Todd Minikus: Show-Jump Salvage Job

What do you do when you’re on course and disaster strikes? To you, “disaster” may mean a crashed jump, multiple rails down or one or two refusals. Or it may just be a missed lead, lost stirrup or awkward jump. Whatever it is, don’t let it throw you off your game. If you’re riding early in the class, you don’t know how the other riders will do, so you might still have a chance at a ribbon. If you go later and know you’re out of the running, this is still an opportunity to improve your and your horse’s skills. Think how much time, effort and money you sacrificed to get to this show. By turning it into an educational experience, you can still get your money’s worth and have it be beneficial. 

One of the primary causes of rides going from bad to worse after an initial error is rider nerves. We’ve all seen that characteristic look cross a rider’s face when something goes wrong mid-round: a panicked expression signaling that things are about to unravel. But they don’t have to. With the right mind-set and a little practice at home, you can overcome just about any troublesome show-ring scenario.

Exercise 1: Drop Your Stirrups

Be Prepared

I know this is easier said than done, but the most important thing you can do is stay positive, no matter what goes wrong. Your best weapon is confidence. And confidence comes from proper preparation. Before attending a show, imagine common problems you might face in the ring and think of ways to practice dealing with them at home.

For example, losing a stirrup can be very distracting for both you and your horse. If you’re not used to this happening, you may spend far too long fishing around trying to find it, possibly even goosing him in the sides with your toes and upsetting him. So practice dropping your stirrups at home for five or six strides at a time. As you work to recover them, focus on maintaining the same rhythm in your canter. This will not only help you get faster at finding them, but it will also desensitize your horse to your feet moving around on his sides. I also recommend using traditional metal irons, which tend to hang better than many of the new stirrups made of nonconventional materials and so are easier to find when you lose them.

Another good scenario to practice is riding with different rein lengths. When you arrive at a fence at a difficult distance and your horse has to make an awkward effort to clear it, sometimes the best way to help him do that is to lean back a little and slide your hands back on the reins. This allows him to lengthen his body and be as athletic as necessary without your interference. If this happens when you’re jumping into a line, you may not have time to adjust your reins before the next fence without distracting him. You’re better off finishing out the line before correcting your rein length. This will be no big deal if you practiced riding and jumping at home with different rein lengths.

Exercise 2: Practice with Different Rein Lengths

React—But Don’t Panic!

Show jumping is an Olympic sport because both horses and riders have to be athletic to do it well. Hone your reflexes to react quickly to anything your horse does. If he spooks or stalls in the approach to a jump, be ready to get him going forward again immediately. Do your best to ride him back toward the middle of the fence. And be ready for the jump not to feel absolutely perfect. Awkward jumps aren’t as big a deal as some riders think they are. They’re part of the educational experience. If your horse has an uncomfortable jump because he spooked in the approach, that may teach him to pay better attention to his next jumps.

Part of your response to a problem also has to involve a quick analysis. What just happened and why? Did you make too many changes in front of the jump? Did you approach it with too much speed? Too little pace? The answer is rarely something as simple as, “The horse stopped.” He likely stopped because you put him in a bad position. Figure out what that was and try not to place him in that position again.

Many problems result from lack of pace. Some riders blame this on their horses being behind the leg, but it’s often because of their position in the saddle. The American forward seat that worked well in our country for years isn’t as effective on modern-day show jumpers. It was better suited to Thoroughbreds, who have a more natural desire to gallop. If you were mounted on a typical Thoroughbred and got ahead of his motion by tilting your upper body too far forward, he would likely continue going at the same pace anyway or even faster. Most of today’s warmbloods don’t have that natural engine; they require extra support to maintain a quality gallop. By staying a little behind the motion with your upper body and slightly more upright than the traditional forward seat, you can drive your horse more effectively with your weight and legs.

Also recognize that there is a difference between riding forward and chasing your horse. Doing the latter elongates his body and loses the connection between his hind end and front end. It’s actually easier for him to suck back—drop the contact and lose impulsion. To ride him forward, you must engage his hindquarters and ride him into a good rein contact.

If your horse misses a lead change or cross-canters on a turn, riding forward is the best solution. Stay organized, balanced and focused on maintaining the canter rhythm. Instead of pulling on the reins and slowing him down, think of closing the back door by going forward and opening the front door by following his mouth with a soft contact. Eventually, he’ll catch up and correct his lead. If he doesn’t, don’t worry. Horses can jump fine from the wrong lead or a cross-canter. The amazing mare Touch of Class cross-cantered multiple times on her way to winning the 1984 Olympic team and individual gold medals.

Riding forward will also help to build your horse’s confidence, which may be lagging if he’s refused or crashed a jump. It’s your job to reassure him, to say, “I’m here with you and we’re going to continue.” Sometimes that means riding aggressively forward or going to your stick if necessary. Help him do what he needs to do.

In general, I recommend finishing your round no matter how disastrous it feels. However, if your horse seems overfaced—he’s struggling to clear the jumps and is losing confidence—or if you are overwhelmed with doubt, it’s OK to retire. If you’ve lost your confidence, it’s not fair to ask your horse to continue. You may need to drop down a level for a week or two until you both have regained your confidence. Don’t be ashamed—everybody does it, including the pros. It’s good horsemanship.

Exercise 3: Long Reins over Jumps

Make the Most of It

If you’re sure the setback you experienced in the ring has put you out of the running for a ribbon, take advantage of this unexpected schooling round. Many riders these days have limited opportunities to attend schooling shows. Use the rest of this round to experiment with skills you didn’t want to try during competition. For example, if you never practice leaving out strides but instead have always added strides—or vice versa—try doing the former now. Or if you’re in the habit of pulling on the reins to “protect” your horse off the ground on takeoff, try “dropping” him in front of a jump—giving him an extra-long release and freeing up his topline and back in the air. Try anything that might help you get to know your horse better, so you can improve future performances.

What you don’t want to do is finish your round conservatively—overbending, overcollecting, going wide on the turns—or getting into a tug-of-war match with your horse. Be tidy as if you’re in a jump-off, turning tight on the turns and sticking to a realistic ring speed. Try to make up for the mistake and finish inside the time. You and your horse will both benefit from the experience—and perform even better next time.

Exercise 4: Raised Hand over Jump

Lack of Pace

Today’s warmbloods require extra support to maintain a quality gallop on course. To keep your warmblood balanced for the best possible takeoff for every jump, you need to stay a little behind the motion with some weight in the saddle and your upper body slightly more upright than the traditional forward seat. 

Paralysis of Analysis

I believe in the power of positive thinking. Before you enter the show ring, tell yourself that this round is going to go well. When you visualize the course, don’t dwell on your horse spooking at the liverpool. Instead, imagine him soaring over it. Also beware of internalizing mistakes made by riders before you. Watching other riders can be informative, but there is also a danger of experiencing what I call the “paralysis of analysis.” When a few riders have trouble at one particular fence, everyone else starts to worry that there’s something wrong with it. That’s why you’ll see riders in the beginning of a class have trouble with one part of the course and then riders toward the end of the class have issues with an entirely different section of the course.

If you notice multiple people having problems with, say, the skinny or the plank or the combination, don’t talk yourself into making the same mistakes they made. Stay positive and ride your course.

Similarly, don’t be concerned about what anyone else thinks of your ride. When things don’t go according to plan, focus on identifying and solving the problem. Instead of getting frustrated with your horse or worrying about what your friends might think, remind yourself that everyone has bad days in the ring. 

Todd Minikus has won countless grands prix in a career now spanning more than three decades. Originally from outside of Des Moines, Iowa, he received his first pony at the age of 1, then rode Western before taking his first jumping lesson at age 11. Hooked on show jumping ever since, he turned professional when he was 18 and went on to earn enough prize money on a Canadian ex-racehorse named Thriller to buy himself a truck and trailer. After Thriller was sadly killed in a trailer accident, Todd found another Canadian ex-racehorse and named him Thrilling. This turned out to be his first big-time grand prix horse. The pair won all of the open jumper classes, including the President’s Cup, at the 1990 Washington International Horse Show, earning Todd the Ennis Jenkins Leading Rider Award and the Midwest Grand Prix Rider of the Year Award and Thrilling the Midwest Horse of the Year Award.

Since then, Todd has represented the U.S. on several Nations Cup teams, served as an alternate for the 2000 Olympic team and won the team bronze medal in the 2007 Pan American Games. Recently, he won the 2015 Zoetis $1 Million Grand Prix at HITS Saugerties and the 2016 Winter Equestrian Festival $86,000 Marshall & Sterling Insurance Grand Prix CSI** on the Oldenburg mare Quality Girl, with whom he won six grands prix in 2014. He and another top mare, Babalou 41, won the $130,000 Adequan Grand Prix CSI*** this January and have been named to the USEF Olympic Show Jumping Team short list.

Now based in Wellington, Florida, Todd spends his free time with his wife and two children.

This article originally appeared in the June 2016 issue of Practical Horseman.