For the Horse Journal?s July issue, I wrote an article called ?Get Ready To Jump ?Cross-Country,?? advising riders on how to prepare for riding a cross-country course without having solid cross-country jumps over which to school. Because of space limitations, we couldn?t include my discussion (and diagrams) of specific gymnastic exercises, but this week, through the wonders of our website, I can address that omission.
The graphic here depicts three exercises that we at Phoenix Farm like to use with young horses and inexperienced riders, exercises that prepare them for the challenges they?ll meet when cross-country schooling. We like them because they encourage, even require, horses and riders to concentrate on moving their feet, looking for the next jump, and going there without relying on the rein aids. But there really isn?t any limit to the exercises like this that you can build to accomplish these goals.
Exercises A and B are what we call footwork exercises. They teach a horse to be aware of and to move his feet (and, thus, his body) correctly in between and over jumps. They also encourage a horse to jump straight and to push off evenly with his hind legs.
Exercise C combines a footwork line with additional jumps to teach him to focus on the obstacle in front of him, not on things around it, while encouraging straightness.
Exercise A is a straightforward, one-way gymnastic line (crossrail, to vertical, to oxer) with rails added between the jumps. The rails should be raised to about 6? on Bloks or other similar devices, and their placement requires horses to land inside them, take a stride over the raised rails, and then jump. This exercise is especially useful for horses who overjump fences and land unbalanced, but it can also be useful for overly cautious or lazy horses, in both cases because the rails force them to get the distances right.
Begin with the just step rail before the crossrail and the step rail after it. When your horse is jumping smoothly through this first part of the exercise, add the vertical. Then add the step rail after the vertical, and then add the oxer.
Keep these jumps small?this exercise is not about jumping big fences. it’s about jumping relatively small fences correctly because they?re moving their feet. If you want to trot in, place the first rail 8 feet from the crossrail; if you want to canter, place it at 9 feet.
Exercise B puts a bounce in the middle of two low, wide oxers, with step rails at the beginning and end. You should do this exercise at the canter, and you can jump it in both directions, off either lead. The oxers should be about 2?3? to 3? high and about as wide as they are high, depending on the level of the horse and rider. The cavaletti should be about 18?, the normal highest setting for them.
Exercise B teaches the horse how to expand his frame over the first oxer, balance himself for the bounce, and then expand his frame again for the second oxer. The first step rail sets him up for the first oxer; the last step rail requires him to finish the exercise in balance.
To introduce your horse to this exercise, start without the second oxer and step rail. Add them when the horse is jumping confidently and smoothly.
You can jump Exercise C in both directions, and you can make a small course using the oxers and the vertical set to the side. Jumping one of the verticals in the line to one of the oxers (or oxer to vertical) practices focus and straightness, and turning between the fences of the gymnastic line to jump the vertical in the center practices focus and turning.
This is a very useful group of jumps, and, again, they?re not meant to be tests of scope. The fences in the line could be set anywhere from 2? to 3?3? for most horses?the objective is to encourage horse and rider to look adown the line of jumps and adjust or hold their balance. Making the jumps big and causing them to hit them and knock them down is distracting. The other three jumps could be 3 or 4 inches bigger than the line jumps to encourage them to focus on finding them amongst the line of jumps.
We like to use exercises like these to teach our horses how to jump on their own and how to take care of themselves when they?re jumping?a very important skill to have, especially on a cross-country course.
Thanks to my long experience of foxhunting and steeplechase racing, I’ve always believed that horses shouldn?t rely on their riders to ?hold them up? when they jump. So I’ve always used gymnastic exercises to teach them that skill, and I’ve always highly valued horses who have a strong survival instinct, who refuse to fall.
I value that skill even more highly now, since I’m 53 and Heather and I have a 3-year-old son. Heather can actually watch me ride my two mares, Alba and Amani, at intermediate and preliminary levels, in an almost-calm state, because she knows they have that survival instinct and training. Alba won?t let herself fall, because falling would mean she didn’t do her job, and that can’t happen. And Amani simply will not the body beautiful be found in the horizontal position. She?d stop before she fell.
But, because of lack of confidence or because of a belief that they should be micro-managing every single footfall, some riders never allow their horses (or their students? horses) to jump by themselves. So what happens if the rider is ?wrong? to a fence, if he or she doesn’t see the correct stride on sloping ground or if the horse slips on wet grass or mud’ If a horse doesn’t know how to use his feet and his body, he’ll likely refuse and lose confidence, or he could fall.
These or similar exercises are important stepping stones to jumping cross-country, but the cold, hard truth is that, to be fully prepared, You’ll have to include some actual cross-country schooling in your routine. You’ll want to school over a cross-country course before your first event, if you want to move up a level, or if you develop a problem in competition.
And our most important advice for actual cross-country schooling sessions is this: Put the jumps together.
That is, jump the jumps in a series?not just one jump at a time?to develop a galloping rhythm and to teach your horse to look for the next fence. A cross-country round should feel and look rhythmic. It shouldn?t look like a lot of speeding up and slowing down?it should look and feel as if you’re able to adjust your horse within a rhythm, similar to a dressage test. You can’t develop that feeling if you just school one jump five or six times and then walk to the next jump.