Is your horse straight? I mean really straight: traveling on two tracks—each hind foot following the track of its corresponding forefoot. Does he jump the center of his fences, or does he drift to one side or the other? Does he accept equal contact on the reins or lean on one more than the other? All of these questions are critical for jumpers at any level. The straighter your horse is, the better he'll be able to push off his hind legs equally to produce bigger jumping efforts, the more correct his technique will be in the air (square shoulders, even legs, no twisting), and the easier it will be to stay on track to the next jump.
Crookedness most commonly results from natural one-sidedness. Just like humans, horses are usually stronger on one side than the other. Unfortunately, riders often perpetuate the problem by working constantly on circles and turns, sometimes even overbending their horses' bodies to the point where they grow tense and muscle sore. They also make the common mistake of approaching every schooling fence on a turn, which allows a horse to "cheat" by jumping on a slight angle. All of these habits strengthen a horse's strong side, while neglecting his weak side.
Work on lateral exercises and adjustability (asking your horse to lengthen and collect his stride) before he is straight is also counterproductive. Not only does this reinforce is strength imbalance, but it also creates evasions that require much more training to correct.
In this video, Kevin demonstrates five exercises to improve straightness.
The youngest of 11 children and the son of a politician/wool merchant (the family owned an Irish-knit sweater store in his hometown), Kevin Babington began riding in his native Ireland at age 11. He foxhunted, raced in point-to-points and participated in Pony Club before training with Irish show-jumping veteran Iris Kellet and earning his British Horse Society instructor accreditation. Kevin then moved to the United States, where he worked for Frank and Mary Chapot for several years.
In 2000, one of Kevin's students, amateur jumper Saly Glassman, gave him the opportunity to ride the phenomenal Irish Sport Horse gelding Carling King. The pair went on to represent Ireland in numerous international competitions earning, among many other honors, 12 Nations Cup team wins, back-to-back grand prix wins in Wellington, Florida, victory in the King George Cup Grand Prix in Hickstead, England, and individual fourth place in the 2004 Olympics.
Now based out of Saly's Kindle Hill Farm in Gwynedd Valley, Pennsylvania, Kevin continues to train and compete top-level jumpers—including his up-and-coming 9-year-old Irish Sport Horse gelding Mark Q, with whom he earned three wins and two seconds in grands prix in 2011—while also sharing his knowledge with a long list of successful students. He is also the Irish rider ambassador for Jump for a Just World International, a nonprofit organization that benefits underprivileged children. Kevin and his wife, Dianna, have two children of their own: Gwyneth, 7, and Marielle, 5.
Read more about these exercises to improve your horse's straightness for better jumping efforts, in the article "Straightness for Jumpers" in the February 2012 issue of Practical Horseman magazine.