Even though Zernike K, a 12-year-old Dutch Warmblood, is already very successful at the grand-prix level, I continue to work to improve his technique at home. For example, he tends to get quick inside combinations. This vertical-to-vertical-to-oxer gymnastic exercise with bounce rails before and after the verticals acts like a long combination broken into parts. The bounces encourage Zernike to take his time early in the exercise so he can then relax and think over the oxer. His centered, straight position over the fence, square legs and focused expression show that the lesson is sinking in. | Susan J. Stickle
Gymnastics are my main go-to for schooling jumps at home. I do them with all of my horses, young and old, twice a week. The predictable distances and smaller jumps make the exercises less stressful both physically and mentally. Gymnastics also slow down everything, allowing your horse to improve and strengthen his jumping technique while you focus on your position. And for riders who take the time to study and feel the nuances of every jump, they offer an opportunity to fine-tune very specific aspects of your horse’s jumping style. There’s no such thing as a 100-percent perfect jump at home, but the closer you get to that ideal, the easier it will be to tackle all the challenges the course designer throws your way in the show ring.
This focus on technique should begin at the very start of a young jumper’s career. Most young jumpers have some sort of weakness in their techniques. You may never completely eliminate every flaw, but you can always improve on it. And the sooner you start, the better. As horses grow older and more experienced, they still need to be reminded to work on their weaknesses to produce their best-possible efforts. Gymnastics give them the structure and strength-building to do that.
As with all other training methods, my goal with gymnastics is to build my horses’ confidence with slow, progressive exercises and lots of positive reinforcement. If they’re comfortable and not afraid, they’re happier and more willing to do what I ask of them—and their education requires less repetition in the long run. I never try to teach horses by force. You might be able to force your horse to do something at home, but that won’t make it happen in the show ring. It’s like forcing a kid to eat his green beans at home and expecting him to eat them in the school cafeteria, too, when he’s on his own.
No matter how experienced my horse is, I start every gymnastic session with a single jump and then build the exercise one fence at a time, always progressing in height from smallest to largest. I never raise the jumps above 1.25 or 1.30 meters, even with my grand prix horses. Higher fences aren’t necessary to achieve the desired results and they may scare your horse. A gymnastic line should never be so high or so hard that your horse can’t afford a mistake or two, especially with young horses who are just learning and don’t always make it easy for their riders to find the perfect distance.
In this article, I’ll describe one of my favorite gymnastic exercises. It’s very simple, but you can adjust it in many small, precise ways to help your horse produce a better jump. I recommend using 6-foot-long rectangular-shaped 1-by-4 wooden boards as guiding rails throughout the entire exercise to keep him straight. This takes away the need for you to hold him straight with your reins, which can interfere with his jumping efforts. I prefer using these boards rather than round poles because they lie flat on the ground and won’t roll if a horse steps on them. You can buy boards like this at any lumber or home-renovation store.
No matter how experienced my horse is, I start every gymnastic session with a single jump and then build the exercise one fence at a time. This diagram shows the final exercise: bounce rail, 9 feet to a vertical, 9 feet to a second bounce rail, 9 feet to a second vertical and 36 feet (two strides) to an oxer. Pairs of flat 1-by-4 rails are set perpendicular to the jumps to form a chute about 5 feet wide down the middle of the exercise to keep the horse centered.
Susan J. Stickle
Start Slowly and Then Build Gradually
Build a crossrail with a bounce rail on either side, each about 9 feet from the jump. If your horse is green and not familiar with bounce rails, jump the crossrail a few times on its own first. Then add the takeoff bounce rail and jump through a few times before adding the landing bounce rail. Adjust the bounce-rail distances as necessary to make them comfortable for your horse.
Whether or not you include ground lines with the jumps you build in this exercise depends on your horse. If you need him to slow down on takeoff or judge the jump better, then use them. Otherwise, I like to train without ground lines because we are not afforded them in the jumper ring.
Many people like to trot into gymnastic lines, but I prefer to canter. In all my training I like to emphasize what my horse will be doing in the show ring. So since I don’t ever plan on trotting into a combination at the grand-prix level, I approach all of my gymnastics at the canter, even with my young horses. If you’re cantering combinations on course at shows, you should be ready to canter into this exercise.
The bounce rails will help to regulate your horse’s stride before and after the jump. As you canter into the exercise, you’ll feel him jump, or “bounce,” over the first rail. When he lands from that, he will immediately take off again over the crossrail without taking a stride between the rail and the jump. Then he’ll land from the crossrail and immediately take off, or bounce, again over the next rail.
If you have a bad distance to the first bounce rail, don’t worry. If you’ve made the distances and heights fair to your horse and you’re able to stay calm and trust the exercise, the gymnastic will allow him to self-correct.
After jumping the crossrail a few times, build a small vertical 9 feet away from the landing bounce rail (or the distance that works best for your horse). Then add another bounce rail 9 feet after the vertical. Place pairs of guiding rails, perpendicular to the jumps, between the crossrail and the bounce rail and the bounce rail and the vertical, so they form a chute about 5 feet wide down the center of the exercise. If your horse is green, start with the chute a little wider at first until he gets accustomed to all the rails on the ground.
As you ride through, the added rails and jump should make the entire exercise feel like a series of bounces, coming one after another in a rhythmic progression.
Jump through this a few times and then add an oxer two strides away from the vertical—about 36 feet, depending on your horse’s natural stride length. Add more guide rails between the vertical and oxer to keep him centered. You can add bounce rails between the vertical and oxer, too, but I normally don’t. I like the horse to jump the oxer naturally. Start with an easy rampy oxer (higher in the back than the front), then progress to a square oxer.
After several repetitions, turn the crossrail into a small vertical. Then gradually raise the heights of all three jumps. Each time you increase the oxer height, raise only the back rail first so it’s rampy and more inviting. Square it up when your horse seems comfortable with that height. You may also have to increase the distance to the oxer as the jumps get bigger. However, because the verticals shouldn’t become too high, this adjustment won’t need to be drastic.
Every time you land from the last jump in the line, allow your horse to take one normal stride and then ask him to come smoothly down to a halt on a straight line. Wait four or five seconds so he can take a breath. Then pat and praise him. This is a critical part of the exercise. It teaches your horse to land in proper balance and wait for your cue, ready for the next jump. Ideally, an experienced horse should be able to come down to a halt within three or four strides. With less experienced horses, aim for six or seven strides. Be careful if your arena fence is small—until your horse understands the exercise, he might jump out over it. I know this can happen because it’s happened to me!
If your horse is strong and you have trouble halting him, add another rail six or seven strides away from the last fence and try to stop before you reach it. If he’s green and wobbly on landing—drifting right and left as you make the downward transition—extend the chute beyond the oxer with more guiding rails. It will take him several repetitions to begin straightening. Do it over and over again until he gets the right idea.
Exercise: Start Slowly and Build Gradually
1. I always start gymnastics with a single crossrail to set a positive tone. Here, I’m a little ahead of the motion and have allowed some slack in the reins. Over bigger jumps, this could affect my horse’s balance. We approached the jump on the left lead. He’s stepping easily over it and looks relaxed but is still focused on the exercise with his ears forward. The bounce rails help to position him for a good takeoff and landing while the high ends of the crossrail help to keep him in the middle of the jump. | Susan J. Stickle
2. The bounce rail on the landing side is positioned so that Zernike’s next canter stride is centered over it. If he had to shorten or lengthen his stride to clear it, I would adjust its distance from the crossrail accordingly. | Susan J. Stickle
3. Next, we add a second crossrail about 9 feet from the last bounce rail, creating a one-stride combination. Zernike is well centered here and his turned-back ears indicate that he’s listening to me. At this low height, his efforts over the crossrails are still just a continuation of his canter. I have a better rein contact here than I did in Photo 1. This is important for helping to maintain my horse’s balance, especially in the approach to a jump. | Susan J. Stickle
4. Next, change the crossrails to verticals. Have someone watch where your horse takes off and lands over each jump. If he doesn’t seem comfortable after a few tries, adjust the distances or try entering the exercise at different speeds. If your horse backs off the fences, lengthen the distance between them and approach them with a little more pace. There’s a misconception that shortening distances will help cautious horses jump with more confidence. They usually need more room to maintain a good forward rhythm. | Susan J. Stickle
5. After jumping the verticals and bounce rails several times, we add an oxer two strides away from the second vertical. We also add guide rails to keep Zernike straight. We initially set this two-stride distance at a normal 36 feet, then gradually lengthened it to 38 to 40 feet so he could relax to the oxer. Most horses tend to tip onto their forehands and stretch out their necks like racehorses when they elongate their strides. During these two strides, I close my legs to encourage Zernike to come forward and raise my hands slightly, maintaining a steady contact, encouraging him to keep his balance a little higher. | Susan J. Stickle
6. This sets Zernike up for a good jumping effort. However, I’ve allowed my leg position to slip slightly backward in the air and have broken the straight line between my elbow and the bit more than I would like. This may be why his legs are slightly less square than they could be. | Susan J. Stickle
7. After landing, I recover my balance and position. There’s a vertical line from my knee to my toe again and a straight line from my elbow to the bit. I always ask my horses to pull up to a halt a few strides after each gymnastic line. You can see by Zernike’s ears that he’s already listening to me and waiting for that signal. He’s very relaxed—he knows the routine. | Susan J. Stickle
8. Now we raise the oxer and canter through the exercise again. What I like best about this picture is the forward-looking expression on both our faces. We’re both very square and balanced. I have broken the straight line from my elbow to the bit again, which may be a result of my heel not being totally down. A slight break in that line is OK as I’m trying to give more with my hands over the bigger oxer and am not necessarily aiming for a perfect automatic release. | Susan J. Stickle
As you jump through the exercise, focus on your position. Remember that everything is connected. A proper leg position—with your stirrup on the ball of your foot and your heel down—will anchor the rest of your body. Everyone has a specific stirrup length they feel comfortable with. When you find yours, you should be able to see just the tip of your toe when you look down.
I like to concentrate on my knees in particular. I want them to feel like springs. If you watch great riders like Beezie Madden or Laura Kraut, they have a lot of movement in their knees. This allows them to go fluidly from standing to sitting, to both move with the horse and, when necessary, be strong in their seats. As soon as your knees get stiff, you lose your ability to balance yourself in the saddle and help the horse perform his best.
If you’re having trouble staying with your horse’s motion over the jumps, take the advice I learned from the famous French Olympic jumper Michel Robert: “Always be looking for the monkey in the trees.” It sounds silly, but it works! Having this imaginary focal point makes you look up, rock your body backward and drop your weight into your heels. And, if you are feeling frustrated, nervous or uncomfortable, the funny image will help you to relax.
This is also a great opportunity to work on your automatic release. Concentrate on keeping a straight line from your elbow to the bit. Over the first two jumps and bounce rails, maintain the connection through the reins by following your horse’s mouth with your hands, slightly extending your arms as he extends his neck. Relax your contact a little more as you approach the oxer so you’re giving something in between a crest release and an automatic release—offering him more freedom to jump it on his own. Think of the bounces as the “workshop” of the exercise—they’re more manufactured and controlled to help him set up his striding and balance. The oxer is more of the “test run.” By the time he gets to it, he should already have figured out the timing, so it should feel easy.
Although your job is to focus on your position throughout the exercise, also be aware of what your horse is doing underneath you. With practice, you’ll start to recognize when he’s jumping in good form and when he isn’t. In the meantime, ask a ground person to help you analyze his technique. People who watch enough gymnastics can train their eyes to see them in slow motion, which makes analyzing horses’ form much easier.
The point of this exercise is to make it easy for your horse to do the right thing. There are a couple of parts to the exercise you want to focus on. The first is the landing: finding the sweet spot. The second is the balance and canter in between the jumps. To improve both, you need to adjust the gymnastics accordingly.
Ideally, when your horse arrives at each takeoff spot, he should slap the ground with his front feet, then rock his weight back onto his haunches and flex his stifles, hocks and sacroiliac joint to push off the ground. His shoulder should swing forward freely and his front legs should come up at the same time. This helps to launch his body into the air, much the way a diver swings her arms up into the air before jumping off the diving board. Many people mistakenly focus on the lower legs, thinking that a horse’s low front end is caused by him not being snappy enough with his legs. In fact, this problem is usually caused by a too-slow shoulder.
On the landing side of the fence, your horse’s front and hind ends should come down in a timely manner so that the front legs have time to come back up off the ground before the hind legs land. This enables him to load his hind end properly for the next canter stride.
By noting where your horse takes off and lands, your ground person can also evaluate how well he centers the arc of his trajectory over the top of each jump. To clear fences most efficiently, he should reach the top of his arc just as he passes over the jump so his takeoff and landing spots are the same distance from the jump. If he snaps his front feet up quickly and reaches the top of his arc too early, that stops his propulsion too soon, thus limiting his scope—his ability to jump farther across fences. At the other extreme, if his arc peaks beyond the fence, he’ll be prone to knocking rails down with his front end. Where he lands after each jump is particularly important. If he lands too far away or too close to the jump, that affects his balance and ability to jump the next fence well.
If you (or your ground person) notice any deviations from the ideal jumping effort, you can adjust the distances between the fences and bounce rails to improve your horse’s technique. For example, if he’s landing too close to the jumps, cutting his trajectory short, roll the bounce rails on the landing sides a few inches away from the fences. (Pay attention to where he is landing after the bounce rails, too. You may need to lengthen the distances after them as well so he meets the next fences comfortably.) This will encourage him to take a bigger step on landing. The next time you jump through the exercise, he’ll jump bigger over the fences. The landing sweet spot is different for every horse and for different-sized jumps, so you may need to play a little with the bounce rails in order to get the desired result.
With only very experienced horses, it is sometimes helpful to put a bounce rail on the landing side of the oxer. If they jump too high or too far out and forget to focus on what’s ahead of them, the bounce rail can remind them to land in proper balance and be ready for the next jump.
To activate a slow shoulder, experiment with different distances between the first two jumps and the bounce rails. Tighter distances usually encourage horses to bring their front ends up more quickly, while longer distances encourage them to elongate their bodies. Play with the distance between the vertical and oxer, too. For example, if you tightened up the one-stride and bounce rails to correct a slow shoulder and too-long arc, make the two-stride distance a little longer to allow your horse to relax over the oxer. Or if he is an older horse who needs to be reminded to control his stride after the fences, shorten up the two-stride distance a little and roll the bounce rail after the vertical in somewhat.
Make any of these changes very slowly—just a few inches at a time—and give your horse time to make the necessary adjustments. He may need several repetitions to figure out how to change his technique to jump through the exercise comfortably. Some young horses take as many as 10 repetitions to understand how to do it right.
In any given gymnastic session, you might jump through the exercise about 20 times. Each time will feel a little different. Be current in the moment and aware of exactly what’s happening underneath you. As the jumps get bigger, things may get undone. For example, the two strides between the vertical and oxer may feel too long or too short. Give your horse a chance to figure that out and make the necessary adjustment to place himself correctly the next time. He also may lose his focus—for example, when he sees the bigger oxer—and either rush through the exercise or stall out midway through. Be prepared for these surprises and ready to support him with a “whoa” or more leg pressure as needed. Repeat the exercise and see if he understood the lesson.
Remember, always give your horse the chance to do things right. With patience and positive reinforcement, you will improve his technique and your position while creating a solid partnership to rely upon in the show ring.
Slowing Down a Rusher
1. Here’s an example of how I use this gymnastic exercise to discourage Zernike’s tendency to get quick over combinations. You can tell that he’s rushing because my leg has come off his side a little in an attempt to soften my leg aid. Notice as he jumps the first vertical, he’s hung one knee a little. This is probably because he arrived at the jump a little too quickly and didn’t have time to square himself properly. | Susan J. Stickle
2. Because he’s quick, he runs out of space to fit in the first stride, so he drifts right to find more room. This causes him to twist his body. To fix this, I’m opening my left rein and pushing him left with my right leg. I’m staying straight and square with the rest of my body. I trust the guide rails to keep him centered. My goal is to zero in on his technique, using gentle aids to nudge him into a better position. If I fix his body first—make it squarer—his legs will follow. | Susan J. Stickle
3. Over the next jump, the oxer, Zernike is twisting his front legs in the other direction, still trying to compensate for having gone too quickly through the exercise and running out of room to get square for takeoff. I’m still pressing my left leg against his side to try to straighten his body. You can see that he has squared up his hind end. | Susan J. Stickle
4. A split second later, his entire body is squared up. With the help of the guide rails, I’ve corrected the crookedness. I’ve continued looking forward, which has helped me keep my own position centered. This is an important lesson: Just because the takeoff is one way doesn’t mean you can’t improve a jump midair. | Susan J. Stickle
Brianne Goutal was the first Junior rider to win all four major equitation finals. In 2004, she won the USEF Show Jumping Talent Search Finals East, the WIHS Equitation Classic Final and the USEF National Junior Jumper Championship as well as the North American Young Riders Championship team gold medal. The following year, she came out on top at the Pessoa/USEF National Hunter Seat Medal Final and the ASPCA Maclay National Championship. The Animal Planet series “Horse Power: Road to the Maclay” documented the lead-up and competition day of the latter finals. Also in 2005, she won both the individual and team North American Young Riders Championships gold medals. Brianne then made a successful transition to the jumper ring, achieving her first grand prix win in 2006. Since then, she has ridden on winning Nations Cup teams in Argentina, Finland, Sweden and Mexico and represented the U.S. at the 2008 and 2012 Rolex FEI World Cup Jumping Finals. She has continued her winning ways to this date, triumphing in the 2013 American Gold Cup and other major competitions in the U.S. and Europe. In the meantime, she graduated from Brown University and began her own riding and training business.
This article originally appeared in the July 2016 issue of Practical Horseman.