To jump, or not to jump? That is the question.

Ian Fearon Showjumping Clinic

I was recently given the opportunity to take part in an Ian Fearon showjumping Clinic. This was kindly organised by my riding club, Benbulben RC. Ian is a high performance Level 3 Horse Sport Ireland coach who managed and coached a number of gold, silver and bronze medal junior and senior Irish teams in showjumping and eventing, at both international and European level. This was a fantastic opportunity to get some fresh perspective and brush my show jumping cobwebs away. The many many cobwebs….

Giselle and I haven’t jumped since the beginning of last July and I’m not going to lie, I was a bit nervous about our lesson. My confidence has taken a blow over the last few months so I’ve been taking it slow to build it back up. I didn’t have a bad fall or anything (just several minor ones!) nonetheless my inner critic has been making me doubt my own ability. Determined not to give up the fight, I signed myself up for this clinic anyway, in the hope that I’ll come away from it with some new found inspiration and motivation. And I’m happy to say that I did.

The Lesson

Ian started by asking our backgrounds and if there was anything in particular we were concerned about or wanted to work on. My biggest issue when it comes to jumping Giselle is achieving a big enough canter with out losing control, especially around bigger courses. This issue make it difficult to make up the ground needed for combinations or related distances. When we don’t make the distance it’s either because we’re too fast or the opposite, lacking impulsion. When either of these two happen Giselle is inclined to chip in a short stride to compensate or in a worse case scenario, she stops.

So, you can imagine my thoughts when I saw that there was a related distance exercise set up. Great! This is exactly what I need to work on!… Oh gawd – I’m totally going to make a balls of this.

Ian asked us what were the correct aids needed for showjumping; Uh?? Leg? Light seat? Contact?  Ian explained that for jumping the rider must use their weight, leg and rein. Our weight influences the balance of the horse. Where we sit physically changes the horse and it’s way of going. Our leg tells the horse to go forward (AND sideways little dressage/flatwork reference there) and our rein gives the horse confidence – essentially holding their hand.

Although familiar with the concept in terms of flatwork, I had never heard the aids described in such a way in regards to jumping. Everything became clearer once we started on our exercises.

Exercise 1: The Trot Pole

Our first test was  to simply trot over a single trotting pole. This exercise was for 3 main purposes:

1.To develop (& assess) our eye for a stride

Could we place our horses in the correct place to confidently trot over the pole? Here Ian encouraged us to slow the trot down, to keep a light contact in order to place the horse’s foot right infront of the pole.

It was amazing how much concentration is needed to ride this “simple” exercise correctly.

2. To give the horse confidence

Through our ability to keep a light, unrestricted & correct contact we in turn give confidence to the horse; by not rushing for the pole, the horse steps correctly infront of it while the rider stays in balance, in control and develops an eye for a stride.

On the first occasion, we tipped the pole as I didn’t keep enough contact on approach. Also, my approach in trot was too quick. We were encouraged to slow it down, keep a steady and light contact and low and behold, we hit the correct spot thereafter. Phew!

3. To assess the riders ability to balance independently. We were asked to display the following:

 A light seat: folding from the hip, using your core muscle stability to balance independant of the reins.

Jumping position: again as above, but folding into position, closing the hip, knee and ankle joints, using these 3 joints like a hinge while the horse moves independently and freely underneath us.

On my first attempt at maintaining a light seat I flopped forwards and backwards, struggling to find my balance. Oh Gawwd, I can’t even do a light seat?! Cringe! Here Ian suggested to us that we drop our hands down our horse’s shoulder, rather than up the neck. This worked a treat, and I quickly found my position on the second and following attempts. At this point I began to feel more confident. A simple change in my position made everything feel correct and my leg suddenly felt stronger and more secure… take that inner critic – bring on the jumps!

Exercise 2: The Bending Line

Oh Gawd.. the jumps. We gonna do the jump now…. 

This exercise consisted of 3 small uprights, 3 strides apart on bending lines. The first was approached on a left bend, the 2nd to the right, and the 3rd back on the left. To finish we were to leg yield in canter back to the outside track towards K onto a 20-meter circle at A riding forward and finishing the exercise. Between each jump was a vertical placing pole to encourage us to ride on the correct bend. This is where the concept of using weight, leg and rein came into play.

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On our first attempt we chipped in a stride at the second element, which caused me to push wildly for the 3rd element. Here Ian explained that because Giselle identified the bottom of the jump as her take off point he was going to pull the ground line out to exaggerate where we need to take off from. This is not the first time a trainer has done this for me, but Ian pulled that ground line WAY out.

So we came around again, this time more forward and I decided to come off Giselle’s back into a light seat. We zoomed through the exercise with Giselle standing off her jumps and achieving our 3 stride distance.

I did allow Miss G to drift at the 3rd element, riding it like a dogleg instead of a bending/curving line. Ian explained I hadn’t used my leg aid and to do it again, this time not allowing Giselle drift towards the wall. And here came my first ah-ha moment. On this attempt we nailed it, 3 stride distances, smooth bending lines, correct leading leg and a nice leg yield in the same rhythm out of the exercise and into our 20 meter circle.

When I pulled up, Ian said, “That was excellent. Now what did you use?” Hmm what did I do?…  “Weight.” “Then what?” “Leg.” “And then?” “Rein.” “Exactly.”

Ahhhhh… I get it now! 

Exercise 3: The Related Distance 

Nope nope nope… this is gonna be baaad… –Tough. You’re doing it. 

This final exercise consisted of a vertical upright with 4 strides to a double of oxers. Here Ian explained he wanted to see us riding for a 4 stride distance into a double of oxers to encourage the horse to go forward and to bascule over the double elements. The second requirement was that we ride a correct 1/4 turn on our approaches. To do this you must firstly half halt to balance before the turn, then ride a 1/4 turn with a correct inside leg bend off the corner riding into a straight line approach. Now I was worried, this was our arch enemy .. the dreaded related distance combination thingy. 

Our first attempt went exactly as I imagined; loss of impulsion off the corner, chipping in a short stride at the butt of the first element and making a 4 stride distance a 5 stride, panicking to the double.

Here Ian pointed out my issue, because I assumed Giselle would chip in a short stride, I rode like I was expecting it. Hit the nail on the head. But here came my next Ah-Ha moment. I have always been told I have to go for a bigger canter to make up the distances, which is true. However, Ian brought a new perspective: To make the distance land and ride for one 14ft stride. Previously I would think to ride for four big strides which is how I imagine, things would get out of control. However, now I see the distance as one big 14 foot stride and 3 normal 12 foot strides. MIND BLOWN.

I was told to do it again and to have the confidence to ride forward for that 14 foot stride. Ian suggested staying in a light seat as Giselle seemed to prefer it and if I needed to check her to do it in the light seat, rather than sitting back against her. So I did, twice and each time Giselle exploded down the combination.

In summary…

This clinic was a test of our basic knowledge and understanding of the correct aids needed for showjumping. Ian’s exercises were both simple and technical. If you applied the correct aids, the exercises were ridden smoothly. If you lack one or more of the aids, the exercise became complicated. My fellow participants were all capable and experienced riders but everyone gained something from Ian’s expertise; proving yet again no matter how big you jump or how long you’re at it, you can never stop learning when it comes to riding.

As Ian stated during the lesson, it is very easy to allow your rein aid to become the dominant aid, especially when it comes to jumping. This is what I feel has happened to me. Personally, I felt Ian was able to quickly identify our issues and although we’ve heard them before, he was able to teach me several new methods to address them. From now on I will concentrate on applying the aids in the order of weight, leg and rein. I’ll continue to perfect a correct light seat and correct jumping position. Finally, I must have the confidence to say Jump!

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