Get a little ahead of your horse coming into a jump and you may find yourself jumping the fence alone — generally making a not-so-graceful arc over the fence going head first.
Sadly, most of us who ride and jump have become a lawn dart more than once in our riding careers. I had a particularly embarrassing moment over the first fence at Pleasant Hollow many years ago. My coach just happened to catch it on video and showed it over and over and over again.
It’s easy to get ahead of your horse. I know that with Freedom when I started jumping him, his jump was unpredictable and I didn’t want to get left behind so I tended to lean forward coming into a fence. I think there’s also a subliminal desire to lean forward to encourage your horse to jump.
Of course, that’s actually the worst thing you can do. By leaning forward you front load your horse, putting more weight on his forehand and making it more difficult for him to jump safely. It also encourages a horse without much of a sense of humor to stop. As a trainer I ride with pointed out, “when was the last time you fell off the back of your horse?” How true.
When I first started eventing and was still transitioning from the hunter ring, my trainer at the time put me on a horse at the barn who was known to stop if you got ahead of him. It was humbling to be on a horse that showed up my faults so clearly. After riding him through some breath-taking stops, I started to feel how I had to ride to make him feel comfortable. He was an amazing teacher and the feedback was immediate.
With Freedom, my concern is not so much that he’s going to stop. He’s a very honest horse who locks onto a fence and takes me to it. My problem is keeping him from getting too quick and running at the fences. I need him to stay in a rhythm and find the right distances out of his canter.
To help Freedom stay quiet, I CANNOT lean forward. Not even a tiny bit. He takes it as a tacit instruction to speed up. And that’s when we get into trouble.
To improve his jumping the image I have in my mind is getting slightly left behind. Although this is counter intuitive to my hunter background, it works for Freedom. It helps to keep him slower and helps him keep his forehand light and power off his hind end. It also helps me keep him in front of my leg.
I think that this style of jumping is what really differentiates eventing jumping from hunter/jumper jumping positions. In the hunter ring (especially today) I see riders that look perched over their horses’ withers. In eventing, you tend to see riders that are more centered over the middle of their horses — they still give their horses freedom through their necks and backs, but their center of balance is further back.
In many regards, this is a position that is reminiscent of old hunting prints where the riders have their feet on their dashboard, are sitting in the “back seat” and slipping their reins. When riding cross country over varied terrain, it’s a safe approach.
I suspect that if I watched myself jumping (I don’t have the courage to have my lessons videotaped) I’d find that I’m not actually too far behind the motion of my horse. It’s just that for so many years I’ve started to tip forward and I have to retrain my muscle memory.