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June 10, 2011

You Must Commit To Rhythm And Balance When Jumping

The perfect canter takes time to develop. Photo by Sara Lieser.

I walked down the barn aisle this morning sweating in the 100-degree weather and feeling frustrated. I was thinking about some mistakes I made in a jump school earlier. 

I really like every jump to count on the preliminary and above horses, because I feel that one less jump I jump at home is one more I will get to jump in competition. If they are making mistakes, then they have to jump a bit more, but when it’s me making the mistakes that causes the need for a few extra jumps I tend to be less than amused with myself. 

I looked at Megan, who was grabbing the saddle for the next horse, and I said: "I just jumped too many jumps on that last horse. I took away the pace searching for some perfect controlled canter. That made it hard for him to keep his balance. He kept changing rhythm trying to figure it out, and I let him develop NO instinct about the jump. He was just irritated with me. In the process I gave myself nothing to work with leaving my instincts screaming this is all wrong."

I carried on for a little while, irritated at myself for doing exactly what I learned not to do in England. Then classic Meg puts on her Southern accent and says, "You got no instinct...he got no instinct, well....that just stinks!" 

We both laughed, and then she said, "Sinead, he is a good jumper, and I think you will be able to have that perfect canter in time."

I thought about that for a second and realized it was just this winter that I was able to start really putting the finishing touches on Tate's canter. The ambition to be great is vital, hard work and determination essential, but timing is everything.

I have been teaching a lot of clinics lately, and one thing that keeps taking precedence over everything else is commitment to a rhythm and balance. There are two parts to that: No. 1 is picking the appropriate speed that your horse can maintain at an appropriate balance. No. 2 is committing to what you have chosen.

The most important "zone" in jumping a fence is about four strides before takeoff. In that time, it is the rider’s responsibility to have already committed to a balance and rhythm and to NOT CHANGE IT. That way the horse can have total focus on the task at hand, which is the jump, not the rider making a last minute decision. I find myself guilty of this on occasion and have found riding in my own cross-country clinics is the best way for me to stick to the simple truths of rhythm and balance. If I preach it, then I have to practice it...while my students watch. (No pressure!)

It is as young horses and young riders that we develop instincts in these moments of commitment. If four to six strides out we learn to believe in the rhythm and balance we have chosen, it leaves our minds a bit more clear to react if something out of the usual happens.

The same is true for the horse. They learn that they are jumping what is in front of them and aren’t worried about some random sporadic act (that we all do at times and can’t figure out why our body just started frantically pulling or kicking) from above. They can focus and develop one of the best instincts—self preservation.

I'm sorry to rant a bit, but just like my riding improves from riding in my own lessons, it helps me to write down what I'm learning while I'm learning it to at least reinforce it in my own head. I really feel no lesson is learned unless mistakes are made, but the lesson will be lost if the mistake goes unnoticed. Cheers to years of analyzing mistakes!!

And cheers to having people around (that can fake a good Southern accent) that make you laugh at yourself so you don't go crazy analyzing every mistake you make in a day!

Sinead Halpin Eventing

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