If your horse rushes fences, knocks rails or balks at jumps, the first thing you need to do is to make sure you are not interfering with his ability to jump well. If you are not balanced and supple, you will not be able to follow your horse’s movement. You will jump ahead, fall back or use your reins to balance. An independent seat – in all gaits and transitions – is the foundation for every activity you perform with a horse. You need to be balanced, supple and helping your horse lift his back, engage his hindquarters and carry himself off his forehand. This foundation needs to be well-developed on the flat before the rider starts jumping.
A really well-schooled and well-balanced horse may be able to jump adequately despite any weaknesses in the rider, but most horses will not. Many lose their confidence about jumping and develop bad habits of running out, leaving too long or chipping in, stopping or rushing. The rider ends up frustrated and perhaps losing her confidence as well.
When you are in the correct jumping position, you will go with the motion of your horse over a fence, instead of jumping ahead or being behind his movement. When you jump ahead (in front of the movement), you interfere with his ability to lift his front end. When you are behind the movement, you get left back and are unable to give with your reins. This action prevents your horse from being able to use his neck properly, his head gets jerked upwards and he can’t lift his back. As a result, he jumps poorly and can’t travel forwards well to the next fence.
Practice the following tips to improve your jumping position and your horse’s jumping performance:
1. Develop a secure, supple leg and seat
An insecure leg is ineffective. To stay with your horse as he jumps, you have to stay balanced over his centre of gravity with your leg directly underneath you. Your hips, knees and ankles absorb the movement of the horse. If your legs do not act like shock absorbers, your upper body will get tossed around causing you to fall forwards on your horse’s neck or backwards onto his back.
To test your balance, try the standing position exercise. It looks simple, but is deceivingly difficult to do. With your horse standing still, stand up in your stirrups and try to balance. Do not use your reins to support you! Instead, hold onto a strap attached to the D-rings of your saddle, a martingale strap or a neck rope. If your leg is insecure, you will be like a teeter totter. If your leg slips forward, you will fall backwards into the saddle. If your leg slips backwards, you will tip forward. Once you are able to stay balanced without holding the strap, ask your horse to walk forward (you may prefer to have someone lead him from the ground).
In the rising trot, incorporate this exercise by changing your posting diagonals by standing up for two beats instead of sitting them.
2. Lessons on the lunge line
Get help from an experienced horse person who can lunge your horse while you ride. You can drop the reins and focus on your two-point position. (Make sure your reins don’t fall up your horse’s neck.) Practice all three gaits and all transitions while in the two-point position. At first, you may need to hold onto the neck strap so that you don’t inadvertently pull on your horse’s mouth. Soften your ankle, knee and hip joints and lengthen your thigh and calf muscles. Feel your joints opening and closing absorbing your horse’s motion. When you are balanced, your legs do not grip or pinch and there is no tension in your joints or muscles. Remove one hand at a time from the neck strap. Hold it again the moment you feel unbalanced. When you are balanced, hold your arms out to the sides or place them on your hips. Practice alternating between posting trot, sitting trot, and half seat as a warm-up.
3. Practice riding over poles and grids in trot and canter
Once you can maintain your balance in two-point position in all three gaits, practice over a series of poles (three or four poles set about four feet apart). Approach them in rising trot flowing into two-point position just before the first pole. Hold that position over all of the poles. Do the same exercise in canter (set poles about nine feet apart). Gradually raise the poles one at a time starting with the middle pole.