The hushed awe that falls over a crowd in the tense last seconds of a jump-off… the you-could-hear-a-pin-drop silence after a rubbed rail rocks back and forth, ready to fall… the roar of the crowd after double-clear rounds… show jumping is one of the most popular, exciting, and demanding equine sports. Many riders start their careers with the desire to one day get into show jumping.
While the rules and winners are clear cut, the path to starting show jumping isn’t always so clear.
If you’re wondering how to get into show jumping, this article is for you. So shorten your stirrups and collect your reins; this is a crash course for how to get into showjumping.
Essential Skills for Showjumping Riders
The pros might make it look easy, but successful showjumping is anything but! You’ll need to master the foundational aspects of riding on the flat before you take to the skies, plus a few extra skills unique to the over fences crowd.
This is the first of many, many skills you’ll borrow from the dressage world, but being secure in the saddle is a prerequisite for perfecting your position out of it.
An independent seat may not sound exciting, but it’ll help your hand position, legs, and overall balance and is an important channel of horse/rider communication. Time spent developing your seat is never wasted.
Exercises to try: Ride without reins.
Ride bareback. Check out this great video from Horse Class on becoming a better rider without a saddle.
A quick note about riding bareback – a bareback pad is a great idea to protect your legs from horse sweat and dirt, as well as give your horse a bit more cushion and comfort. To really improve your seat take the stirrups off the bareback pad. While stirrups will make riding easier, relying on them won’t do much to improve your seat.
Correct Lower Leg Position
A solid lower leg is important for several reasons: it makes your leg aids clearer, keeps you balanced, and actually helps keep your hands and seat independent of one another.
Developing a good lower leg position isn’t just about knowing where your leg should be, but also about building the muscle strength and memory to keep it there.
If your lower leg creeps forward too much, pop into your 2-point. Then try to keep your leg in the same place when you return to a full seat.
Exercise to try: Trot (posting and sitting) without stirrups, then up the ante and try gymnastics without reins or stirrups.
Following, Independent Hands
Soft, independent hands that follow the movement and maintain elastic contact are integral for keeping the horse straight and keeping you balanced, both on the flat and over fences.
Hard hands, bent wrists, and fixed elbows can all conspire to undermine your hand position and muddy the waters of communication between horse and rider. Further complicating your hand position is that the foundation of good hands is an independent seat, so you may have to develop both in tandem.
Exercise to try: Loosen your elbows, keep your wrists straight, and check out this FEI article on common equestrian hand problems, and how to fix them.
Try this 5-step framework for developing elastic contact on the flat before tackling jumps.
Collected & Extended Gaits
This is one for both riders and horses, especially at the canter (though you should start at the walk and trot, first).
You’ll need to know how to collect and extend to nail the correct distances between jumps, keep him balanced, and ask for extra speed and impulsion when you need it. And your horse will benefit from the workout and listening to your aids.
Exercises to try: Beginner riders and newbie horses can start working at extension and collection at the walk
To perfect the canter, try these 3 exercises from US Dressage Federation president George Williams
Know (and Swap) Your Leads
You won’t get far if you can only jump in one direction. You’ll need to know what exactly a canter lead is (hint: it’s the leg that strikes out farthest in the 3-beat canter stride), and you’ll need to know when you need to be on the left lead or right lead, and how to change them (a.k.a. a flying lead change).
Bringing it back to trot for a few strides every time you need to change direction will add seconds to your time that you can’t afford, so spend time getting to know your leads and how to swap them.
Exercises to try: Work with a coach to learn when you’re on the correct lead – you’ll soon get a sense for the bumpy, disjointed feeling that accompanies the wrong lead.
If your horse isn’t accustomed to flying lead changes, try these 6 exercises to introduce lead changes.
Jumping Positions You’ll Need to Know
A good jumping position is formed over time with practice, repetition, and effort. A good coach will guide you through what skills you need to learn and when. But with that said, here are a few key positions you’ll need to be familiar with and some exercises to help you practice them.
A caveat before we begin – it takes more time and effort to un-learn a bad habit than it does to learn correctly in the first place. Working with an experienced coach is always advisable, especially when it comes to jumping.
But if you don’t have regular access to a coach, here are a few options to keep you on the right track:
-find an experienced friend or a fellow equestrian who can point out any major faults.
-record your riding sessions. Ideally, have a friend film for you (and make sure to repay the favor), or you can set up your phone or a GoPro and hit record. Review your rides afterward to see where you can improve.
Bonus: If you can’t get a jumping coach to your barn, you may be able to send her your videos for critique instead. You’ll still have to pay for her time and expertise, of course, but you’ll be able to access coaches out of your area.
Two-Point Jumping Position
Two-point is the foundational jumping position. You may also hear it referred to as ‘half seat,’‘forward seat, or ‘jumping position.’ Whatever you call it, it’s one of the essential skills you’ll need to master as an aspiring showjumper.
The purpose of two-point is two-fold: first, it gets you off the horse’s back, allowing him more freedom of movement. Secondly, it moves your weight up and forward, allowing you to match his jumping effort.
Two-point involves lifting your seat out of the saddle, closing your hip angle to about 30 degrees (note that you’ll bend at your hips, not your back), and then balancing your weight over your legs while keeping your hips in line with your heels. You’ll keep your head up and chest out, knees and ankles supple, and move your hands up the neck for a crest release.
The goal is that you ultimately won’t need to use the horse’s neck for balance. But when you’re starting out, it’s much better to balance on his neck than risk balancing on his mouth. Don’t be afraid to press your hands into his neck for balance when you’re getting started, but continue to work on your own physical conditioning so that you can balance independently of his neck.
Exercises to try: Two-point can be a real workout! Try these at-home exercises from equestrian athlete trainer Matt Luxton to work on your strength and fitness, which will improve your two-point (and just about every other aspect of your riding, as well)
For in saddle exercises, check out this extensive Horse Journal article from competition coach Sarah Mellings.
The best way to perfect your two-point is practice, practice, practice! Make it a regular part of your warm-up routine and challenge yourself to hold a correct two-point for longer and longer periods of time. Once you understand the position, successful two-point is usually just a matter of rider fitness.
Crest release refers to the position of the rider’s hands while taking a jump. There are three types of crest release:
Long crest release – This is probably the first crest release you’ll learn. Move your hands a little more than halfway up the horse’s neck. You won’t have as much control as with other releases, but you’ll maintain a strong position and avoid hanging on the horse’s mouth.
This release is best for beginner riders on experienced jumping horses who won’t run out or take advantage of the reduced contact. For experienced riders on new jumping horses though, you may want to use a short crest release.
Short crest release – For a short crest release, move your hands about 12 inches up the neck – not quite so far as with a long crest release.
The short crest release is best for strong intermediate/ advanced riders, as it gives the rider more control and saves time gathering your reins if you need to make a tight turn to another jump. You’ll need good balance though, as losing your balance could result in a painful jab to the horse’s mouth.
Automatic crest release – This type of release is best left to advanced riders with excellent balance. Instead of pressing the knuckles lightly against the horse’s neck, the rider’s hand follows the movement of the horse over the fence.
You’ll need excellent balance and appreciation of your horse’s movement to ace this one, but it’s beautiful when properly done. The advantage of the automatic release is that the rider does not lean so heavily on the horse’s neck (a common fault in crest releases).
Exercise to try: practicing your crest release will be part of practicing your two-point, but try this gymnastic exercise from hunter legend George Morris to perfect your timing and flow over a small cross rail.
Equipment for Showjumping
When you start jump training, an all-purpose saddle and your regular tack will serve just fine. But when it comes time to progress, your coach may advise you to invest in some of the following:
Close Contact Saddle
Close contact saddles have a few key differences compared to all-purpose or dressage saddles. You’ll notice a forward cut flap to accommodate the shorter stirrup length, a shallow seat to allow the rider to maintain a jumping position, and a more forward center of gravity to match the forward movement and speed of the discipline.
While we’re talking saddles, expect to shorten your stirrups a hole or two (possibly more, depending on the length of your lower leg and thigh) to help you get out of the saddle for two- point.
Shock Absorbing Pad
Let’s be honest – we’ve all been guilty of the odd less-than-graceful landing or occasionally unbalanced seat. Your horse will have a longer and more enjoyable career if he stays sound and comfortable, and a shock absorbing pad is a handy tool to more evenly distribute the rider’s weight and absorb the impact from jumping.
Gel saddle pads help absorb shock and lessen the impact, and many gel pads are also anti-slip, which helps keep the saddle in place. For the show ring, you can opt for a gel pad with sheepskin lining to keep a traditional sheepskin look, with modern shock absorption and breathability.
Big fences require a big effort, and horse wearing studs can easily injure himself when he tucks his legs up underneath him. A stud guard girth has a large, reinforced leather guard to protect his sensitive stomach from stud shod hooves.
Look for one that includes a clip for attaching a breastplate or martingale, as this type of girth is too wide to loop through chest attachments.
A breastplate for jumping serves two purposes: to prevent the saddle from slipping backward and as an attachment for a running martingale, if your horse needs one.
For new or nervous riders, a breastplate also makes a handy neck strap to grab in emergencies. You can look for one that matches your tack, but remember that you won’t be judged on turnout during a jumper round, only time and faults.
Tip: If you don’t need a martingale but want the security of a neck strap, use an old stirrup leather (without the stirrup, of course) around the horse’s neck. It will give you something to grab onto if you need it, without adding unnecessary tack.
Your horse doesn’t necessarily need boots just because he’s jumping, but many riders appreciate the extra level of support and protection they provide. For jumping, the open front tendon boot is typically the boot of choice (although you should always use what works best for your horse, not what’s in fashion).
Open front tendon boots provide tendon support and leg protection from brushing while still allowing a horse to feel when he knocks a rail.
Next horse to the ring, please!
This list is hardly exhaustive, but it should give you a decent introduction to the skills you’ll need to master and some of the equipment you may need to purchase on your path to showjumping glory.
And if the “show” part of “showjumping” isn’t your thing, don’t sweat it – there is still plenty of fun and excitement to be had in training and popping over a few jumps on your own. You certainly don’t need a show ring to be a capable showjumper.
Calling all Equinavia showjumpers – what’s your #1 piece of advice for riders looking to get into showjumping?