Clare’s Road to the Thoroughbred Makeover: Leave the Jumping to Your Horse

For 673 accepted trainers, the journey to the Retired Racehorse Project‘s 2019 RPP Thoroughbred Makeover has begun! Over the next eight months, four of those trainers will blog their journeys, including their triumphs and their heartbreaks, successes and failures, for Eventing Nation readers. Read more from EN’s 2019 Thoroughbred Makeover Bloggers: Lindsey BurnsHillary McMichaelClare MansmannJennifer Reisenbichler.

WHY JUMPING SMALL JUMPS IS BAD FOR YOUR HORSE

[pause for irate social media response to inflammatory title]

{I live a quiet life. Gotta get my kicks when I can.}

Anywhooooo …

In beginning a horse over fences, specifically an OTTB, as that’s what we’re here for, we see riders jumping so many small fences. They’re jumping poles, cross rails, flower boxes, little verticals, tadpole courses. And I mean jumping them.

So how many little jumps are you jumping?

Hopefully the answer is zero, because YOU should not be jumping any of them. Your HORSE should be. And yes, I just outed Jimmy Wofford’s favorite joke.

Bear with me here. Many of us were taught, in our early riding education, to get up in a two-point, grab mane, and trot over poles and cross rails. The idea was to stay out of the horse’s way as we learned what jumping feels like, which, in theory, is great. In practice, there are a whole lot of bodies out there who think that leaning forward (i.e. being ahead of the horse’s motion) stays out of the horse’s way. I say bodies because even when our minds know what we are supposed to do, our bodies go rogue fast and fall on past habits.

When teaching riders to jump for the first time, we teach them sitting. Now, certainly we don’t want anyone sitting over large fences; we are believers in the forward seat. But we do want our students to be comfortable getting left behind, and to learn to do it softly. It’s very easy to teach someone to come forward after being back. It’s very difficult to get someone to lean back who has been taught forward.

I’m gonna give us event riders some credit on this, because we get picked on a lot and also because of four things other competitive equestrian sports don’t have: ditches, banks, water, and solid objects (ahem, at speed). 

Clare and Sunday’s Thrill at, ahem, speed.

When we are working with a horse over a ditch for the first time, our keisters aren’t going to leave the saddle and our upper bodies are going to be very slow. The horse is to jump out from underneath us as we slip our reins (similar to dropping down a bank and certainly to navigating water). We all the know the consequences of mucking these things up, so we tend to ride them better. A cross rail in an arena has, well, fewer consequences, so we can get away with, well, stuff.

Clare and Buff Dude — only one of us is supposed to get wet. Photos by Toland Petraitis.

But just because a horse tolerates something doesn’t make it good. And for the Thoroughbred learning a whole new way of balancing as they come off the track, our body position becomes even more important. The racehorse gallops with more weight on their forehand, and to jump, that forehand has to levitate! That’s a pretty big jump from A to Z, and while the horse is gracious enough to get the job done in spite of our attempts “stay out of the way,” it is very important that we do better.

Before we jump under saddle, our horses have jumped on the rope with quiet guidance from the ground person, or with a pony horse, so there is no fear of the obstacle. But often when they come to the jump with a rider, they take an extra look, fumble their footwork, or over jump. They have to figure out how to get up and over with the weight of the rider, and so the weight of the rider needs to allow that process, and we need to “stay out of the way”.

Tom and Roseau. Poor quality photo by me.

What is NOT “staying out of the way” is leaning in front of the motion and allowing the horse to catch up. Try walking up a flight of stairs and having someone drop a backpack that equals 10-20% of your body weight on you just as you are raising a leg. Or, running down the stairs and having someone drop that same backpack on you as you reach the bottom. Not super fun, right? You may be able to stay upright with some effort, but you may not. You can navigate those same stairs with ease when the backpack is properly positioned and remains with your body as you move.

via GIPHY

We all know, in our minds at least, that our bodies are to be independent of the horse. In practice, we will spend our entire riding careers striving to attain this, and it will come easier to some than others. That’s okay. That’s where the graciousness of the horse enters and that’s why we care for them the way we do (i.e. far better than we care ourselves). We simply owe it to our horses to obtain as much education as we can, to learn from others, to read, to watch videos, to ask questions, and to be open-minded to change, particularly when we have to rethink our early lessons.

Our students, and ourselves, work on the ground, on yoga mats, balance balls, with ropes, the famed EquiCube, paper plates, champagne glasses, odd water-filled balls under our butts, bareback, stirrup-less, rein-less, and ON TRAINED SCHOOL HORSES (just a sidebar that training a horse to jump without being able to first practice on a horse that already knows how to jump is supes hard on everyone involved). The hunter princesses (you know who you are) go cross country schooling and learn how to jump a ditch (SITTING!) and into water, and how to sit in a dressage saddle. We will jump small jumps sitting and learn how to slip the reins and learn that only a handful(ish) of people fall off the back of the horse and you’re probably going to be okay (we also practice somersaults just in case).

Pacific Farms and Ashland Equestrian’s Position Matters Clinic. Photo by Crystal Sorrenti.

Students at Pacific Farms. They don’t know I took this picture. *shhhhh*

In order to learn to jump best, the horse needs the rider to be the common denominator, rather than the variable, and the result is a horse that learns how to jump well and safely and confidently. They don’t depend on the rider to tell them where to take off, and they aren’t so focused on what’s going on above them that they can’t focus on what’s in front of them. We want all our horses jumping with their ears pricked forward, not back at the rider.

I am not good enough to want to teach my horse to be dependent on me. They learn from the jump, and how to watch the top of it, and not because the rider kicks or shoves or flails around, but because they spider-monkey the first one and land on all fours, decide that’s not so fun, and then come back and try to trot it and knock every rail down like pick-up sticks, then come back a third time and have a lightbulb moment and the only thing the rider changes is the level of effusive praise when the horse completes the task properly.

One of our rather famed and much-loved Makeover horses for this year is Alarming, and I wanted to show a few pictures and videos of his progression over fences, because he is adorable and incredibly talented, but also because his early jumping was more like a jello-legged spider monkey after waking up from a nap and downing an espresso.

Despite his cheerful enthusiasm for life, his own athleticism actually worried him and he lacked confidence. He definitely didn’t need my own perception of my own inflated athleticism (a.k.a. ego) to get in his way. I have a really cool CWD breastplate that I converted into the perfect jumping breastplate/neck strap because #thereaintnoshameinmane.

Legs. Legs everywhere.

Eh. Not worried.

Okay, the opposite. But okay.

I’ve seen the bunny jumping videos but …they don’t usually have riders.

Oh. Well. That’s pretty good I guess.

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