In the hunter world, a "tight front end" is the gold standard. It's the safest, most energy-efficient and most effective way for a horse to jump: He rotates his shoulders up and raises his knees so they're level with or higher than his shoulder.
Unfortunately, if your horse jumps like many of his fellow equines, he may be "loose in front": either low with his knees (they stay below his shoulder and his forearms hang below the horizontal) or drapey (his forearms and knees may be up, but his lower legs hang). When he's loose in front, not only is his jump inefficient and unattractive, but judges could severely penalize him for safety reasons.
The good news (unless your horse is so stiff, straight-shouldered and upright in front that he's conformationally unable to lift his legs more than he does now) is that you can help him develop a tight--or tighter--jumping style. I'll show you how with one of my favorite gymnastic exercises:
A Trot Pole to a Crossrail to an Oxer
This exercise will set you and your horse up for a nice comfortable distance, so you both learn to take your time, necessary if he's to improve his jumping style--when he hurries, he goes past the distance and dumps onto his front end. The width of the oxer will make him work his topline and use all his parts, helping his jumping style.
1. Laissez Faire--better known as Lazy--begins the exercise by trotting forward in good balance on a very light contact. As he makes a nice trot step over the ground rail, my heel is down, my eye is up, and there's nothing about my balance or position that adversely affects his ability to do his job.
2. As Lazy starts to jump the crossrail, his knees are up, his balance is good, and his focus is already on the oxer one stride away. My eyes are also up, my heels down, and I'm using a nice release and minimal leg pressure, so I'm doing nothing to interfere with him.
3. I have him on a little looser rein as he lands from the crossrail, to give him the idea that he'll again have the freedom to use his topline at the next jump. We're both focused on the oxer, and I'm encouraging him to jump well by staying out of his way.
4. Lazy gathers himself, bringing his hind end well under so he can push off and get a very nice jump at the oxer. Once again my position is very balanced and non-interfering.
I'm also giving him a nice release so he knows he can use his head and neck. He's leaving the ground a little long, but that will encourage him to jump up and across the oxer.
5. Even though he hasn't quite reached the peak of his arc, his front legs are in perfect position to become tight and square.
6. And this is what the exercise is all about: Lazy has a nice bascule (arc over the jump), he's looking ahead, his balance is good--and not only are his knees perfectly even, but he's raised them so high that they're above his nose.
7. As Lazy canters away from the oxer, I offer him the freedom to find his own balance, staying up in two-point position and leaving my hands in the middle of his neck. Only after we've gone a couple of strides will I smoothly start to reestablish my position and contact. If he tended to be high-headed, I'd not only maintain my release but press down on his neck as well.
Louise Serio has 35 horses in training, plus a full crop of amateur and professional students, at her Derbydown, Inc., in Kennett Square, Pa. She is a co-founder, with fellow trainer Geoff Teall, of the American Hunter-Jumper Foundation, Inc., and is a US Equestrian Foundation "R" hunter and hunter equitation judge. Louise is a repeat winner of the World Championship Hunter Rider Professional Final and has trained and ridden hunters to numerous major championships.
This article is excerpted from "Tighten Up That Front End" in the January 2006 issue of Practical Horseman magazine. Is your horse hunter material? Hunter trainer and judge Pam Hunt helps you answer that question in Practical Horseman's June 2007 Expert Answer column.