You can tighten up your horse's drapey front end by working with him over an oxer-to-oxer in-and-out, if you ride him deep to the base of each fence. The deep distance makes him rock back and hold his balance. The width of the oxers makes him work his topline and use all his parts. The in-and-out provides two close consecutive efforts for you to organize and compare.
The setup: Build two 2-foot 6-inch crossrail oxers, 33 feet apart (two short strides to encourage your horse to compress his stride before the second oxer). If you think he'll drift or fall one way or the other after the jumps, add groundrail chutes 8 feet wide to hold him straight so you can concentrate on balancing and staying out of his way. When he's comfortable with the crossrails, make regular ramped or square oxers at a height that's comfortable for you.
The how-to: Pick up a canter on the rail and run a checklist to make sure all your flatwork skills are in place because you have to start out with balance, rhythm and adjustability to get a good distance and a good jump. Turn to the in-and-out, make sure your horse is straight to the center of both jumps and ahead of your leg (if you feel his engine die the moment you lighten your leg, he isn't), and canter in slow and easy to a deep spot. You can do this by "overriding" the distance you see. Here's how:
Find a rhythm that's active and balanced but a little slower than normal and look for a distance out of that rhythm. As you see the distance, lighten your hand and add enough leg to "override" your horse to the deep distance you want. (Figuring out how much leg that is will take some practice.) As he jumps, set your knuckles on his neck just as you normally would for a crest release and push down--literally ride that high, hollow neck down--so he starts to get the idea that down and round is where and how he's supposed to use it.
After you've practiced the deep schooling distance for a while--your horse probably will need one or more schooling sessions to get comfortable--try a more "medium" show-ring distance to see if the exercise has helped.
1. Here's the problem: a too-long distance to the crossrail oxer has helped create a drapey jump. The horse has nice height, but he's jumping flat--with his front and hind legs hanging on either side of the jump like a sheet draped over a line.
2. I start the exercise by finding a deeper distance--not by trying to find a specific point on the ground, but by seeing a medium distance from the stride and rhythm I have and then simply "overriding" that distance to get a deeper one. At this low jump, his balance is good, his hocks are well under him and he's rocked his weight back before lifting his body. As you can see, he's on a loose rein, and my position isn't interfering in any way.
3. We've put the jump up a bit now, that he's familiar with the exercise, starting to find his balance and getting comfortable with the deeper distance (which didn't all happen in one go). He's started figuring out that jumping from a deep distance is easier than getting "gapped" with a long distance. And his form is improved. Yes, his front legs are still split, but they're better--mostly because he's starting to "break over" and use his head, neck and body in a round way. His hocks are very flexed, he's working more from behind and I'm doing my best to encourage him to maintain balance and work all his body parts by staying with the motion.
4. We've made some progress at the deep schooling distance, so I'm trying a more "medium" show-ring distance to see if the exercise has helped. And it has: His head and neck are much better; as a result, so is his front end.
I'll continue to school him deep at home. When we get to the horse shows, I'll use the deep distance in the schooling area (I always focus on a horse's weaknesses in the warmup so he can do his best when he competes) and the more medium distance in the ring.
Excerpted from "Improve Your Horse's Jump!" in the February 2000 issue of Practical Horseman magazine. For more great jumping how-to from Louise Serio, see her story "Tighten up That Front End" in the January 2006 issue.