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Horsemanship - Outside The School Ring

( Originally Published 1962 )


POPULAR IDEAS ABOUT JUMPING SEEM TO BE SADLY CONFUSED, even among our more advanced riders. The average conception of the technique appears to be that it is limited to developing a knack of not falling off too often, acquiring a good horse, and being blessed with luck and nerve.

We are all familiar with the exhibitions at horse shows, consisting of the four hackneyed jumps protected by high wings and with magnificent horses tearing around, one after another, like squirrels in a cage. Care is obviously being taken not to vary the appearance and character of the jumps, in order to avoid surprising the horses unduly. If a horse, in spite of all precautions, takes it into his head to come to a sudden stop, the rider is the one who is surprised—and to such an extent that he usually falls off. However, no one need lose self-respect or the admiration of the public on that account. One can always blame it on the horse or relieve his feelings by putting the trainer on the carpet.

It must be distinctly understood that the whole affair is intended to be an exhibition of fine horseflesh, not of horsemanship—an objective that helps not at all to develop skill in equitation.

Strange as it seems, it is accepted without question that a rider able to stay with his horse in an exhibition of this kind has reached the rarified atmosphere of superhorsemanship. If the same horse and rider were to perform in a jumping arena with varied wingless obstacles, even of moderate height, a number of sad facts would immediately become obvious. In all probability the horse would balk, refuse, go around the jumps instead of over them, run away, or otherwise get out of hand, and the rider's wild efforts with spurs, whip, and convulsive jerks on the reins would merely make matters worse.

In spite of the perfect simplicity of the problem, the one and only solution is avoided for some mysterious reason. jumping continues to be regarded as a separate and isolated form of horsemanship, meant only to demonstrate a more perfectly developed ability to hang on to the saddle. Otherwise it is supposed to have little or nothing to do with riding in general.

It is difficult to understand why the technique learned in the school ring, particularly the skill in controlling the horse by proper use of the aids, should suddenly lose its importance when the horse faces an obstacle to be cleared.

The fact, of course, is that the practice in the school arena is a preparation for jumping just as much as for anything else a skilled rider should be able to accomplish with his horse. A student should not be allowed to face a jump until he has acquired the necessary efficiency of control. Riding instruction should not include a single jump until this point has been reached.

The fact that a few ignorant riders occasionally do clear a hurdle without mishap does not affect the truth of this statement. It only proves that the horse has more sense and charity than his master and that old St. Hubertus is still standing by.

Jumping, whether in the arena or in the open field, requires a complete understanding between horse and rider—the rider's absolute control of his horse through the medium of his aids and the horse's willing and instantaneous response to seat, boots, and reins. The use of spurs, whip, and other auxiliary aids cannot be substituted for technique because they will tend to excite the horse, and an excited horse is always unresponsive and unreliable.

It must be remembered that the ability to jump is natural to a horse, as is his ability to run, swim, and kick up his heels. It is only the degree of his skill that varies. If his education as a jumper is begun correctly he can easily be taught to perform willingly and with confidence. In the wrong hands he will be discouraged, quite often permanently. Even the best and most enthusiastic of jumpers will balk when they are continuously run at hurdles day after day—particularly if the overwork is accompanied by the severe punishment frequently administered by the poor rider, such as heavy bumps in the back and violent jerks on the reins.

Lack of proper development of muscles and wind before a horse is entered in strenuous competition is another very common crime. A horse will tackle a jump with confidence only when he feels otherwise physically fit, even if he has not sustained sprained tendons or sore shoulders from over-jumping.

The first rule in jumping is that the horse must not in any way be disturbed while he is adjusting his stride for the take-off or during the take-off, the flight, or the landing. No rider is so good that he can contribute anything to "lift" his horse over an obstacle except the confident relaxation that comes from having his own heart unwaveringly on the far side.

Otherwise, the rider's active share in the success of the jump ends when the approach starts.

The jump may be divided into three phases—the approach, the actual jump, and the landing.

There are two factors that help a horse clear a jump—his momentum and the lifting power of his hind legs. After the approach has started the rider can do nothing to collect his horse except to prevent him from "running away from his hind legs." Before the approach is launched he can collect his mount by checking him and at the same time applying a heavily driving seat and active boots. The rider must have his hands in position, well forward on the neck, before the approach begins, so as to avoid the slightest fumbling with the reins, which tends to disturb the horse while he is adjusting his stride for the take-off. During the approach the rider must transfer his balance from the heavy seat to the forward one. This must be done so smoothly that the horse is not thrown off his stride and confused in his concentration on the point from which he aims to launch his jump. Boots, spurs, or whip should not be used during the approach unless the horse is extremely sluggish or shows signs of refusal. On horses of this type a driving seat will be found more effective than any other means of urging them on, and it may be necessary to maintain its persuasion until the last second.

The horse must not be allowed to lean on the bit during the approach. If his neck cannot be kept flexed it is better to give him a free rein--which does not mean, however, that the reins should be allowed to dangle entirely loose. The horse must be under complete control until he actually takes off, both as to speed and direction. A tendency to veer sideways must be met by an effective indirect rein. A panicky rush must be checked by short pulls that prevent his taking the bit in his teeth.

When a series of jumps are taken in succession the rider keeps his forward seat, avoiding any change in his balance. A steady rein is then sufficient to guide the horse and to regulate his tempo, while the rhythmic application of the boots assures vigorous action in the hindquarters. At the slightest sign of balkiness the seat must immediately come down in the saddle and the full force of its driving power take effect, accompanied by triphammer boots. Even when the horse moves smoothly and steadily it is always advisable to check him somewhat between each jump, in order to re-establish his balance.

Although the regulation of the horse's tempo during the approach is of the utmost importance, some experienced jumpers have their own individual tempo in which they perform best. Some prefer top speed, while others are more deliberate.

The form and character of the obstacle will also decide to a considerable extent the rate of speed at which it should be approached. A perpendicular fence requires a moderate tempo and a well-collected horse. A wide ditch demands more elan. Even in this case, however, it is not advisable to stretch the horse out at full speed. The headlong rush makes it difficult for him to use his back and get his hind legs under. On the other hand, no actual collection should be attempted in negotiating a ditch.

Experience alone can develop the horseman's judgment of tempo when he is facing an obstacle that is both high and wide. Asa general rule, the less experienced a rider is, the more he should leave it to the horse to decide the tempo. Only the expert can be trusted to time it accurately and correctly, to balance momentum and collection in the correct proportion.

The approach of a jump will put to the test the development of the rider's feel. He must be able to sense in time that his horse is preparing to balk, rush, or turn aside. He must have a feel of the proper tempo and balance. What is more, he must know what to do without hesitation or fumbling, when his feel signals the intention of the horse either to avoid the jump or to approach it in an undesirable way. His instant use of the aids must be instinctive and at the same time so delicately adjusted that the horse is not disturbed. One difference between skill and the lack of it is the ability to detect the horse's intentions before he has started to carry them out.

The general character of the approach is a gradual and deliberate increase of speed toward the take-off. The more inexperienced the horse is the more conservative his tempo must be, to give him time and opportunity to adjust his stride for the take-off and keep him properly balanced.

While the success of the approach depends to a great ex-tent on the rider's skill of active handling, the jump itself depends on his passive adjustment to the horse's motions and his ability not to interfere with them.

Special attention must be given the hands, which must be firmly supported on the cushions of the thumbs well in front of the withers. Unless the rider is very experienced they must not leave this position before, during, or after the jump. Should they do so, the rider may be thrown off balance and give a violent jerk on the bit and an equally violent bump in the saddle. This means that the horse is not only severely punished for doing his best but suffers the further handicap of having the rider hit the saddle at the exact moment when the horse's back is in vigorous action upward.

This action is too strong for the rider to resist and leaves him temporarily without control of his mount.

In passing the obstacle the horse must be given absolute freedom of head and neck. The strange practice of letting the horse drag the rider across by the reins is no longer popular. With the rider securely balanced on stirrups, knees, thighs, and hands, he needs no life line, as though he were being rescued from the water. He opens his hands a trifle and lets the horse pull as much rein as he needs by letting it slide out between the fingers, but without changing the position of the hands.

It is, of course, as stupid to throw the reins away entirely at the take-off as it is to hang heavily onto them. It means removing from the horse the support and guidance of the bit at the exact moment when he should be least disturbed. As a result he becomes confused and loses confidence.

During the jump the forward seat must not degenerate into a position in which the rider stands in his stirrups with his seat several inches above the saddle. His center of gravity, for obvious reasons, should be kept as low as possible with the seat knuckles loose from the saddle but with the crotch still supported against it. It is a small detail but one of considerable importance to the balance and security of the position in jumping that the heels should be kept well down. Among other things, this practice will prevent the boots from being carried too far back and thus preventing balanced support in the stirrups.

Too long stirrups are a serious handicap in jumping and must be guarded against. One or two notches shorter than the length used for ordinary riding will be found the most practical adjustment.

The proper position of the rider when the horse lands after clearing the jump has been hotly disputed up to comparatively recent times.

The horse hits the ground first with his front feet, while his hindquarters are still high in the air and his back strongly inclined forward. It would seem natural under the circumstances to lean far back in order to counterbalance the horse's position. This, however, is a superficial and entirely erroneous conclusion for the same reasons as those explained in connection with riding down a steep slide.

The forward seat should consequently remain unchanged during the take-off, the jump, and the landing.

When the obstacle is cleared the rider must remember that the jump is not really finished until the horse has covered several lengths after landing. He must not settle down in the saddle too suddenly or pull his horse in too abruptly.

There are occasions when the expert rider may modify his position to render active assistance to his horse. This may happen when the horse fumbles at the take-off, stumbles in passing the obstacle, or otherwise is thrown off balance. The skilled rider can then frequently restore equilibrium and help his horse to keep his feet by throwing his weight back-ward and supporting him vigorously with the reins.

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