Each year the Instructor’s Certification Program (ICP) brings in phenomenal instructors to host two symposia, one on each coast of the country. This year’s symposia features U.S. Chef d’Equipe David O’Connor who took instructors through “The Progression of Horse and Rider.” Laura Powell recaps her experiences in a three-part series of the West Coast Symposium, hosted by Galway Downs. The USEA would like to thank Event Clinics for making our ICP Symposiums possible!
As with the flat work, O’Connor reminded participants of their rider responsibility to control and set direction and speed. Only after achieving those two things can you then get rhythm and balance. The horses and riders were not allowed to progress until these two things were mastered. The tools of steering, forward, clucking, leg, whip all must be in place prior to asking the horse to jump. Again, the instruction was divided into three groups based on the horse age.
3 –and 4-year-olds
O’Connor began the lesson simply by having one pole on the ground. He asked each pair to ride on a circle that included going over the ground line. Straightness was emphasized as riders were on a circle, but needed to get their horses straight before the pole as if it were a jump. After successfully navigating the circle, they moved onto a small gymnastic exercise, focusing on direction and speed. First riders were asked to trot in and trot away, and after a few times doing that they were asked to trot in and canter away.
O’Connor then asked riders to take on a single fence followed by a combination no closer than 6 or 7 strides apart. He explained to riders and the audience that direction, speed, rhythm and balance need to be established 6 to 7 strides before each fence. Even if riders do this properly, they should always be ready to react if something deteriorates as they get close to the fence. Horses were not allowed to rush after jumping the fence; any rushing horse was asked to come back to the trot and immediately turn after the fence.
While trotting around the jump field, the rider should put his hands forward and push the horse forward into the hands with the lower legs. The rider position for jumping with the young horse is as follows: grab the mane with one hand when jumping, push your seat towards the back of the saddle and keep your legs slightly out in front of you. Please see featured photo for an example of this position. Keeping your lower leg secure and forward while pushing your seat behind you helps keep the rider still and quiet while helping the horse stay balanced. It is imperative that the rider stay as still as possible to allow the horse to figure out his job without being frightened by the rider’s weight shifting. O’Connor also stressed the importance of allowing horses to keep their heads up when jumping, in order for them to see clearly what is coming ahead of them, and fighting any urge to allow them to curl behind the bit.
With horses this young, O’Connor reiterated that instructors and riders both need to keep the jumping exercises fun. Young horses need the opportunity to process information and figure out exactly what they are doing. He also highlighted that jump height should be of no concern in the beginning. Work on the basics and keep it positive and fun. The horse should be interested and happy, looking for the next jump and not worried or spooking. If the horse is spooking, he is welcome to look anywhere he wants, but the rider must keep the horse on the defined line that he is riding. If something spooks the horse, let him walk past it several times in both directions, starting with 10 feet away, a distance from which he feels he could potentially “escape” from a predator in a true fight or flight situation, then closer and closer until they are comfortable.
Jumping emphasis with the 4 and 5 year olds began with a discussion about the importance of the rideability of the horse and the horse and rider communication. The rider’s first responsibility is to have the control, direction and speed well established 5 to 7 strides away from the jump which is a bit less time than he encouraged for the previous, younger group. O’Connor continued to emphasize the importance of quiet hands. He said rider’s hands should make like a set of railroad tracks – consistent and steady. In continuing this theme of quiet hands, O’Connor asked each rider to bridge their reins. Bridging your reins allows riders to maintain control, but without pulling on the reins. The riders used a bridge throughout the jumping lesson. Another helpful tip O’Connor shared was to use this bridge over fences to encourage horses to keep their noses up. Asking the horse to keep his head up over fences with your reins bridged encourages the horse to use their head and neck for balance without pulling you out of the tack. Riders were also encouraged to counter bend their horses around turns using their outside aids. The act of counter bending through the turns, though it may feel like an extreme bend the wrong way, actually encourages a straighter horses O’Connor explained.
6- and 7-year-olds
With this older group, O’Connor re-stated the basics he had touched on throughout the day. These riders were expected to have a much better understanding of their horse’s balance and engagement. The riders were required to keep track of where the horses’ hind legs were in relationship to the line of the jump. They accomplished this by actively engaging the hind end on turns. These riders were also expected to more accurately determine distance to any jump. One technique David used to help the riders with this was to use cones 3 strides from the jump to help develop a rider’s eye. As with flatwork, cones can be a very helpful tool in the jumping arena for any instructor. One helpful tip O’Connor gave to help riders keep their turns was to keep eyes on the jump at the start and throughout the entire turn. Many riders tend site the jump and look away during the turn, or not look to the jump soon enough. Either scenario can lead to riders overshooting the turn, and consequentially altering their approach and distance to the fence.
Stay tuned for Part III: Cross-Country.
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