Jumping and Connection

by Nancy Wesolek-Sterrett
Head of Dressage Department, Meredith Manor International Equestrian Centre

Jumping riders are among the most gung ho, enthusiastic equestrians out there. However, some riders jump the gun when they jump their horses. Lacking good balance and a secure, educated seat, they hang on their horse's mouth for balance or they lean all their weight on their horse's neck as they grab with their knees and brace their ankles to stay with their horse. In their eagerness to get over jumps and around courses, they lack an understanding of why they are doing whatever it is they are doing.

The Riding Tree's progressive skill levels apply to any equestrian sport. Whether you love flying over jumps, running reining patterns or enjoy dancing through dressage movements with your horse, the basics are the same. You must understand how to set the rhythm of the horse's gait with your seat, sit balanced over the horse's center of gravity with relaxed muscles, and follow the horse's motion at every gait without balancing on the horse's mouth. Only then can you coordinate your aids in a meaningful way to influence what the horse is doing - such as jumping.

Whatever equestrian sport you enjoy, you need rhythm, relaxation, and a following seat before you can direct the horse's circle of energy. You must develop 'connection' and this is different from the true collection that comes at the upper levels of the horse's training.

Connection is a circle of energy flowing from the horse's contracted abdominal muscles, through thrusting hind limbs, over a lifted back, into the bit and, finally, connecting to the rider's hands. As this circle of energy flows and connects, the horse naturally lifts its neck from the base. This rounds the neck and drops the head into a relaxed, natural position that can connect with the rider's hands and seat. The connection should feel firm, solid, with a slight sense of weight in the rider's hands.

Instead of feeling for this full connection circling from back to front, many riders become fixated on the horse's head carriage alone. A horse that is not pushing with his hindquarters often hollows his back and carries his head above the bit. You see a telltale bulge on the underside of the neck no matter where the head is positioned. Even if the rider manages to fiddle the reins to position the horse's head lower, the horse still travels with a hollow back. There is no connection. Attempting to pull a horse into connection with the reins, a martingale, a chambon or any other gear creates tension somewhere in the horse's body.

The horse must be relaxed and accepting seat and leg aids in order to create connection. The horse's relaxation and acceptance of the aids on a given day depends on multiple factors including his age, fitness level, training level and personality. Hot horses start out tense and tend to run from a rider's leg aids. Some jumping riders use this natural energy drive without ever teaching the horse to accept and respond to leg aids. However, the rider's goal should be to direct the horse's energy without creating more tension in the horse. So you start by working the horse in a steady rhythm to calm and relax him. When the horse works in a steady, relaxed rhythm (at every gait, eventually), you gradually introduce leg aids (from your relaxed seat and legs) to direct a circle of energy that creates connection.

At the other end of the spectrum, a lazy horse can be driven from the leg from day one. The rider's biggest job with this horse personality is keeping him attentive to the leg.

A horse and rider must develop connection in their flatwork - energy flowing from a driving leg into the rider's hands - before they will ever be able to have connection over fences, regardless of what kind of release they use as the horse jumps. When you understand what connection feels like and when you understand how to use your aids to create it, you can pilot your horse around a course without a bobble.

Good connection starts with rider balance. The shoulder-to-hip-to-heel plumb line may be different for jumping than for dressage, but every equestrian sport requires good balance. You cannot follow the horse's motion over jumps if you are not balanced over the center of the saddle and the horse's center of gravity. Jumping riders who lack strength and balance tend to cram their heels down and lock their ankles in an effort to stay with their horse over a jump. Without flexibility in these joints, however, they have no shock absorbers. They will tend to fall forward or fall backward as their horse takes off and lands. Unable to follow their horse's motion, they may limit the horse's ability to round on takeoff, land on his back before he has cleared the jump, or jab his mouth as they struggle for balance on landing.

Holding on to a neck strap can help you balance at the trot in a two-point position until you develop both strength and the ability to allow your joints to open and close to follow the horse's motion at the canter. Gradually let the strap go, one hand at a time if necessary, until you can maintain your two-point position and joint relaxation while holding your arms out to your sides or while placing your hands on your head or hips.

You have not mastered balance if you need to grab with your thighs, pinch with your knees, grip with your calves, jam your knees, lock your ankles or otherwise try to stay on the horse using muscular tension. Tension makes it impossible for your joints to flexibly open and close to release the horse as he arcs over the jump and to absorb the shock of landing. Any tension prevents you from making the connection that allows you to follow the horse's motion from takeoff, through the arc of the jump, to landing and regrouping for the horse's next stride.

A neck strap can also help you steady a hot horse. If the horse is fighting the bit and pulling your hands all over, hold a neck strap along with the reins. Let the horse fuss against the strap, not your hands, and he will gradually accept steady contact without pulling or fighting. Steadying your knuckles on the horse's neck can also help remind the horse to be steady if he momentarily regresses to his old habits. Remember, these habits are usually rider caused so be patient with your horse as he learns a new way.

Sometimes a horse is so naturally athletic that he effortlessly rounds up in front of a jump, arcs smoothly over it, and lands collecting himself to take the next stride. If the rider falls forward or backward or balances on his mouth he can still get over the jump correctly because it is easy for him. More often, however, what the rider does greatly affects the horse's ability to jump and land correctly. And that's where connection makes the difference to both of them. Develop connection on the flat at the trot and canter and your horse will become more athletic over jumps, too.

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Meredith Manor is an equestrian career college dedicated to preparing students for hands-on, equestrian careers as trainers, instructors, equine massage therapists, stable managers, farriers and more. If you want a career with horses and are considering attending Meredith Manor, request an information packet to learn more.

I love the Meredith Manor program. It's given me so much in terms of skill and confidence, it's incredible!
Katie O'Toole: 2007 Riding Master VI Graduate