There’s a reason why coffins were given such an ominous name. They’re scary—to both horses and riders! Successfully navigating the three elements of a coffin—an obstacle followed closely by a ditch and then another obstacle—is a test of bravery and rideability. That’s partly because of the optical illusion it poses. As you and your horse approach a coffin, the A element blocks your view of the ditch (the B element). Depending on the terrain and distance between the elements, the ditch doesn’t come into your horse’s view until the last minute. This can surprise him and take his attention off the task at hand: safely jumping A. Run-outs, refusals, awkward jumps and falls at A often result.
Even if you manage to get over A safely, your horse’s disrupted rhythm, balance and/or line make it that much harder to jump the ditch successfully. That’s why most jumping faults occur at either A or B. The odd run-out or stop might occur at C as a consequence of these rhythm, balance and line disruptions or an organization problem (like a dropped rein, for example, resulting from a horse overjumping), but they’re not as common.
At the lower levels, appropriate questions on well-designed courses involve only half coffins—a ditch either followed by or preceded by a single, inviting obstacle, like a log, multiple strides away, so there’s more time to think and reorganize between elements—set on flat ground. As you move up the levels, the ditches widen, the terrain becomes steeper, the distances shorten to one-strides or even bounces, the straight lines are sometimes replaced with bending lines, and the obstacle types vary widely. The A and C elements can be anything from brush jumps to skinnies to corners.
Whatever your level, developing the following skills will help you jump coffins successfully:
• Teach your horse to be adjustable. This will make it easier to organize him properly in the approach. In the ring, place two jump poles about seven strides apart. Ride over the poles at a regular canter first, counting the seven strides between them. Then lengthen your horse’s stride to ride over the poles in five or six strides. Next, shorten his stride to canter over them in eight or nine strides. Keep playing with exercises like this to gradually improve his adjustability.
• Begin to develop a coffin canter. This is one of the biggest holes I see in cross-country riding. Approaching technical questions like coffins requires a slower, more controlled and compressed canter, also known as a coffin canter. To achieve this, you must get your horse forward and responsive to your leg aids without using speed or momentum. Because of the surprise aspect of coffins, merely galloping faster to them won’t guarantee good results. In fact, the faster your approach, the more likely your horse is to spook at the ditch, hit A or have trouble with the distances between the elements.
In the approach to every coffin, you must produce a clear speed and balance change. Slowing your horse down while also compressing his stride and revving his engine will give him both time to recognize the question and power to jump the elements safely. To help accomplish this, you must ask him to raise his poll and shift more of his weight onto his hind legs, thus creating a more uphill balance.
What degree of collection and uphill balance you need depends on your level. At the lower levels, you need only a slightly more collected and organized canter. At the five-star level, you need significantly more compression, shifting enough power to the hind legs to enable your horse to negotiate the more difficult obstacles and terrain.
Developing a coffin canter occurs in several stages. To begin, practice trotting small jumps in the ring. This will teach your horse to jump without relying on momentum. Then progress to the sequence of exercises in this article.
• Improve your horse’s footwork. Cantering the exact designated number of strides between coffin elements is not as important as maintaining your line and balance. The best event horses find clever ways to rearrange their legs as necessary to take off and land safely, even when the striding doesn’t work out perfectly.
Some horses are naturally better at this than others. The more things you can do at home to teach your horse to think on his feet, the better he’ll be able to negotiate tricky questions like coffins. Practice plenty of gymnastics. I use lots of small cavalletti and crossrails, especially during the off-season. For example, I sometimes build up to as many as six bounces in a row (starting with just one or two with greener horses).
These exercises will benefit you as much as your horse. Learning to ride instinctively and balance your weight over his center of gravity as he jumps through a gymnastic is an excellent skill for riding coffins. Instead of pushing him to canter the correct number of strides between the three elements—which can cause you to lose your line and have a runout—you’ll be more effective staying out of his way and letting him figure out where to put his feet.
• School ditches frequently—to familiarize your horse with the concept and to get an idea of how he’s likely to behave in competition. Some horses are naturally more comfortable jumping ditches than others—but, with repeated exposure, all horses can learn to jump them confidently.
A perfect example is MB MaiStein, with whom I won the 2018 U.S. Eventing Association Young Event Horse East Coast 5-year-old Championships. Initially, he overjumped ditches dramatically, landing on his hind legs first and then snorting and running sideways. He was unbroken when I got him, so I know he never had a bad ditch experience. He was just naturally very “ditchy.” I schooled him over ditches every day leading up to the championships—even after flat sessions when I was in a dressage saddle. (For tips on riding ditches, see “Ditch Your Ditch Troubles,” by Kyle Carter).
Even at the upper levels, it’s important to refresh your horse’s familiarity with ditches frequently. If you don’t have easy access to a schooling ditch, it’s worth building a simple one, even if it’s just a shallow hole dug out behind a log on the ground. (Consult with a local course designer about how to build safe, inviting ditches.) Start with one that is small enough for your horse to step over from the walk. Then gradually work up to larger ditches. No need to practice the maximum-sized ditch for your level—or to add any terrain. The goal is not just to get to the other side of the ditch. It’s to teach your horse that he can jump ditches calmly, without over-jumping or losing his line. Especially avoid using speed to try to “hide” a ditch issue.
Some horses are easier to stay with over ditches than others. I highly recommend grabbing mane or using a neck, or grab, strap (a strap or stirrup leather looped around your horse’s neck so you can grab it with one hand over the ditch). This is the best way to ensure that you don’t lose your balance in the air and accidentally pull on the reins.
Practicing ditches frequently will reduce the unpredictability that makes riders so anxious about coffins. It’s much easier to tackle a coffin on course if you haven’t spent the previous hours worrying, “What will he do when he sees the ditch?”
When the exercises in this article are going well, gradually increase the difficulty of the full coffin by reducing the strides between the elements to one or two strides each (24 or 36 feet, respectively). Depending on how experienced you and your horse are, it might take many sessions to progress through these steps. Take your time, ask him to do only as much as he seems comfortable doing and reward him every time he gets it right.
See also: Eventer Tamie Smith: The Real Deal
About Tamie Smith
Tamra (Tamie) Smith has won multiple U.S. Eventing Association Young Event Horse Championships and American Eventing Championships. In 2015, she and Mai Baum won both the U.S. Equestrian Federation CCI*** National Championships and the USEA Horse of the Year title. Three years later, Tamie won the Adequan USEA Gold Cup Advanced Final with Mai Baum and the Rebecca Farm CIC*** (for the third year in a row) with Fleeceworks Royal. She represented the U.S. on two Nations Cup teams and the 2019 Pan American Games gold-medal-winning team. Also a successful upper-level dressage and show-jumping competitor, Tamie is a USEA Instructors’ Certification Program Level 4 certified instructor. She is based at Kingsway Farm in Temecula, California.