Ask The Trainer
I’m having a difficult time getting around a jump course. My horse always tries to cut corners, I’m always having to pull him out to the rail, and a lot of the time, he misses the jumps across the diagonal. Also, he will often wobble in between two jumps that are in line with each other, making me correct him. Even then, we will still sometimes go around the second jump. What can I do to correct these things? He seems to love to jump, and we jump single jumps with no problems. We can jump up to 2’6″ and he is very confident and relaxed over one and I know he knows how to do courses, because he was shown quite a lot before I got him, but, when I ask him to do a whole course, all we do is fight!
It sounds like the problems you are having are miscommunication problems. Several things you’ve said indicate this. Each of the problems you mention are all related, and taken together tell me you are not giving the correct aids to communicate where you want your horse to go, nor are you coordinating your aids to eliminate conflicting signals. I believe there are five aids that a rider uses to control a horse. These are: legs, seat, back, weight, and reins. Of these, the reins are the most overused, to the exclusion, sometimes, of some of the others. They must all be coordinated and in agreement with each other for effective commmunication. Aids in conflict with each other will confuse a horse.
When you say that you “pull him out to the rail,” I see some conflict going on here. In my experience, horses drift in when they are allowed to, or if they are actually encouraged to, however inadvertently, by the rider. The underlying reason and correction for both is the same. The reason the horse is allowed, or even encouraged to come in off the rail is lack of proper aids and/or conflicting aids that allows drifting or is confusing the horse. Correcting this requires the rider to coordinate all the aids in the proper manner. Learning how to keep the horse on the rail properly will put you well on your way to fixing the rest of your course problems. Lets take a moment to go over each aid and to understand how it effects the horse. I will only go into detail about using these aids for directional guidance, which is the focus of your question, since you have not indicated a need to control the horse’s rythm or gaits or impulsion.
The first thing I’d like to address is how a rider’s weight effects where a horse goes. This is, in my opinion, one of the most forgotten or ignored aids, yet it has a distinct effect on the horse’s movements. Since the rider’s weight is so seldom focused on, it usually is the aid that is in conflict with other aids. Try this exercise: Walk your horse around the ring, on the buckle. When the horse is going forward in a relaxed manner, shift your weight to your inside seatbone. Don’t move your shoulders or the rest of your body, don’t tilt your shoulders out of the horizontal. Just “cock” your hip and place more weight in the inside seatbone. You will notice two things. Your horse will flick an ear back at you, the ear on the same side that you are sitting heavier on. This is an indication that the horse has “heard” you, and then you will notice that the horse will start to drift to the inside of the ring. You have, in effect, asked your horse to turn, by shifting your weight in that direction. A horse follows your weight. Therefore, if your horse is constantly wanting to drift in off of the rail, I would venture to say that you are probably leaning slightly to the inside, particularly as you anticipate a turn coming up. To help hold you your horse on the rail, makd a concious effort to shift your weight to the outside when you want to stay on the rail. Only shift to the inside when you WANT to turn off the rail. Shifting to the inside at that point will help your horse balance to make a tighter neater turn.
The next thing I’d like to address is the use of the rider’s legs. A horse moves AWAY from the rider’s leg. Using an active inside leg at the girth, will incourage the horse to keep his ribs out towards the rail. You want to keep the leg at the girth, to effect the ribs, not behind the girth, as this will cause the horse’s hips to drift out too much. On the long straight sides of the ring, your outside leg will be passive. Approaching the corner, the outside leg should shift back slightly to keep the hips following the shoulders through the line of the curve, not allowing them to “swing wide.”
To see how much these two aids can influence your horse, ride your horse in a circle at a walk or a trot. Then, without changing the use of your reins, sit with more weight on the inside seatbone, and use a stronger outside leg. You will notice the horse spiraling in. Then, switch your weight to the outside seatbone, and use a stronger inside leg. Your horse will move out. It may not be as crisp or as quick a movement as it could be in conjunction with the rein aids, but you should notice a difference. As you will see, these things have a great impact on your horse, and if they are not in agreement with the other aids, the resultant confusion will cause the horse to be sloppy, sluggish, and resistant in it’s turns and straight lines.
The next thing to talk about is the reins. The most important thing a rider needs to understand is that a horse cannot be controlled effectively by dragging it around by it’s nose. As you’ve come to find out, simply pulling one rein does not guarantee that the horse will go where you want it to in a balanced enough manner to perform as you want it to. In fact, since a horse actually being pulled around by a bit can experience a good deal of discomfort, this is one of the quickest ways to encourage disobedience, resistance and tenseness. The reins HAVE to be used in conjunction with the other steering aids. They provide the detail needed for exacting manuevers, but one cannot force a horse to perform these manuevers by pulling harder on the reins. There are five rein aids, of which only four, the direct rein, opening rein and indirect rein, and bearing rein, are of interest to this discussion. The direct rein makes a straight line from the mouth to the rider’s elbow. When pressure is applied with this rein, it controls the horse’s speed, however, when the horse is ridden forward up between two soft direct reins, it has the effect of straightening the horse. The indirect rein indicates direction and bend. This is applied by moving the hand toward and slightly obove the withers. Care must be taken to not actually cross over top of the withers to the other side. In an opening rein, the hand moves slightly away from the horse, never backward, to indicate direction, however, it does nothing whatso ever to create or maintain a proper bend in a turn. A bearing rein is a rein placed against a horse’s shoulder, causing the shoulders to move away from the rein. It is used mainly in conjunction with an opening rein for tight, trappy turns, or in conjunction with leg and weight and opening rein for correcting a run-out.
At this point, I suggest taking a few weeks to practice on the flat, getting to know these aids and how to effectively use them to control your horse. I would suggest using circles, figure eights, ect. and concentrate on using all the aids to turn the horse, and try to use as little rein as possible.
So, to pull the use of all these aids together, I will talk you through each problem you’ve mentioned.
To begin with the problem of cutting corners, ask your horse to pick up a trot on the rail tracking left. To proceed down the long straight side, Take up contact in both reins, just finding the mouth. This is your direct rein. Make sure you are sitting with your weight distributed evenly in both seatbones. Push the horse forward into your hands with both legs equally each time you sit at the post. If your horse starts to drift in, correct the horse by shifting your weight to the outside, activating the inside leg at the girth, and opening the outside rein. When approaching the corner, use an active inside leg to push the horse’s ribs into the corner, use an opening outside rein to encourage the horse to stay deep in the corner, and use an indirect inside rein to create and maintain the proper bend and indicate to the horse to turn through the corner. This will keep the horse bending properly, prevent him from cutting a corner, while maintaining his balance for the work ahead.
To come off the rail to the jumps through the diagonal, work through the preceding corner correctly, but when ready to make the sharper turn into the diagonal, shift your weight to the inside, use a stronger outside leg, use an opening inside rein, and an outside bearing rein. Be sure to get the horse straight in time for the first jump. Be aware, however, that in a larger hunter course, even the turn into the diagonal line is not overly difficult or sharp, so you may not need to use an outside bearing rein if your horse is balanced and listening, and you may be fine with a direct inside rein. But for sharper turns, such as one might experience in a Jumper course, using the outside bearing rein and the inside opening rein may be more helpful.
To keep your horse straight between two jumps, use the aids as mentioned above for traveling down the long straight stretch. The correction is also quite similar, should the horse start to “wobble” in his line. Most likely he won’t, if your direct reins are equal, and your weight is distributed evenly, but if he should, you should shift your weight in the opposite direction of the drift, use a strong leg on the side he is drifting towards to block the movement, use a bearing rein on the side he is drifting toward to re-inforce the leg and block the shoulders from drifting, and use an opening rein in the opposite direction of drift. Once he is straight, IMMEDIATELY go back to your “straight” aids to keep him so.
Once your aids are all in agreement, (all telling him to do the same thing) and your reactions and timing are perfected, you will find you and your horse flowing around a hunter course with rythm and relaxation, and in harmony. Your Jumper courses will be better balanced and more athletic with less pulled rails.