Jumping, Connection & Releases

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

A graduate came to me recently with a question about releasing a horse over a jump. She took a jumping lesson with a potential employer as part of her interview. The woman's preferred way of releasing was different from the one the graduate mastered as she earned her certification. Was there a 'right way' or 'wrong way' to release over jumps, she wanted to know?

From the perspective of the Riding Tree's progressive skill levels, releasing a horse over a jump is a simple matter of rhythmically riding a relaxed horse with what I call 'connection.' 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. When they are connected, horse and rider approach, jump and land over a fence smoothly and effortlessly.

Developing the skills necessary to create this connection from a rider's driving leg aids into a firm but following hand is not such a simple matter, however. It takes hours of dedicated riding to master the needed skills of rhythm, relaxation, balance and an ability to follow the horse's motion. Instructors also have to consider where the horse is in its training. Riding schools commonly have a valued packer or two in their string that are athletic enough to take good jumps despite beginners' mistakes. But most horse and rider combinations are somewhere along a spectrum from beginning to competent.

Over time, instructors have resolved this dilemma by teaching their students different ways to release the head and neck as the horse rises at the base of a jump and begins arcing over it. Their goal is to get riders without full mastery of balance safely over the jump while allowing the horse freedom to arc its head and neck over the jump and land without getting jabbed in the mouth. So, my answer to the graduate was there is not necessarily a 'right' or 'wrong' way to release a horse over a jump. The answer depends on where the rider and the horse are in their progression of skills. (Keep in mind, I am discussing the correlation between riding skill levels and release techniques, rather than what style may be currently popular in the show ring.)

The three basic releases are:

  • a long crest release with hands held against the crest about halfway up the neck so that the rider can steady the hands against the crest;
  • a short crest release with the rider steadied by hands held against the horse's crest close to the saddle; and
  • an automatic release where the rider maintains steady contact with the bit while following the contraction and extension of the horse's head and neck through takeoff, arc and landing with flexible elbow and shoulder joints.

In order to decide which release is appropriate for a given horse and rider combination at a given time, look at the whole picture. A rider's balance is the first consideration. Riders who lack balance often fall forward or back as the horse jumps and lands, throwing the horse off stride. They often use their reins and the bit connection to help their balance. The goal is to balance all of the rider's weight from the belly button back over the middle of the saddle without the need to steady the hands on the horse's neck. Hips, knees, and ankles must be relaxed and flexible so that they can close as the horse arcs over the jump and open as the horse lands. If a rider pinches with their knees, grips with their calves or locks their ankles, their balance still needs work. They need to use a long or short crest release for support until their balance improves and their seat becomes more independent.

Once students can ride in a two-point position on the flat with relaxed joints, maintaining their weight over the center of the saddle without any support from their hands, they are no longer depending on their hands or reins for balance. They may be ready to move on to an automatic release, depending on their horse's readiness.

In in automatic release, riders support all of their weight over the middle of the saddle. While their hands maintain a firm, steady contact with the bit, their shoulders and elbows close, open and close again as they follow the motion of their horse's head and neck from takeoff to landing. Not every rider is capable of an automatic release without balancing on the horse's mouth.

The horse is the other part of the equation when choosing an appropriate release. Before the rider can use an automatic release, the horse must be capable of the 'connection' I talked about earlier. In order for the horse to follow the rider's hand over a fence, he must be able to accept the rider's leg aids, lift and round his back, accept steady contact with the bit, and follow the rider's hand to stretch or collect on the flat.

Just as the horse learns lead changes in stages - changing first through the trot, then performing simple changes through the walk, and finally flying changes - the horse learns connection in stages. If a young horse is still fussing about bit contact or hollowing its back when approaching a jump, the rider may need to give with the hands to encourage the horse. Until a young horse gains confidence, even a rider capable of automatic release may ride with a crest release to ensure the horse stays round and has a good jumping experience.

Each release has its place. Each release can be done correctly or incorrectly. Using a crest release does not mean placing all your weight on the horse's neck. That's a sure way to land on the ground in front of the horse if he refuses a jump or lands awkwardly. Crest releases are a way to steady hands and stay out of the horse's mouth, not a substitute for poor balance. Riders who try to progress to an automatic release before they are fully capable as riders can wind up balancing on their reins as badly as beginners. If students are eager to jump and eager to master an automatic release, keep reminding them that all good training occurs in steps and requires balance.

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