Have you noticed that as you ride around a course, it tends to get harder, rather than easier? That’s because you have a constant stream of variables to tackle, including the questions posed by the course’s turns, jumps and striding options as well as the many aspects of your and your horse’s performance, which can change from one second to the next. Maybe he lands off a jump with too little pace and threatens to break to trot or perhaps your balance tips forward onto your hands. If you don’t address each variable immediately, you won’t be ready to face the next challenge in time, so things can unravel quickly.
Instead of schooling courses over and over again at home, the best way to prepare yourself for these high-pressure situations is by practicing specific exercises that zero in on the most fundamental skills you need on course. We’ll share three of our favorites in this article. Whether you’re a beginner just learning to ride courses or a more seasoned competitor heading to Indoors, these exercises will improve your balance, accuracy, feel and eye (ability to judge the distance to a fence) while improving your horse’s obedience, adjustability, responsiveness, focus, balance, rhythm and straightness.
When you set up these exercises, we recommend using as many solid obstacles as possible—walls, logs, barrels, etc. These give you an actual barrier to jump, which helps you focus and encourages your horse to jump around the fence in a nice round shape. There is no need to make any of them big (even with advanced horses, we don’t go above 3 feet). The purpose of all of these exercises is precision, not jumping high. Beginners can replace any of the fences with small crossrails, cavalletti or ground poles.
We always advocate using both reins to steer so that you’re influencing the largest part of your horse: his shoulders and belly. In general, control your turns by balancing and steadying with the outside rein and leg and guiding with the inside rein and leg. Sometimes you may need to use one rein more than the other, but always keep contact with both.
We’re also big proponents of visualization. Before you begin each exercise, study the diagrams, then ride through it in your mind. This will make your sessions more productive.
Exercise 1: Tune Up Your Eye
Your eyes are the most dominant part of your ride. Where you focus them not only determines where your track will be but also significantly affects your balance, which, in turn, influences your horse’s balance. Keeping your eyes level helps you maintain your balance and stay anchored and safe on the horse. A common issue we see is being ahead of the motion, which can be resolved by raising your eyes.
Choose focal points that are at or above your eye level. If your eyes are 10 feet above the ground, that means your focal point should be 12 to 16 feet high (depending on how far away it is). We all naturally tend to drop our eyes, so it’s always important to raise them slightly higher than the intended focal point before letting them settle down to it. For example, if you’ve chosen a tree outside the arena to focus on, look first at the very top of it—don’t start down at the trunk.
This technique is especially useful over fences. Use it to get the idea of “up and over” in your mind and body. That way you won’t be tempted to lead with your shoulders, which tips your balance too far forward, but rather with your chest and the tops of your hips. The idea is to let your horse jump up to you and then you follow, allowing his jump to close your angle.
As you warm up on the flat, choose a focal point outside the ring and practice riding around a bend or half circle that ends on a line heading toward the focal point. As you trot or canter around the bend, raise your eyes above the focal point, then let them settle down to it.
When you get the hang of this sensation, identify more focal points around the ring and do the same with them. This is a great technique to incorporate into your warm-up at shows, too.
Now set a small vertical on one end of the arena, far enough off the long side so you can jump it on a curve from either direction and then end up traveling perpendicular to that small vertical after landing. Jump this a few times on each lead to warm up.
Next, use agricultural lime (available at garden and hardware stores), spray paint, polo wraps or foam poles (or pool noodles—be creative!)—anything a horse can step on safely—to mark the edges of a curved lane starting at the base of the jump and extending several strides away from it in both directions (so you can jump it on both leads). Make sure your horse can travel straight for one or two horse lengths before and after the fence. The result will be a large half-circle interrupted midway through by the jump. Make the width of the lane 9 to 10 feet if you’re a beginner and slightly narrower if you’re more experienced—but no narrower than about 6 feet. Widen the lane by 2 or 3 feet at the base of the jump on both sides. Do not use solid poles for this purpose, as they could injure your horse if he steps on them.
Starting on your horse’s better lead, canter a few circles to establish a good rhythm. Then start counting out loud in rhythm with his stride—“One, two, one, two”—as you enter the lane to the jump. Meanwhile, raise your eyes to a chosen focal point in the distance, keeping the jump and the track to it in your peripheral vision.
Initially aim for the center of the vertical. After your horse lands, keep straight for one or two horse lengths, then make your turn in the next corner slightly more square (closer to a 90-degree angle) while asking him to regather himself for the next straightaway. Then circle across the arena to jump the fence again. After doing this six or seven times, change direction and do the same on the other lead.
Next, approach the vertical with a new plan: When you’re four to six horse lengths away from it, try to judge whether you’re going to arrive too close (deep) or too far away (long). Adjust your track accordingly: If you’re going to be deep, open your outside rein slightly and use some inside leg to encourage your horse to fade toward the outside of the lane. If you’re going to be long, open your inside rein and use some outside leg to bring him in a little.
When you’re jumping on a curve like this, changing your track by as little as 4 inches to the left or right can add or subtract as much as a foot to or from the distance your horse has to travel to the takeoff point, so keep these adjustments very small. Be mindful about his entire body, not just his head and neck, asking him to be perpendicular to the fence one to two horse lengths before and after it.
After doing this six or seven times, change direction and do the same on the other lead.
Developing a good eye takes time, so be patient with yourself. Instead of concentrating on the jump, think of it as just another canter stride. Try to keep the same pace and rhythm throughout the approach, jump and recovery. If you have trouble judging whether you need to fade to the outside or inside in the approach, ask an experienced rider to stand about six lengths in front of the jump (and a few feet to one side, so you don’t risk running him or her over) and give you input as you ride by.
Carleton and Traci Brooks
Husband-and-wife team Carleton and Traci Brooks run a successful hunter/jumper/equitation business called Balmoral, which they operate in two California locations—Malibu and Brentwood, on the west side of Los Angeles. This unique setup allows them to provide their horses with plenty of healthy open space while also being accessible to their diverse clientele, which ranges from Short-Stirrup to Adults and high-performance levels. They shuttle horses back and forth between barns almost daily to be sure everyone enjoys plenty of turnout and trail riding.
Traci and Carleton have coached riders and trained horses to a long list of wins, including many Indoors championships and Horse of the Year awards. They developed and competed top show hunters, including Wish List, Triton Z, Ragtime Cowboy, Penn Square, Doubletake, Trinity, Vested, Play with Fire, Calvin, Inspired, Corporate Profit, Center Stage and Buccelatti. Carleton is a popular clinician and a U.S. Equestrian Federation “R” judge. He has officiated at shows such as the Devon Horse Show, the Washington International Horse Show, the USHJA International Hunter Derby Finals, the Pennsylvania National and the Royal Winter Fair.
This story was originally published in the August 2017 issue of Practical Horseman.