So the jumping bug has bitten and you’re dreaming of stylishly flying around bigger courses and jumps. How do you progress from where you are to bigger jumps?
Often, one of the biggest hurdles riders face is their own confidence, especially when it comes to jumping. Riding requires a lot of mental strength, and we’re often our own biggest enemies in the saddle!
But even for the most confident of riders, learning how to jump bigger can be a big learning curve.
Here’s how you can start jumping bigger fences, regardless of whether you’re the bravest rider in the world or less-than-confident in the saddle.
1. Use Grids
One of the biggest problems riders have when they start moving up is that you tend to ride differently when you see a big fence. Your reaction might be to kick harder, whereas somebody else might freeze and take their leg off. But all of this means that your chances of having a poor canter and bad distance to the bigger fence is high.
The easiest way to start introducing bigger fences in a comfortable and familiar way to both horse and rider is to use a grid. Sometimes known as a line or a gymnastic, these are jumps (sometimes with canter/trot poles too) set up at pre-defined and measured distances so the horse takes a set number of strides. They’re perfect for jumping bigger because they set both rider and horse up well, meaning that you’ll always have a good takeoff spot for the horse, and the grids allow the rider to focus on their own position.
Ideally, the bigger fence should be in the middle or end of the grid and should be two or three strides after the previous element. That’s enough time for both of you to land, recover, and prepare for the bigger jump. But it isn’t such a long distance that your horse is likely to add or drop a stride.
Remember, you should have at least two to three elements before the big jump so that any rhythm or distance errors can sort themselves out before you reach the big jump. These can be small and easy; such as a cross pole with a one stride to a vertical and then a two stride to another vertical or small oxer.
2. Ride a Schoolmaster
If you’re wanting to jump bigger but don’t have a suitable horse, a great option is to ride an experienced horse. This builds your confidence and means that you can gain experience while making mistakes.
Remember that there are two types of “schoolmasters” – for experienced riders needing to reach the top levels and really perfect their skills, a good schoolmaster is the type that will only perform when ridden correctly. For most of us – i.e., those who are wanting to gain experience and confidence, a good jumping schoolmaster is a brave and honest type who helps you out if you get it wrong. They’re much more forgiving than a young or inexperienced horse.
Keep in mind that good schoolmasters don’t have to be the most talented horses in the world either. They just need to be able to jump reliably at the height you’re looking at moving up to. If you’re riding 2’3 and want to eventually ride 3’3 then your schoolmaster ride doesn’t have to be a horse with a 4’6 record!
You can gain experience by riding in lessons with experienced horses, or looking at a lease opportunity. Some places might even offer schoolmaster bootcamps.
3. Work Over Poles
It might sound counterintuitive to go back to poles on the ground in order to jump bigger, but hear me out! When it comes to riding bigger courses of jumps, most riders come unstuck with the basics. That is, they don’t have adequate control of the canter. This normally manifests itself as you not seeing a distance or misjudging when your horse is going to take off. This can lead to stops, the horse chipping in, or the rider getting left behind.
Working over ground poles means that you can focus on adjustability, balance, and getting the perfect takeoff spot thousands of times without damaging your horses joints. One simple exercise that you can do regularly is to put two poles at around 6 strides apart and work on adding and removing strides. This can be done on a curve or straight line.
The more you do this, the more you train your eye and muscle memory. It also starts to help you develop a better feel for what is the right tempo and rhythm for the canter, and ensures that your horse is responsive to both your lengthening and collecting aids.
4. Add in a Few Bigger Jumps First
You don’t have to go from jumping fences that are all 2’6 to jumping fences that are all 2’9 on one day.
If you’re jumping a course or having a lesson, make one or two of the easier fences bigger than the rest. That might be the back element of a double, an inviting oxer on a related distance, or a plain and simple vertical with a smooth turn towards it.
That way, you can make it easy for you and the horse to successfully jump one or two bigger fences while still keeping the rest at a height you’re comfortable with.
5. Work On Confidence
Confidence is key to jumping, for both horse and rider.
When it comes to the rider side of things, it’s important that you find what works for you. Make sure you only move up to a height that you know you’re capable of, and even consider working with a mental coach or sports psychologist. Figuring out what mindset you need to get into in order to feel capable and confident is a very personal thing, but it’s important that you do develop your confidence alongside your skills.
Then there’s the horse to think about too! Remember that it’s easy to scare a horse by pushing them to jump big if they’re not ready. With young horses especially, it’s key to set them up for success by building a solid foundation. Once a horse’s confidence has been knocked, rebuilding it takes time and caution.
So be sure that your horse is always ready for what you’re asking. Your horse should be jumping confidently and with ease, and you shouldn’t have the sense that he’s tense, nervous, or that what you’re asking him to do is too hard physically or mentally. From here, you can gradually expand their comfort zone. Be sure to do plenty of work to improve strength, balance, and rideability on the flat.
If your horse is the nervous or spooky type, you’ll also want to do plenty of work with different fillers so that they’re not likely to stop when you jump higher classes which typically have more “scary” items like water trays, planks, and walls.
Of course, knowing when to push your horse and when to back off comes down to good horsemanship. That’s why it’s important to work with an experienced coach or trainer who can help you make the right decisions for your horse’s development.
With these five tips, you can safely and confidently build your experience and start jumping bigger. Even the Olympic riders were jumping cross poles once upon a time!
What strategies do you use to jump higher? Let us know in the comments.