Thursday, Sep. 21, 2023

Splish, Splash, Don’t Take A Bath!

The first time Lauren Hester had to leap a water jump she got a little wet, and it wasn't because it was raining. As a junior rider, Hester discovered how intimidating jumping water obstacles can be while riding in the equitation ranks.

"It originally started with liverpools. The first time I jumped one my horse stopped and I fell off," said Hester, of San Diego, Calif. "Ever since then, I've kind of been afraid of them."



The first time Lauren Hester had to leap a water jump she got a little wet, and it wasn’t because it was raining. As a junior rider, Hester discovered how intimidating jumping water obstacles can be while riding in the equitation ranks.

“It originally started with liverpools. The first time I jumped one my horse stopped and I fell off,” said Hester, of San Diego, Calif. “Ever since then, I’ve kind of been afraid of them.”

That first experience with the water jump was a formative one for Hester, who then had to work diligently to overcome her fear and to advance to the junior jumper ring, where liverpools and open water jumps often feature prominently.

She’s not alone–that wide, flat expanse of water can be a stumbling block for many riders.

While it’s hard to find a jumper course without a liverpool fence on it, true open water jumps usually only appear in established show rings, so they aren’t the kind of thing a junior or amateur rider encounters often. It’s one of the last natural obstacles to remain on jumper courses, and it certainly presents a challenge.

For Hester, the secret to conquering the water woes was in trainer Karen Healey’s wisdom and in a new mount who doesn’t even blink at jumping the open water.

“That’s given me a lot of confidence,” Hester said. “[Karen] would just tell me to breathe, keep going to it, and not pull because I would always try to go too slow.”

Hester and Oxford, an 8-year-old Dutch Warmblood, have now cleared the open water at such intimidating venues as Spruce Meadows (Alta.) and Oaks Blenheim (Calif.), so Hester believes that she’s truly overcome the issue.

“Now I am pretty comfortable with it,” Hester said. “Whenever there used to be water, I used to have a heart attack!”

With the troubles behind her, Hester now has her sights set on qualifying for this year’s Zone 10 North American Young Riders Championship team’–an annual championship that includes enough water questions over the five rounds to fill a backyard swimming pool.

Quelling Inner Demons

Once juniors and amateurs reach a level where they’re ready to take on the water, Healey, of Thousand Oaks, Calif., uses gradual steps to get them comfortable with it.

“The water is mostly a psychological problem. I think it’s more intimidating for the rider than the horse,” she said.

For Healey, one of the most respected and seasoned trainers of juniors and amateurs on the West Coast, this means making liverpools part of the daily routine at home. But Healey said jumping water shouldn’t even be considered until riders have reached a level where they’re comfortable using a stick and spur.

She said most riders don’t need to worry about water until they’ve advanced to the low junior or amateur-owner jumpers or are contesting the BET/USEF Medal classes, where water often plays a role.


To introduce riders to leaping water, Healey begins by making liverpools part of the training regimen at home. She starts with the blue plastic version and then graduates to the spookier in-ground liverpool.

Once those have been mastered, Healey often puts two plastic liverpools together to simulate the open water before she sends her riders down to the real version she has installed in her ring at home.

Once horses and riders are comfortable jumping water, Healey said the next challenge is keeping the horses jumping all the way across the water, instead of cheating and landing in it. Keeping the horse fresh and not over-practicing is the key to that. Healey avoids practicing at home more than necessary once a partnership is comfortable.

To sharpen a horse up just before a key competition like the NAYRC, Healey puts a piece of white plastic pipe along the back edge of the water to simulate the “tape” used in the show ring to determine if the horse has cleared the obstacle. Blocks on either end of the plastic pipe hold it up off the ground a few inches. When horses descend too early and hit the pipe, it makes a loud noise and reminds them to jump all the way across.

It Even Happens To The Best

Keeping experienced horses from landing on the tape can be a real problem, even for those at the top of the sport, said Frank Madden, of Colts Neck, N.J.
Madden pointed to the way the silver-medal U.S. Olympic team struggled with the open water in Athens last summer. “Those are 4 faults you don’t want to have,” he said.

Madden’s sister-in-law, Beezie Madden, eventually came to grief as a result of the open water in the individual leg of competition. Beezie chose to ride very aggressively to make sure Authentic cleared the open water, but doing so somewhat unnerved her young mount. Authentic unraveled a little at the following fences, resulting in rails there after jumping the water faultlessly.

“She laid a stick on him, and he did clear the water,” Frank said. “I think he was a little bit ahead of himself after being whipped, and he had [the jump after] down.”

Traveling the East Coast circuit with a stable that includes several junior and amateur jumper riders, Frank said water is regularly part of the course layout.

But, more often than not, he said he finds that open water in amateur classes is set with a rail over it.

This makes it much easier to jump, but it lulls riders into thinking they’re riding hard enough to get across a real open water. Also, because horses don’t have to clear the entire expanse of a water jump with a rail, it allows them to get casual about it.

“We do the open water without a rail on it so few times during the year that, if you’re going to take your riding to a higher level and go to young riders or bigger shows like [the Hampton Classic (N.Y.)], you really need to know that it’s going to be part of the forecast and you’ve got to be ready for it.
“The horse shows you go to along the way, they’re not going to get you so much ready for it,” Madden added.

Like Healey, Madden believes that horses and riders need to master the open water at home before heading down to it in the show ring. But he also cautions that too much practice won’t make perfect.

“Every time a horse jumps the water well, you’re one step closer to them having a foot in it or hitting the tape,” Madden said.

Cleared For Take-off


Madden said that when juniors and amateurs first confront a water jump in the show ring, their most common mistake is to under-ride the approach.

“The most important thing about riding to the water is making sure that you have the horse in front of your leg and that you’re getting a good reaction to your leg in the turn before you approach the water,” Madden said. “If your horse is cold to your leg in the turn, he’s certainly not going to be better at the takeoff to a spooky water jump.”

Healey finds that because junior and amateur riders often don’t understand the ride they need to get a horse to jump across they water, and they tend to approach it timidly. But she said that she sometimes has to deal with a speed demon.

“Those are the ones who think that running to it is the way to solve it,” Healey said. “You have to have pace and impulsion, but they have to learn to be a little bit accurate about distance. They can’t just run at it and hope that the horse is going to take care of it.”

Other trouble spots Healey sees with newbie water jumpers is a belief that they need to go to the stick on the approach, and often their timing is off.

“When they take their hands off the reins three or four strides out, then they’re losing total control over what happens,” Healey said.

Negotiating the questions a course designer poses after the water jump also takes a little experience, noted Healey. How the next jump rides will depend on how far individual horses jump out across the water jump. While some riders assume the forward ride they need to get across the water jump means that a related distance afterwards will ride snugly, Healey said some horses surprise riders because they hang up in the air over it and land shallow.

“They really have to develop a feel for how their horse jumps it,” Healey said. “That comes from experience.”

Don’t Make A Problem Before There Is One

New Jersey Trainer Frank Madden said confidence on the part of horse and rider is the most important element in clearing water jumps. He urges riders not to get discouraged if they’re faced with a horse who starts out cautiously. Sometimes, with a proper education, Madden said, horses who are initially afraid of water jumps become ideal water jumpers because they never get casual about it.

And getting the right instruction is the key to avoiding water woes in the first place, Madden said.

“It’s just as easy to scare people about the water as it is to scare the horse about the water,” he said. “And it’s a hard fix to dispel that fear.”

The key, California trainer Karen Healey said, is to avoid creating a water phobia in the first place.

“You wouldn’t have a horse and rider jump it the first time together,” she said. “I would want to make sure a rider jumping the water the first time was mounted on a horse that was experienced about the water so that the horse is going to be really brave.”




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