In Part 1 of this three-part series on course-riding skills, top trainers Traci and Carleton Brooks shared an exercise to fine-tune your eye when jumping your round. In Part 2 below, you'll see how a cloverleaf pattern exercise can help create smooth, thoughtful rounds.
Cloverleaf Pattern Exercise
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 on page 34 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.
This article was originally published in the August 2017 issue of Practical Horseman.