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English Training: Three Exercises to Help You Jump in Style

Photo by Leslie Potter

Most horses can be trained to jump. But many need help learning to jump well. A horse that jumps in the correct style is not only a safer mount, but he also drops fewer rails and earns higher scores in competition.

Ideally, a horse’s jump should include a definite arc, referred to as a bascule, which begins when he rocks back onto his hocks. This frees up his front end so he can arch his neck, roll his shoulder and lift his front legs to clear the jump. Ultimately, the horse should jump with an impression of effortlessness, and he should exude an air of confidence in his athleticism.

If you’d like to finesse your horse’s jumping style, here are three basic exercises. Before trying them, be sure your horse is adequately schooled on the flat. He should maintain a steady trot and canter with minimal half-halts and corrections. Also, when setting up these exercises, adjust the fence heights according to your horse’s level of training. Remember that the goal isn’t for your horse to jump higher, it’s for him to jump better.

Exercise 1: The Simple Gymnastic

This exercise is an example of a jumping gymnastic (also known as a grid), and is a fairly common one used by hunter, jumper and eventing riders. The objective is to teach the horse to regulate his pace and length of stride from start to finish while also encouraging him to use his hocks as he springs up and over the jumps, creating a bascule.

Exercise 1: Set up a simple gymnastic grid that begins with a placing pole and low cross-rail followed by a low vertical and then a higher vertical. Photo by Leslie Potter

Lay a ground pole about 9 feet in front of a cross-rail. The ground pole serves as a placement rail to help set the horse up for a proper hop over the cross-rail. Then measure about 18 feet and make a low vertical, and then another 21 feet to another, slightly higher vertical.

Due to the distances between elements, always trot into this exercise in a light half-seat with soft contact on your horse’s mouth. He’ll trot over the placement pole, hop over the cross-rail, and then take one easy canter stride before each of the verticals.

Although you may guide your horse with subtle aids so he stays on a straight track, don’t try to push him faster or hold him to a shorter stride. Allow him to figure out how to use his body and adjust his sense of balance to negotiate each aspect of the exercise. As his confidence grows, you can raise the heights of the vertical jumps up to 3 feet.

Exercise 2: Trot Large Cross-Rails

Cross-rails may seem like the most elementary level jump, reserved for kids and very green horses. Yet they serve an important purpose in helping a horse to jump in good style. The angle of the crossed rails, as they ascend on either side of the horse, act as reminders to keep his body straight and his front legs tightly folded.

Exercise 2: Trotting large cross-rails that have a placing pole on takeoff and landing will keep your horse’s footwork snappy. Photo by Leslie Potter

Set several moderately sized cross-rails around your arena. Add ground poles, which will act as placement poles, on both the take-off and landing sides of each cross-rail. Be sure to roll them about 9 feet away from the base of the cross-rails.

At the trot, approach each cross-rail at a steady pace, with light contact on your horse’s mouth. Focus on riding a straight track directly through the center of the cross-rail. Resist the urge to send your horse forward or make him leap over the placement pole.

Again, let him figure out the rhythm and balance necessary to step over the pole, jump over the cross-rail and then rebalance himself to hop over the placement pole on the landing side. His forward momentum should have him cantering away from the exercise until you bring him back to a working trot and head toward your next cross-rail exercise.

Exercise 3: Canter Ramped and Square Oxers

Oxers are the quintessential jump for teaching a horse to lift his front end and develop a bascule through the air. Created from two sets of standards, the rails of an oxer can be either ramped (the back rail several inches higher than the front rail) or square (both rails set at the same height).

Exercise 3: When you’ve done the correct preparation, jumping oxers will really improve your horse’s style. Photo by Leslie Potter

Ramped oxers give the horse more time, and a clearer visual cue, to raise his front legs. Square oxers are arguably more challenging for the horse because he has little room for miscalculation. If he doesn’t snap his front legs up in a tidy effort, he’ll bump his knees on the front rail. That’s why it’s best to start cantering ramped oxers, with the back rail set at about 2’6″, before progressing to square oxers at the same height.

Although oxers don’t require placement poles, you do need to have an accurate eye for a take-off distance. That means you’ll ride to each oxer on a consistent canter stride without micromanaging where your horse will leave the ground.

Oxers are ubiquitous in all sorts of competition over jumps. Once you and your horse can sail over them in a relaxed, confident manner, you’ll both be jumping—and showing—in style.

Pro Tip for Jumping in Style

Create an alley or chute with ground poles, set about 8 feet apart, to help keep your horse straight and eliminate drifting through exercises. These can be placed before and after single jumps and in between elements of gymnastic exercises.

This article about jumping in style appeared in the April 2020 issue of Horse Illustrated magazine. Click here to subscribe!

Cindy Hale

Cindy Hale’s life with horses has been filled with variety. As a child she rode western and learned to barrel race. Then she worked as a groom for a show barn, and was taught to harness and drive Welsh ponies. But once she’d taken her first lessons aboard American Saddlebreds she was hooked on English riding. Hunters and hunt seat equitation came next, and she spent decades competing in those divisions on the West Coast. Always seeking to improve her horsemanship, she rode in clinics conducted by world-class riders like George Morris, Kathy Kusner and Anne Kursinski. During that time, her family began raising Thoroughbred and warmblood sport horses, and Cindy experienced the thrills and challenges of training and showing the homebred greenies. Now retired from active competition, she’s a popular judge at local and county-rated open and hunter/jumper shows. She rides recreationally both English and western. Her Paint gelding, Wally, lives at home with her and her non-horsey husband, Ron.

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