Confront Sticky Situations for Cross-Country Confidence

Six-time Badminton winner Lucinda Green shares an exercise to sharpen your reactions and teach your horse to think for himself.

The last thing you should worry about riding cross country is whether you’re going to be safe to the fence if you don’t see a perfect distance. Few riders can stay perfect all the way around a course. But more than that, when your horse expects you to tell him when and how to jump every jump, he loses his initiative—and, with it, his brilliant innate ability to use his own ballet-like footwork to get out of trouble.

A safe jump has little to do with seeing a perfect distance. It has everything to do with the speed of your reactions and your ability to keep your horse in the right balance with the right engine and an awareness of where he’s going on the approach. If you provide all of that, he can focus on the job at hand and think for himself. I’ll share an exercise that helps you build these skills.

Who Can Do It

A rider of any level who is comfortable jumping small fences can do this exercise.

Set up the “V” Exercise

You can do this exercise in an arena or a field. You will need two standards, two poles and a plastic block (or similar support) used to raise cavalleti. Place two standards 8–10 feet apart. Angle the standards so the sides with the jump cups face the block that is set about 12 feet from the standards and centered between them. Rest one end of a pole on the block and put the other end in the cup. Repeat with the second pole and standard, creating a “V” shape. It doesn’t need to be big—just high enough for your horse to try, but low enough for you to do plenty of jumping without tiring him out.

What you need for this exercise: Two standards, two poles and a plastic block used to raise cavalletti or similar support.

First, you will jump the exercise riding through the standards and over the block, called the point out, which is the easier way. By trotting into the open end and out over the tip of the “V,” you’ll “hook up” your legs as sensors and steerers and your hands as guiders and get your horse going forward. Don’t worry if your horse makes a mistake. He’ll learn very, very quickly.

Once you have practiced the first exercise and your horse is comfortable jumping it, you can reverse it and jump the point in, or the block first, which is more difficult. By trotting him over the tip and into the wide end, you’ll give him a straight and focused plan of where he’s going. I’ll explain how to ride these exercises in more detail later.

Tips for Success

Remember your E-L-B-O-W. You’re teaching your horse initiative—but you still have to create three critical qualities: engine, line and balance—the ELB of “elbow”—and OW is what happens if you fail to create a forward horse.

Engine refers to getting your horse in front of your leg and ensuring he is taking you to the jump.

Line is about telling your horse where you are going and getting him to focus on it. You do this by softly closing your legs around him like Glad Wrap and channeling him into a tube between those legs and squeezing him right through that tube.

Your horse’s balance, in its simplest terms is like a seesaw. Sit over his front end and that end goes down; sit over his back end and the front end comes up. That means you have to keep your upper body back and not lurch forward at jumps. The lurch is a natural instinct—but if you’re even a little bit forward and your horse throws in a short stride, stumbles or hits a fence, you could fall off. Even if you don’t, you’ll get dislodged and you’ll disrupt his balance, and there’s no faster way to start draining away his confidence.

Keep a constant feel of your horse’s mouth. That’s an elastic feel, not a death grip. Without it, he’s like a tightrope walker without a balancing pole—ready to fall. If he drags you around, tell him “carry yourself within my elastic contact,” by giving him a half-halt. But do it instantaneously, then soften. If he pulls 10 strides later, tell him again. Eventually he’ll understand that you don’t like his pulling.

Allow your horse to figure out where to take off. This one is tough, but once you teach him to look after you over fences by presenting him fairly and squarely by taking care of the engine, line and balance, you will have few mistakes and soon enough his initiative will kick in. He’ll start looking at the fence and working out the takeoff spot on his own.

Stop straight after a course of fences. You don’t have to stop in a specific number of strides. Just make sure you pull up straight. It’s one of the best ways to teach your horse to listen and to sit down. Even if he is a little “go-ey” by nature, stopping straight will very soon instill a sense of discipline and a stronger back end, more ready to engage.

Keep your leg on. To react fast, you have to feel what’s coming and deal with it by using your leg as a sensor. It’s not a hard leg; it’s a cuddly leg. It’s not a “go faster” leg; it’s a “come here and stay straight and balanced” leg. It’s your leg softly wrapped around your horse so you’ll feel when he starts to lose his engine, bow left or drift right, and you’ll be there ready to deal with it. If he’s dull, kick him—he must be reactive. If he’s very sensitive, you will only need to squeeze him.

How to Ride the Exercise

Jump the Easier Direction

1. Pick up a posting trot and trot straight in between the standards to the very base of the block. Look up and out beyond them, and keep your legs softly Glad-Wrapped around your horse to keep him focused, coming forward into your hand and in front of you.

2. Maintain a soft, elastic contact—and in the last half-second, when he’s almost on top of the point and it’s too late for him to rush, squeeze your legs that are already around him. He should just jump straight over the middle. If you squeeze a stride or two early, he may rush; if you squeeze too late, he may drift to the side. This might not be the most comfortable jump; you might get left behind. But it should be straight.

3. Land, canter straight ahead and in your own time, pull up and halt. Then, repeat the exercise.

Troubleshooting: If your horse tries to take over and run, rise slower in your posting trot—and in the last stride, think “walk.” You won’t walk, but you should achieve a “wait.”

Jump the Harder Direction

1. Ride toward the block, point side first, at a posting trot. This is a jump where your horse may get a bit claustrophobic, so be extra sure to keep your legs Glad-Wrapped around him—softly there, sensing what’s happening, keeping him straight and ensuring he is taking you so he thinks only “forward.” Help his balance by maintaining the connection and reducing your body movement to a minimum.

2. Keep your eyes up—and again, in the last split second, when it’s too late for him to rush, squeeze your legs.

3. Canter out, pull up and halt straight.

Troubleshooting: If your horse slides sideways or runs out, do whatever you have to do—without circling—to somehow, somewhere get him over a pole, even if the jump is ugly and the rail falls down in front of you. You must not give your horse an option—ever—to run out or refuse.

After practicing this exercise, your horse will be thinking for himself about how to jump the fence and he will be very straight. You will start to realize that you can come to almost any kind of question at an angle and without a perfect distance—and that will give both you and your horse confidence.  

British Olympic silver medalist Lucinda Green MBE has had an illustrious eventing career. She won the Badminton Horse Trials a record six times—on six different horses—and won the Burghley Horse Trials twice. She won the 1982 World Championships in Luhmühlen, Germany, and three European championship team gold medals. She has also won the Tony Collins Trophy, awarded to the rider with the most British Eventing points in an eventing season, seven times and in 2008, won the outstanding contribution to equestrianism award. While she still competes, Lucinda is now also well known as a cross-country clinician worldwide, an equestrian journalist and a commentator.

This article originally appeared in the Spring 2020 issue of Practical Horseman.

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