Peter Pletcher: Upper-Body Control

Top hunter/jumper trainer Peter Pletcher brings you tips on achieving the position that helps you ride to a proper distance. Written by Sue Copeland for Practical Horseman magazine.
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Top hunter/jumper trainer Peter Pletcher brings you tips on achieving the position that helps you ride to a proper distance. Written by Sue Copeland for Practical Horseman magazine.

Your goal: A correct, balanced two-point position.

?Patty Lasko. All Rights Reserved.

?Patty Lasko. All Rights Reserved.

How you'll achieve it: Begin at the walk. Once you and your horse are relaxed and comfortable, picture your upper body as it would be in the "up" phase of the posting trot. Maintaining soft contact, lift your seat slightly out of the saddle, with your pelvis tipped slightly forward, toward your knees. Center your hips and weight over your heels, and keep your shoulders square and open, slightly ahead of your hips, roughly in line with the fronts of your knees. (By "open," I mean that your shoulders are rolled back, with your stomach muscles pulled up toward your sternum, literally lifting that bone up as you push it from below. This shoulders-back/chest-up body configuration is necessary for flat-backed balance and upper-body control.) With your elbows softly bent, carry your hands above and about six inches in front of your horse's withers. Keep your eyes up, looking ahead at an imaginary fence. (Tip: Practice with a friend, so you can check each other's position.)

From such a position, your center of gravity-located about an inch below your navel, and halfway between your back and belly-is directly over your horse's center of gravity, which is located just behind his withers and about halfway down his belly. I'ts a balanced position. (Tip:If you're having trouble clearing the saddle with your seat, your stirrups may be too long. Try shortening them a hole. If you find it impossible to hold your upper body in two-point, your stirrups may be too short, throwing you forward. Try lengthening them a hole.)

Now practice maintaining this position on a 60-foot circle. Avoid tipping your weight forward from your knees, rather than your hips, which would weight down your horse's front end. (You'll know if you're pivoting off your knees if your heels come up when your shoulders tip forward.) Instead, concentrate on maintaining equal contact fromyour thigh, through your knee, and down your calf. Use just enough pressure that you could secure a dollar bill against your horse's side in each of these three areas, but not somuch that someone couldn't easily pull out the bill. That'll keep you from "gripping" him with your leg, which he could interpret as a signal to go faster. (If you need to balance on his neck until you develop the strength to maintain this position, by all means do so.I'd much rather you do that than try to use the reins as a balancing tool! Over time, practice taking your hands off his neck, until you can hold yourself in the two-point without them.) Add walk-to-halt and halt-to-walk transitions. When you can comfortably maintain the two-point at this gait, you're ready to graduate to the trot.
STRENGTHEN AT THE TROT AND CANTER

Your goal: To build on the balance you developed at the walk by practicing at the trot and eventually the canter.

How you'll achieve it: Pick up a rhythmic posting trot, concentrating on your upper-body position in both the up and down phases of your post. (When jumping, you'll use the "down" position of your post to steady your horse's stride when you find yourself arriving at a distance too soon.) Once you and he are relaxed and comfortable, assume the neutral two-point position, just as you did at the walk. (Balance on his neck if you have to, so you don't snatch him in the mouth.) Trot a 60-foot circle (taking breaks when you get tired). Focus on keeping your shoulders open and your position steady as you maintain your horse's one-two trot rhythm. (And note, too, that when you hold yourself steady in a balanced two-point on him, he's able to maintain a balanced, rhythmic stride-just what you're looking for when you graduate to over-fences work.) When you can hold that position for several minutes at a time, add trot-to-walk and walk-to-trot transitions, to further develop your balancing skills.

Now practice slightly adjusting your position, to help build the strength in your legs and back necessary to make adjustments on course-and to get an idea of how your body affects your horse's stride. Slightly close your hip angle for several stride while maintaining the same degree of light contact with the mouth. (Keep your heels under your hips, rather than letting them slip back, which would throw your weight forward over his withers rather than keeping it stable over his center of gravity.) Your staying in balance while subtly shifting your weight forward will encourage your horse to slightly lengthen his stride . You'll use this position when you find yourself too far away from a comfortable distance (If you haven't maintained the same degree of feel in your reins to help him balance, you may feel him shorten his step and speed up rather than lengthen his stride. If he does, lightly increase your contact until you feel his step lengthen rather than quicken.)

After several strides, take a break by slipping into "neutral." Then open your hip angle to bring your shoulders and seat slightly back into a light-contact seat while maintaining your light feel-just as you would on the "down" phase of the posting trot. Your horse should slightly shorten his stride when you do so. (If he doesn't slightly increase your feel on the reins.) This, again, is the body position you'll use to subtly collect him when you're getting to a distance too soon.

As you practice, you may feel some strain in your lower back, as muscles you've not used before protest these positions. That's OK. With time and repetition (and the occasional balancing hand on your horse's neck!), you'll develop the strength to maintain the positions without feeling the burn! Now increase the degree of difficulty by graduating to the canter, repeating your stride adjustment exercises. Practice until you can comfortably maintain each of these positions through stride changes and transitions. Then you're ready to jump.
--Excerpted from "Upper-Body Control," Practical Horseman, December 1999.

For Peter's fixes for common on-course hunter flaws see "Step by Step" in the April, 2002 issue of Practical Horseman magazine