Masterclass: balance and body position

Amanda Wilson helps a young rider and her green mare with body position and balance

Paula Riepen and her five-year-old mare Dori, by Corofino II (Image: Kelly Wilson)

The NZ Horse & Pony Training Masterclass is in association with Equitak Excell

1. Ride it like a car: developing different gears

In the warm-up, Amanda gets Paula to play around with different canters. She tells her to ride forward and then sit up and balance Dori’s canter again. “The horse has to be sitting on their hind end when they get to the jump in order to be able to jump up,” explains Amanda. “A lot of riders get to the fence and they soften their body forward, which means the horse has so much weight on the front end, they jump across instead of up.”

Sitting up to balance the canter (Image: Kelly Wilson)


When Paula opens Dori’s canter up, Amanda encourages her to follow with her hands more – as soon as she does, the mare relaxes through the body (below).

Softening the hands to relax the horse through the body (Image: Kelly Wilson)

“Sometimes you use too much handbrake. Soften your hands,” says Amanda.

“We play around like the horse is a car. There has to be different gears. If you look at European horses, they have up to 10 or 12 gears. In New Zealand, especially in the lower levels, you have a lot of riders who just use the leg without the rein balance and those are the horses that are great up to 90cm but lose the scope for bigger classes because they are on the forehand. Then you have the ones that are only balanced because the rider is just pulling, but there is no lower leg – they are the ones that hesitate on a long distance or chuck in a chip.”

Overall, Amanda would like to see Dori sit on her hind end more, and bring the front end up. “My theory is that if the horse is uphill, there’s power. As soon as a horse is downhill, it becomes speed not power, and that’s when things are more likely to go wrong.

2. The formula – position, position, position

Amanda explains that there are three parts of the show jumping rider’s position that are very important. Number one is the lower leg. “Your heels need to be down and your toes slightly out, so that you’re closing your calf against the horse’s side, never riding with your knee on,” says Amanda. “The lower leg is the only part from your waist down that should be tense. The seat is just to keep us in the saddle; if you are using too much bum to get the horse going forward, it’s called a driving seat, which creates a very out-the-front-door sort of ride.”

Secondly, Amanda explains that the rider’s shoulders greatly affect the balance of the horse. If the rider leans forward and puts weight on to the horse’s shoulders, the horse won’t be able to use their body correctly or jump with much scope. Paula’s biggest position flaw is that she tends to roll her shoulders forward, creating a heavy upper body, so Amanda reminds her to lift her head and push her shoulders back instead.

The third position point Amanda focuses on is the rider having a soft hand. In walk and canter, the hands follow the horse’s head and neck movement; in trot the hand stays still. “Your hands should be soft, like you’re holding a baby bird,” says Amanda.

Amanda has a basic formula which uses four different seat positions when riding around a show jumping course.

The first position is half-seat, also known as two-point, which is standing up in the stirrups, off the horse’s back (below).

The half-seat, also known as two-point (Image: Kelly Wilson)

The second position is the light seat, where your seat is lightly in the saddle, but you’re still slightly forward. The third position is your full seat, where you are sitting in the saddle. Finally, there’s the driving seat, which is an emergency ride, used to generate impulsion in a hurry when you’re in trouble.

Amanda explains how the formula works: “Through turns, you should get up into your half-seat, which takes the weight off the horse’s back. This allows their back end to open up, which is your engine, so as you come out of the turn, the horse is rolling slightly forward. But you wouldn’t want to take that canter to the fence. So as we come out of the turn, we balance and bring the horse back either half a gear or a full gear, and go from a half-seat into a light seat. Keep cantering down to the fence in your light seat until you see the distance and when you do, or three strides out, go into a full seat (below).

The full seat is used a few strides in front of the fence (Image: Kelly Wilson)

“Some top riders will stay in a light seat all the way to the fence, but they will still bring their shoulders back. That gets the horse’s back end underneath and the front end uphill, which is what you need to create scope.”

3. Creating technique: jumping up, not out

Amanda gets Paula to trot a little cross a couple of times, with placing poles set 2.5m away from the fence to help the horse find the correct distance.

Dori has a terrific jumping technique (below).

Dori shows off her classic technique (Image: Kelly Wilson)

However, in the warm-up, when Paula approaches the cross in a long, flat trot and leans forwards before the take-off, the mare really struggles and leaves her knees behind over the fence (below).

Paula’s body position has a strong effect on her mare’s technique (Image: Kelly Wilson)

“What this shows is how much the rider’s shoulders and the approach influences the jump,” explains Amanda. “We have horses that come here that we try to buy because they are naturally exceptional jumpers, but two months later they come back and because the rider has been leaning forward and not creating the right ride, so the horse has started to lose their jump. To get a jump back again is quite difficult and that’s why we prefer to start with clean slates.”

4. Shoulders back; jumping a related line

The next exercise Amanda sets up for Paula an upright to an oxer, three strides apart. Amanda explains that the rider’s shoulders are even more important in related lines, doubles and trebles. “Over the fence, the horse’s back end goes up and they land shoulders down. If the rider stays forward and doesn’t bring their shoulders back, the horse loses scope the further down the line they go. That’s why a lot of people have issues at the second or third element in a combination.”

Amanda says that when Paula jumps through the line she shouldn’t sit up so quickly that she kills the horse’s jump, but once the horse has landed she should go straight back into a light seat and then come back with her shoulders. “If you see a deep or long distance, stay sitting back,” advises Amanda. “A lot of riders lean forward when they are deep or long, but that’s when the horse requires the most effort and by doing that they’ve suddenly made it twice as hard.”

Watching Paula ride through the line for the first time, Amanda observes that she is trying to be too controlling with the rein. “Come in, let her do her job and relax the hand. Don’t be so quick to pull.”

When Paula softens her hand before the fence, Dori doesn’t throw her head in the air, and the jump is great (below).

When Paula softens her hand before the fence, the jump is much better (Image: Kelly Wilson)

“What she’s asking from you is to leave her alone a little more,” says Amanda. “You’re trying to control too much of what she’s doing. You can ask her to be on the bit in the flatwork, but at the jump she’s got to be able to see the fence and figure it out for herself.”

5. Sit and soften: creating a better balance

Amanda notes that Dori isn’t truly balanced through the related line – she’s still ‘a bit out the front door’. This comes back to the flatwork, she says, because even when Paula is just cantering, Dori isn’t sitting on her hind end correctly, so it’s too much to be able to expect her to do that at the jump at this stage. “When she comes back in balance, you will feel her lighten it up. It’s like sitting on a see-saw – it suddenly becomes very light up in front of you.

“It’s all about pressure and release,” explains Amanda. “We set up a question for the horse, and when they answer it, we soften.”

Amanda wants Paula to have a quieter fold, instead of throwing her upper body forward over the jump. “You have this nice big canter but then you pull it into nothing and because you’ve got nothing there you have to force the take-off. Think about Beezie Madden, how still and smooth she is over the fence.”

By counting out loud and thinking about keeping her upper body much stiller, Paula achieves a much smoother jump and Amanda is happy to end the lesson on a good note.

Finishing on a good note (Image: Kelly Wilson)

 “That was much better – give her a pat and have a walk.”

Amanda on…seeing a distance

People put too much emphasis on seeing a distance. There’s so much pressure on whether you have a ‘good eye’. The distance itself is not the issue. You can only be half a stride wrong to a fence: you’re either half a stride too long, or half a stride too deep, or your distance is perfect. If you watch top-level riders, they get all three distances, but the difference is in their approach. A horse can jump from those three distances if it has the canter to back it up.

When someone says they keep getting bad distances, it’s not because they have a bad eye. It’s because they have a bad approach, a bad canter and/or a bad position. Once they learn about those things, that takes the pressure off the distance itself.

Conclusions 

Amanda

Paula has produced this horse, which is fantastic. There are just a few missing links at the moment, but she’s going to be amazing.

At the moment Paula is struggling to see a distance, not because she doesn’t have a good eye, but because of the approach – when she doesn’t have Dori sitting back on her hindquarters, or because she has too little canter or not enough.

For her homework, I would set up some poles around the arena, to work on the adjustability. If you can’t get it between poles in the flatwork, it’s going to be 10 times harder when you are jumping.

Paula

I don’t normally have lessons with Amanda and I found her quite different from Vicki. I liked that when things started to get technical Amanda came back and explained things very clearly. It was really good to have that, especially on such a green horse. Amanda put the fences up quite big, which was a bit of an ask for Dori, so I was really happy with the way she jumped.

This lesson made me realise I have to get the horse off her forehand and on to the hindquarters more. It also made me think about keeping my shoulders back, because my upper body has a big impact on my horse’s technique.

About our trainer 

Northland-based show jumper Amanda has won several national titles, including Pony of the Year back in 2010 aboard her beloved Showtym Viking. The combination went on to win the 7YO title a year later and competed in horse Grands Prix before Amanda sold him to Denmark. Another career highlight for Amanda was coming second in the Olympic Cup at HOY in 2016 on Showtym Cassanova, who she has she produced herself.

Besides being an in-demand trainer and running hugely popular children’s riding camps with her two sisters, Vicki and Kelly, Amanda is also a film-maker. She is well-known for her work with wild horses through her starring role in the TV series Keeping Up With The Kaimanawas.