British sports horse producer Bex Mason has worked for many years breaking in horses and competing at an international level - here, she shares some tips for honing your position, when tackling gymnastic jumping exercises
The first question to answer here is: ‘What is gymnastic jumping’? I use this term to describe a range of activities (mainly ridden, however you can of course do pole work and cavaletti work on the lunge) aiming to improve a horse or pony’s balance, athleticism and flexibility. Gymnastic jumping commonly means grid work, e.g. a row of fences in the riding arena; it helps develop a quick-thinking horse, and is very useful to develop rhythm and calmness in a horse or pony that rushes.
One of the best uses of grid-work is helping the horse and rider learn how to adapt their stride in a given space; for example, you may have two fences laid out at five (canter) strides apart, that can also be ridden ‘longer’ for four strides, or ‘shorter’ for six. For four strides, you’re ‘riding on’, and for six, you’re collecting the horse, but still with good impulsion. That exercise described here is a good example of using the grid to aid the horse’s capabilities and performance - but grids are also useful for the rider, helping them to improve their balance, style and position, get their ‘jumping eye’ optimised, and help promote confidence, as well as the ability to ‘see a stride’.
You can liaise with your instructor regarding what gymnastic exercises would suit you and your horse’s needs (you should ideally always perform grid-work with a helper or trainer); but what I’d like to describe here is what you can be focusing on, regarding your position. Grid-work is a great way to focus on your own riding and ‘go back to basics’, to make sure your position is optimised for your horse. (Likewise, I’d also recommend occasional sessions on a mechanical horse, if you have the time and money!)
Since being fortunate enough to be personally involved with a groundbreaking rider analysis project at Hartpury college’s Equine Therapy Centre, run by Liz Launder and Kathryn Nankervis, I am even more aware of our bodies’ ‘patterns’, limitations and habits, as riders. Seemingly minor points with regards to a rider’s balance and posture can play a huge role in their development as a rider! Here are some common issues that may be flagged up when you’re undertaking gymnastic jumping:
Many riders naturally tip forwards as the horse continues down the line of fences; your hands may then move forwards and your lower legs may tip back; this results in vulnerability in the security of your position. (And if the horse runs out at a fence or spooks, you have a higher likelihood of being unseated).
TOP TIP: Squeeze your shoulder blades up, back and together as you approach the grid, which will draw your body to an upright position and ensure your shoulders are square. Look up - the higher your head (and eye-line), the more balanced you’re likely to be, and the less likely to tip forwards.
Unstable lower leg
If your leg drifts too far back, this may result in your toes coming down and your heels coming up, and the likelihood of losing your stirrups. Make sure your stirrups are the correct and comfortable length for you to ride with to begin, with of course! Chances are, you may need to put them up, as many of us ride a little too long when jumping.
TOP TIP: Keep a slight bend in the knees and push your heels down as you approach the grid, to stabilise your body.
Flappy hands or elbows
I will admit it, my elbows are sometimes known to flap (especially my right elbow), if I am ‘riding on’. In my case, this results in my right shoulder and my left hip dropping, and my middle section being unstable, or less strong. If this happens to you too, you are not using your core strength enough, and are probably being reliant upon your upper body as a substitute. (I pondered whether mucking out one way - e.g. I am right handed - has contributed to this slight upper body rotation that I’ve developed). Your hands are there to guide the horse after all, and you must have hands that are independent to your seat. Your hands should ideally remain still as you go over the fence, with your elbows absorbing the natural movements, and both reins should be the same length.
TOP TIP: Can you try riding without your reins, with your trainer’s approval, during your grid-work session? You can knot them on the horse or pony’s neck and put your arms out to the side, as you jump - keep retaining your jumping position over the fences, and sitting up in between.
Producer Bex Mason has worked for many years breaking in horses and competing at an international level with elite riders such as Tina and Graham Fletcher (GB), Ludo Philleaperts (BEL), Steve Cohan (NZ) and Viki Roycroft (AUS). Bex specialises in producing competition horses. “I find myself expressing love for my ‘Derrieres’ daily,” Bex says of the DE horse riding underwear range. “I openly discuss the results and versatility of the products, whether it’s to customers at my yard, or fellow competitors at shows; I don’t even realise I’m doing it - these horse riding pants change riders’ lives!”
Another top tip! Author Alison Gregory has published two excellent gymnastic jumping books titled “A Manual of Pole and Gridwork Exercises (Book 1)” and “From Gridwork to the Show-Jumping Ring (Book 2)”, available HERE.