Before we start, we must define three very important words as they pertain to the horse: speed, acceleration and momentum. Definitions help us understand the horse while it’s in forward motion.
Speed is a measured forward motion that is constant and unchanging; meters/minute, miles/hour and feet/second are all examples of forward motion with a clear, concise rating.
Acceleration is a rising rate of speed. It changes the whole time the horse quickens or increases speed. The reining horse who “builds” before they slide to a stop or the jumper before they leave the ground would be good examples of horses in a state of acceleration.
Momentum is the free energy that comes with both of them. If you take your foot off the gas pedal, your car doesn’t just stop. It coasts until the momentum is totally gone. Momentum increases as speed increases but in acceleration, momentum increases more rapidly than in a state of constant speed.
When riding, it helps to know when you are in all the phases of forward motion. It’s all about transforming forward speed into upward lift and this is much harder than it sounds. You have to develop a feel for it and that takes a little practice. Here’s how I start all my jump lessons till the horse and rider can delineate or feel the differences.
I recently had the pleasure of starting a new-to-me horse and rider combo over some jumps in a small indoor hall. What I do may help you better understand the horse and how you can jump with safety.
She was a lifelong young rider with much experience and background. She grew up in a boarding stable business. She wanted to gain a new perspective on her riding. More than anything, she wanted to jump higher and ride bigger courses. She just wasn’t sure how to get there in a safe manner.
She stated she needed help getting past a four-foot obstacle. I set up a good size cross rail halfway down the long side to see what the real story would be. Three trips down and they were all different; chipped, left long and knocked down a rail. Yikes. It was obvious to me that neither horse nor rider could “see” a distance.
The mare was frozen in a “second level frame.” She had trouble using her neck and moving up with speed. She didn’t acknowledge she was about to come off the ground. She was fixated on the bit in her mouth and was not focused on the jump at all. Her canter was well developed so I knew they spent a lot of time on flat work. But jumping is a transition – one that requires the horse to come in and out of the bridle. It’s very important that the horse and rider understand acceleration and that they are both at ease with it.
I set up a small oxer three strides out from the short side. The oxer is most inviting and the final three are very important in developing rising speed and momentum. The mare got a little bounce off the bent line and could pick up three to the jump with little effort. In two sessions, the mare accepted the call for power and the rider felt the surge as the horse took her down the final three to get over.
It’s very easy to ride the jumps like this because you can feel the horse getting ready and you are really moving up. We got in some good, positive repetition to establish consistency and the horse and rider grew confident they could handle the quickness and stay out of each other’s way. By lesson four we had cleared a spread 3’9” oxer and were ready for some true lines down the long side.
They had already jumped a bit on the final three and were looking sharp and spot on. But now they have to read a line – read a distance. We could count strides but I felt it was better to go on contact and feel. It would be very different but I hoped they learned to trust each other from the short side.
The first time down was ugly and awkward but by the third time down after adjusting the canter some distance out, the mare exploded in the final three over a 3’6” vertical, clearing it by a foot. Thank God for acceleration; without it, we would be stuck at three feet forever.
The mare repeatedly got up and over, picking her own spot, as long as she was moving up. She was reading the line as much as the rider. She was having fun now and was always looking for more height. She never refused, just tried to get over the best she could. The rider was elated with the feeling of progress.
Anyone can jump like this with a few simple reminders. Practice acceleration. Lengthen and shorten the canter at will. When you need RPMs to get up and over, the horse has to be very mindful of the driving aids. If they stall, it can invite refusal or crashing through jumps.
Most importantly, work with someone that knows what to put in front of you at all times. I can’t tell you how many horses and riders run into trouble because they are headed down the wrong line to too big or too scary a jump. It’s a judgment call and every horse and rider must be evaluated as to what they can handle. You can’t “go for it” if it’s beyond your abilities.
Also, get in as much saddle time as possible. Learn to ride the canter and learn to ask for the canter. The transition to the canter should be practiced often. It should be automatic, without question. In a two-hour session, we spend a lot of time walking and then cantering to the jumps. The walk is restful and if there is too much adrenaline release in the jump phase, the walk will help things slow down.
An excitable horse should never go to the jumps. When they settle, you can start up again. Training and jumping in this manner is the most sustainable. The walk time lets the horse catch its breath and save energy for the up and over. They should not be sweating all over and getting exhausted.
Jumping is hard work and demands a lot of energy and focus. A tired horse can strain soft tissue and get sour very easily. As with all training, the goal should be to educate horse and rider so they can feel progress as time goes by. Long-term training is the most rewarding. More often than not, it will bring endless satisfaction of a job well done.
No matter what you are riding, every horse can be improved upon with the right training regime. It’s a lot of work but if you love it you will find joy and satisfaction as your horse becomes more dependable and more predictable.
by Frank Gringeri