Text: Shari Michaelis
While showjumping might seem like a ‘point and shoot’ discipline to some spectators, a good showjumping round requires much more from the horse than just clearing the jumps. Showjumping demands that the horse is adjustable, flexible, in balance, has straightness in his body and has a good and powerful canter. Working the horse on the flat is vital in achieving these attributes as well as in keeping your horse fit and healthy.
Work on the flat for a showjumper is very different from pure dressage. In jumping, the two primary aids are the legs and hands, with the rider sitting fairly light on the horse’s back, while in pure dressage, with much longer stirrup leathers and in a deeper seat, the seat is the primary aid. Despite this there are a lot of exercises and concepts from the dressage arena that showjumpers can incorporate into their flatwork to improve their work over fences. Here we look at just a few of those:
Many riders seem to think that the horse being ‘on the bit’ is the main defining point of dressage, yet few people actually understand what this means. Being on the bit is much more than having the horse’s head on the vertical. To have the horse correctly on the bit, the rider’s aim should be to establish a light, elastic contact with the horse’s mouth and to encourage the horse to trustingly follow the rider’s hands and accept the contact. Riders need to remember that without contact, communication with the horse is severely diminished, so contact is something showjumpers need to find with their horse, not just dressage riders!
Impulsion and straightness
Controlled forward impulsion and straightness in the horse’s body are two important factors to be aware of when working your horse on the flat. The horse’s hind legs should follow the track of his forelegs and his hips should be in line with his shoulders. The horse needs to be able to move off your legs and stop easily using your seat and reins. The greatest reward for a ridden horse is the release of pressure, and a horse can easily learn that they can release the pressure themselves through acceptance of the aids. To practise impulsion and straightness practice lots and lots (and lots!) or transitions.
Adjustability is also an important attribute for a showjumper to have. A horse is considered ‘adjustable’ when he is able to lengthen his stride away from the leg and shorten his stride, whilst maintaining energy levels. Half-halts are a good tool to use in order to create adjustability. Half-halts help the rider to condense the horse’s stride for a brief moment in order for the horse to engage his hocks, bring his forehand up and become more compact through collected energy
Getting around a course involves a lot of ‘steering’. Being able to turn the horse left and right easily is also a top priority in terms of correct flatwork. The most common rider error when making a turn is to pull on the inside rein and drop the outside rein – which often results in the horse falling out through the outside shoulder, and straightness and impulsion being lost.
Turning, instead, requires the rider to use the outside rein in order to control the horse’s body and prevent the horse from becoming unbalanced and falling in or out. It is important to remember that when riding a correct circle, you need to control your eye and focus on exactly where you want to go. Learning to feel the correct bend is also essential. Most horses want to cut in on circles, so it’s the rider’s job to keep the horse on your ‘path’. I like to think of it as keeping the horse in your ‘tunnel’.
The leg yield involves your horse going forward and sideways at the same time, by crossing his fore and hind legs. Leg yields are a useful exercise for showjumpers as they increase your horse’s flexibility and help create suppleness. You can begin the leg yield by riding down the centre or quarter line, keeping the horses body straight but with a slight inside flexion (away from the direction of the movement). You then start to push the horse towards the outside wall using your inside leg. The leg yield is best started in the walk, and then as your horse improves you can progress to the trot and canter.
The shoulder-in involves your horse keeping his hindquarters on the outside track, while his body bends evenly, so that his inside hind leg follows the same, or similar, track to his outside foreleg while his inside foreleg is on the inside track.
The most important thing to remember before you ask for a shoulder-in is that your horse must be in absolute balance on the circle before attempting the shoulder-in on a straight line. The horse’s weight must be carried by his inside hind leg, so that he pushes himself sideways through the impulsion of the hind leg, rather than the weight being on the outside shoulder.
The aids for a shoulder-in involve your inside leg bringing the inside hind leg of the horse underneath him, with your outside leg positioned just behind the girth to prevent the horse’s hindquarters from swinging out. Your inside rein positions the horse’s shoulder off the outside track and your outside rein controls the energy and power of the movement.
Exercises in the canter
The canter is the gait in which showjumpers jump. An active and forward canter is important to establish in order to jump correctly and effectively. When cantering in a true canter, the canter should be three-beat and the canter stride should be balanced and powerful.
In counter canter, the horse canters with a right lead on a left-hand circle, and with a left lead on a right-hand circle. The counter canter is a good exercise for a horse who is stiff and rigid, as it helps to loosen their body. The most important thing to remember in counter canter is that you must be able to control your horse’s hindquarters so that the horse does not disunite or make a flying change. Counter-canter requires the horse to be very balanced and demands concentration.
Spiralling-in is another exercise that is useful in improving the canter and getting the horse to listen and sit back on his hindquarters. Start by cantering the horse on a 20m circle and spiral in to a 10m circle, and then back out again to the original 20m circle. As the horse improves you can reduce the inward spiral circle to 8m. When riding the spiral-in, concentrate on what your horse’s body is doing and make sure that the horse is not falling in to the smaller circle.
It is important that all showjumpers are able to successfully execute a flying change. They should be able to fly-change themselves or on cue. The flying change required for a showjumper is a more forward-going and less collected that the flying-change seen in dressage. During a showjumping round you do not have the time to stop, change leg and start again, so it is important that if your horse lands on the incorrect leg in the direction you are turning after the fence, he can do a flying change to correct himself. To prepare for a flying change, your horse needs to be in balance and have enough impulsion in order to be able to make the jump from one hind leg to the other. To get the change, the rider can change the horse’s bend in the direction of the intended change and encourage the horse to push the quarters over.
The showjumping horse needs to be able to stretch his neck out long and low in order to get a good stretch along the topline. The horse needs to be able to extend his body to the maximum and feel free to extend his neck. This prevents the horse from becoming rigid and blocked in his back.
Take home message
If you work on all of these ‘dressage’ elements you will really reap the rewards in the showjumping arena. After all, what is showjumping but flatwork with some obstacles in the way?!