Andre Dignelli's 5-Step System for Jumping 'Skinny' Fences

Top equitation trainer Andre Dignelli helps you master these tricky narrow fences in five doable steps.
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One of the great things about our sport is the continual innovation in course design. Every year, designers trot out new jumps made of unusual materials, in different shapes (liverpools, walls, gates, rolltops, and so on) and bright colors, and with such potentially distracting decorations as flowers and bushes. These innovations not only make a course more attractive; they mix things up. By offering an ongoing series of challenges (to a horse, anything new, strange, or odd-looking can be spooky or scary), they keep adding layers of difficulty to competition.

One innovation you've probably seen is the narrow fence?or, as it's popularly called, the "skinny." Instead of the standard horse-show width of 12 feet, a skinny's width can run from 8 feet all the way down to 5 1/2. We start seeing skinnies with wings in Limit Equitation, and without wings in the "big Eq" (open equitation and Medal and Maclay classes) and on cross-country courses starting at Training Level. The USEF Rule Book suggests skinnies for Limit Equitation classes and above; it requires them in the higher-end eq classes.

A skinny is a jump for which, no matter how many times you practice it, you can't afford to let down your guard. If you don't have a good distance and a straight horse, you're going to end up jumping to the side of the fence, running by it, or chipping in.

What Makes a Skinny So Difficult

  • Width. Believe me, accurately piloting your horse to an obstacle that's half as wide as normal is hard. You have to get his eye on the jump from very far back?and your distance, pace, and track have to be that much more precise. In fact, often a skinny is the jump that "judges" a class: If you don't have everything in order, your horse can all too easily just canter past politely or drift off to one side and jump the air. (That goes double if he happens to be very large and long-strided, as so many of today's equitation horses are.)
  • Appearance. A skinny can be a solid wall, a rolltop, a wooden garden gate, or just about any other shape and material the course designer can dream up. Many skinnies are used without the visual "framing" aid of a nice wide set of standards, leaving you trying to steer to the middle of a stand-alone wall or a rolltop with nothing but a couple of low shrubs to the sides. Even if the skinny is a gate that requires standards for support, they're sure to be narrow ones?and in many cases they stand no higher than the gate itself.
  • Materials. Skinny rails are unusually light?and so more easily pulled?because they're half the length of regular rails. When the jump is a gate, it may be nothing more than PVC. (You can buy the exact same garden gate used at the 2003 Medal Finals for about $20 at your local Home Depot.) To jump such an obstacle in good style?and leave it up?you have to ride incredibly accurately and softly.
  • Location. On many courses, a skinny is positioned where it would ride more easily if it were a wider fence. Often, in fact, a skinny is the "meat" of a course because it tests your horse's ridability, his carefulness, and his thinking. Complications can include difficult striding: off an awkward turn; on a half-stride, so you have to pick and choose; or with very little room to get to it. In the 2002 Medal Finals, for example, the skinny?which was already tough because it was upright and had no groundline?was made even harder because it came at the short end of the ring, off a very challenging turn. In the 2003 Medal Findals, that PVC skinny was placed in the middle of a bending line?which added timing to the already considerable issues of line, track, and steering that the riders had to contend with.

Fortunately, in general, those situations turn up only in the bigger jumper or equitation classes. In the lower classes, a skinny still tends to be used in a very inviting way, so you and your horse have a chance to start getting familiar with its appearance and with what it takes to jump it, almost like a liverpool.

My Five-Step System for Skinnies
I've told you why skinnies are difficult. Now I'm going to talk you through my nearly fail-safe five-step system for developing the skills you and your horse need to master them. By starting at a very low level, with an inviting, unintimidating little flowerbox set on a diagonal or in a very straightforward line?not a tricky line or on a complicated part of the course?you'll show your horse that hopping over a narrow obstacle is easier than running off to the side to avoid the effort. Once he understands that, you can systematically build from there.

Here are the five steps. (Because your track, pace, and aids are essentially the same for the welcoming first easy step as they are for the challenging final one, I'll lay out the steps in order, then follow with a detailed description of how to ride them.) Just make sure that you and your horse are completely confident going over the obstacle in one step before you move on to the next.

Step 1. Set up two 5 1/2-foot flowerboxes or (as in our photos) low walls, side by side, so you have a full-width obstacle to jump, but without standards or groundrails.

Step 2. Take away one flowerbox or little wall and center the remaining one on the track. Add flowerbox wings on either side, slightly angled, so your horse has a bit of a chute to guide him to the skinny and keep him from running past.

Step 3. Raise the height of the skinny by stacking the spare low wall or empty flowerbox on top of the one you've been jumping. Keep the flowerbox wings on either side.

Step 4. Remove the flowerbox wings altogether and you're jumping a bona fide skinny: no standards, no wings, no groundrails. Now you must focus more on track?your straightness?and pace.

Step 5. Select a regular-width fence that you've placed somewhere on course and replace it with the doubled-up skinny.

Here's How to Ride It
What's the single most important thing you can do to make sure your horse jumps a skinny successfully? Come on a slightly collected stride, so you're absolutely certain that both of you see it. The earlier you set up your track and distance, the better your chances are.

So pick up a nice collected canter. Stay a bit open in your hip angle and assume a little bit of a closer contact, so you're a little deep in the saddle and close to the tack. I'm not necessarily advocating a "defensive" position (you don't want to ride so defensively that you create a problem by being behind the motion), just one where you make sure your horse has a chance to see the jump and feel you steering him to it. (Even so, his first reaction will probably be "What'sTHAT?")

Your legs and hands have to stand in for the missing jump standards, giving your horse nowhere to go but over that narrow obstacle. Maintain a solid and secure supporting leg on both sides of him; keep a good connection, with a nice straight line from your elbow to the bit, and your hands a little wider than usual: about as far apart as the width of your bit (in most cases, about 5 inches). Now guide and close him in with your arms and hands.

Once you're pretty sure of your distance, look at the flowerbox or wall. I see kids jumping all the time holding their heads up in the air, not looking at the jump they're about to jump. Well, I stare right at a jump on the approach, and I suggest you do the same. Keep your eyes on the flowerbox or the wall until you know exactly where you are. If you lower your guard?by looking at the end of the ring or over at the next fence?before you finish the skinny that's in front of you, your horse is going to stop or run past it. Once you're in the air, you can then go ahead and raise your eye to look for a focal point at the end of the ring or the next fence.

If Your Horse Weaves ?
? or "wilts" or almost starts cantering backward, you have a quick choice to make; I call it "Plan A or Plan B."

Plan A is to still try to win, leave the skinny up, and jump it stylishly. To do that, you want a very connected, collected canter; use a bit more leg pressure and keep a bit more feel of his mouth, so he's really going forward and in your hand.

Plan B is to opt for survival. If you feel you're in jeopardy of not getting over the jump, or chipping, or leaving dangerously long, ride more defensively. Yes, you want to ride as accurately and softly as you can; but if you feel that your horse is really wilting or cowering, give him a stronger ride and take the chance that you're going to knock down the skinny?because the alternative is that you may not get over it at all. Make sure to sit deeper in the saddle, apply more leg pressure, and maybe add a cluck or a touch of the stick or spur. You may even want to add a stride in which you can give him more support and keep him a little better connected.

This article originally appeared in the November 2004 issue of Practical Horseman magazine. Read more about Andre in the June 2012 issue.

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