Our columnist analyzes one of the most common jumping faults—and how to avoid it.
During the summer of 1961 I was working as a very lowly assistant trainer of Morgan show horses at the Green Mountain Stock Farm in Randolph, Vt., when I drove down to South Hamilton, Mass., one weekend to watch the Wofford Cup, then the U.S. National Championship Three-Day Event.
Although I’d never seen an event, nor jumped a jump, I decided that this was the sport for me. I was 20, or just about to be, and between my sophomore and junior years at Dartmouth College (N.H.) when I started switching riding careers.
Just as everyone does, I’d get to see photographs of myself jumping, and just as everyone does, I’d compare those photos to pictures of the great and famous riders of the time.
Fifty years ago, many of the U.S. Equestrian Team riders had come up through the equitation ranks, and many of them had won or placed highly in the Medal Maclay Championships, as we all called them. I’d look at photos of Bill Steinkraus, Frank Chapot, George Morris, Mike Page, Mike Plumb, Mary Mairs, Bernie Traurig, and similarly accomplished riders, and most of their jumping photographs showed a similar style. Their eyes and chins would be up, their backs would be flat, their hip and knee angles would be closed, their legs would touch the horse just behind the girth, with their heels firmly down, and their hands would be softly forward, allowing the horse complete use of his head and neck in a proper bascule.
I’d look at photographs of myself, and my upper body would be too far forward, my lower leg would have swung back, and sometimes I’d be looking up, and sometimes I wouldn’t be.
I knew my style wasn’t correct, but I didn’t know the “mechanics” of how to fix it. I’d ask some of the good riders, “How come your posture is better than mine?” and they’d just make vague generalities about being experienced riders, which I already knew.
The people who coached me must have seen what I was doing, and although some of them, like Jack Le Goff, were famous trainers, none of them explained how not to jump up the neck and how not to let my lower leg swing back. They’d just tell me not to do it. Strange as it now seems, I can only think that they hadn’t broken the process into component pieces, or, if they had, they didn’t care to share that process with me.
A Lightbulb Moment
During the summer of 1974, while the USET three-day team was training at Wylie, in England, prior to the Burghley World Championships, I took reel after reel of super-8 films of Mike Plumb jumping. His posture was always perfect, and his leg, I’m convinced, hasn’t slipped back one centimeter in 50 years.
Back in Strafford, Vt., that fall, after we won the gold medal, despite my bad posture and wrong technique, I studied and studied those films, some of Mike and some of myself, in slow motion, until one day I had that “lightbulb” moment. It seemed simplicity in itself, and I couldn’t believe it had taken 13 years of doing it wrong before I figured it out.
Mike’s stirrups were shorter than mine, his knee wasn’t pinched, and his lower leg, at the spur mount area of his leg, rested on the horse just behind the girth. As the horse began his jump Mike would allow the upward thrust of the horse to close his knee and hip angles, basically pushing his hips back. This is the key point. When you “squat,” when your knees bend, and your hips go back, your upper body has no choice but to come forward. Your upper body comes forward as a by product of your hips going back. Try it on foot.
Stand with your legs apart as if you are on a horse. Now squat down toward the floor, allowing your hands and arms to reach forward. At the same time, keep your chin up. Where do your feet stay? Absolutely underneath you. You are in that classic, balanced jumping form. You could stretch your arms out to the side, and you’d neither fall forwards or backwards.
Now, on foot, do it the wrong way, as I’d done for all those years. Stand in front of a wall, or a tree, or something to keep you from toppling onto your face. Now, without bending your knees or your hips very much, push up on your toes, as you might push on your stirrups, and lean forward as you might do to keep up with your horse’s motion over the fence. In this scenario, instead of letting your hips and pelvis go back, you bring your hips and pelvis forward, and you start the process of falling forward and down.
Luckily, on horseback, you have the horse’s neck to lean on when your whole upper body above your knees starts to spill up the neck, letting your lower leg slip backwards, placing you in that horrible “praying mantis” posture where your body lies along the topline of your horse! To fully complete the “faceplant” effect, be sure to throw your hands way up the horse’s neck and look down! Got it? I was very good at that, perhaps not to the extreme I see in some photos, but I was painfully adept at doing it wrong.
Only when I realized the correct body mechanics employed by the classically centered riders was I able to start repairing my flawed jumping position.
When Bernie Traurig asked me to do a video session for his training series on EquestrianCoach.com, my choice of topic was easy. I simply thought, “What would I have most wanted to know 50 years ago when I started jumping that nobody explained to me, and that I couldn’t figure out myself?” The answer was easy: “DON’T JUMP AHEAD OF THE HORSE.”
For the video, I broke the situation into three sections: what we do, why we do it and how to fix it. The what we do, I’ve already explained. So why do we do this bizarre lunge, when we should remain softly packaged above our horse’s center of gravity?
I think it’s highly instinctive for humans to lean forward when they want to go forward, because it’s what we do in almost every other sport. If we want to run faster, skate faster, bike faster, just about anything faster, we lean. Also, we’re told and told, “Don’t catch your horse in the mouth.” Again, we might lean to prevent this from happening.
Another “why” might be that we might use leaning or leaping forward as a driving aid. It feels as if it should be a driving aid. We’re coming toward a ditch, our horse slows down, and, in our eagerness to make him go, we go. We “push,” not with our real driving aids, our legs, but with our upper bodies instead, because, even though it doesn’t work, it’s so instinctive to lean forward when we want to go forward.
There is actually a little eventing joke that goes something like this, “When in doubt, lean forward, look down, and yell ‘JUMP!’ ” Doesn’t everybody?
Of course when we do that, our real driving aid, our lower leg, swings back behind the point on the horse’s body where he can feel the driving aid, leaving us with no driving aid at all, except the stick, which is risky, because it means taking one hand off the reins. To compound matters, if our horse decides to quit at the jump, we’re already halfway over his head, so our chance to become a human lawn dart is exponentially increased. It’s truly a sad situation, but it’s terribly instinctive.
In eventing, jumping ahead of the motion also has the potential to be lethally dangerous. I read that in an Fédération Equestre Internationale study of fatal rotational falls, video evidence showed that in every single instance of one of those deadly somersaults, the rider’s shoulders went forward before her horse came up.
Fixing the problem means understanding how correct stirrup length allows our upper bodies to go forward as a byproduct of our hips going back, which also allows our legs to stay correctly underneath us. Then training and practice, practice, practice must overcome instinct. Major General Sid Shachnow, a friend here in Southern Pines, N.C., was formerly in command of all U.S. Special Forces. He told me that when soldiers are suddenly ambushed, their instinctive reaction is to turn and run, greatly lessening their chance of survival. Sid said that their best chance was to fire their weapons and to run directly toward their attackers.
I got the picture. If soldiers can be trained to run into live rifle fire, we riders can be trained not to jump up the neck. Training has to overcome instinct.
Denny Emerson rode on the 1974 World Championship gold-medal eventing team. He served as the U.S. Eventing Association president twice and won the USEA Wofford Cup for his lifetime dedication to eventing. At his Tamarack Hill Farm in South Strafford, Vt., and Southern Pines, N.C., he trains horses and riders and stands stallions. An original Between Rounds contributor, Emerson began writing his column in 1989.