Read Part 1 in this series.
Last month, I explained the basic steps for teaching yourself to jump one- and two-stride combinations, or in-and-outs, and introducing the concept safely and successfully to a green horse. This month, I will discuss the skills for riding some of the trickier variations you might encounter at the higher levels.
The first rule to keep in mind, no matter what the configuration of the in-and-out you face: You have to jump A before you can jump B. This sounds obvious, but it’s a very common mistake to canter down to a double so focused on what you’re going to do after you jump in that you forget to focus on the first element. In fact, how well you ride the approach to A not only determines how well your horse clears it, it also sets you up for getting the right distance to B. If you arrive at A straight, in balance and in the correct canter (more on that later), you’ll have the best chance of arriving at B in the same correct balance.
As I mentioned last month, all in-and-outs demand respect. This means trying to get your horse’s eye on the first element as early as possible. However your track takes you to it—off of a tight turn or in a related distance from the previous fence—get him straight to the in jump as soon as you can. Then be careful not to distract him with lots of aids or moving around in the saddle while he’s trying to understand the question in front of him.
This brings me to another essential rule: Don’t overthink the approach. It’s human nature to question and worry and overanalyze. If you approach the in-and-out thinking, “Can my horse do it?” or “Am I going to see the perfect distance?” he is going to lose confidence in you. If you change your mind about the distance to the takeoff two or three times, you’ll subconsciously take your leg off and ride under the rhythm—the worst way to approach an in-and-out. Horses take comfort in being told what to do in a clear, simple, positive manner. So, instead of dwelling on the “what ifs” or giving up and saying to your horse, “Oh, you decide,” make a plan and stick to it. An imperfect ride that is confident, simple and forward is always better than an uncertain, indecisive ride.
Here’s a typical example: Many riders worry about oxer-to-vertical doubles because horses tend to land a little closer to the back rail of the oxer, which means they have more ground to make up to get to the vertical than they would have to cover if it were a vertical-to-vertical in-and-out. This influences the way the combination rides, sometimes requiring a little extra power to clear the out jump—but not usually to the degree that many riders envision. To avoid overthinking, pretend that the oxer is a vertical as you ride up to it. Instead of worrying about finding the perfect distance, keep your approach simple and positive. Conveying this confidence to your horse is the best way to ensure a successful outcome—in every situation.
Short and Long Two-Stride Variations
A very common skill that course designers test for at the upper levels is the ability to adjust to longer and shorter distances in doubles. Practicing both variations at home not only will prepare you for facing these questions in the show ring, it also will give you tools for salvaging a ride when things go wrong (for example, when your horse arrives at an in-and-out a little too quietly and needs help moving up to get safely over the out jump).
The adrenaline of competition tends to make it easier for horses (and riders) to lengthen for long distances than to shorten for tight ones. Just as it’s usually easier to ride a long line—just keep on coming!—than to negotiate a short one, tight in-and-outs tend to be trickier questions than long ones, particularly at the higher levels. (The bigger the fences are, the tighter the distances ride.) Short doubles require much more rideability, control and focus to jump accurately. So concentrate the majority of your practice at home on shorter distances.
As you play with the following exercises, make your horse’s confidence your top priority. Always use ground lines and avoid the temptation of making the jumps too high or wide or the distances extremely long or short.
Start with a Normal-Strided In-and-Out
Setup: Build two verticals, 36 feet apart, with generous ground lines—rolled out 18 inches to 2 feet from the fences. The goal of the first part of this exercise is to have it ride as a comfortable two-stride in-and-out. As I mentioned last month, adjust the distances of these exercises according to your horse’s stride length and the nature of your arena.
Approach the double in a regular 12-foot-stride canter. Ride in a forward position, with your shoulders slightly in front of the vertical and your seat making light contact with the saddle. Develop the canter you want well before you begin the approach to the first fence—at least four to six strides out. Focus your eye on the center of the top rail of the in jump to judge your distance to it. As you get close to takeoff, raise your eyes to a new focal point in the distance. Don’t worry about the distance to the out jump until you land inside the in-and-out.
In between the fences, stay in balance, with your seat gently connected to the saddle, following the motion of your horse’s canter. Maintain a steady connection with his mouth by holding a soft feel on your reins. Focus your eyes on the center of the top rail of the out jump, keeping your horse straight and in front of your leg all the way to the takeoff. When he lands from that, ask him to canter away on a straight line. Repeat this until the distance feels comfortable.
A Normal-Strided In-and-Out
Next, shorten the distance 2 feet to 34 feet. Never go shorter than about 33 feet in a two-stride double, which could confuse your horse, making him think you might want him to do the distance in only one stride. Now ask your horse for a more collected canter in the approach, thinking slower, shorter (10-foot) strides. Bring your upper body slightly taller than you did in the approach to the normal distance. Ride your horse from back to front, always maintaining the sense of him going forward in front of your leg, building RPMs in his engine, even in this collected canter. (Never pull your horse into collection. This will make his engine fall behind you.)
When he lands over the first jump, bring your shoulders ever so slightly back. Be still in your body to allow your horse to shorten his stride. Think of letting the out jump come to you.
If he jumps in with too much power, take a soft feel of his mouth on landing, asking him to shorten. Always think of your hands as secondary aids, using them in conjunction with your legs and seat.
A Shorter Distance Between Fences
Next, adjust the distance to 38 feet. Never go longer than about 39 feet in a two-stride double. Again, this could confuse your horse, making him think you may be asking for three strides. Prepare for this longer variation by building your horse up to a 14-foot stride. Approach the in-and-out in this forward canter. Ride with the same forward upper-body angle and light seat connection you had for the normal striding, this time adding more leg aid to ask for the bigger stride. When he lands over A, gently connect your seat to the saddle and close your legs, encouraging him to take a bigger step with each stride. Stay with this motion with your upper body balanced over your feet. Resist the temptation, though, to tip your shoulders even more forward. It’s common for riders to lean too far forward in an attempt to lengthen their horse’s strides. Staying in balance and pushing with your legs and seat is much more effective.
Once you’ve ridden all three variations of this exercise several times over a number of sessions, you’ll begin to recognize which canter suits which distance best. Use this knowledge in the show ring, planning ahead to arrive at each double, normal, short or long, with the corresponding stride length. Instead of solely focusing on trying to see your distance to the combination, tell yourself to ride the ride you know is right.
When things go wrong, you may need to slightly exaggerate the skills you developed in this exercise. For example, if your horse comes in too fast to a tight one-stride in-and-out, by keeping a soft feel of his mouth in the air, gently “dragging the brakes,” you can help him land with a shorter stride. If you really get in trouble, you may have to take a strong feel in the air and even sit against the motion to salvage the situation. Knowing how much strength to use without interfering with your horse’s technique in the air takes years of experience, but you’ll get there.
A Longer Distance
“Melting” or “Stretching”
As your in-and-out skills progress, you’ll discover the wonderfully subtle method of “melting” over the in element to make more room in a tight combination. This is when you’re able to influence the shape of your horse’s bascule, or arc, over the jump. You use a more upright body and soft reins while still maintaining a gentle connection to ask him to “melt” or curl his body over the in jump in a more up-and-down fashion. This way, he takes off from a little closer to the base of the fence, jumping more vertically and landing a little closer on the other side—rather than taking a soaring leap that lands him too far into the combination and makes the distance ride even tighter.
To do this, you also need to aim for a deeper distance to the in jump to help create the more vertical bascule. This takes emotional and physical discipline. As you stretch up tall in the approach, remind yourself to pass up the simple, carefree spot you would have chosen for a normal distance and instead wait for the collected, deeper spot.
This skill takes practice to perfect. If you overdo the “melting” by being too soft in the takeoff, your horse might feel abandoned and either hesitate off the ground or stop.
To shape his bascule in the opposite way—creating a longer, flatter arc so he lands farther into a longer combination—maintain contact with your leg in the approach and choose the first simple takeoff spot that presents itself (instead of waiting for a more collected spot, as you would with a shorter distance). As he leaves the ground, apply extra leg pressure to encourage him to stretch more over the fence. In the air, keep your leg on and your hands soft on the reins, asking him to land farther past the jump.
This is also tricky. If you squeeze too abruptly or too hard, you might cause your horse to push through the jump.
These are just a few ways to refine your skills over doubles. Playing with different types of A and B elements, gradually shortening your approaches and adding more challenging fences and tracks before and after the combinations will round out your repertoire and prepare you for the show ring. Always keep in mind the basic rules I shared with you last month: Don’t try to jump the whole combination at A and don’t overthink it. Most importantly, do everything you can to maximize your and your horse’s confidence.
“Melting” Over the In Jump
For this sequence, we built a very tight one-stride in-and-out of two taller verticals spaced 22 feet apart. This is a very challenging question that requires carefully developed technique and understanding. Be sure to work your way very gradually to shorter distances like this so your skills and your horse’s rideability and balance progress appropriately with the difficulty level.
Grand-prix jumper Peter Leone, of Greenwich, Connecticut, has represented the U.S. Equestrian Team at numerous competitions, including the 1982 World Championships, in which his team finished fourth, and the 1996 Olympics, in which he earned the team silver medal. He polished his riding skills under the tutelage of such greats as Bertalan de Némethy, Frank Chapot, George Morris and Michael Matz.
This article originally appeared in the November 2014 issue of Practical Horseman.