Loose Lower Leg A solid lower leg is the foundation for the rest of your position, and a leg that swings in the air doesn’t offer a quality base of support for the rest of the rider’s aids. To discover the root cause of a loose lower leg, you first have to examine any improper position at the standstill and on the flat. Common flaws I often identify include gripping with the knee or uneven distribution of contact through the leg. In many cases, a loose leg is simply the cause of an undeveloped leg that isn’t practised or strong enough to maintain and hold a position. The consequences of a loose lower leg over fences are far-reaching. It effects the crest release, balance in the air, the upper body position, and the communication with the horse; it really impairs everything about the ride. Stirrup length is a large part of establishing a solid leg, and it depends very much on the individual. A stirrup that’s too long and doesn’t allow for somewhere between a 90- to 110-degree angle behind the rider’s knee tends to force them to reach for the stirrup. (Bear in mind that very good riders will utilize a wide variety of lengths, depending on the activity they’re doing and the shape of barrel of the horse they are riding.) Stirrup length is activity-dependant, and a ride around a small hunter course will allow a lot longer stirrup length than a puissance wall. Play with stirrup length to find a place where you are comfortable and you can maintain the angle that provides you with balance and support. The best solution to fixing a loose lower leg is the answer that nobody likes: no stirrup work. There is no better fix, and it’s how all the great riders have developed their leg. Working without stirrups encourages strength to naturally develop and maintain a solid position. I also suggest work through gymnastics to show riders how the leg works while in the air. Bounces are especially useful, as people can feel the mechanics of the leg in a controlled scenario without the unknowns of distances and pace variations. I try to tell people when they’re jumping that they should feel the same way as when they ride a bike, and that they should ‘land on the peddles as you ride off a curb.’ You should land in the stirrups and allow the knees and ankles to act as shock absorbers. Most riders will find that if they stay ‘in their heels’ in the air, the leg stays in place naturally. Any activity that can be accomplished with stirrups should also be able to be accomplished without. They are there to aid you, not to be a crutch to enable improper balance. When you remove stirrups, you remove the bandaid that allows a lot of position flaws. It’s probably the single greatest self-correcting tool. It doesn’t require special equipment or time, and all the no-stirrup work will pay off some day when you’re in the middle of a grand prix and suffer equipment failure. You should be capable of navigating whatever level you’re at without stirrups, and without practice you will never be that proficient. Loss of Upper Body Control One of the most common causes of an improper upper body over fences is an improper leg. If the leg isn’t there to support the body, it becomes very difficult to control where the body goes. Lack of control in the upper body manifests itself in several different ways: jumping ahead, ducking, and getting ahead of or behind the centre of gravity. The key problem with jumping ahead and getting in front of the motion is that it puts more weight over the front legs of the horse at the apex of the jump. This often results in horses opening up their bascule and coming down a bit earlier, leading to back rails down. Most riders don’t think their weight adjustments could have such an effect on the horse, but it can really change the way they jump ñ with style flaws in the hunter ring or faults in the jumper ring. Any dramatic interference with the natural arch of the horse and its balance in the air could mean rails in front or behind. The loss of control in the upper body upon landing also negatively affects the recovery of the horse and your ability to look to the next jump. I find bounces are wonderful for riders to discover how their shoulder and upper body position work, because there’s no time to recover. A rider who gets out of position will find the bounce very difficult, especially when there are several in a row. A very skilled rider who maintains position right in the centre of gravity will find the horse jumps up towards them on the way up and jumps away from them on the way down; it should be a very smooth motion for both horse and rider. I like to set two bounces in a row ñ three jumps set at approximately 10.5-11 feet apart and at cavaletti height. The distance in between will vary depending on the horse, so it is very important that you know your optimal stride length. The ideal upper body position involves having a flat back, with seat and hips centred over the middle part of the saddle. The rider’s shoulders should be square with the horse’s shoulders, with ample space between the horse’s neck and rider’s body. Poor Eye Control Looking down is one of the most common flaws I see, and it is one that has an enormous effect on the rest of your position. There is no other sport in the world where people spend as much time looking down as riding! Quite simply, you need to look where you’re going to be able to make plans for the future and look for the track. Eye control lends itself to upper body control, and as the head is the heaviest part of the body, it contributes to a lack of balance and ducking when you look down. The easiest solution I use to help riders look up and ahead is to stand at the end of the ring and have riders canter or jump towards me and tell me how many fingers I’m holding up. Most people can feel such a huge difference that they immediately change the way they ride. It’s a simple fix and the easiest way to accomplish obvious results. The Driving Seat I see a lot of people riding too much from their seat: sitting with too much weight on their seat bones and trying to create forward motion by ‘driving’ with the seat. In doing so, they are actually lessening how much pressure they are putting in the stirrups and heels, which makes the lower leg ineffective and unable to support the rest of the position. From a horse’s perspective, if the forward motion is created by pushing with the seat, it can tend to not encourage a horse to keep its withers up and will put the horse in a slightly less athletic position. When the wither drops down as a result of a driving seat, the back will hollow somewhat, and the horse then has to do more work when it gets to the jump. People who ride behind the motion and drive with their seat tend to see everything slightly after the horse sees it ñ they are slightly behind the centre of gravity, as opposed to with the centre of gravity. Neither forward seat nor full seat position is incorrect; they will both be used multiple times throughout any course you ride, but there is a time and a place for each. When you’re covering a lot of ground you may need quite a forward seat to free up the horse’s back and allow it to reach; the full seat position allows a lot of control over the horse’s body and helps you to manage the stride in an easier fashion. In the fully-seated position there needs to be a distinction between sitting on a horse and driving with the seat; there is a very big difference. To help riders overcome a tendency to drive with the seat before a fence, I suggest lots of two-point work to emphasize correct balance. Two-point work on the flat really helps bring people back over the centre of gravity and find that correct seat position. Also practise at the standstill by standing up and finding the balance point; if you’re ahead or behind, you’re going to have difficulty staying up in that two-point position. I like to encourage two-point work even for my advanced students to fine-tune that seat and leg position. Difficulties you encounter over fences are all things you can avoid by having proficient skills to begin with on the flat. Improper Crest Release The purpose of the crest release is to allow the horse the freedom to use its head and neck in the air, stretch as it jumps, and allow the withers to come up and develop a nice bascule through the back and into the hind legs. Another purpose is to allow a third point of contact for the rider with the horse’s body, offering a small amount of support for the rider if the release is pressed into the neck. The amount of release that a horse requires varies depending on the obstacle that they are jumping and a horse’s level of experience; a young horse that over-jumps will require more release than a seasoned horse that jumps with minimal effort. Common flaws in the execution of the crest release include what I call a ‘floating’ release, where the hands don’t actually touch the neck and the rider loses the stability that is achieved from this third point of contact. This doesn’t necessarily mean the horse will be caught in the mouth, but it opens the door for this, as it means the rider isn’t solid if something unpredictable happens. To develop stability in the crest release, I’ll sometimes put a piece of coloured tape in the mane as a target and encourage riders to reach for it in the air. I love to have people grab mane, and I strongly believe that it’s a wonderful skill that should not be limited to novice riders. Grabbing mane is used by top riders in many situations when they are looking for ways to guarantee that they aren’t catching their horse in the mouth. It is a skill taught to novice riders because it teaches stability, but you are never too good to grab mane! In a controlled exercise through a gymnastic where there is a predicable outcome, as opposed to long lines where people don’t know where they are, grabbing mane or reaching for the target tape will give a real sense of control and rhythm in the air. Gymnastics are wonderful, because people relax as they know where they are a little bit; once they’ve been through a couple times they can simply focus on position. Fear is a huge obstacle, so before we focus on position we have to make sure that riders are comfortable.