Anatomy in motion – how horses jump


horse jump

Understanding the five phases of a horse’s jump, and what happens during each, can help improve your riding and training.

Jumping is one of the most beautiful and athletic activities horses are capable of. Understanding the phases of the equine jump can help us with riding, training and judging in jumping sports.

A horse’s jump has five phases: approach, takeoff, flight (bascule), landing, and recovery. Horses can jump from any gait or from a standstill, but they usually jump from the canter. Ideally, they jump most ordinary obstacles “in stride”; that is, the length of the jump is the same as the length of the canter stride.

The five phases of a jump

Phase one – approach

During the approach, the horse sees the jump, judges the effort necessary to clear it, and adjusts his line (direction), pace (speed), balance, impulsion and length of stride to arrive at the best takeoff point. He needs a well-balanced, rhythmic gait to allow him to adjust his stride and engage his hind legs under his body for takeoff. Because of the way a horse’s eyes focus, he must raise or lower his head to adjust his focus on the jump. A very high head position or restriction of the head and neck can affect his ability to see the jump.

Phase two – takeoff

The last stride before takeoff is often short. Balanced on one foreleg, the horse engages his hind legs forward under his body, flexing the loin at the lumbosacral joint. The hind legs should be lined up together for maximum thrust. The horse “sits” on his hindquarters with his hocks bent as his forelegs thrust against the ground, one after the other, using the muscles of the forelegs and shoulders (especially the triceps) and the spring mechanism of the forelegs to lift the forehand. Both hind legs thrust powerfully against the ground, sending the whole horse up and forward. As the horse leaves the ground, his neck extends forward and his shoulders rotate, bringing his forelegs up. His forelegs fold tightly to avoid hitting the obstacle, and his hind legs extend backward as he leaves the ground.

The balance and thrust of the takeoff are critical, as this determines how high and wide the horse jumps – once in the air, he cannot lift himself higher. Failing to engage both hind legs or push strongly enough, or “leaving a hind leg behind”, robs the horse of power and “scope” (ability to jump high and wide.) If he is too slow in raising his forehand or folding his forelegs, or if his shoulders do not rotate or his forelegs do not fold sufficiently, he may hang his knees and hit the fence with his forelegs. Hitting an obstacle in front, especially above the knees, may cause a fall and is therefore considered a serious fault.

Phase three – flight and bascule

In flight, the horse leaves the ground, traveling up, forward, and over the obstacle in an arc or “bascule” (a French word meaning “arc in motion”). His neck extends forward and down as his shoulders rotate, raising and folding his forelegs to the utmost as they pass over the highest point of the obstacle. The lowering of the head and neck pulls on the nuchal and dorsal ligament systems, especially the supraspinous ligament that runs down the top of the back. This helps create the bascule or arc in the horse’s body. As the back rounds, the hindquarters rise and the hind legs begin to fold.

As the hindquarters pass over the highest point of the jump, the hind legs are folded. The hocks, stifle joints and fetlock joints are tightly flexed, with the hocks pulled up behind the hindquarters. As the forehand descends toward the ground, the horse’s back flattens, the lumbosacral joint closes, and the neck rises, as the forearms and forelegs unfold and stretch forward toward the landing point.

Phase four – landing

The horse lands first on one extended foreleg, quickly followed by the second. The body pivots forward over both forelegs, which are then picked up and folded backward under the body, creating a brief moment of suspension before the first hind leg touches the ground. The lumbosacral joint opens and the back rounds as the hindquarters come forward to land. The first hind leg is grounded well forward under the horse’s body, followed by the second hind leg. The forelegs fold, unfold and reach forward again in the proper sequence for the canter, on the lead the horse has chosen.

The horse absorbs the first shock of landing with the muscles and tendons of the shoulder sling, arm and foreleg, pasterns, and the joints of the forelegs. A good landing is balanced, coordinated and elastic.

Phase five – recovery

The horse recovers his normal canter balance and stride and resumes the canter. The first step after landing often resembles a small jump, called a “half bound”. When a horse jumps in stride and lands lightly in good balance, his recovery is quick, natural and effortless and he can easily go forward. A rider who remains in balance and does not interfere with the horse’s efforts makes this easier.

The order in which the forelegs land establishes the canter lead; since the forelegs are evenly folded during the jump, it is easy for a horse to change leads over a jump or to choose the lead he prefers to land on. Good jumpers, especially when going over a medium to large jump, are likely to change leads.

Landing stiffly, in poor balance or with insufficient impulsion makes recovery an effort. A delayed recovery makes a horse slow in getting away from the obstacle; it also takes him more time and effort to adjust his balance and stride. If a rider loses his balance or interferes with the horse’s recovery efforts, he may become tense and quick, bucking or running away from the unpleasant effort of recovery. Deep muddy ground can delay the horse in picking up his forelegs during landing; this puts him in danger of “over-reaching”, which occurs when the hind leg strikes the back of the foreleg, tendon, heel or shoe. This can result in injury or the loss of a shoe; tendon boots and bell boots are used to protect the forelegs against such injuries.

A successful rider doesn’t just ride her horse – she also understands how he functions and moves. Understanding how your horse jumps can improve performance, prevent injury, and assist with problem-solving when things aren’t going quite right.

The importance of a good bascule

Jumping with a stiff, hollow back or retracted neck prevents a good bascule and causes a stiff, inhibited jump. Without a good bascule, the forelegs cannot be lifted as high or folded as tightly, and the hind legs may trail too low and hit the obstacle.

A rider falling behind the motion, interfering with the free use of the horse’s spine, or restricting the horse’s use of his head and neck, can cause lack of bascule. A desperate horse may perform “acrobatics” in an effort not to collide with the fence – he may snatch up his legs, twist sideways, make desperate “swimming” motions with his legs, or extend his forelegs or hind legs early. He may even try to put a foot down on top of the obstacle, usually with disastrous results!

Landing gear

A stiff, unbalanced or rough landing is hard on both horse and rider and can injure the horse. A tense horse cannot use his springs and shock absorbers efficiently as he lands, and is more likely to make mistakes or injure himself. Insufficient impulsion and poor balance can make a horse land heavily on his front legs – this makes it difficult to resume the canter, and on rough, deep or slippery ground, it can lead to a fall. Some horses land unevenly to spare a weak or sore leg. If a horse must turn soon after a jump but lands in the wrong lead, the turn is more difficult and he may have to execute a flying change of leads.

Rider interference (especially falling behind the motion, dropping down onto a horse’s back, or catching the horse in the mouth during landing or recovery) can cause the horse to drop his back and hind legs prematurely, landing more or less on all four legs at once. This is rough, painful, and very hard on the horse’s back.

©Susan E. Harris (First North American Rights)


Susan Harris is a clinician, artist and author from Cortland, NY. She teaches Anatomy in Motion™/ Visible Horse, Horse and Rider Biomechanics, and Centered Riding® Clinics around the world. She is author and illustrator of the US Pony Club Manuals of Horsemanship, and more recently, Horse Gaits, Balance and Movement (Revised), which has also been published in Germany. Visit Susan Harris online at anatomyinmotion.com. 

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