At last year's National Horse Show, Practical Horseman's editor, Mandy Lorraine, kindly suggested that if I ever had anything to get off my chest, she'd be happy to let me use her magazine as a soapbox. As it happens, I do have a few things, like any old curmudgeon, and they come to mind every time I watch a Maclay or a Grand Prix and everything in between. They're things that I'd like to see every American jumper rider do every time he or she comes into the ring, and that, sadly, very few do so consistently now. They're simple to put into practice, even though only the very best riders seem to bother to do so. And since I've gotten only limited results from writing about them in books, perhaps it's time to give Mandy's soapbox a try.
My first hope would be for every horse--and every rider, too--to be awake when they come into the ring, and to make their circle to the first fence with the right pace and impulsion for the whole course. Having stood at the in-gate for heaven knows how long, many horses are dead on their feet when they start off, their riders hoping that somehow they will put it all together as they stumble toward the first fence. In most cases, they've hurt their chances of jumping a good round before they've even jumped a fence!
Second, I'd like to see all our riders learn to alternate comfortably between a full seat at the canter/gallop (with no roiling or posting) and the half-seat (the so-called "two-point position"), and then ease into the full seat during the last few strides of every approach. Reason: Most riders have a mediocre eye for distance if they ride the whole approach in two-point, where, furthermore, they get little feedback and have little influence. All the really good riders I watch are invariably fully seated before their horses are ready to leave the ground, because this lets them "see" where they are, feel what the horse is doing, and do something about it if necessary. I really believe that most riders' "eye for distance" is in the seat of their pants!
Third, I'd like to see our riders abandon their slavish adherence to the "crest release" and replace it as their standard, usual practice when the horse is in the air by maintaining an appropriate degree of contact with the horse's mouth through a flowing hand (or, as George Morris terms it, an "automatic release"). Reason: The best way to solve all "related distance" problems is by making an adjustment during the descent over the previous fence and the first stride or two upon landing. That way, you correct the striding early and can make a normally dynamic approach and takeoff. If you need several strides after landing to reestablish decent contact with the horse's mouth, as you must if you've used a typical crest release, you are obliged to risk making any adjustment during the next approach, and you can very easily spoil the approach. Frankly, everyone from intermediate on can and should learn to jump with a following hand. The crest release may be fine for the beginner, but it is a very limited technique for anyone who aspires to ride really well.
Finally, I'd like every jumper rider to swear a solemn oath never to pick up another time fault--by learning what it takes to avoid them. The way to do it is very simple: If the Time Allowed is tight, you plan to make a good turn or two at the most convenient spots on the course, and you don't make any careless, sloppy turns at all. This is something you can do with your brain alone, for it doesn't require any special riding talent. And for any rider to habitually (or even occasionally) pick up time faults is just plain stupid; over the course of one's career, the cost, both in placements and money, is a very real and totally unnecessary burden. Reason: Even a quarter time fault is almost as bad as a rail down. It means that you won't make the jump-off of clear rounds, and that you'll always be placed behind all the others who've had basically the same jumping round. Watch what the really good riders do--the World, World Cup, and Olympic Champions. They've all made a habit of staying within the Time Allowed; and if they have a fence down, they're usually among the fastest four-faulters. If you feel you can't make the neat turns they do, then learn how. It's hard enough to leave all the fences up without losing clear rounds to time faults simply because you've been indulgent about your own lazy planning and sloppy turns.
Don't let the simplicity of these four recommendations delude you into thinking that they aren't important. Just watch what the "good guys" do--and then join the club!
This article first appeared in the July, 1999
issue of Practical Horseman magazine.