Nov. 21 –Leesburg, Va.
Four jumps in an indoor ring doesn’t sound like much, but Mary King was able to create several challenges for horses and riders from advanced all the way down to novice on the second day of her clinic at Morven Park, presented by Kelly Gage of Team Engaged.
King focused on rider position in relation to cross-country riding, so she set up several angled lines and skinnies that riders might encounter on course.
“Thinking about jumping and cross-country riding, your position is so important for not only your own safety in the saddle, but also from the horse’s point of view,” she said. “If you are beautifully in balance and stay nice and quiet and soft, that is going to make your horse feel much more confident. Lower leg to me is one of the most important parts of your position—a good, strong lower leg position. And by that I mean your heel down, toe out, lower leg slightly forward when you’re jumping and being able to maintain that position with your lower leg whether you’re going over a steeplechase fence or over a drop fence. Whatever you’re doing with your upper body, your lower leg stays in position.”
King also warned riders that she would be reminding them of their upper body position, especially over lower fences where they might be more likely to jump ahead with their shoulders.
“You stickability—there’s nothing more annoying than going around a cross-country course being slightly out of balance and then making a mistake which ends up making your horse peck as he lands or something like that,” she said. “Your stickability is very, very important to work on. Think about riders like Andrew Nicholson—he’s known as Mr. Stickability in our country. It’s incredible how he stays on—except for his fall at Badminton this spring which was a bit of a shock to everyone!
“There will be times, however successful or good a rider you are, that you’ve got to really be able to stay in that saddle. Your lower leg position and upper body position help you be the most secure.”
The advanced group went first and King’s advice to them in their warm up was similar throughout the day—work on sending the canter forward and back and work in smaller circles to make sure you have some adjustability and that your horse is listening to your aids.
“Mark Phillips told me in a jumping lesson once that the canter stride is a bit similar to bouncing a ball,” she explained. “If you want that ball to go higher, you don’t go faster, you don’t go slower, you go stronger. The stronger you bounce that ball, the higher it comes off the ground. It’s a bit like the horse’s canter stride. You can create the energy and create the power in the stride so when the horse gets to the fence he’ll find the jump much easier.”
King had riders gradually warm up over a cross rail, vertical and bigger oxer before asking them to canter a 3’ vertical on an angle—a challenge because it was set as the first part of a triple combination.
Once they successfully navigated a figure 8 exercise over the verticals at both ends of the combination, they angled the first one, then curved a line of four strides around the middle element of the triple to jump the last element on an angle. If that went well, they came around to jump the triple, with one stride between each element, straight through.
“I built the treble slightly shorter than you would find at a show,” said King. “I feel like with most good event horses, you need to be constantly reminding them that they can shorten when you ask them to.”
For the lower level groups, King opened up the triple to two strides between each element, making the bending line around the middle element about six strides. She advised riders in the young horse group to think of riding the curve like a train track to keep their horse between their aids, and to make sure they weren’t trying to steer with just the inside rein, which caused a few runouts.
Impulsion Is Key
A lack of impulsion affected several horses throughout the day and was especially apparent in the training level and young horse groups. Some riders allowed the canter to slow too much in the corners, creating an awkward jump or rails down at the warm up square oxer. King wanted to see a more “punchy” canter from many pairs and less looking for a stride coming through the corner, which automatically slowed the pace and caused the canter to become “unengaged.”
“As the jumps get bigger, the first is the steering—find a good line so the horse can see where he’s going,” said King. “Ride the corner well before the jump, but also the power of the canter. The more energy you can put into the canter stride as the fences get bigger, the easier for the horse.”
Her most challenging exercise came when she set up a canter bounce on the centerline and asked riders to either turn right to a skinny barrel in four to five strides (which was introduced as a single fence first using wings and gradually taking them away) depending on the level of the group, or turn left to a right-handed corner in four or five strides.
The purpose of the exercise was to practice steering and effectiveness, which went better for the more advanced groups. Several of the greener horses were apprehensive about the skinny barrel, but King broke it down if needed to get confidence back. She noted that she always uses standards on both sides of an upright skinny barrel because she doesn’t want to invite runouts.
“It can be quite scary for horses to jump narrow fences, but the more you practice them the more they accept them as being alright,” she said. “I think the thing that scares them is the fact that suddenly there’s an option in their mind of running out and it sort of makes them nervous because they think, ‘Well I can run out.’”
King upped the ante by having riders turn the exercise around and do the barrel or corner to the bounce, which meant a more collected canter as opposed to the more open stride they needed going the other direction.
King pointed out the exercise was helpful in simulating the approach to a combination like a coffin or a narrow fence after a long gallop on cross-county.
“Have in your mind to condense the stride, rather than saying ‘I’m going to slow down,’ to get them to the right speed,” she said. “If you think of condensing the stride, it will encourage you to keep the energy going. Shorten the stride but maintain the energy. Coming forward to it is the best way you can ride narrow fences and corners.”
Tidbits and Takeaways
- “When I’m galloping cross-country from fence to fence, I like my seat to be close to my horse but off their backs,” said King to the intermediate/prelim group as they warmed up. “You don’t want any sort of weight down on their back. Ideally, you want to be up out of the saddle, but slightly touching the saddle every time you stride on. Sort of tapping the saddle with the back of your bottom.”
- A few horses in both the advanced group and the young horse group came to grief when they ran out at angled jumps and their riders didn’t have whips.
“Whether I’m riding a young horse or around Rolex or Badminton, I’ll carry my whip,” said King. “I might change sides three or four times on cross-country. Get used to carrying a whip and get used to pulling it through to the other side.”
She suggested tapping the whip against the shoulder when introducing angles or skinnies to a green horse as a reminder to keep straight.