In my opinion, many course designers have lost their feel for the “cross-country” part of the eventing test and instead have come to rely on narrow jumps to make their courses difficult. Although accuracy has a place in cross-country course design, we should not lose sight of the fact that our horses are supposed to be able to cross the country, and they should be trained to handle whatever is naturally in their path.
However, it doesn’t matter what I think. The sport is what it is. If I want my students to be successful, I have to teach them how to negotiate narrow obstacles, angled obstacles and corners. Although the trend to overly skinny fences is subsiding, cross-country courses still require us to jump accuracy questions, and we must train our horses to jump them easily.
It Begins with Basics
Teach your horse to jump narrow obstacles the same way you teach him anything else. Start with the simple and proceed very gradually to the complex. This means that you must be able to canter your horse in a straight line before you attempt narrow obstacles. No, I said “canter,” not gallop. Your horse should maintain a calm, balanced working canter when you are riding him. It is not the end of the world if he is unsteady in the canter, but it means your serious training has just begun—and for now, narrow obstacles are far away in his future.
Try this simple test: Canter down the centerline of a dressage arena several times on one lead. After that, canter down the centerline on the other lead. Usually on one lead but not the other, you will feel that you have to use the rein to keep your horse on the centerline. For example, you might canter down the centerline on the right lead and feel that you have to keep hold of your left rein to keep your horse on the centerline.
You need to fix this problem with your dressage training, making sure your horse is equally balanced on both leads, before proceeding to jump narrow obstacles. If you ignore your horse’s lack of straightness, at some point the issue will come back to haunt you as you rise through the competitive levels. (I will explain why things go wrong at narrow fences and how to fix them later in this article, but first, stay with me for a moment.)
My Narrow-Fences Gymnastic
All I need at first to train your horse over narrow obstacles is four post standards and one rail. I prefer a 12-foot rail, but a rail 10 feet long also will work.
First, put the rail on the ground between two standards. Take the remaining two standards and place each one on the inside of the other two standards and close to them to keep the opening as wide as possible—if you use 12-foot rails, the opening will be about 10 feet. As a safety factor, place these inner standards on opposite sides of the rail to prevent the narrow opening from becoming a fixed obstacle. For help in making this configuration clear, refer to the photo on the opposite page. It shows the final (narrowest) version of the exercise we are working toward, but it also will help you understand the progression I use to introduce your horse to narrows.
As you work over the exercise, you will need someone to serve as jump crew. Walk, trot and canter over the rail on the ground in both directions. Your horse probably will step over the rail easily because the opening between the standards is wide. If you are satisfied with his attitude, raise the rail slightly to between 2-foot-9 and 3 feet and canter it in both directions. If your arena has other obstacles, you should jump them as well. This helps reinforce in your horse’s mind that narrow jumps are just part of his regular jumping regimen and not something special. If your horse is quite green, raise the rail only 6 inches and walk and trot over it in both directions. However, if he is that green, you should skip the remainder of the lesson described here until he is more mature.
You are now ready to have your jump crew gradually move the two inner standards closer together to narrow the obstacle. Each time you narrow the opening, work in 6-inch increments and make sure that each standard is moved an equal amount so you are still jumping the exact middle of the 12-foot rail in both directions.
If this is the first experience with narrow openings for you and your horse, you probably should stop when the opening reaches 8 feet wide. As a rule of thumb, I school my green horses through 8-foot openings and more experienced horses through 6-foot openings; my international horses regularly school through openings that are 4-foot-6 wide.
Regarding placing red and white flags on the tops of the standards: Trainers vary in their practices, with some preferring flags on their narrow jumps when schooling while others never use them. My own preference is to school without flags; I feel that the flags make the obstacle slightly easier. I want my horses looking for the top rail of the obstacle and not the trimmings. However, this is not an important point. If the trainer is consistent and believes in her practices, either way will be successful.
Once your horse takes a businesslike attitude toward jumping narrow openings, you can vary the appearance of the jump. For example, take a large black plastic garbage bag, roll it lengthwise into a small bundle and place it underneath the rail. You may have to place another rail on top of the bag to make sure it does not unwind while you are jumping this imitation liverpool-narrow. As with any new change to your horse’s environment, lower and widen the obstacle before you jump it. Once your horse is relaxed about this new obstacle, you can start to unroll the bag and raise the top rail, being sure to secure the bag with the second rail. When introducing this variation, note the progression from the simple to the complex, just as it was with your horse’s first exposure to a narrow opening.
Correcting the ‘Oops!’
I mentioned earlier that course designers have relied on narrow obstacles to increase the difficulty of their courses. They use narrow fences for the simple reason that the consequences of failure are embarrassing rather than catastrophic. At the same time, if we are to be successful, we must analyze the reasons for failure and find a way to correct our problems. (For this discussion, when I say a narrow fence, I mean any type of obstacle where the common underlying problem is straightness. Various types of narrow obstacles include angled rails, corners, chevrons and so on.)
Your horse may refuse or run out (“glance-off”) at a narrow obstacle for several reasons. In simplistic terms, a refusal is a disobedience to both of your legs, while a runout is a disobedience to one leg. While any kind of refusal is demoralizing, it is always due to a lack of impulsion. Usually, your horse will tell you several strides away that he is not sure about the next obstacle. If you are not quick enough with your reaction or strong enough with your lower leg, you will have a refusal. This can usually be corrected by applying your legs more vigorously in the next approach.
A more difficult problem to correct happens in the final stride before the takeoff, when your horse suddenly glances off the obstacle. I watch you every weekend and see it happen: You have the correct speed, the right direction and your horse is balanced. Everything looks wonderful until you are one stride away and then … zip! Seemingly out of nowhere your horse suddenly runs out to one side or the other.
If you watch slow-motion video of a rider suffering through this problem, you will observe that approximately one stride before takeoff, she starts leaning forward and softens the reins before her horse has actually left the ground. If her horse has one shoulder out of alignment, this only adds to the difficulty.
Once you realize the basis of the problem, the correction is a little easier to apply. First, you must learn to stay in touch with your horse all the way into the air. Many riders can “see their stride” several strides before the takeoff. But predicting the remaining number of strides only suggests a possibility of making it over a jump; it is up to your legs and hands to turn a possibility into a certainty. I hope you understand why I call this sort of mistake “riding with your eye, not your leg.”
When schooling at home, your horse will usually tell you in which direction he might glance-off at the competition. For example, if he approaches straight but lands slightly to the side, he is telling you which side he will run out toward. This is a frustrating problem. Attempting to correct it by using the reins will make the problem worse, not better. If your horse runs out to the left and you pull on the right rein next time, you will only succeed in losing your straightness completely, and next thing you know, you have a horse who is not trustworthy at narrow obstacles.
Instead, try this: In the last few strides before the narrow obstacle, keep your horse straight with your leg, not your hand. Notice that I said leg and not legs. If you close both legs on a horse that is out of balance, you will drive him even more out of balance. So if your horse ran out to the left in your first attempt, as you reattempt, keep your left leg firmly on at the girth and use a slight opening rein to the right along with an equal left neck rein. (We should always combine the use of the reins. If we open one rein, the other rein should exert an equal pressure against the neck.) Make sure you keep the pressure of your leg against your horse’s girth all the way into the air over the obstacle. At first, you may have the sensation that your horse leaned against your leg just before he took off but then jumped straight. This will dissipate as your dressage training makes your horse equally balanced on both sides.
There is a fad right now of opening your hands to “form a chute” on the approach to a narrow obstacle. I love fads (and by “fad” I mean any exaggeration of classical riding); fads give my riders an edge because classical beats fads every time. If you open both hands in the approach to a narrow obstacle, in effect you are using an open rein on both sides at once. We use an open rein to displace the shoulders, so it is nonsensical to allow both shoulders the opportunity to drift when we approach a narrow obstacle. In addition, it is very difficult to apply a consistent contact once your hands are outside your shoulders because you have lost the straight line from your elbow to your horse’s mouth.
No need to be influenced by fads or to use gimmicks. Just follow these introductory steps, ride in straight lines and train your horse to be straight in his body. If you do this, narrow obstacles will present little challenge.
This article originally appeared in the April 2014 issue of Practical Horseman.