January 2015 - Question Corral with Jennifer McFall
Written by Jennifer McFall
Wednesday, 31 December 2014 19:32

Reader:  I’m getting ready to move up to a higher level of jumping. So far, I’m finding that my horse’s jump over the bigger fences is harder to stick with. Can you recommend some exercises, either riding or ground based, that will help me maintain my position and stay with my horse as his effort gets more dramatic?

Jennifer: Although it is tougher to ride, it’s always comforting knowing your horse has more jump than he needs rather than the alternative - a low flyer! That being said, you do need to stay in synch with the jump, to not interfere with his form and also to keep from punishing him in the mouth.

Here are some ideas that may help:

Most likely, you are being left behind the motion over the bigger fences, which is caused by either being too defensive in your position (possibly in anticipation of the fence feeling big). Or, it’s a mechanical problem and your knee is pinched, causing your lower leg to slip back and your upper body to rotate past your base of support in the air. Either way, you need to work on remaining in the center of your horse at all times, and absorbing the jumping effort in the lower half of your body, rather than your shoulders.

Jennifer McFall and High Times at Rolex. Photo: Sherry Stewart

Of course, a jumping strap is useful for riders of all levels. It will guarantee that your horse’s mouth will not be part of your balance in the air, while forcing you to keep your hands down and your center of mass (your core) forward and over the pommel of your saddle. It also will be a great visual of where your hands should be once you graduate from actually holding on to the strap.

You can work on your balance while on your horse by having your trainer help you on the lunge line. Work up to being able to ride all three gaits comfortably without your reins. Once you are proficient at that, try keeping your eyes closed. This will show you how much of your balance is reliant on your vision.

After mastering the lunge line, you can continue this type of work over small and simple grids. First take your horse through the grid until he is relaxed and understands it fully. Then try going through without your reins and then also without looking. This will help you learn to be elastic and “feel” the motion instead of anticipating it with your eye. It will also give you a great amount of confidence, which is one of the most important ingredients to jumping bigger!

After this feels easy, you can take your reins back and gradually build the last fence of the grid up to the height that makes you uncomfortable. The grid will ensure that you meet this larger jump at the perfect distance and allow you to focus on your technique.

We cannot discount the importance of the rider’s physical fitness. If your core is weak, there really is no chance that you can ascend the levels without faltering. Having the strength and confidence to release your knee, trust your lower leg, and be strong across your back and shoulders comes from additional fitness work outside of the arena. Be creative and try other sports and exercising options, they all can contribute to better riding.

Aside from time in the saddle, we like to do yoga and snowboarding. The yoga helps with core strength, balance and focus in a low impact and positive environment. Flexibility is also addressed in yoga class. Snowboarding keeps your balance over you knees while forcing you to remain brave and aggressive going down the slope. Success is just outside of your comfort zone.

Remember that in everything we do with our horses, it is the process that is important, not the outcome. Be patient, work hard and enjoy the journey. Good things will follow.

Thanks to Jennifer McFall for tackling this question. Jennifer is a partner in the family-owned Dragonfire Farm breeding and training operation in the Sacramento area’s Wilton. She is also a top eventing rider. She and High Times completed their first CCI Four Star, at the 2014 Rolex Kentucky, and Jennifer received the $10,000 Rebecca Broussard Developing Rider Grant during the US Eventing Association’s convention in December.

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