Sheer technicality has nullified the idea that the way to win a jumper round is to be the fastest rider. The open, galloping courses of long ago were perfect places to let show jumping horses open up their strides and fly through jump-off rounds. However, it seems that as time went by, arenas got smaller, jumps got bigger, and courses got way more technical.
So how does one go about winning a jumper class if speed is no longer the best option? The key is the turns and the strategy. Most riders look at their course, walk it, and ride it without giving much thought to straying off the track. Perhaps the best word would be shortening the track, because the best jumper riders are those who take the shortest trip around the course and use speed sparingly.
I’ve noticed that there are certain traits that every show jumping horse and rider must have if they want to turn in great rounds and have a shot at that blue ribbon.
First off, jumpers must be adjustable. Courses often have short distances right before or after long ones, which requires a horse that is quick on his feet and quick to listen to his rider’s aids. A horse must be able to move up or sit back and wait for a distance. Riders should work on collecting and lengthening their horse’s strides through ground poles and down simple lines.
Top Grand Prix horses absolutely have to be adjustable. Not only does this make riding a course easier in general, but a horse needs to be able to gallop forward down a long line and shorten and balance for a tight turn, all of which can happen within a few seconds.
Similarly, riders need to be able to meld their position to the demands of the course. A scary jump often requires a deep, reassuring, and anchored seat. Conversely, a rider should lighten his seat and get up off his mount’s back during a long, forward stretch. Tight turns need a secure, supporting seat, and it is important that the rider is able to be versatile as the course changes.
Show Jumpers need to have a certain amount of courage to face a challenging course, especially at upper levels. In general, horses should willingly jump the brightly-colored and oddly-shaped jumps often found in jumper rings. Natural fences are becoming harder to find and are frequently replaced by airy, intimidating obstacles that will fall down with the lightest rap.
Bravery really comes in to play in bigger classes, most of all because a horse needs to focus his attention solely on the task at hand, which is listening to the rider’s aids and clearing the obstacles before him. If he gets distracted by a moving part of a fence or spooked by an unfamiliar gate or decoration, he puts both himself and the rider at risk. Similarly, such distractions can cause a horse to pull rails, refuse, or collect time faults, and these examples are one of the main reasons course designers use such bright jumps.
Horses should be schooled over unusual jumps at home, and should especially be comfortable jumping liverpools and open waters, both of which are increasingly common at upper levels.
When walking a jumper course, stop at each turn or rollback and consider a number of options. What may seem like a regular turn could be the key to a quick round.
The main thing to remember in turn is balance. A rider simply cannot land after a fence and immediately spin his horse to the right or left to make an inside turn; he has to let his horse know that he plans to make a sharp turn the stride before the jump, either by rein aids, leg aids, or by shifting weight (preferably all three!). When the horse lands, he should be expecting a turn in the chosen direction, and in theory should be ready for the rider to rock him back on his haunches and guide him through a turn. That way, he is balanced and ready to spring off his hocks and clear the next jump, which is usually right after a tight inside turn. The rider who pulls his horse into a turn and guns through it risks a refusal or rails.
Ultimately, the horse needs to have an idea where the rider wants him to go a few strides before the jump leading into the turn. The sharper a turn is, the more time a horse needs to set up for it; if a rider wants to go inside a jump to make a quick turn off a vertical, it would be smart to angle the jump a bit to give the horse more time to figure out where the rider wants him to go and thus give him more room to make the tight turn.
Being able to figure out and ride inside turns and tight rollbacks are one thing, but being able to piece them all together and ensure that they fit together to make a quick, flowing ride is another thing altogether. A rider must make a plan for each jump, line, and turn, and then string them all together for the shortest route. Sometimes a great turn won’t work because of other elements of the course that require a special ride, such as liverpools and airy oxers.
For example, say there is a bending line that walks a five. It seems quite obvious that the quickest route would be to angle the first jump and ride the line in a direct three or four, depending on how it walks. In many cases, this would work great, but a rider also has to be smart about his turns. Consider the jumps directly before and after the bending line; they may significantly alter how the line can be ridden.
Strategy also means factoring in a rider’s mount. Some horses simply cannot make super tight turns or stretch for direct routes through bending lines. In this case, a rider must decide what the best route for his horse is.
Most of all, a rider needs to be efficient and plan every step of a jumper course. Speed does factor in to jumper courses, but if a rider cannot control his horse’s speed or overuses it, he may overtax his horse and waste time. A horse moving fast needs more room to turn than a horse that is collected and pushing forward off his hocks.
So while there certainly is a time and place to let loose on a jumper course, remember that the fastest rider on course is not necessarily moving at mach speed. Those who bring home the blue are smart about their rides, and it definitely pays off.