By Barbara Price
Recently, a friend who was interested in Working Equitation asked me about the jump requirement in the Ease of Handling phase. She was very concerned about the jump because she had no formal jumping training, nor did she ever jump her dressage horse.
I was glad to tell her that most fit horses, when properly prepared, can easily handle the single jump required for Working Equitation (WE). What I didn’t want to tell her was that throughout my two years of judging Working Equitation competitions the jump obstacle consistently has been one of the lower scoring obstacles for otherwise competent horses. Unfortunate, but easily fixed in many cases. I’ve found that most WE competitors do not come from a discipline focused on jumping and they simply strive to ‘hunker down and get over the jump!’ Clearly, some horses like to jump more than others. But, with some basic preparation many competitors could add 2 or more points to their otherwise 4 or 5 jump score. And that can make a difference in the overall Ease of Handling (EOH) score.
Disclaimer: I’m an amateur rider, not a professional trainer. I did, however, spend my formative riding years in the hunt seat ring and had the opportunity to train with some very talented hunter/jumper trainers over those years. As with all things, riding techniques can change with time. However, a few of the fundamentals for effective equine jumping hold true. Here are some basic tips and exercises to improve your horse’s (and your) EOH jump techique.
What is a WE jump and what is being judged?
WE jumps generally consist of bales of straw placed end to end (or similar solid objects) with a pole on top and standards on each side. It must be at least 3 meters across and not exceed 22 inches in height. The horse is expected to approach the jump in a smooth, natural manner with confidence. The judges are evaluating the approach to and landing from the obstacle (including tempo, balance and lead) and appropriate bascule (arc) over the jump.
- Approach the jump from as straight a line as possible. Fortunately, since the rider chooses their approach in EOH (and there is no time constraint) that’s usually an option. Horses that have not been trained to maintain balance from a turn quickly into a jump will not execute the jump well approaching it from a tight curve. (Often times refusals are due to a lack of balance coming into the jump.) Inexperienced horses will need at least 8-10 strides to secure their balance before jumping. Once you’ve taught your horse to adjust its stride to a jump and achieve balance from a tighter bend, you will have more approach options. (This also will help enormously in the speed phase, where a quick turn to the jump can save many seconds.)
- Approach the jump on your horse’s more natural lead. Some horses go equally well on both leads, but most have a favorite. Go with it if you can given the course constraints. A horse will look better and jump with enhanced ease when on its more comfortable lead.
- Get off the horse’s back. Horses need to use their backs to negotiate a jump comfortably, safely, and with good style. A unhindered back is essential for the horse to round its frame (achieve bascule) and raise its knees/feet. Get up into a two-point position 2-3 strides out from the jump. It may seem awkward at first (and I imagine it’s more difficult in a western-style saddle) but your horse will thank you, and probably be more amenable to jumping future jumps!
- Do not keep a steady, tight hold on the reins over the jump (or worse, pull back prior or during the jump). It’s a natural reaction for some riders, but it will only sabotage your horse’s effort. Just as your horse needs a free back to jump well, they also need the freedom to stretch and round their neck. If you’re prone to holding tight on the reins, practice on smaller jumps or ground poles and completely release the reins as you approach the obstacle. Work up to larger jumps and find a place on your horse’s neck (each side) to place your hands where you feel comfortable and which allow some slack in the reins. If all else fails, grab mane midway up the horse’s neck. It’s not as pretty, but usually will sufficiently release the reins. It’s common for horses to speed up while approaching a jump until they learn about striding and how to adjust their balance. Ironically, holding them back usually makes it worse and often will cause the horse to lose its balance and either chip (take an extra step at base of jump) or get anxious and depart too early or over jump. Unless a horse is out of control, it’s best to give them some rein and let them do their job. If they are out of control on the approach, go back to ground pole or cavaletti work.
Simple exercises to teach striding and adjusting balance.
- Begin trotting and cantering in straight line over a low cavaletti or cross rail. Practice both directions. When you and your horse are able to maintain a good tempo with relaxation and confidence, move on to step 2.
- Use spray paint to transcribe a 20 meter circle in the arena or riding area. Place a ground pole or low cavaletti perpendicular on the circle’s track. Practice trotting and cantering the obstacle on the circle both directions. When you and your horse are able to maintain a good tempo with relaxation and confidence, move on to step 3.
- Add additional ground poles or cavaletti to your 20 meter circle. Start with two, one each on opposite sides and add to the circle until you have at least four or more at equal distances on the 20 meter circle. Practice trotting and cantering the obstacles in both directions. When you and your horse are able to maintain a good tempo with relaxation and confidence, move on to step 4. Hopefully you’re noticing a trend here. Don’t increase the difficulty until you’ve achieved balance, even tempo, and relaxation at the current task.
- Using at least 6 ground poles or cavaletti on the 20 meter circle, change the distances between each obstacle so they are not equal. Position some closer to each other than the others. Practice trotting and cantering the obstacles in both directions. When you’ve achieved this step with controlled tempo, relaxation and confidence, you should be ready to practice the WE straw bale jump and begin to jump the obstacle successfully from multiple approaches. And, an added side benefit: You will have learned which side and lead your horse prefers to approach a jump. If the EOH course allows — use it!