I had an interesting conversation the other day while I was walking a Novice cross-country course. It went like this:
Other Guy: "Hey, how are you?"
JW: "I heard you mention a 'rebalancing zone' back before that last cross-country fence. What's a rebalancing zone?"
OG: "Oh, that's a zone about 10 to 15 strides before the cross-country fence where the rider should sit down and rebalance her horse."
JW: "Uh, OK. What goes on in the zone?"
OG: "The rider should sit down, bring her shoulders back, close her legs, half-halt, look for her stride, then, when she sees her stride, ride forward to the base of the fence while she holds her horse to a deep spot. When she lands after the fence, she should immediately stand up into her galloping position, re-establish the bridge in her reins, put her weight forward onto her bridge and cruise on to the next fence."
JW: "Whoa, seems like a lot going on. Do you have your riders do this all the time, even at Novice level?"
OG: "Oh, yes, they have to rebalance their horses before the jumps, in order to be safe. There is a lot of emphasis on safety these days, you know."
JW: "I'd heard that."
OG: "So they have to slow down to be safe."
JW: "I got it. Let me ask you something."
JW: "Do you have your riders do this in front of every jump?"
OG: "Of course."
OG: "So they are rebalanced after galloping."
JW: "I take it that you think that speed and loss of balance are the same thing."
OG: "Oh, gosh, yes. Don't you teach your students to rebalance when they get to the balancing zone?"
JW: "Not exactly. I want them to learn to gallop in balance. That way, they don't have to rebalance their horses every time. They just have to select the correct speed of approach. When you are in balance, you will be in rhythm, and when you are rhythmical, your horse will jump well.
"I don't think horses should be allowed to gallop out of balance between fences, so I teach them self-carriage between fences. Then I don't wear out their mouths by tugging on them every time I point the horses at the jumps.
"If I have a Novice rider, it doesn't do me any good to talk to her about timing, because she doesn't have enough experience to see her stride yet. Later on, if I have an experienced rider, I still do not want her to see her stride during the training and development of her horse, because horses have to be allowed to make mistakes, so that they can learn from their mistakes.
"Basically, I disapprove of a 'rebalancing zone' because that implies that it is OK to be unbalanced. For me, the rebalancing zone is wherever my horse even thinks about getting out of balance. My horses jump well when they stay in balance, and I want them to jump well all the time, so I put my training emphasis on their balance, not on their stride."
OG: "Uh, great to talk to you, Jim."
JW: "You, too."
Obviously, this conversation combines several discussions I have had over the last month or so. But I can tell you I did not have to go far to find this much misinformation.
Speed and Balance
The first thing we have to notice about this conversation is that many people equate increased speed with loss of balance. John Lyons says, "Horsemen have opinions, horses have answers." And the answer from horses to this often-repeated opinion is that speed and loss of balance are not synonymous... or if they are related, they are second cousins once removed.
How do horses give us the answer? They do it. By this I mean that if we watch horses jump at high rates of speed, we will see that most of them are well-balanced and jump impressively, even though the pace is quite rapid. You don't have to take my word for this. Go to a website that carries video and look up "English Grand National" or "Maryland Hunt Cup." You will see for yourself that horses can go twice as fast as we go, over bigger jumps, and still jump really, really well. I do not mean to say that we can go at a racing pace over an eventing course. Modern eventing courses require us to slow down and speed up, and we have to become good judges of the correct speed of approach for each type of obstacle.
This is not the first time I have mentioned watching steeplechase horses in my columns. I don't want you to think I spend all my time watching racehorses. I watch racehorses and jockeys for the same reason I just went back and watched Reiner Klimke and Ahlerich win the Grand Prix dressage at the 1984 Los Angeles Olympics. I watch people who are better than I am ride in each of my disciplines to improve myself and my students. You can bet I will be watching Beezie Madden make that turn in the jumpoff to win the bronze medal at the 2008 Olympics. (George Morris said, "Beezie and Authentic stole that medal from Meredith Michaels-Beerbaum and Shutterfly like a thief in the night.") There is always something to be learned from watching people who are excellent horsemen, something that can keep us from going wrong.
I think people go wrong about jumping at speed when they attempt to gallop at a faster pace and have a few bad fences. Rather than thinking, "Wow, my horse isn't ready to jump well at this pace yet," they conclude that speed always causes bad jumping. BUT like any other skill, jumping at higher rates of speed is a skill that your horse must learn.
The implications of this are obvious: You should teach your horse this skill the same way you teach him any other. Introduce it gradually, and increase the requirements systematically and progressively. In the real world, this means you should not try to make the optimum time the first time you move up to a new level, with its correspondingly higher required optimum speed. (If you don't think this happens on a regular basis, you are not watching the same events I am watching.)
Practice Riding at Speed
To get better at galloping faster over cross-country fences in balance, there are a couple of things you have to do first: Learn a good galloping position, and know how fast you are going. As for developing a sense of pace at higher rates of speed, it is simple--so of course, people don't do it.
Borrow a meter wheel, if you do not have one of your own, and measure a "speed trap" on good footing in your conditioning area. If you are planning on moving up to Training level at your next event, set speed traps for 350, 400 and 450 meters per minute (mpm). Put a marker down at an obvious starting point for the 350-meter speed trap and another marker at the end of 350 meters. Put additional end-markers at 400 and 450 meters, so that you have a range of distances and speeds for practice. (Don't put any fences in your speed trap... that will come next.) Canter past the first point, start your watch and maintain the most consistent pace you can until you reach the end of the 350 meters. Make sure to stop your watch as you pass the end marker. If you have measured off 350 meters, it should take you exactly one minute to go through the speed trap if you are really going 350 mpm.
Once you have done this, practice cantering through the other speed traps at the measured speed for each one of them. You will need to increase your speed to cover 400 meters in one minute. Obviously, you will need to canter even faster, or gallop, to complete 450 meters in one minute. With a little practice, you will become accurate at setting the pace you want--and keeping your horse in self-carriage--while you canter back and forth through these exercises.
To avoid boredom, vary the order in which you go through these exercises so that your horse learns to listen to you for the desired speed and doesn't always expect to go from 350 to 400 to 450 mpm. (That sort of repetitive sequence will cause most horses to expect to keep going faster, rather than allowing you to set the pace.) Once you are confident of your ability to select the speed you want, let your friend hold your stopwatch. Go through the exercises and depend on your feel, not your watch. After each speed trap, check with your friend to make sure your sense of pace has not deserted you. If you can't do this accurately, keep practicing until you can. It is an essential skill. While you are doing these speed drills, you can also practice your timing without jumping, as I discussed in my September 2008 column.
I want you to be equally proficient with your sense of pace and with maintaining your horse's self-carriage. You will need both skills when you are on course. Once you feel confident with your new skills, you can add jumps to your speed traps. Remember to start JUMPING at the lower speeds first, then work up to the next level. It is absolutely necessary that you are able to maintain the same consistent speed in the approach to the fence as you were able to maintain when the fence was not present. The rule of thumb I use to determine whether you had a good jump is: Were you able to approach, take off, jump, land and depart... all at the same speed? The reason for this criterion is that you will be able to maintain this consistency only if you and your horse are balanced. If you are balanced, most of your jumping efforts are going to be good. In addition, good jumping is safe jumping, and that is a big part of your responsibility as a rider these days.
Reprinted from the February 2009 issue of Practical Horseman.