Jumping ahead of your horse is a common, but fixable, problem. It throws both horse and rider off balance. Maintaining a solid, consistent pace, looking ahead, leg strength, body and hand position, and confidence all work together to prevent this unseemly habit.
We spoke with California trainer Erin Rorabaugh about simple exercises to help riders break the habit. Her advice includes back-to-the-basics techniques, including canter poles, which are a safe exercise to develop your eye and cultivate confidence, and riding without stirrups, which strengthens your leg and encourages an independent seat. In addition, she said transitions in flatwork help build patience and feel.
Horse Journal: How common is this problem, and why does the rider tend to do it'
Rorabaugh: Unfortunately, it’s common, although there can be several contributing factors. On approach to the fence, if the rider can’t see her distance, it can create anxiety. Rather than maintaining a pace and waiting for the right spot to reveal itself, the rider will pick up the pace, and leap forward at the fence.
Similarly, if a rider has difficulty maintaining a consistent rhythm, she ends up fighting her way to a fence, which can also result in jumping ahead of the horse. Looking down at the fence, or the ground, rather than looking ahead, can take the rider to the base of the fence — also known as “burying” the horse — and when this happens, most riders will jump ahead.
HJ: In an equitation class, how much will this habit count against you'
Rorabaugh: The judges are looking for a controlled, even pace, and accurate distances. If the rider is jumping ahead of her horse, it’s doubtful she’ll place.
HJ: How much does it adversely affect the horse’s performance'
Rorabaugh: Very much. When a horse jumps, it creates thrust from its hind end. If the rider is too far forward and over the horse’s neck, it causes the horse to be on its forehand. The horse is no longer balanced with his rear end under himself, and it makes jumping the obstacle that much more difficult. This can result in the horse stopping. Additionally, the horse may have problems with the striding down a line, having landed on his forehand, and out of balance. This can result in chipping or long spots at the end of a line.
HJ: How can a rider recognize that she has this habit'
Rorabaugh: She should ask herself these questions: Do I feel balanced, or am I pivoting off my knee' Does my lower leg fly backward over a fence' Am I staring at the ground during take off' If she answers yes to any of these questions, chances are she jumps ahead. Pivoting off the knee will throw the lower leg back, which will throw the body ahead.
HJ: Is it an easy habit to break'
Rorabaugh: Not really. We’re creatures of habit. The body responds without conscious thought, and once a rider has developed this reflex, it takes a great deal of concentrated effort to change it.
HJ: What exercises will help eliminate the problem'
Rorabaugh: Trot-canter-trot transitions strengthen the lower leg and teach a rider to wait and prepare for each change, one step at a time. These are essentials for jumping. Canter poles are also a great exercise to develop confidence in a rider’s ability to set and maintain a pace, see a distance, and adjust the horse’s stride.
Flatwork without stirrups helps immensely. It almost automatically focuses the eye ahead, the hands stay in the middle of the horse’s neck, and the correct parts of the leg and seat relay the instructions to the horse, rather than the upper body.
HJ: Does this habit affect the rider’s judgment for seeing the right distance'
Rorabaugh: Absolutely. The upper body positioned in front of the horse’s motion affects the rider’s ability to judge an accurate distance. It creates change in the pace and draws the eye down. These errors will result in the rider being unable to judge her spot accurately, and usually the distance will end up being the base of the fence.
HJ: How does it adversely affect the overall balance and position of the rider after the fence'
Rorabaugh: Most riders will end up very far forward, which results in the horse being heavy on his forehand. The rider then has to struggle to find her way back to the correct position, rebalance her horse, and then have the leg strength to send the horse forward. This makes riding a smooth line almost impossible.
HJ: Does it affect the horse’s balance'
Rorabaugh: Yes, because the horse is now on its forehand. If the horse has an obstacle just a few strides ahead, it will be very difficult for him. He may even stop, lacking the balance and coordination he needs to lift off the ground effectively.
HJ: Does leg strength play a role'
Rorabaugh: Very much so. The leg contributes a great deal in holding the upper body in the proper position, moving your horse forward to achieve the proper pace, and onward to the right distance.
HJ: How does hand position contribute to this problem'
Rorabaugh: If the hands are too far up the horse’s neck, the rider will be too far forward. Often she will start “picking” at the horse because she can’t see a distance and end up jumping ahead at the base of the fence. If the reins are too long and the hands too far back, the horse’s stride can lengthen, which causes the rider to lean forward and jump ahead from a long distance. Or, if the pace is too slow, when the long distance presents itself, the rider throws her body forward, and the horse chips, throwing them both out of balance.
Consequently, it’s important to keep the hands in the middle of the neck, with a medium length rein, so as to aid in correct body position and the ability to adjust the pace when needed.
HJ: How does the saddle contribute'
Rorabaugh: Saddles can change both a rider’s body and a rider’s leg position. A saddle in which the rider is truly centered and helps maintain the correct leg position is worth its weight in gold.