Jim Wofford: What’s the Point?

Jim explains why incorporating dressage in an event horse’s training is effective … up to a point.

As usual, I’m starting with history. Most people in the hunter/jumper/eventer universe vaguely recognize Bert de Némethy’s name, although few know exactly why he is famous. The answer is simple: As coach of the U.S. eventing team, he brought a fully integrated system of training to this country. By schooling his horses and riders in dressage, he ensured the ability of riders to control their horses. Those of us who ride and train jumpers of any type are forever in his debt. Just as we pay homage to Gen. Harry Chamberlin’s teachings on the position of the rider over fences whenever we keep our heels down, we are the (usually) unknowing beneficiaries of de Némethy’s system when we “flat” our horses. (I think I know what is meant by “flatting” a horse, but I’m afraid to ask.)

Points of Reference

Because we use two different positions, for dressage and for show jumping, in our sport, we need to use two distinct systems for communicating with our horses. I teach my riders to use the positions appropriate to the discipline each eventing phase involves. Dressage requires a position I call the “three-point,” because the rider sits deep in the saddle on the two seat bones and the pubic bone. I call the jumping position the “two-point,” meaning the rider is supported by the two knees.

When you think about these two positions, you can see that the dressage position is far more suited to subtle influences from the rider’s back and seat bones, while jumper riders must depend far more on their heels and their hands to communicate. It is true jumper riders lower their seats to the saddle in the approach to an obstacle, but they must also close their hip angles to stay with their horses’ motion. This obviously makes the influence of their seat aids less efficient. If they were to raise their upper bodies totally upright to the vertical, they would be left behind the motion when jumping and would usually hang onto the reins and grip with their legs to stay attached.

When Dressage and Jumping Conflict

Adrienne Sternlicht and Cadans Z
Like many riders, I was originally taught to look above the fence; however, when I looked off into infinity, all I could find was an infinite number of strides. Once I focused on the top rail, my accuracy improved immeasurably. I had learned that in general terms, the horse sees in focus where his nose is pointing, and the rider must choose to look at a certain place in order to focus their eyes. For the horse to see the jump in focus, we must let him “poke his nose” at the jump—therefore keeping him in a classical dressage frame in the approach to a jump interferes with his vision. For them to find their stride, I want both my athletes looking at the same thing at the same time. You can’t measure distance accurately unless you have a fixed point of reference—in this case, the top rail of an imposing vertical. Adrienne Sternlicht and Cadans Z are obviously thinking about the same thing at the same time. In a split-second, the rail will go out of Adrienne’s sight between Caden Z’s ears, and she will know her horse is about to take off. ©Amy K. Dragoo

Modern riders completely understand the need to use dressage to train their jumpers on the flat; that’s not the problem. The problem arises when riders try to apply the principles of dressage directly to jumping. Let me give you an example. It is self-evident that we want the horse to see the jump as he approaches it. Veterinarians give various opinions, but there is general agreement that the horse sees in focus roughly where his nose is pointing. Yet if we approach an obstacle with our horse’s head and neck correctly positioned for dressage, i.e., with the plane of his face vertical (or nearly vertical) to the ground, we are preventing him from seeing the jump. This usually leads to what the rider perceives as “resistance,” when in actuality the horse is trying to extend his neck and raise his nose in order to see the obstacle so he can measure his effort and arrange his footwork.

The purpose of dressage is to enhance our ability to control our horses; hopefully, after a long period of consistent training, our horses will calmly and generously place their forces at our disposal. Because of the two different positions I mentioned earlier, we run into trouble when we insist on applying classical dressage directly to our jumping efforts: The dressage position is seat-based, while the jumping position is based on the stirrups. I run into this conflict on a regular basis. A new student currently schooling over 3-foot fences at home and competing at 2-foot-9 complains that her horse is running through her half-halt and towing her to an irregular takeoff spot. I ask her to approach an obstacle and show me. As her horse starts to speed up, she invariably applies the classical aids for a half-halt: she sits up into a vertical position, braces her back and closes her legs into resisting hands. Also invariably, her horse lifts his head, inverts his back and runs forward to yet another awkward distance.

When I quiz her about this, she replies that she has been taught to “coil the horse like a spring, and keep him rocked back on his hindquarters, so that he can jump.” OK, I say, let me ask you a question. Of all the types of horses that jump—steeplechasers, equitation, jumpers, show hunters, eventers—out of all of them, which ones take the best shape over a fence? Most riders typically will answer, “show hunters.”

Then we go on to discuss the frame hunter riders use to present their horse to the jump, how much compression exists in those horses’ bodies, how much contact from the rider’s hands, how much support from the rider’s leg, and so on. Although there is an unfortunate lack of cross-pollination in horse sports these days, most event riders have at least seen hunters go. They are usually startled to realize that the best show hunters are jumping 4 feet in admirable shape, and even more so when we discuss the fact that show hunters are consistently on their forehand (although superbly balanced and cadenced) and jump with no rein support and a noticeable lack of lower leg from the rider.

Instead of Half-Halt on the Approach …

At this point I usually skip my lengthy diatribe about the untidy jumping technique of show hunter riders and move on to my conclusion: The horse does not need to be coiled like a spring to jump well. Show hunters are not my only example of good jumpers; at the other end of the speed spectrum, good steeplechasers and timber racers are marvelous jumpers, are equally on their forehand and lack any vestige of dressage engagement and collection.

Natalee Haggan and MEM Here's 2 You ©Shawn McMillen
I’m often told that a horse must be “coiled like a spring” to jump, but I always disagree because I have seen working hunters jump in impeccable style from a lovely, balanced, flowing stride, as you see here with MTM Here’s 2 You and Natalee Haggan. Hunters are shown on soft reins, with very little in the way of driving legs or restraining hands—and all this while they are gliding over fences up to 4-foot-3 in height. At the other end of the speed spectrum, timber racers are also jumping in balance up to 4-foot-3 while going 30 miles per hour on their forehand, with their jockeys maintaining a steady hold on the reins while making no attempt to “find their stride.” The key to success at both ends of the speed spectrum is balance—the best hunters <I>and<I> timber racers approach, jump, land and depart all at the same speed. The horse’s speed may vary, but the balance should remain unchanged. ©Shawn McMillen

After this discussion, I have the rider approach the same fence, but this time sitting very light in the saddle with her shoulders in front of her hips, quiet legs and soft hands, using just enough contact to keep the reins from floating. I tell her that when her horse starts to speed up, I want her to close her hip angle a few degrees, take her leg off and squeeze the reins as if she were squeezing water out of a sponge. In effect, I have asked the rider to ride slightly ahead of the motion. This rider did not use classical dressage aids to achieve success, yet her horse immediately knew what she wanted. This worked as it usually does, and she was able to produce an effort that conformed more closely to my ideal: I want the horse and rider to approach, jump, land and depart—all at the same speed. My reasoning is that the horse who can maintain this consistency and rhythm is in balance and will therefore jump to the best of his ability.

Try This Yourself at Home

Many event riders have been so indoctrinated in the use of classical dressage that at first my comments do not ring true to them. They still are stuck in “sit-deeper-and-close-your-heels-while-you-fix-your-hands” mode on the approach to a fence—and their horses are still stuck against their hands. I have another simple exercise that helps them understand how using a different approach can yield results, and it should work for you as well.

Use your two-point position throughout this exercise. I want you to canter down the long side of the ring in a two-point, then ask your horse to come through the trot to the walk while you maintain your two-point. To do this, squeeze your knees together into your horse’s shoulders as if you were a clothespin, and at the same time close your hands (pressing your hands into his neck to support your hands if necessary). When you close your knees, remember to squeeze with the backs of your knees; if you close the front of your knee, it will cause your leg to pivot backward.

Note that you are closing the door without kicking against it—and once you can do this, you are no longer “clashing your aids.” After you simplify your aids, your horse will become more sensitive to both your heels and your hands. Olympic gold medalist Bill Steinkraus advised me, “Kick to go and pull to whoa.” He went on to remind me he didn’t want to see me either kicking or pulling, certainly not kicking and pulling at the same time, but he did want me to simplify and separate my aids. It worked for me, and I am sure it will work for you.

About Jim Wofford

Jim Wofford competed in three Olympic Games and two World Championships. He also won the U.S. National Championship five times on five different horses. He was a highly respected coach. For decades beginning in 1978, he had at least one student on every United States Olympic, World Championship and Pan American Team. He passed away February 2, 2023.

This article originally appeared in the Fall 2021 issue of Practical Horseman.

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