Melanie Smith Taylor: Schooling Over Fences

This Olympic gold medalist shares her system to help your horse move in balance before and after a fence and jump in correct form.

Though many know Melanie Smith Taylor as the winner of the 1982 World Cup Final and a show-jumping team gold medalist at the 1984 Los Angeles Olympics, she also is an advocate for horsemanship that “encompasses every aspect in the relationship between horse and human.” She believes in ground work exercises as “the best way to learn and develop your horsemanship skills while laying a solid foundation for all future interactions with your horse.” She studied this training perspective under renowned horsemen Ray Hunt and Buck Brannaman at her and her late husband Lee’s Wildwood Farm in Germantown, Tennessee, where they primarily bred and raised Thoroughbreds for polo.

In her new book, Riding with Life: Lessons from the Horse, Melanie encourages riders, no matter their level or discipline, to forge true partnerships with their horses. The book starts with her personal story, then focuses on the horse’s physiology and natural instincts and the basics of good horsemanship. Next comes ground work and mounted work. She finishes by explaining how to apply good horsemanship to jumping.

In this excerpt adapted from Chapter 12, Schooling Over Fences, Melanie shares two exercises to help horses jump in correct form, move in balance before and after a fence and remain calm and relaxed.

Figure 1: Relaxation circles. Position a jump end to end with a raised rail opposite three raised rails set 8 feet apart on a curve. To keep your horse with you, alternate trotting the rails and cantering the jump or single rail with cantering the rails and trotting the jump or single rail.
If you use a straight rail, make it a slant rail by raising the cup on the inside standard to encourage the horse to lift his inside leg slightly higher and land on the inside lead.

Circling to Stay Relaxed
Riding circles has three major benefits. First, for a horse who wants to rush, this exercise will help him relax by continuously turning him and keeping his eyes off the destination. On a straight line he is more apt to anticipate and not stay with you mentally.

Second, you will keep him from anticipating the jump by alternating it with raised rails on the circle. And third, practicing this maneuver in both directions will help him become ambidextrous. Horses must be able to jump off both leads and land on either one. 

Exercise: Relaxation Circles

Position a jump (a crossrail or low vertical) end to end with a single raised rail opposite three raised rails set 8 feet apart on a curve (Figure 1, at left). The three rails are 7 feet apart on the inside and 9 feet on the outside, giving you striding choices depending on your approach to them. You can drift to the inside track to shorten the steps (or step) between the rails or to the outside to lengthen and then return to the center track. Place pairs of cones around the circle to help you maintain a constant diameter.

Begin by trotting the three raised rails (two steps in between) and trotting or cantering the opposite raised rail on the inside. Then alternate the single rail with the jump. It always helps to offer simpler options in between more difficult ones. When you’re ready, canter the entire exercise, bouncing the three rails. Because the horse’s body is shaped to the circle, he is more likely to naturally land on the correct lead after the rails and the jump. 

To keep your horse waiting for you, alternate trotting the rails and cantering the fence or single rail with cantering the rails and trotting the fence or single rail. He will experience many balancing transitions while you develop your eye and relax your arms to feel the stride. As he relaxes, you will begin to find a consistent rhythm.

If you use a straight rail instead of a crossrail, turn it into a slant rail by raising the cup on the inside standard (see photo, at left). This will encourage the horse to lift his inside leg slightly higher and land on the inside lead, while discouraging him from drifting and dropping his shoulder to the inside—a good example of setting the horse up to succeed.

Transitions in Gymnastics

In the jumping world, a gymnastic is a pattern of jumps designed to improve a horse’s accuracy off the ground, encourage cleverness between obstacles and establish a better jumping style. Consisting of several fences in a row, a gymnastic often has additional ground or raised rails strategically placed before, between or after the series. You can ride the pattern as needed to isolate faults in your horse’s form or exactness at takeoff, in the air or at the landing and achieve the desired adjustments. A well-planned configuration is much more beneficial than a slew of fences scattered about.

For optimal results, I incorporate transitions between gaits as part of my gymnastic scheme. Practicing transitions can never be overdone because they help balance your horse and give his stride adjustability. In the following exercises, you will ask for numerous transitions and adjustments to enhance your horse’s balance and athleticism in front of, over and after each rail or jump. Lengthening and shortening strides in this fashion prepares him exponentially for more advanced work. He will also be more prone to stay with you mentally, feeling back to you and waiting for your direction when he lands.

Exercise: Hourglass

As explained, alternating circle exercises with straight and bending-line work will keep your horse light, adjustable and balanced. This gymnastic is a good option to perform after the previous relaxation circles. Here, you will position raised rails both before and after a series of jumps in an hourglass pattern. It is more practical to set up a gymnastic so you can jump it in both directions. The poles should sit four to five strides out from the jumps, angled left and right as well as straight ahead so you can vary your path following the gymnastic (Figure 2, at left).

The hourglass offers plenty of flexibility—you’re limited only by your imagination. For example, make the jumps a 10- to 12-foot bounce one day and an 18- to 21-foot one stride another—or use a combination of the two with three jumps. For the raised rails, place three of them 3 to 4 feet apart on a straight line before and after the jumps. A series of closely placed rails requires the horse to think about the placement of his feet and encourages the trot transition. A braced horse is more apt to ignore you and continue at the canter over a single rail. 

Then place two elevated rails 7 to 8 feet apart on each of the left and right angles before and after the jumps to allow the horse to trot or canter over them. Set the height of the rails at 6 or 12 inches. You can approach both heights at the trot or canter, but the 6-inch rails give you the option of trotting over both rails or jumping in and bouncing out at the canter. Your horse should bounce the 12-inch rails from either the trot or canter approach. 

Begin trotting to any set of raised rails, transition down or continue at the trot or canter to the jumps, then transition back to the trot upon landing or continue at a soft canter. After the jumps, you can go straight and then turn left or right to return to the gymnastic on a bending line or you can bend and then return on a straight line. Constantly changing the gait and pattern will keep your horse soft, supple and tuned in to you—he must not only follow a feel but also focus on the line you choose and place his feet correctly over the raised rails before and after the jumps (see photos page 54). 

Most horses have more difficulty slowing down and shortening strides than moving forward and lengthening them because they naturally carry more weight on the forehand and must shift it back over their haunches in downward transitions. Fences intensify this challenge because the thrust of a horse’s jump transfers tremendous weight onto his forehand as he lands. When you keep the distances short inside the raised rails and the gymnastic (as described here), you encourage not only a steadier, balanced approach but also a slower, softer landing. 

Riding the countless transitions in these exercises will teach your horse how to rebalance his weight to stay light on the landing, helping you regain control. You must recover your own position as quickly as possible to reinforce and contribute to his rebalancing effort. If you do nothing and he focuses instead on the next fence and takes over and braces against you, change his mind by transitioning down to the trot or even to the walk and then begin again. When he is thinking with you, not for you, he will be easier to manage once you are cantering an entire course.

As you practice, stay aware of your horse’s straightness. Aim for the center of each rail or jump and be disciplined about leaving on a straight line. Even if you have curved to the left or right, ride out the straight line following the bend. Every stride has equal importance.

After you make a few laps back and forth through the exercise, stop your horse on a straight line. Check for lateral straightness and longitudinal weight shift and make any adjustments to center him within the imaginary rectangle so he can resume in better balance and self-carriage.

As you progress from crossrails to verticals, roll out the ground lines (poles) about 2 feet on both sides of the jump as shown in the photos on page 56. (Don’t roll them out as far for oxers.) Ground lines further improve balance and adjustability because they will shorten the stride in between the jumps even more, making the distances tighter than those typically used on a course. This arrangement gives the horse not only extra incentive to shift his weight back to jump off his hocks in balance at takeoff but also additional space to elevate his front end and be crisp with his knees—another example of allowing the exercise to teach your horse so your aids can remain soft and less intrusive while he focuses on the jump.

The ground line on the back side helps him complete his arc over the fence by encouraging him to jump farther beyond the top rails as opposed to cutting down on the landing. I often place a flower box in the middle of a one-stride combination, converting it to a double bounce to add variety and keep my horse attentive and clever with his feet.

A horse and rider follow the hourglass pattern: Cantering the bounce on a bending line toward the jumps
Jumping the gymnastic straight
Riding a transition back to the trot and choosing the straight line toward the raised rails.
Figure 2: Hourglass exercise. This straight- and bending-line gymnastic is a good option to perform after circle work. The poles should sit four to five strides out from the jumps, angled left, right and straight ahead, so you can vary your path following the gymnastic.

Exercise: Hourglass Variation/Diagonal Lines

When setting up my schooling courses, I alternate between an hourglass variation (Figure 3, top) and diagonal lines (Figure 3, bottom) by simply rearranging the raised rails.

Both layouts use four jumps, one in each quadrant of your riding area, and two pairs of raised rails in the center. This allows you to trot or canter into the line, practice a transition back to the trot or walk in the middle of the line and resume your trot or canter for the third element of the line. Your horse will begin to think back to you after landing over each jump, making it easier to prepare for the next one. 

When you progress to cantering a line of fences without transitioning to the trot, it will require minimal effort to adjust your horse’s stride because he will have learned to land softly and wait for your direction. If that isn’t the case, go back to making transitions in the middle of the line with raised rails to ensure you get trotting steps. You won’t need to measure a specific distance between the jumps as long as you are transitioning in and out of the trot. 

Note: When you place your fences, remember that the average canter is a 12-foot stride and you must add a half stride each for landing and taking off. For example, 60 feet is a four-stride distance (4 x 12 = 48) plus 6 feet for taking off and 6 feet for landing. But don’t get too hung up on exact numbers. This is a generic formula—you must also take into account the height and type of fence and your pace. The higher the fence, the farther away the takeoff and landing; the wider the fence (spread), the closer the takeoff and landing; and the faster the pace, the longer the stride. Learn to approximate where your horse will land and take off and practice walking the distance between fences as it relates to his stride (one large human step is about 3 feet).

When several people ride the diagonal lines at the same time, they must keep their eyes open for one another and “thread the needle” as they cross the centerline over the raised rails. The hourglass layout, on the other hand, allows many riders to practice simultaneously without worrying about crossing one another’s paths in the center. (For plenty of room to pass, make sure to place the two pairs of center rails side by side as indicated.)

Another benefit of the hourglass is its curved lines, enabling you to make easier transitions because your horse can’t see the goal—as you line up for the rails on the ground, no jump is directly in front of him. Unsure of the direction, he’s more likely to wait for your instructions. Also, the curve of the line between fences allows you to adjust laterally as well as longitudinally so you can more easily add or omit strides by taking advantage of the inside or outside track.

For an advanced version of both exercises, either remove the raised rails in the middle or replace them with jumps, turning the pattern into a line of three fences at a continuous canter. Be sure the distance between each jump is manageable for your horse’s level of education. 

Start with low jumps and adjust the distances as necessary. You can set two jumps on the diagonal on a half-stride to give you the option of lengthening or shortening. For instance, 72 feet would ride in a normal five strides, but if you set the distance at 78 feet (adding 6 feet for a half-stride), you could ride a steady, shorter six strides or a forward, longer five strides.

As you progress from crossrails to verticals, roll out the ground lines about 2 feet on both sides of the jump to further improve balance and adjustability: The front ground line encourages the horse to shift his weight back and jump off his hocks and gives him time to elevate his front end.
The back ground line encourages the horse to complete his arc and not cut down on the landing side.
A flower box added to the middle of the stride makes it a double bounce, teaching the horse how to be clever with his feet.
Figure 3: When setting up your schooling courses, you can alternate between an hourglass variation (top) and diagonal lines (bottom) by simply re-arranging the center raised rails. Both layouts teach your horse to think back to you after jumping.

Our Partnership
Becoming a good rider takes much more than physical ability. You must also have emotional and mental focus coupled with drive, determination and an ongoing willingness to learn from wise mentors who will stimulate your curiosity and desire. Of the many talented riders around the world, those I respect the most are also superior horsemen. Consummate students of the horse, they have the passion and discipline not only to ride well but also to properly care for and manage their horses, keeping their well-being at the center of everything they do.

The Essentials
As I travel throughout the world, I’m amazed by the large number of horses and riders who haven’t had opportunities to learn the basic principles and skills of horsemanship. Working with a horse without attention to these fundamentals inevitably leads to misunderstandings, which, in turn, cause mental and physical braces. In time the horse becomes dull, fearful or tuned out and even unsound.

Feeling frustrated and vulnerable, the rider will then resort to more severe tack and measures to gain control—or discard the horse altogether and buy another one. Nothing positive can come of such an unproductive cycle.

On the other hand, when we adopt the practices that master horsemen have used throughout the ages, everything falls into place with consistent success and pleasure for both the horse and rider. This humane, intelligent approach conforms to the horse’s instincts and allows us to effectively communicate with him. 

It’s simple but not easy: To build a lasting, harmonious relationship with a horse, we must fully appreciate his gifts and reflect them back to him. When we cultivate those traits in ourselves and offer them to the horse, he becomes a respectful, willing partner whom we can direct in balance and lightness.

We cannot expect the horse to eagerly participate in our world without understanding what is natural and important to him. Self-preservation is his strongest instinct, so he looks for the following survival skills in his teammate and leader: acute powers of observation, excellent feel and timing, a keen sense of balance, agility and life and the unwavering discipline to protect the herd. These are the essentials for developing quality in the practice of horsemanship.

They apply to everything you would like to accomplish with your horse—not only to performing flatwork and jumping exercises in preparation for showing but also to roping cows, playing polo and taking a more enjoyable trail ride. 

Working with your horse on the ground is the safest and most effective way to learn the skills and behaviors of an equine leader. A critical part of a horseman’s daily repertoire, ground work helps establish and maintain clear communication, trust, a mental and physical connection and the hierarchy in your herd of two. When you carry those good habits into mounted work, there is no end in sight to the potential for improving your relationship with your horse and succeeding in whatever job or discipline you pursue. 

All of the essential leadership skills are interconnected like pieces of a puzzle, each piece dependent on the others to complete the picture.

This article originally appeared in the August 2015 issue of Practical Horseman.

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