How to apply Centered Riding techniques in jumping.
For some riders, jumping can be a thrill, a challenge, a sport or competition, or simply fun. Rider and horse must work together in balance and harmony. The four essential elements of riding are especially important in jumping:
1. A safe, secure and independent seat.
2. Clear and effective control and use of aids.
3. Non-abusive riding (the rider doesn’t inadvertently cause the horse pain, stress or confusion, or interfere with the horse’s jumping efforts).
4. Horse and rider are united in balance.
Jumping is reflexive, so it’s important to put the right elements into your techniques. It’s much easier to acquire the right habits from the beginning than to break a bad habit or change a poor technique. Centered Riding helps accomplish these goals through body awareness, mental imagery, functional anatomy, and better use of the body, which can improve balance, security, suppleness and confidence. The fundamentals of Centered Riding include Sally Swift’s Four Basics (Balance, Soft Eyes, Breathing, Centering), plus Grounding and Clear Intent. We’ll explain some ways to apply each of these to your jumping.
6 FUNDAMENTALS FOR CENTERED JUMPING
Balance has two meanings: the horse must be in balance to jump, and the rider must be in balance “with” the horse – neither ahead of nor behind the horse. If your horse is out of balance, ride a circle and help him re-balance before approaching the jump. The steadier and more consistent the horse’s gait, speed and rhythm, the easier it is to stay in balance with him. Check your own balance with a moment of two-point position – if you can maintain position without gripping with your knees, tipping forward or falling back in the saddle, or catching your balance on the reins (the worst sin of all!), you are “with” your horse. One way of checking your balance on the ground is to hop down from a low step, like a mounting block – you will have to land in balance and absorb the shock of landing in your springy joints. When jumping, it helps to think “land on your feet”.
Before every jump, you must select a focal point or “target” in line with the center of the obstacle and at your eye level, and keep your eyes on it. Your eyes balance your head, and your head balances your body. Looking down or shifting your eyes when jumping cause changes of balance that can disturb your horse, as well as put your balance at risk. Many riders accomplish this with “hard eyes”, or over-focused eyes that squint, stare or glare. “Soft eyes” are relaxed, open, and see a large circle around the focal point; this allows your body to relax and improves your body awareness and ability to feel your horse’s rhythm, stride, balance and pace. When you are able to approach a jump keeping “soft eyes” on a focal point, you’ll find it easier to “see a distance” or know when your horse is about to take off.
Everyone breathes, but when we’re excited, fearful, under stress, or trying hard to be perfect, we tend to inhibit our breathing and breathe high and tight in the chest, or even hold our breath. Horses respond to a rider’s breathing (or lack of it). Tense, tight breathing or holding the breath causes nervousness and tension, while breathing quietly and deeply helps the horse relax. Breathing deeply and in a natural, regular rhythm can help the rider remain calm and supple during the approach to a jump. Exhaling as the horse takes off releases tension in the joints, especially the hip, making it easier for the rider to fold into jumping position and use the ankles, knees and hip joints as springs to absorb the thrust of takeoff and the bounce of landing. To train your body to associate breathing with jumping, exhale as if you were blowing out a candle as your horse steps over a ground pole or takes off at a jump. Counting, singing, humming or chanting in rhythm with your horse’s strides helps you find a rhythm for your breathing, and makes sure that you can’t hold your breath.
Your “center” is your center of balance, movement and control, located in your body behind and below the navel. You first need to learn to find your center while sitting upright, breathing out to allow the center to drop and find your best internal balance. Then, leaving the center down deep in the body, fold at the hip joints as if you were wearing a seat belt across your hips. This keeps your center over your feet and your body balanced over the saddle, instead of standing up too far forward or leaning on the horse’s neck. Keep your center balanced over the center of the horse, especially in turns – this helps him keep his balance.
“Grounding” means increasing awareness of your feet and balance, as if you were standing on the ground. The human reflex point for balancing on our feet, walking, running, jumping, and using our joints as springs, is located just behind the ball of the foot. This is also the natural balance point of the foot. If this spot is tapped, it feels different from the rest of the foot. If you locate this spot (its location varies slightly in riders) and place your stirrup so that some part of the stirrup tread supports it, it activates your natural balance and use of your joints. Have someone slap upward against the stirrup tread; if you feel the reflex point, your stirrups are correctly placed. This can help you keep your feet under your center, and allow your heels to relax and sink into position. “Jamming” the ankles to get an extreme “heels down” position blocks the reflex point, pushes the feet forward out of balance, and robs you of your essential springs.
“Clear intent” means making a clear decision, especially about direction. If you choose a target (in line with the jump) and decide, “Horse, we are going there,” your eyes, your balance, your aids and above all, your attitude tell him clearly where he’s to go. This is not being bossy or overbearing, just calm and clear. (Have you ever seen a situation in which the horse’s intent was clearer than the rider’s? Uh-oh!) Horses prefer a rider with clear intent; such a rider gives them good leadership and makes them feel safe, and is easier to understand than a ride who is fearful, wishy-washy, or changes her mind. You don’t have to be perfect, but you do need to make a clear decision and follow through.
There are many other ways to apply Centered Riding techniques, especially in understanding horse and rider anatomy, biomechanics, how your mind affects your body, and how your mind and body affect your horse. For more information or to find a Centered Riding instructor or clinic, or for Sally Swift’s books and DVDs on Centered Riding, visit Centeredriding.org or Anatomyinmotion.com. Happy riding, and jump with joy!
Before You Jump
• An experienced jumping instructor is strongly recommended.
• You should be secure, confident, able to ride in balance at a walk, trot and canter, and to ride in a balanced two-point or jumping position.
• You’ll need a horse that’s quiet and experienced in jumping.
• You’ll need a jumping saddle, an ASTM-approved helmet and safe footwear.
• It’s a good idea to protect your horse’s legs with bell boots and/or protective boots or polo wraps.
• Jump equipment (poles, standards, etc.) must be safe and properly set up (see the US Pony Club Manual of Horsemanship/Book 1 for more information).
• Always check the girth and tack before jumping, and make sure your stirrups are adjusted to proper jumping length. As a general rule, the stirrup tread should touch the top of your ankle bone when you sit in the saddle with your feet out of the stirrups and your legs hanging down.
[All illustrations by Susan E. Harris; ©Susan E. Harris 2014. All rights reserved.] Susan E. Harris is an international Centered Riding clinician, who teaches Centered Riding, Centered Jumping, Anatomy in Motion /the Visible Horse and equine biomechanics to riders, trainers and instructors around the world. She was one of Sally Swift’s original Centered Riding apprentices, and wrote the Centered Jumping chapter in Sally Swift’s book, Centered Riding II: Further Exploration. Visit her website at Anatomyinmotion.com.