Bruce Davidson and Might Tango
In coaching the American riders for international competition, I tell them to think of a cross-country fence as the horse first sees it. The rider brings his horse to it in the best possible frame to jump, but five or six strides out, the horse sees it for the first time. He realizes it’s a spread, a straight up and down, a ditch, a drop or a water jump. He must make judgments of his own to jump the fence safely. And the rider, in his plan, tries to anticipate what his horse’s reaction is likely to be.
The Park Pavilion (Fences 3 and 4) came early on the course before the horses had time to get going. It was a fence that deserved respect. The shortest route between the two 3-foot-11 elements was straight across the middle panels, but there were 4-foot-deep benches on the inside. The horse wouldn’t even see the first one until he was in the air, then he would have to reach to clear it. He’d land too far in to manage two strides, and he’d have to get out in one. You’d ride through very aggressively, but if you didn’t make it—oh boy—no room for adjustment. It had to be beautiful or it was a disaster.
Most people took one of the diagonal routes. The choice was a matter of feel. Without the benches you could have fit in two short strides.
My advice was to approach in a strong show-jumping style, holding the horse together and not letting him dither around. Because you were jumping from light to dark, the crowds were distracting and the fences were big verticals without ground lines, you had to ride strongly and positively.
With a vertical fence, you’re better off jumping a little close than meeting it long and having your horse try to squeeze in an extra stride at the last minute. In Frame 1 (page 47), Bruce knows he isn’t quite right in the approach and he takes back, but the horse is in a gag bit and reacts too strongly to the check. Bruce smooths things and, by Frame 3, the horse is in a very good attitude to jump. He sees the fence, his ears are pricked and he’s at the right spot to take off.
This horse is inexperienced. You can see him looking at the fence a little hesitantly in Frames 2 and 3, saying, “What is going on around here?” He jumps but, in Frame 5, he drops a leg. Still he’s quite an acrobat for such a big horse. The second leg catches up in Frame 7. Because he’s so close to the fence, he has to twist his quarters to the left, but if you look at his front end in Frame 8 you can see it’s perfectly straight. All Bruce can do at this stage is keep his leg on, keep the momentum.
In Frame 8, Bruce looks at the next fence and realizes that, because of the way he jumped the first, losing so much momentum, he’s not going to make it in two strides. The only way to get out is in three. So, as the horse lands, he doesn’t push him out. He uses the first stride to reorganize. He checks him in Frames 11, 12 and 13, manages the three and makes a good jump out.
Jimmy Wofford and Carawich
The Head of the Lake (Fence 7 AB), a combination of Normandy bank and landing in water, was an unusual and very difficult technical problem. You had to ride with enough aggressiveness that after jumping a 4-foot-11 spread over water up onto the bank, you had the momentum to clear the 2-foot-8 birch rails at the top. On the other hand, if you came through full speed and flew the fence, your momentum might turn you over in the water, a drop of 5 feet, 11 inches.
If your horse was really aggressive, you knew he’d pull himself right through, but you had to guard against too much speed. If your horse was the kind who likes to slow down and look, you had to ride him strongly or he’d either stop at the fence on top or jump from such a short stride that he’d land vertically and peck in the water.
Therefore, the approach to this fence had to be ridden in a very precise bracket: aggressively but not too aggressively.
Once onto the bank there wasn’t much the rider could do but try to preserve the horse’s balance and maintain momentum. The distance was a bit short for a stride and a bit long for a bounce, considering the landing in water. You had to leave it to the horse. I saw some horses mess around, putting one leg here, one leg there, but as long as the momentum was right, they managed to roll safely over the fence.
Jimmy’s approach (above) looks perfect. The horse is balanced, and Jimmy is where he should be, close to his saddle but going with the horse, all the while keeping him together.
The jump up onto the bank is good, and Jimmy lengthens the reins in Frame 3 so he can sit back over the fence without interfering with the horse’s mouth. He hasn’t thrown the reins away altogether, although he can still slow the horse if he has to.
The horse makes it a bounce and takes off. It’s not a cheap jump. He’s going up quite powerfully. Usually green horses jump in the air. Most experienced horses, when they see water, want to touch the ground quickly. They slide their stifles over the fence so that their hind legs will be there when they land. But this horse is really jumping.
If I were going to criticize, I would say that the horse is going into the air a little too much. In Frames 5 and 6, he’s a little high with his head and neck. But it all happens so fast, there is nothing Jimmy can do but maintain his contact and follow the horse’s movement.
As the horse comes down into the water, Jimmy begins to take precautions seat-wise. You can see why he lengthened his reins before the takeoff. In Frame 9, he has a good feel of the horse’s mouth but he isn’t interfering with the landing. If the horse were jumping loose, his position would probably be the same.
What you try to do over these drop jumps is keep a leg on each side, not lose your stirrups or your balance and stay as close to your horse as you can. It’s a long way down and a shock on landing. By sitting back, Jimmy takes weight off his horse’s front legs, and he’s in a better position to help at the landing if his horse stumbles.
In Frame 10, the water looks deeper than it is because the horse’s pasterns, as he lands, are almost to the ground.
You have to be quite supple in your lower back to absorb the impact. If you look up, you get kicked in the bottom. Jimmy’s position is just right. The horse is free to organize himself, and everything is perfectly fine.
But on a fence like this, it’s always the next stride you have to worry about. That’s when the falls take place. As you come down into the saddle, the horse nearly stops, then gathers himself for a big stride, almost another jump. When he pushes off, he catches you in your seat and throws you forward. That’s what’s happening in Frame 11.
In leaving the water, your speed depends on its depth. Jimmy trots out. In deep water, you have to do a very slow trot or your horse is going to lose his balance. Water splashes all over and the horse can’t see what’s in front of him. But if the water is shallower, you can afford to move a little faster.
Michael Plumb and Laurenson
The Kennels (Fence 11ABC) was a difficult fence, a double bounce (page 50). But the option, a single bounce and a one stride, was even harder. You had to tear the horse’s head off to make the turn. You had to jump in just right so you didn’t land too close to the next element, yet with enough balance and momentum to spring right out again.
Your horse had to be quick because, from five or six strides away, he couldn’t see what was in there. It looked like a pile of wood. If he thought, it’s an oxer, especially if you had a lot of horse at this stage, you could have ended up landing too close to the second element.
This fence (photos left) followed the Giant’s Table, a big oxer, which might have left the horses a little strung out. Laurenson was running strong. Eight or 10 strides out, Mike took him back and set him up a bit. You wanted to approach a bounce at not much more than show-jumping speed with the horse compacted between your legs and reins. In other words, you wanted all his springs bent and ready to bounce.
Mike’s performance is technically very good. He lands exactly halfway between each pair of elements. In Frame 1, I’d like to see the horse with his head a hair lower, looking down at the fence, but the takeoff is almost perfect. The horse comes right in underneath the fence, takes off with his ears pricked and Mike is right with him.
Mike keeps him balanced very well in the landing, which is all he can do. At this point, it’s a horse problem, not a rider problem. You just squeeze with your legs and keep contact so you erase any doubt your horse might have about leaving the ground. He has to feel you’re with him. If you land and just relax, the spring uncoils.
This article appeared in the July 2013 issue of Practical Horseman.
This article originally appeared in the December 1978 issue of Practical Horseman.