Jim Wofford: Glorious Uncertainty

Jumping will always be a thrill.These tips from Jim keep it from being too much of a good thing.
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Jumping will always be a thrill.These tips from Jim keep it from being too much of a good thing.

I was sailing through Am. Lit. 201 in college until I bumped into William Faulkner. Thank heavens for CliffsNotes! I never really got my head into Yoknapatawpha County, but Faulkner did say one thing that stuck with me: “There is something about jumping a horse over a fence, something that makes you feel good. Perhaps it’s the risk, the gamble. In any event it’s a thing I need.”

When it comes to jumping, I totally get Faulkner. There are no feelings like the glorious uncertainty of the approach, the sensation of flight and then that wonderful realization on the other side, “I’m alive!” For a certain type of person, there is no thrill like it. The psychic payoff is due to apprehension at trying something when you are not entirely sure of the outcome, followed by the relief that you are happily on the other side of the obstacle.

Recreational drugs have never had any appeal for me. There is no reason to buy something that is illegal when I can get the same sensation from a 4-year-old who is just getting strong enough to “crack his back” over a small oxer. If I am educating my young fellow and use some gymnastics out of a book to help him take the correct shape with his body over obstacles, and then he finally gets it? That’s a party day for me. Meanwhile, I’m still experiencing the rush that always follows glorious uncertainty.

That ‘Timing’ Thing

The uncertainty is caused by not knowing what will happen when you get to a jump—naturally you are going to worry about it. Finding a stride to a jump is a process usually called “timing.” I define timing as “the ability to predict and influence the remaining increments of stride before an obstacle.”

Riders in the Beginner Novice stage never miss their stride. Because their minds are full of the white noise of apprehension, they leave the jumping process to their horse, who hopefully is an experienced “schoolie.” A good school horse has a micrometer in his eye when it comes to stride selection. Left to his own devices, that schoolie will arrive at a slightly close distance every time. At the other end of the process, I have seen experienced riders half-halt their horses 10 strides away from a 5-foot vertical, then never move until they step on the exactly correct takeoff point. Both of these stages in rider development take care of themselves, but what about the rest of us, stuck between ignorance and expertise?

As your expertise grows, your ability to predict the future improves. At some point in every rider’s progress the subconscious tells her—usually when coming off a turn—“You are going to stand off in three strides,” and three strides later, the horse takes off. The rider knows what will happen before it happens. That rider will pull up with a bemused expression while thinking, “That was so cool. I knew what was going to happen and I wasn’t so scared.” In the meantime, I am thinking “uh-oh” because that rider will now be hooked on the sensation of moving up to an obstacle on three lengthening strides like crack cocaine and she will do everything in her power to reproduce that feeling of certainty, that feeling of less apprehension.

When you see riders continually chasing their horses to stand off, you know they are looking for their apprehension “fix.” However, because those riders do not yet see their stride on a regular basis, they will usually produce more uncomfortable efforts rather than fewer, which will naturally increase their apprehension. At this stage in the educational process, riders have only a one in three chance of standing off at a fence. The other two times they will either get lucky and arrive at a nice medium distance or they will find themselves driving at a short stride.

This can be a difficult stage for riders to work through, but there are effective strategies for getting past it.

Four Ways to Find Your Stride

Whenever riders ask me about improving their timing, I have several suggestions:

  • Look at the jump.
  • Ride in a steady rhythm.
  • Jump as many different horses over fences as you possibly can.
  • Use gymnastics.

The first two answers are a lot easier to apply than the next two, but they all work. First, look at the jump. Remember my definition of timing? When you are trying to predict the remaining increments of stride to a jump, you are measuring the distance between where you are and where you will go. Scientists will tell you that you must have a fixed point of reference to measure distance. For you, that fixed point is the top of the rail as you approach it. Look at the top of the jump until it disappears between your horse’s ears, then look ahead—don’t look down as you jump. Look at the top of your verticals, the front rail of an oxer, the middle rail of a hogsback, the back rail of a triple bar and the backside of an open ditch. Looking at the jump won’t make every stride perfect, but it will tell you what’s going to happen and you can react accordingly.

Next, ride in a steady rhythm when you jump. Try this exercise: When you approach a jump, starting about 10 strides away, count out loud in rhythm with your horse’s stride. Do not count sets of numbers (for example, one–two, one–two) but rather just keep counting up until your horse takes off. The final number is merely a reflection of how many strides away you started counting. This exercise is not about the number; it’s about the rhythm. Your horse jumps to the best of his ability when he is balanced. When you hear the rhythm, you hear the balance. When you keep your horse in a good rhythm, he will stay balanced and jump better.

Once you can maintain an even rhythm approaching the jump, practice departing from the jump at the same speed by saying out loud “land” when you land after the obstacle and then counting out loud the same number of strides as you counted in the approach. Modern show-jumping courses are complex and interconnected, by which I mean that the landing over a jump is already your approach to the next obstacle. If you want your horse to approach the next obstacle with a calm and regular canter, you need to teach him to depart from your last jump in a calm and regular fashion.

Jump as many horses as possible. If you can get a job as an exercise rider for a dealer and can make the time available, by all means take the job. The author Malcolm Gladwell famously remarked that it takes 10,000 hours of practice to become adept at a particular skill. It is a safe bet that the wonderful riders that we watch jumping huge obstacles with invisible aids don’t just have 10,000 hours in the saddle—they have 10,000 hours of actual jumping practice.

Obviously, I want you to make sure that you improve your position and your aids as well as your timing, but every jump you take is stored in your subconscious, waiting until some day you start to recognize what is going to happen and can subtly help your horse get to the right spot in front of the next jump. While you are at it, worry more about how you take off rather than where you take off. Over small to medium jumps, where you take off from is not nearly as important as how you take off. My point is that until you are testing the limits of your horse’s scope, you need to worry more about his balance than which particular grain of sand he steps on.

Finally, gymnastics are a valuable tool for improving both your horse’s jumping technique and your timing. I think the desire to minimize apprehension explains why riders enjoy gymnastics so much. They can usually feel the improvement that gymnastics will produce in their horse’s jumping technique. But gymnastics (when ridden correctly) produce a very predictable response, which is comforting to riders who are still uncertain as to the outcome when approaching a jump.

There are numerous books available about gymnastics, and I have even written a couple of them myself. (Shameless plug alert: I will put a link at the end of this column to lead you to them.) Once you have a simple one-stride gymnastic set up, practice it several times. As you jump the first element, while still in the air, look at the next element in the gymnastic and tell yourself, “That’s one stride.” Later, build gymnastics with two strides between elements and repeat the process. During this exercise, your horse must learn to remain regular and balanced in his canter. When I’m teaching, eventually, I will build gymnastics with as many as six strides between elements while asking my riders to verbalize the remaining number of strides to the next element, counting as in the earlier exercise I gave you.

I try hard to teach both you and your horse to maintain a steady rhythm during the gymnastic exercises. Developing your timing takes quite a while at the best of times, but it becomes impossible if your horse speeds up, slows down or takes irregular strides in the approach. To recognize the remaining increments of stride, the preceding increments must all have been the same length.

I hope your next jumping experience is even more enjoyable because of these exercises, but I also hope you will always have a little glorious uncertainty in the approach. If we knew what would happen, we would get bored and take up a different sport.

You can purchase Jim Wofford’s book, Training the Three-Day Event Horse and Rider, at www.EquineNetworkStore.com. Use the code PRAC15 to receive 15 percent off your order.

This article was originally published in the October 2017 issue of Practical Horseman.