Monday, January 12, 2015

Phases of a Jump: The Approach

As you've seen in some of my other posts, I like to dig through a wide variety of material to inform my posts. Not because I don't believe I can write ad nauseum about a variety of equine topics, but because oftentimes experts explain things more precisely than I can. Especially when it's abstract and I'm not explaining things to you and your horse precisely as you need it. 

I discovered in this research that someone has patented painting the broad side of a jump to look like bricks or stones or flowers in order to accustom a horse to different types of jump. I'm not kidding you. Ridiculous!

Those aren't real bricks, and that jump has been patented.

There are a lot of different levels of horse and rider out there, and I don't intend to attempt to write a post that caters to all of them. I'm going to write primarily about a horse and rider pair who regularly show the working hunter classes and are quite comfortable coursing at 3'. Let's call them Trisha and Bear, so we've got something to work with. Bear is a Dutch Warmblood who 'failed' out of dressage. At least, that's what the lady who sold Bear to Trisha said! Trisha wants to make the switch to the jumpers, but although they can jump a 3'6" course with ease, the moment she asks for more speed, they pull rails and Bear even refuses sometimes!

So let's diagnose this. As a trainer, when someone says 'I add speed...' I immediately start thinking of ways to help them translate this to higher impulsion and collection. Remember that rhythm, suppleness, contact, impulsion, straightness, and collection all play together to help create a powerful jumping horse. Just as "impulsion" isn't something you snap into & voila, you're done! So too does collection play an ever-developing role in the handiness of our horse.

The hind end has to step well underneath the horse and the horse must be balanced. You need to be certain that you have brakes and a gas pedal before you even think about approaching a jump.

Camou, being relatively green, does a lot of halt-trot transitions to help bring himself into balance before jumping. Danny, having a lot more dressage training, will sometimes do a rein-back to canter to fold the hindquarters underneath. Of course, if the horse isn't straight enough for these exercises to provide even power, then you'd warm up with more bending and lateral movements to help straighten the horse out. You want to be sure that you can touch the horse with your legs without him scooting out from under you, but also when you purposefully apply pressure that he GOES with a willing attitude.

When Trisha brings Bear to a halt from a trot, his hindquarters swing sideways and it takes many strides before he really decides to yield to her request for a halt. When we repeat the exercise, keeping her right leg a little more active to hold the hindquarters straight, he just braces his face against her and plows onward.

Trisha needs to do a lot of suppling to be able to keep her horse elastic - both in front of the leg and accepting the bridle.

One of the really neat things about horses is the way their biomechanics work: Wilson's research shows that horses rely on a catapult mechanism to move their forelegs quickly enough to keep up with the cantering or galloping speeds -- their biceps muscle actually behaves the way a hair elastic does. It stores and releases bursts of energy. Grasshoppers and fleas use this same mechanism, but horses are the only large animal that this mechanism has been discovered in.

This powerful transfer of energy relies on a strong, smooth muscle to be sure that the motion doesn't get caught anywhere. This is another argument for incorporating basic massage into your daily routine! Fascial adhesions cause all sorts of nefarious problems... but I'm off-topic, aren't I?

Once our horse is physically balanced and mentally prepared to obey our aids, we can begin to think about approaching a fence. One thing that's very useful for riders to know is how the horse assesses the jump.
"The horse's eyes are located on each side of his head. This enables him to experience a panoramic view, necessary for survival in the wild. He has a blind spot directly behind him, directly in front of him, and directly below his nose. This means that when jumping, the horse loses sight of the fence just before he leaves the ground. The decision the horse makes on the height and width of an obstacle has to be made on the approach to the fence. The horse first determines the takeoff point and then determines the height of the fence. In other words, the horse evaluates the jump from the ground up." -Paraphrased from Pg 7 of Susan D. Tinder's Jump Course Design Manual
 There is a strip of the horse's eye where the cells are most dense called the visual streak. The acuity of the horse is best within this visual streak, which means that at any given time the most clear image the horse sees is a fairly narrow horizontal strip. This is why most horses will raise their heads as they approach a jump: they first assess the base of the jump and raise their heads to clearly see the top of the jump.

Research suggests that jumping horses have more accuracy when determining the height of a fence than determining the depth of the jump - the more poles and filler the fence has, the more likely the horse is to respect the width of the jump.

This would encourage us to allow our young horses significantly more freedom of the head and neck when approaching a fence - throwing the head up may not be a disobedience, but perhaps a lack of experience assessing different types of jumps.

Now that we know a bit more about how our horse is looking at the jump, we can return to Trisha and Bear.

Most of my readers are familiar with my love for McLean's and McGreevy's work. They argue that every advanced movement comes from stopping, starting, turning the forehand, or turning the hindquarters. Jumping is largely a confirmation of the 'go' response because the horse's natural inclination is to stop despite the aids telling the horse to go. If 'go' is trained better than the horse's natural whimsy, then the horse will turn, stop, or otherwise refuse.

I would encourage Trisha to focus on slow movements for an extra-long warm up in order for her to come back to herself and center her riding a bit before jumping. Leg yielding at the walk, easy ten meter circles ridden both off the inside rein and just the outside rein (counter bend), and lots of halt-walk transitions. But these transitions are important: not just meandering into the walk, but promtly and electrically MOVING. The same rules will apply when we move to working on walk-trot transitions.

If I see a lethargic response, or one that requires even a cluck, I'll encourage Trisha to repeat the transition within 4-6 steps. That will reinforce to the horse that he really needs to be going.

At the trot we'll reassess steering off both the direct and indirect rein, because these are tools of straightness, not just tools of steering.

At the canter, we'll work on lengthening and shortening to allow the hindquarters to continue coming underneath. Always be sure to focus on keeping the horse balanced as you lengthen - it can be SO easy to give with the hands and lean forward and dump the horse's weight onto the forehand.

In sum:

  • Horses assess jumps from the bottom up and the amount they have to analyze the jump will lessen as they have more experience jumping - which is why jumps at home are so much less scary than jumps at shows. They've seen them all before at home!
  • If refusals are becoming a problem, check first for physical changes. Know your horse, know his shape, check his saddle, and bit, and anything else you think you can check. Second, school your transitions until they are sharp, prompt, and crisp. Third, check your steering. Lack of straightness can be a huge cause of refusals. 
  • As in dressage, the horse's level of engagement and responsiveness will determine what we're actually capable of doing on any given day. 
Lots more to come regarding the takeoff of the jump, including biomechanics of the horse, best practices for the rider, and whatever interesting research I stumble across while writing the post!


  1. interesting! i've been incorporating more transitions (both walk-halt and within the gaits) into my flat work - but maybe not quite with the prompt snappiness you write about here. good food for thought!!

    1. It's the dressage in me - I NEVER want to get in a sticky situation and realize that I don't have anymore /go/ underneath me.

  2. What a great write up! I just found your blog, don't know how I hadn't before this! I'm with you on prompt responses from the horse, from the time I pick up the lead rope to the time I'm in the tack I want a connection of awareness between the horse and I. If we are thinking together than we are responding together and suddenly our jump courses and dressage tests have a flow.

    1. That's a great way to word it! Glad you dropped by - I'm fairly new to the blogging community but I hope to hang out for a while. You guys are really nice! :)