I have had the great opportunity over the past 20 years or so to really study many different hunt seat riders as they navigate a course of jumps. For 18 years I ran a large college hunt seat equestrian program and intercollegiate team. I taught many different students at a variety of skill levels. I saw them on a regular basis five days a week during their college careers. I now judge shows and teach clinics regularly at all different barns to riders of different levels of ability. ?I love to study how a horse needs to get around a course of jumps and how a rider can help them or get in the way.
One of the biggest roadblocks I see that prevents riders and horses from getting balanced even distances to jumps is when they pull back or get stuck in the turns. When this happens the horse loses forward impulsion creating a lack of engagement and power from behind. The horse ends up on its forehand and often crooked. The crookedness is due to the lack of forward motion. Forward energy helps to keep a horse straight just like the energy a bow sends to an arrow as it released keeps the arrow straight. When the energy is impeded in the turn the horse becomes crooked out of the turn, just like an arrow at the end of its flight. This lack of power and straightness causes horses to meet jumps on their forehand and off balance creating a chipped or long and weak distance. Often riders try and make a correction to fix this lack of power and straightness by adding more leg out of the turn but it is too late. The horse is already on its forehand and as the leg is added the stride opens but there is not enough time to balance the horse and engage the hind end. This usually causes a strung out horse that runs past the distances or gets very long and weak.
Some riders pull back through the turns and other riders let go of the horse completely and perch way ahead of the motion without applying leg. ?In both cases, the horse comes out of the turn out of balance with no motor. Riders do this for a variety of reasons. Sometimes they are afraid they will lose control of the horse. Some riders feel their horse is pulling them and they don’t understand the rider is creating the pull. Most just don’t understand the physics of how to ride through a turn to get the most balanced and engaged horse out of the ‘turn.
One of the most important and least used aids is the rider’s eye. Using the eye and mind to create a track and a plan from one jump into a turn to another jump is so important. Think about your riding as being fluid and smooth. Imagine you and your horse flowing around the course. ?When you plan a track and then use your eye to follow that track corrections can be made in time to prevent that need to pull back and interrupt the flow. In this way you can create the best track and balance out of a turn. Riding straight after a jump without cutting or leaning in allows for time to half-halt and rebalance the horse going into the turn. This straight line also maintains a straight horse. Once in the turn, your hands should be ahead of you and following while you add leg. This will bring the horse up to your hand creating a balanced connection. You will still balance and half-halt in the turn while making sure you are riding from your leg. The trick is to not lock with your hands or do the reverse and completely let go. As you ride out of the turn to the next jump add leg, as needed, to keep your horse straight and forward. Visualize your horse coming out of the turn straight from behind equally into both hands. Once you are on the line to the next jump all you need to do is maintain your nicely forward and balanced horse and let the jump come to you as your eye maintains a straight track and looks for the distance. If you don’t see a distance you should be just fine as your horse is forward, balanced and straight and will be able to cover what comes up as you stay patient and calm.
One of the best ways to practice this is with poles on the ground. This eliminates much of the fear of not getting distances and you can make mistakes without any major problems. Keep practicing over poles until you get a feel of this and then add small jumps. As you get more comfortable you can raise the jumps. But you don’t have to practice over big jumps and waste your horse to improve your ride. Keep things simple and you will see big results and better distances.