Master the Drop With A Bending Line to a Narrow Fence

Two-time Olympic gold medalist Phillip Dutton talks you through every step of this common—but tricky—cross-country question.
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Most cross-country courses these days ask us to take jumps off turns. A typical version of such a question, one you may encounter from Novice level on up, is a drop—where your horse has to jump down from one level to a lower one—followed by a fairly short, bending line to a narrow fence. This means you have only a few seconds after the drop to reestablish your position, focus your horse on where he’s going and make sure he keeps his energy forward through the turn.

In this article, I’ll walk you through the steps to ride such a combination successfully.

Phillip Dutton Drop to a Narrow

Who Can Do It

You want to be skilled at slipping your reins through your fingers so your horse can lower his head and neck off the drop. And then be sure you can smoothly gather them up again on landing. You also need to be able to brace yourself against the forward pull of gravity so you’re set up for a good, instantly effective position on landing. A strong lower leg is essential, as is the ability to lean back as he drops forward and down.

Also, before attempting this exercise make sure your horse knows the following:

How to take the correct lead on landing. It will make the bending line ride much smoother. School this skill by doing something as simple as riding a figure-eight at the canter over a low jump and asking your horse to land on the correct lead. Don’t panic if your horse lands off the drop on the wrong lead. He may not be quite as balanced going to the narrow fence, but it doesn’t mean he won’t clear it. Let’s face it, there’s a certain percentage of every course that isn’t going to come up ideally. Adapting to the cards you’ve been dealt is a big part of being a cross-country rider.

How to come forward through a turn. A basic and simple flat exercise for teaching this skill is to ride hundreds of turns using the time-honored “inside leg to outside rein” concept. Rather than trying to pull your horse around the turn with the inside rein—which will make him “freeze up” in his mouth, meaning he’ll fight or resist you, or bulge into his outside shoulder—you want to push him out with your inside leg to your outside rein, which will act as a wall that holds his shoulder underneath him and pushes it around so he turns in balance.

How to jump a narrow fence. Set up a fence that is 4 to 6 feet wide in your arena. If you have a green horse, you can use poles set in a “v” to help him understand the question, with one end of each pole sitting on top of the jump rail and angled out to the sides so it makes a v-shape. This will help funnel the horse to the narrow end and over the jump. As you school it, remember that an open, or longer, stride will reduce adjustability and increase the likelihood of your horse running past. Sit back, get your eye on the fence, keep a short, collected, bouncy canter and allow him to jump the fence quietly.

Tips for Success

Collect the canter coming to the drop. If you’re going too fast, your horse will feel rushed. He’ll land flat-footed—unbalanced and lacking impulsion—and get scared. Yes, he has to be brave, but raw speed won’t teach him that. A short, bouncy canter will give him confidence by providing time to read the drop, analyze the situation and make a nice, soft, easy jump and landing.

Reorganize quickly. As soon as you land, you almost have to reflexively rebalance and have your eye—and your horse’s—on the narrow fence.

Get your horse balanced and correctly bent so you can guide him smoothly through the turn. It’s never a positive situation when you land and try to pull or haul a horse around. He’ll just freeze up in his mouth and that resistance will make him lose so much power and energy coming to the jump that he could run out or stop.

Steer accurately to the fence. Most narrow jumps are inverted triangles about 3 feet wide at the top. It’s not very tall, so it won’t take a lot of power or jumping effort, but because it’s narrow and has no ground line, your horse won’t know he has to zero in on it. A big piece of your riding and communication will be to help him see it as an obstacle to be jumped. That’s the only way he’ll focus on it and start working out how to get to the other side. Again, at least part of doing that involves a short, bouncy canter stride instead of a long, aggressive one.

Setup

Set a narrow fence five strides (about 70 feet) on a left bending line from the drop. The height of the narrow fence will depend on the level of you and your horse. If you’re riding at Novice or Training level, set it to 2-foot-6. If you are riding Preliminary or above, 3-foot or 3-foot-6 will work.

How to Ride the Exercise

The Drop

1. Approach the drop at the canter, keeping your horse engaged and energetic so he has confidence-building time to analyze the picture and the job he has to do. Keep your leg at the girth and a light contact to encourage him to stay in a nice package by saying, “Keep coming forward to the drop without going faster.” Prepare yourself for the drop by staying back with your upper body and sitting a bit heavy in your seat.

2. At the edge of the drop, start slipping the reins to give your horse freedom to use his head and neck. Sit a little defensively because this is the point when a horse may suddenly say, “Oh my gosh, I can’t do this.” If you are sitting too far forward, he could wheel left or right. Instead, keep him in front of you with your position back, leg on and spur resting on his side to catch any hint of resistance.

3. Stay centered as your horse starts to jump down. If you were to lean one way or another to compensate for a slightly unbalanced jump, you would lose precious seconds recovering your position after landing. Tell him what’s coming next by looking at the middle of the top edge of the narrow fence, which also allows you to plan a bending line and keep your horse on it.

4. As your horse’s feet are about to touch down, give him as much freedom with the reins as you can while still maintaining contact. Keep your eye ahead and to the left where you need to go. Your lower leg should be quite forward at this point, ready to brace against the force of the landing.

5. As your horse’s front legs land and his head and shoulders are quite down in front of you, continue to stay back and allow him as much as rein through your hand as he needs to reach and stretch. From this position, you’ll be ready to turn and focus him on the upcoming narrow fence as soon as his hind legs touch down.

The Recovery

6. As you start the left turn to the narrow fence, your priority is to get your horse packaged into a balanced canter without having him freeze up and resist in his mouth. Make sure your horse is balanced and focused on the jump.

The Narrow Fence

7. In the last stride before the narrow fence, your horse should be straight, balanced, relaxed and confident in what he’s doing.

8. If you were successful in keeping him balanced and collected and focused on the jump, he should rock back and jump it neatly and correctly. 

About Phillip Dutton 

Six-time Olympian Phillip Dutton grew up with horses on his family’s sheep and wheat farm in New South Wales, Australia. He moved to the United States in 1991 to pursue an eventing career and to prepare for the 1996 Olympics in Atlanta, where he rode on Australia’s gold medal-winning team. In total, Dutton represented Australia in three Olympics and four World Championships, and after becoming a U.S. citizen in 2006, Dutton competed in two Pan American Games, four World Championships and three Olympics, including earning an individual bronze medal with Mighty Nice in the 2016 Olympics in Rio de Janiero. Dutton, who has won the U.S. Eventing Association Leading Rider of the Year 13 times, dedicates much of his time to coaching other riders. He and his wife, Evie, own, manage and train out of True Prospect Farm in West Grove, Pennsylvania, and Red Oak Farm in Aiken, South Carolina. 

This article originally appeared in the Summer 2020 issue.

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