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.
Exercise 2: Cloverleaf Pattern
Use all the skills you practiced in Exercise 1 as you negotiate this more complex jump configuration, which is an excellent prep for the intensity of a challenging course, as it offers no breathers. Because the jumps come up so quickly, the landing of each one is also the approach to the next one. So you’ll quickly get in the good habit of landing off a jump and asking yourself, “What’s next?” This great mental exercise will turn you into a forward thinker.
Set four simple verticals and/or oxers with wingless standards in the middle of the arena where you’ll have plenty of space to maneuver around all of them. Place them at right angles to one another as if they were the arms of a clock in the 3, 6, 9 and 12 o’clock positions. Adjust the distance of each jump from the center of the exercise depending on your experience level. If you’re less experienced, set each near standard 10 to 12 feet from the center (20 to 24 feet away from the standard of the opposite jump). If you’re more experienced, you can tighten the configuration up until the inside standards of the jumps are right next to each other.
Study the diagram above very carefully before beginning this exercise. It’s easy to take a wrong turn and find yourself driving “up the exit ramp” instead of down. The general pattern is to work your way over the jumps in either a clockwise or counterclockwise direction, jumping each fence consecutively, always turning after a fence in the same direction you approached it, then making a loop before approaching the next jump. So, for example, if you start over the 9 o’clock fence in a counterclockwise direction (traveling from top to bottom if you are looking down at the diagram), start with a right-lead circle to jump the fence, then land, take a few straight strides, and then make a loop to right before jumping the 6 o’clock fence. Turn right again, jump the 3 o’clock, turn right, jump the 12 o’clock, then right loop to finish over the 9 o’clock again.
As in Exercise 1, your horse should be perpendicular to the jump for approximately two or three strides before and after each fence.
To practice the exercise on the left lead, you’ll do the opposite: Jump the 9 o’clock fence heading in a clockwise direction (traveling from bottom to top if you are looking down at the diagram), then turn left afterward and make a loop to the 12 o’clock jump, turn left, jump the 3 o’clock, turn left, jump the 6 o’clock, turn left and finish over the 9 o’clock.
When you first try this exercise, keep it really simple. Start with just the first two fences. Make your loops comfortably large so you have plenty of time to organize and get your bearings in between jumps. Straighten your horse several strides before each fence and jump it squarely, then canter the same number of strides afterward before initiating your turn to the next fence. If your horse lands on the wrong lead, make a simple or flying change before the next turn. Always turn your head first to plan your track before you initiate each turn.
When this is going well, add the third and fourth jumps.
Try to make the loops as symmetrical as possible. If you have trouble controlling their shape and size, check to be sure you’re steering with both legs and reins. It’s easy to fall into the trap of pulling on one rein or the other, which will throw your horse off balance. Instead, initiate the loop by putting both legs on and steering with both reins. Then apply more pressure to whichever rein you need while still maintaining the contact with the other rein to prevent oversteering or zig-zagging.
Be sure to ride forward away from each jump. It may be tempting to land and pull backward on the reins to give yourself more time to organize, but this will kill your pace and rhythm, making it impossible to get to the next fence in good form. Many mistakes can be fixed—or even avoided—by riding forward and straight. Always think: Ride forward into the reins.
As you did in Exercise 1, instead of thinking of each jump as the “main event,” focus on your rhythm, pace and track. As you get the hang of the cloverleaf, gradually bring the loops smaller so you have less time in between jumps. Jumper riders can challenge themselves by making the loops quite snug. Another more difficult, but fun variation is to do this exercise without stirrups.
Practice the cloverleaf in both directions several times. (Note: If you’re using ramped oxers, be sure to adjust them when you change direction so the front rails are always lower than the back rails.) As with any exercises, if you ever have trouble, simplify. If you can’t manage to complete the entire exercise on one lead, break it down to just two or three fences at a time. Always go back to something you and your horse can complete comfortably and successfully before calling it a day.
This exercise is excellent at forcing you to correct bad habits—both your horse’s and your own. If he tends to drift right or left, you’ll have to adjust constantly to stay on track. If your reins tend to get too long, you’ll quickly learn to keep them short out of necessity. You may even discover issues that you didn’t know you had. For example, maybe your horse isn’t accepting the outside rein, which makes controlling the size of the loops challenging. As good as the cloverleaf exercise is at revealing such things, it’s equally good at fixing them. It naturally puts you in a position to self-correct without having to think about what you’re doing.
Once you get this sequence down, you can modify the exercise in future sessions. For example, instead of jumping the center of each fence, alternate jumping to the right or left of center every fence or two (still approaching each jump on a straight, perpendicular track). Whatever modifications you make, always visualize the exercise first so you know exactly where you’re going before you start.
Exercise 3: Jump Two Fences on A Curve
The above two exercises are plenty for one day. Save this third exercise for another session. Again, use all the skills you learned in the previous exercises when you do this one.
Start by setting two small fences on the end of the arena, five or six strides apart and positioned at slight angles to one another so you can jump them both on a curve. Pick up the canter and establish a good pace before aiming for the center of the first fence, again counting out loud, “One, two, one, two.” As before, straighten for one horse length before and after the jump. After your horse lands, ride him forward into both reins and maintain your rhythm and pace while riding the curved track to the center of the second jump. Straighten him again for this fence’s takeoff and landing.
Make your turns before and after the jumps both smooth curves—not square turns—while maintaining the rhythm, pace and symmetry of the shape just as you did in the cloverleaf exercise. Remember: Look, then turn.
Repeat this a few times, then incorporate the technique you learned in Exercise 1, adjusting your track slightly to correct for deep or long takeoffs at each jump. (If you like, you can mark chutes before and after each jump as you did in Exercise 1.)
You can also vary the number of strides between the jumps by changing your canter and/or track. For example, if your horse has a normal 12-foot canter stride, ask him to open it up to about 14 feet and ride the exercise in one less stride. If necessary, take some of the curve out of your track (fade slightly to the inside) to shorten the distance. Turn a little later in your approach to the first fence so you jump it on a very slight angle and land on a more direct track to the second jump. In the air over the first jump, give a longer release. When you land, add more leg—especially outside leg—and stay a bit lighter in your seat. This will help you subtract a stride comfortably.
Then try collecting him in the approach to the exercise to produce a 10-foot stride and add a stride between the jumps. Turn a little early to the first fence so you jump it on a very mild angle in the other direction, which will put you on a wider track with more curve in it. This will provide the extra distance you need to add a stride comfortably. Give a slightly shorter release in the air over the first fence. After you land, get a little deeper in your seat and put your leg on as you ask your horse to collect his stride between the jumps.
As you practice riding this exercise in different numbers of strides, you’ll develop a feel for the correct pace and stride length you need for each situation.
More advanced riders can increase the difficulty by adding a jump halfway down each side of the ring on the quarterlines—at least six or seven strides from the end jumps. This way, you’ll jump a fence on the quarterline, then jump the two fences on the curve, then finish with the fence on the other quarterline. Start simple, aiming for the center of each jump, focusing on riding forward into both hands and thinking of each jump as just another canter stride. Then challenge yourself by incorporating the above-described striding adjustments. You’ll have to land from the first quarterline jump, then balance and work to get just the right canter to produce your desired number of strides between the end jumps, then organize and balance again to jump the last fence nicely.
When this is going well, depending on your experience level, you can modify the exercise in a number of ways. We like to turn the fences on the quarterlines into combinations with two-strides, one-strides, even bounces and triple combinations (if there’s enough room in the arena). Be sure you still have at least six or seven strides between the two jumps on the ends of the ring and the combinations. As you go through the combinations, ride each stride. Close your legs and ride forward to the next fence, encouraging your horse to make a good jumping effort every time.
You can also vary the exercise occasionally by jumping the end fences and then turning across the diagonal to jump another fence along it. Then complete the diagonal and ride the exercise in the other direction. Or try the exercise without stirrups.
Another fun variation is to jump the end fences on the curve, then take both reins in your outside hand while putting your inside hand behind your back. Ride like this to the next jump or combination on the long side. This is a great way to correct habits of twisting or falling on your hands—or to test that you’re not riding too much with your hands.
As we mentioned earlier, if you ever run into trouble, simplify! Lower the fence heights or remove jumps.
Above all else, remember to keep your eyes focused up. That will improve your straightness. Combine this with a constant awareness of your track and rhythm, and everything else will fall into place.
Take an Eye Test
To see how influential your eye is on your position, try this test at a standstill: Drop your chin down toward your chest. Notice how it affects your entire position? You’re no longer as balanced and secure as you were with your eye level. Keep this in mind if you worry that your horse has a habit of tripping, for example. If you maintain your balance, he will too!
Another good position check is to ask yourself, “Where would I be if I took my hands off the reins” and put them out to the side at the halt or walk. Then raise your eyes higher and feel your weight lift upward and balance over your feet. Note how all the other parts of your position fall into place when your eyes are up.
Constantly Correct Your Position
Nobody keeps her position for more than three horse lengths without making an adjustment. Say your eyes dropped, your fingers opened on the reins, your heels came up or you sat back too far. Whether the change is dramatic or subtle, the sooner you make the correction, the better. Avoid trying to “hold” your position in place. That invariably leads to worse problems, like holding your breath and locking up your body, which will cause your horse to react negatively by doing the same thing.
About 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.