhythm. Your rhythm is important because when we hear the rhythm, we hear the balance. When your horse is balanced, he jumps to the best of his ability.

Simple, just not easy. But if it were easy, everyone would do it—and you want to be the one in the saddle someday, riding past while younger, less experienced riders look at how easily you and your horse perform. This time someone new is in the bleachers, saying, “Why is this so HARD? She makes it look so easy!”




Friday, February 2, 2018

Develop a Strong Galloping Position

A four-star rider explains her key to success—riding in balance.


When someone comes to me as a new student, I usually say, “Don’t take this the wrong way, but you’re not going to jump for a while.” Before we work over fences I want my riders to work on position—and their galloping position in particular. Otherwise, we’ll have to come back later and fix the position flaws that become a bigger issue as a rider progresses. This happens because our horses go the way we ride them: Horses want to feel secure, which includes knowing that their riders feel secure. If we’re riding out of balance, our horses go out of balance. At the beginning of every year, even I review my position and determine where improvements can be made.

Some eventing riders take the attitude that if their horses can jump and they can stay on, who cares? “I’m not in the hunters. I don’t care how pretty I look.” But what I teach is not about looking good, it’s about being functionally efficient and correct. The easier you are to carry, the happier your horse is. A happy horse does his job much better. My goal as a rider is to make myself the easiest possible package for my horse to carry, and that’s also my goal for my students.

The job of eventing riders is to maintain proper balance and a secure, efficient galloping position to give their horses confidence and make their jobs easier on cross country. Here, the red line shows how my center of gravity is aligned directly over my base of support, giving me a solid, balanced position while I gallop Escot 6, my 11-year-old Hanoverian gelding.


When Balance Is Lacking


First let’s talk about the position errors I commonly see and how they affect your riding. To secure your leg, riding books and many instructors typically tell you to close your knee. But they don’t specify that you should not close the FRONT of your knee, and that is the part with which most people grip. When you pinch with the front of your knee, you close your inner thigh. Then your lower leg usually swings back and at this point you become a physics problem: If your lower leg goes back, your upper body wants to tip forward. To your horse, this scenario feels as you would trying to give a piggyback ride to a small child who is all over the place—leaning here, leaning there. You lose your focus because you have to rebalance and think about where you’re putting yourself. In the same way, the more motion your horse has on his back, the less he can concentrate on his job.




Over fences, if your grip is wrong, causing your lower leg to swing back and your upper body to tip forward, you either throw your horse off balance or you overcorrect—falling backward and holding on to his face to keep your balance. The result of either situation is that your horse may slow down off the ground or run at the jump.



Even if your lower leg is stable but you’re in the habit of jumping for your horse by leaning forward, you make his job more difficult. Instead, allow his jump to move you. It’s hard at first to allow that to happen. We are all control freaks. We so much want it to go correctly that we make it our job to jump for the horse.

Finding Balance



OK, enough about doing it wrong. Now I’ll explain the position that enables you to stay in balance with your horse and makes you an effective rider in all three phases of eventing. The key is keeping your center of gravity above your base.

Your center of gravity, or center mass, is located just behind your belly button and in front of your spine, centered vertically in your body. And your base is where you grip to keep balance, ideally your lower leg. To keep your center of gravity above this base, you need to achieve what I call the basic balance position: You close your leg by turning your toe out slightly and contacting the saddle with the back of your knee. To find it, locate the hollow at the top inside of the calf muscle—just below where your femur joins the tibia to create the hinge of the knee joint. Contacting the saddle in this way allows you to let go with your inner thigh. I sometimes tell students to imagine there is a tennis ball between the front of their knee and the saddle. This leg position makes it impossible to pinch with your knee and grab with your thigh.

This position lets you use your lower leg and your pelvic girdle—the muscles around your hips and waist—to truly follow your horse’s motion with your hips. Allowing this motion enables you to create energy. But you need to work through this concept because it’s natural to want to grip with your knee and inner thigh. When first learning to canter, most riders try to hold themselves on their horses by gripping incorrectly. For galloping and jumping, you need to use the muscles on the outside of your leg, between your hip and your knee and between your knee and your ankle, to close your legs around your horse like a hinge. My coach and mentor Jim Wofford sometimes tells students to imagine “closing your knees into your horse’s shoulder muscles” when galloping.

In addition to a correct leg position, your core—your abdominals plus the muscles that lie along your spine—is critical to keeping your center mass balanced over your feet. I tell my students that to engage their core they need to consciously push their middle together, imagining that they are creating a more cylindrical feeling in that area. Another technique I teach is “push your stomach muscles and back muscles together as if someone is about to smack you in the stomach and you want to counteract that punch.”

Testing the Balance


Your leathers are the recommended length for galloping and jumping when you take your feet out of the stirrups, letting them hang down, and the tread of the stirrup iron touches your leg at or slightly above your ankle. To introduce students to the new balanced position I described earlier, I have them shorten their stirrup leathers two or three holes above their regular galloping and jumping length. Then I tell them to rise into their two-point galloping and jumping position. As they bend their hip angle, I remind them to “focus on opening your knee and thigh, step down into your lower leg, really engage your core and push your hips back a little,” to keep their center mass over their base.


The reaction is usually immediate—and dismayed. The shortened stirrups make it impossible to pinch with the knee because there’s nothing to pinch against and they enable the riders to perceive exactly which muscles they need to use to maintain a balanced position. These usually are muscles they haven’t used much before. New students often complain that their backs and their knees are really feeling the new challenge. Sometimes I put a neck strap about halfway up the horse’s neck and tell the students they can hook just a finger in the strap for a little help while they learn where their balance is and how to use the proper leg muscles and core muscles to maintain it—without trying to balance on the reins. The strap is also a reminder to shift their weight back a little bit to get their center mass over their feet. If students say their back hurts in the new position, I explain that it’s because they’re using their back instead of their core to hold themselves up. The remedy is for them to pull their stomach in to support their back.

Building New Muscle Memory


Our ultimate goal in this work (and it is work!) is to replace the muscle memory of an ineffective galloping and jumping position and motion with the one that works. This is an important concept because you can’t learn to simply stop doing whatever it is that doesn’t work—unless you are replacing it with a different action. So once my students have gotten used to the feeling of the new position at the standstill and walk, I tell them to trot. (I tend to do most of my clinic teaching at the trot because there are two beats, or motions, within each stride, which requires riders to work twice as hard as at the canter.) Now when they pick up a trot they need to isolate their position from both the up-and-down and the side-to-side motion of the gait. Another advantage is that the trot is not as fast as the canter, so riders feel more in control as they’re trying to make all these changes.


I often have students alternate five or 10 steps in the two-point position with a few strides of posting, building it up until they can hold the two-point for 20 or 30 trot strides. When they can hold the balance position down the long side of the arena at a trot, I put down some ground poles. First we do regular trot poles set at standard striding. Then I put down what I call “pick-up sticks”—some poles are set on a short stride, some on a long stride, some are even set at angles. As horses start to trot through these, riders have to adjust their position to maintain their center mass over their base for the variations. This helps them learn to control their horses while maintaining the new position.

The next step is to set up some simple low (as small as 18 inches) jumping gymnastics. This helps students zero in on where they might have particular challenges over fences. Often when I ask riders, “Can you feel how you fell forward right there?” the answer will be “no.” For their next pass through, I have my cell phone out to video them so I can show them exactly where and how they need to reinforce their position.


As with any change in something riders have been doing a certain way—even if it’s the wrong way—for a long time, riding in the basic balance position feels odd to many new students. As they’re struggling they say, “This feels so unnatural!” So I give them instant feedback: I snap a picture with my phone and when I show them how they look in the new position they say, “That is NOT what it feels like!” The truth is that our bodies lie to us. For instance, if—like many of us—you get used to riding a little crooked in the saddle, it feels as if you’re sitting straight. Then, when you fix it so that you’re sitting evenly, your body tells you you’re tipping. That’s why I encourage students who are working on their position to buddy up. Ride with a friend so you can critique each other or enlist a friend who can stand on the ground and video you with her phone. If you can’t get feedback this way, try riding in an arena with a mirror.

Use Cross-Training—and Music


Some athletic activities other than riding can contribute to a better position. One is skiing because to do it well you have to engage your core, turn your hips, use your pelvic girdle—sound familiar? Another type of exercise that relates directly to riding is almost any type of dance training because the muscle control you learn for dancing is similar to what you need for riding. Yoga, which also entails muscle control and balance, helps as well.

Once you’ve learned to maintain the new position for a couple of minutes at a time, a helpful technique is riding to music. I suggest my students get some music they really love on their personal listening device and begin by trying to hold the new position for the duration of one song, then two songs and so on. I use music myself when doing my gallop sets. It helps me override the voices in my head that are telling me I’ve done enough for the day, I’m as fit as I need to be.

I’m not saying that the basic balance position is the only improvement in your riding that will bring you success. But I do know that most riders recognize, even subconsciously, when they are out of balance. That makes them feel insecure—and insecurity hinders your progress. Fixing your position brings you one big step closer to maximizing you and your horse’s potential as a team and reaching your goals.

Center of Gravity In Dressage


In dressage, you ask your horse to bring his hindquarters under his body, lift his back and withers and take a contact. But when you grip with your knee, causing your leg to swing back and your upper body to tip forward, you block the energy you’re developing from behind. So it’s like driving with the parking brake on. With your lower leg, you’re telling him that you want him to go forward, while your thigh is restricting the energy when it grips to support your upper body’s forward lean. At some point, he stops listening to your subtle cues.


In addition, many riders grip with their legs incorrectly just to try to hold themselves still on their horses for flatwork. A truly “still” rider cannot maintain the proper motion with the horse. Motion you can see is motion against the horse’s motion.

As I discuss in “Finding Balance,” on page 52, for the galloping position, in dressage you want to use your properly positioned lower leg and your pelvic girdle—the muscles around your hips and waist—to follow your horse’s motion with your hips. Dressage balanced position is a much more vertical position than the galloping position. The more core you can develop, the better control you’ll gain over your position. This is what you need to do to sit the trot effectively and as efficiently as possible.

Four-Star Success


Five years after riding her first four-stars (Rolex Kentucky Three-Day Event—where she placed 12th—and Burghley) in 2011 with Shiraz, Colleen Rutledge finished second—by 0.4 penalty points—to Olympian Boyd Martin with her homebred Covert Rights, or “CR,” at the Wellington Eventing Showcase in February 2016.

Colleen, who completed a total of five four-stars with Shiraz before his retirement at age 18, was named to the U.S. Equestrian Federation World Class High Performance Training List with CR in June 2015. By then she had already competed CR, then a 9-year-old, at Rolex, where they came in 11th. “I don’t feel like I was named to the list. I feel like I’m sitting on a horse that got me there,” she says. The recognition helped her get to Burghley with CR that fall, where they finished 22nd. “For me, he is exactly the horse I wanted to breed. If I could change anything, the only detail is that I would like him to be a little tidier with his front end.”

Last year, CR won the Pine Top CIC***, was sixth at the Carolina CIC*** and third at The Fork CIC***. Another of Colleen’s Advanced horses, Escot 6, took third place in the Richland Park CIC***, fifth at the Morven Park CIC*** and finished just outside the top 20 at the Fair Hill CCI***. Colleen began her 2017 season with a third aboard Escot 6 in an Advanced division at the Pine Top Horse Trials.