Q: I really struggle to make smooth changes of direction when jumping, and often as a consequence lose balance, impulsion and rhythm over the course. Are there any exercises that you would particularly recommend to help practise this at home?
A: You are absolutely correct to want to work on this at home, as an integral part of jumping a course is to be able to maintain a rhythm so that your horse is able to approach each fence in a course in a balanced manner, with sufficient impulsion. In the show setting, changes of direction are incorporated as part of the technical test element of the course. If the course designer places a fence a few strides after a corner or turn, no matter how well your horse jumps, the success will be in a large measure determined by how well you in fact negotiate the corner. If you want to progress through your jumping career, you will at some point need to learn to perform flying changes, but for the beginner it is acceptable to either change leg over the fence, or to bring your horse back to a trot for a few strides before continuing.
In order to practise this at home, start with four small fences on a large figure of eight. Each fence should have a placing pole 5.5m (18ft) before it (although this can be adjusted to suit the particular striding of your horse). Ride to the first placing pole at a trot. Allow the horse to canter for a few strides after landing over the fence. Return to trot to approach the second placing pole, and negotiate the second fence in the same way as the first. Once you are back in trot, make a wide turn to approach placing pole three. Jump fences three and four in the same way as one and two. If you know how to perform flying changes, or to switch canter lead over a fence, then you won’t need to come back to trot. However, in this instance you must remove the placing poles and just ride the entire exercise in canter.
Other variations are as follows:
- Move one or more of the placing poles further from the fence(s) to allow the horse to take three canter strides between pole and fence, and repeat the exercise like this.
- Remove the placing poles from in front of fences two and four, ensuring that the fences are a measured number of strides from fences one and three. If you are riding a horse allow 3.6m (12ft) per canter stride; for a pony allow 2.7m (9ft). Trot to the placing pole in front of the first fence. Canter from fence one to two. Come back to trot to turn to fence three and approach the placing pole at a trot. Finish the exercise in canter.
- Remove all placing poles and jump all four fences from a steady canter, slowing down to a trot for a moment or two if necessary, after fence two and four, in order to strike off on the correct leg. Otherwise, perform the entire exercise in canter and land on the appropriate leg after fences two and four, or perform flying changes after jumps two and four to ensure you approach the next fence on the correct leg.
Practising on a figure of eight in this manner should increase smoothness and help you to establish a consistent rhythm despite the presence of turns.