The gymnastic exercises presented in this article address the horse who has some jumping experience but has not been introduced to more technical aspects of the sport. Never forget that it is essential to maintain the calmness and confidence of your horse throughout his training over obstacles. If you preserve these two elements, you will be able to make the most rapid progress with him and produce the most long-lasting and beneficial effects.
Approach these exercises at a calm, regular, balanced pace with quite a long or possibly even loose contact. I place a great deal of emphasis on awakening the horse's initiative at an early stage of training and attempting to maintain that initiative throughout his career; thus, my emphasis on soft reins.
Do not ride your horse as if you must give him a good ride, but rather attempt to be an intelligent passenger. Once he gets to the obstacle, he must arrange his footwork and propel his body over the fence. At this point, it is your job to stay out of his way. If you run into difficulties, you should either lower the obstacle or, if you are jumping gymnastic obstacles in sequence, remove the last obstacle and lower the others until you get your horse going forward again. Once he is calm and balanced, you can resume the exercise.
Your goals are for your horse to maintain his rhythm, balance and regularity of stride over obstacles. I think that we should teach the horse to balance himself, not to expect us to balance him. An excellent exercise is to count in rhythm with his stride as he proceeds down the line of obstacles. For example, if you have obstacles set up to produce one stride in between them, as the horse lands over the first element you should be able to say out loud, "land." Then, as he reaches the end of his stride before leaving the ground over the second obstacle, you should be able to say, "one," in rhythm with the takeoff. If there are succeeding obstacles, you should be able to repeat this down the entire gymnastic line.
This sounds like a very simple exercise, but you will find it surprisingly difficult to perform correctly while your horse is jumping. You may find that the timing of your voice is not in rhythm with your horse's landing. This is the most common mistake I see in my clinics. Riders who make this mistake usually have some weakness in their jumping positions that causes a loss of balance. This loss of balance is very distracting because the rider will think more about self-preservation than about maintaining balance and rhythm in the landing phase of the jump. If you land out of balance, it means there is something wrong with your position. If there is something wrong with your position, it is usually that your lower-leg position is faulty. Most of the time, if you improve your lower-leg position, you will improve your landing after jumps.
Your horse should maintain an absolutely steady, regular cadence down the line of obstacles. Your counting should also be steady, regular and cadenced. Riders who become agitated when jumping will find that their voices rise in volume and pitch. Many riders will quicken the cadence of their counting until their voices and their horses' strides are no longer in synchrony. Many times, these are the same riders who will blame their horses for rushing.
Practice keeping your eye on the next object in your horse's path. For example, if you are trotting toward a pole on the ground, look through his ears at the pole until it goes out of sight. With young horses and inexperienced riders, I do not ask the rider to alter the horse's step in front of the pole because I want to awaken the horse's initiative. Whether he takes a slightly long step or adds a step before the pole, I am equally satisfied. If he steps on the pole, the chances are good that he will learn from the experience and not do it again. If he continues to step on the poles on the ground, I suggest that the rider find another prospect, as this one is probably too dumb to improve over obstacles.
Look sequentially at each object in your horse's path. If you are trotting over a series of ground poles followed by an obstacle, look at the first pole on the ground and then keep your eye on the obstacle until it goes out of sight between your horse's ears. This will help you maintain a straight line through the gymnastic exercises and will also help you develop your timing. You can't see your stride if you don't see the jump.
These exercises rely on cavalletti to stabilize your horse's length of step, speed and balance. If an obstacle follows the cavalletti, use the posting trot until your horse steps over the last pole, then softly lower your seat to the saddle. This ensures that you are in touch with your horse's back when he leaves the ground.
Do not lean forward while negotiating the cavalletti. When your horse leaves the ground to jump the obstacle, you should have the sensation that he has brought his withers up toward your chest.
For all cavalletti and jumping work, your horse should wear protective boots or bandages on his legs as he may knock his legs while learning to coordinate them.
For this column, I am excerpting Gymnastics 2 and 3. To learn Gymnastic 1, which consists of four cavalletti exercises, click here.