Balanced Jumping: Part I
These exercises from Lainie DeBoer will perfect your flat work before taking your horse over fences.
By AQHA Professional Horseworman Lainie DeBoer in The American Quarter Horse Journal | January 23, 2012
Balance is important when you’re asking a horse to leave the ground and jump successfully across an obstacle. To jump well, he needs to be straight and in balance from the hind end up to the front end, with enough push from behind to complete the jump.
Your “track” gets you to the jump and prepares you for that take-off. Track work sets up the horse’s balance; it’s what gets him straight and gives him the right approach. And it gives you a destination on the back side of the jump.
Balance and track work enable you to negotiate a course. When they come together as one, the ride over the course should look effortless. To the judge, the transitions over the jumps, stride lengthening and collection, those all become invisible when the balance and track work are on target. Your goal is for your ride to be so smooth it looks like the jumps are just getting in the way as you flow around the ring in a smooth, consistent pace.
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A lot of riders have a hard time maintaining the rhythm and tempo of the canter. You’ll see a rider go slow and then fast and then slow down again. There are so many gear changes, the horse is constantly out of balance. You’ll see the horse lose shape, get heavy on the front end or be inverted and high-headed with a choppy stride – those are all balance issues.
Or a rider might not use the track effectively. She might cut corners or jump crooked, riding a little impatiently and not giving herself time to get organized. The shortest distance between two points is a straight line. Our courses are based off pre-measured distances, a 12-foot stride. If you jump crooked, you’ve lost the straight line and then you have to change your pace to negotiate that line, and you lose rhythm.
Those things all signal a “disconnect” in the communication between the horse and the rider, and it affects their ability to complete a course well.
What to Do
Really good jumping begins with good flat work. At home, I work on the flat four days out of the week, and I might jump one or two days, depending on the horse.
All of the things that we do in a jumping course are directly related to flat work – collecting and lengthening the stride, making upward and downward transitions, etc. – and if you can’t successfully do them on the flat, there’s no way you’re going to be able to do them over fences.
I’ve listed here the basic flat exercises I work on at home for myself and with my students to establish good balance and track work; I work on them in this rough order.
Transitions – To work on pace and balance, I first start with upward and downward transitions. To come down from a canter to a trot, you have to stay balanced, and it’s a simple test that shows a rider’s ability to communicate with a horse. I like to work on a circle because that makes it more of a controlled exercise.
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Spirals – I’ll go to a circle and work on bending by spiraling in to a tighter circle and then spiraling back out. As I spiral in, I’ll put the horse into a counter-bend to the outside of the circle. Use your aids to sink down into the saddle and collect the trot. The horse’s weight gets distributed onto his hind end. When I spiral the circle back out, I’ll shift the horse’s bend to the inside.
You can do it at the trot or the canter. All of your aids have to work harmoniously for the cantered spiral to the inside with the counter bend to work correctly. If you can get to where you can do it without your horse breaking gait or getting hurried in his pace, you’ve found balance. It’s a very hard thing to do.
The bending in this exercise is what starts your track work.
Serpentine – Once I have my horse balanced and listening to my aids and receptive to the bending, then I go to a serpentine of three loops. It’s all about bending the horse around your leg through the turns and then straightening his body out as you go straight across the middle of the arena.
When you can do a serpentine of three loops at the trot and at the canter with a simple lead change in the middle, and you can do that in addition to maintaining the same pace, it really sets up your course work.
Figure 8s – Figure 8s are probably one of the toughest to do well: two perfectly even 10- to 20-meter circles, with correct bend, impulsion and consistent pace. Serpentines and figure 8s help with your track work because you have to be riding both sides of your horse to do them – you can’t have one rein or one leg overpower the other.
In Balanced Jumping: Part II, Lainie builds on these flat exercises with ground poles and jumps.