Straightness Is Critical When You?re Airborne

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Jumping to one side or the other is a common problem?one with many potential causes and just as many possible cures.

A horse who lacks straightness over his fences can get himself and his rider into a host of problems?from missing a carefully chosen line to the next fence, to jumping awkwardly, to knocking down a rail, and to incurring a refusal or a run-out. This problem, commonly called ?drifting,? requires focused consideration on the part of riders and trainers, but once cured the result will be a horse who jumps far better than before.

Several factors can cause a horse to drift over his jumps, and determining why it's occurring will determine which of the numerous remedies are most likely to solve the problem.

PHYSICAL REASONS. The first cause of drifting can be a physical problem with the horse. If a previously straight-jumping horse suddenly develops a drift, the first place to look is the hind limb on the same side as the drift. That is, the horse will push off the sore leg less, therefore the ?good? leg will push more, causing the horse to leave the ground unevenly, creating the drift. So a horse with pain in the right hind leg will push himself to the right over the jump by using the left leg more.

Another potential source of a sudden drift can be a sore front limb that the horse doesn't want to land on (usually the lower leg, most often the hoof). In this case, the place to look is the opposite front leg from the drift, as the horse will lean toward his ?good? leg, endeavoring to get his less sore leg down to the ground first, to alleviate the force of landing.

If the horse has always exhibited a drift, then He's most likely demonstrating a long-standing weakness. The source of this weakness can be benign (a young horse is simply left- or right-handed and needs more strength to become even) or more serious (a soundness issue). If the horse suddenly develops a drift, call in your veterinarian right away. If a young or unfit horse demonstrates a chronic drift, work through some of the exercises we describe here, and if you see no improvement, or worsening, consult your veterinarian or equine chiropractor. Always check the fit of your saddle, too. Uneven pressure on his back can cause a horse to twist or drift in the air.

RIDER IMPACT.? If you're sure that your horse doesn't have a physical reason for his the lack of straightness, then the next place to check is at yourself, the rider. Although we often imagine horses as too big and strong to be influenced by our weight or balance, that's often not true.

Often, it's simply a case of inexperience. As a rider learns the ins and outs of jumping, it's natural to have some missteps with their own balance, which can affect the horse. But a horse losing his straightness can also be indicative of a rider?s own physical problems.

Ask yourself these questions:

  1. Are you keeping your weight evenly balanced in both stirrups'
  2. When you break over in the air, are you keeping your chin centered over the horse's neck, or are you ducking to one side of the neck or another'
  3. Are your legs equally closed on the horse's sides, keeping you balanced'

This is where an experienced trainer is extremely valuable. Experienced eyes on the ground can pinpoint things a rider is doing to negatively influence the horse's balance and trajectory. If you have no access to such help, ask a friend with a video camera to provide footage for you to study, to see if you can pinpoint where the problem lies. Head-on shots may be the most valuable, but footage from every angle, including behind, can give you clues.

BAD HABITS DIE HARD. If your horse has a chronic drift and you?ve ruled out physical causes, then the unfortunate answer may be that it's a training fault?someone has allowed your horse to develop a bad habit. If this is the case with your horse, then you have to think in terms of retraining his attitude, as well as his body.

To understand when and why a horse drifts over fences, we must understand the mechanics of a horse's jump. Drifting occurs most commonly when a horse approaches a fence and finds that He's going to end up at a deep distance, close to the base of the fence. This is a distance that requires the most effort from the horse, requiring him to really rock back, hold himself off the fence and use his hind end powerfully. A horse that doesn't want to work that hard (due to laziness, pain, lack of strength or lack of experience) will usually give himself more room to jump the fence by drifting, thus making the act of jumping easier.

So, in order to teach the horse to jump straight, you have to be able to convince him to work harder to jump correctly. Once you?ve taught him the correct technique, it should be much easier for you to keep him straight with your aids.

A PROGRESSION. When you're planning exercises to teach your horse to jump straight, view them as a progression of difficulty. Start with the more straightforward exercises and progress to the more difficult ones when you're ready. The purpose of these exercises is to teach the horse to jump straight without you working hard to do it. The rails should do it for you.

Level 1: Jump construction. The first step to improving straightness in the air is the construction of the jump itself.? The good, old-fashioned crossrail is the most basic example of this, but a crossrail can also be used to construct an X-oxer. You can also raise or lower one side of the X, or bring the standards in narrower, to make the lower/jumpable area of the fence bigger or smaller. Younger or greener horses should have a wider low, jumpable space than more experienced horses. (Although the crossrail is a standard competition warm-up fence, young horses often struggle to understand that they aren?t to jump the top of the X.)

The crossrail can also be used to construct two types of oxers to help keep the horse straight. The first is a crossrail oxer?an oxer with a straight rail behind it. The second is an X oxer?two crossrails set parallel to each other. The crossrail oxer is a more optically encouraging choice for younger or less experienced horses and riders, while the X oxer is a useful choice for more experienced horses, as it forces them to maintain their straightness over a fence with width.

Level 2: Poles on the ground, perpendicular to the fence. You can place guide poles on the ground on the take-off side of the fence, and, depending on the horse, you can also place them on the landing side. For a dedicated drifter, you'll need poles on both sides. For a young or inexperienced horse, rails on just the take-off side should be sufficient.

Start with them set rather wide, say a quarter of the way in on each side. For a younger horse just needing guidance, that may be enough, but for a more dedicated drifter, you'll need to progressively roll the poles in farther, until the ?lane? between them is only slightly wider than the width of the horse's body.

Level 3: Poles on the fence. This is the most demanding type of pole intervention, and it requires a certain level of accuracy from the rider and a certain level of experience from the horse. This step should not be used with young horses or green horses or riders. A horse without the experience to correctly ?read? a fence can become easily confused by the rails and badly misread the takeoff, resulting in jumping efforts that can scare both the horse and the rider.

Set the poles in an upside-down V shape, with the narrow point (approximately 2 feet wide) set on the front or top rail of the jump and the poles then reaching down and outward to the ground in front of the fence. The top of the poles (the top of the V) should not stick up above the jump?s top rail more than a few inches.

You can build this exercise as a single jump (vertical or oxer) or in a gymnastic line of two to four jumps. A gymnastic line with V-shaped poles is a particularly useful exercise for horses who drift due to weakness or poor training. It will practically force them to stay in the middle of the jumps. See More exercises and jumps

BOTTOM LINE.? Failure to jump straight is most often caused by a horse's weakness or unsoundness. After you?ve diagnosed and begun to correct those problems, the progressive training We've described should correct this jumping fault. don't expect it to be a magical, one-time cure, though. It will require many schooling sessions.

Article by Performance Editor John Strassburger.